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The Shadow Summoner

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CHAPTER ONE

A SUMMER OF SYNESIS

o

A couple days into the summer holidays, Harry could be found lying awake in bed long past midnight, talking to a book. A book that also happened to talk back.

“I am not a book,” insisted The Lost Artes of Summoning, sounding extremely put out. Harry had heard it speak several times by now, but he still couldn’t figure out if the book was conversing with him inside his head or actually saying words out loud. Harry suspected he was the only one who could hear it, in any case.

The book had tried to talk to Harry at Hogwarts during the last week of school, perhaps in an attempt to help him, and had kept up a constant, annoying stream of chatter. Because he hadn’t had much privacy to respond to it in either the library or in his dorm, he’d asked it to shut up. The book had been sulking since then, and Harry suspected it was hiding some, if not most, of its information from him in revenge for his rudeness.

“If you’re not a book, then what are you?” he asked, stroking the book’s tattered black cover like he would stroke a cat.

The book quivered in what was probably indignant fury. “I? I am Synesis, a Sapience demon of the highest rank. The man who wrote this book summoned me and trapped me within its pages, wanting to preserve knowledge on something more lasting than paper.” There was a pause. “Does this mean you’re talking to me now?”

“Yes. What exactly is a Sapience demon?” asked Harry, who was only mildly surprised by this newest revelation. What else could a talking book be, if not a demon? Of course, there were definitely some talking books in the Hogwarts library, and in other ancient archives, but none were as sentient as this one.

Harry flipped to one of the pages he had bookmarked. He had seen the word Sapience—written the demon language, of course—embedded in various descriptions. From context clues, he had determined that it was a type of demon, but the book did not clarify.

Whenever he opened the book, its telltale helix-shaped letters—it had taken a while, but Harry had finally found the closest English word to describe the look of the strange, inhuman language—rose off the page, glowing and pulsing. Harry could maneuver the floating, colorful letters with his fingers, and could scroll down to reveal more.

“Sapience,” Harry muttered under his breath, seizing a group of green letters and shoving them aside. They spun rapidly in the air like tops for a moment, then disappeared, and the book slammed itself shut.

“No touching!”

Harry stared at the book, taken aback. Had he done something wrong? Failed to follow some secret demon etiquette? He’d been manhandling the letters for more than a week now, and the book had never thrown a tantrum like this.

“Let me talk!” said the book—or Synesis, Harry supposed he should call it. “You’ve been reading me for a while now, but nothing will make sense without me to explain it to you. Will you listen to me? Nobody ever listens to me, and they shove me in a bookshelf for hundreds of years, and then nobody picks me up until Abraxas Malfoy, but he can’t even hear me speak!”

Synesis trembled again, pausing its rant, and Harry wondered if it was on the verge of tears. “And then another boy that looks like him picks me up, and then I find you, and you can hear me, but you don’t listen to me and don’t talk to me, and you tell me to shut up for weeks—”

“Okay, okay, I’ll listen now. I’ll listen well,” said Harry, stroking the book’s spine and trying to calm it down. This particular demon reminded him of a petulant child. It was nothing like the truly demonic Hunger he had faced in the Forbidden Forest last year.

He wondered how dangerous Synesis was, and decided not to invoke its fury any more than he already had, just in case.

“Good.” Synesis wriggled in Harry’s arms, making itself comfortable. Then it opened up again, and this time, the words hovering above its pages explained exactly what Harry needed them to.

“All Sapience demons,” said Synesis importantly, as Harry read the words in the air, “are born with a vast collection of knowledge. Because I am a Rank Seven Sapience, I am one of the most intelligent beings alive.”

In his studies, Harry had spotted the words “Rank” and “Mark” scattered over the book as well, often accompanied by a number. ‘Rank’ appeared to refer to a demon—and Harry supposed that Rank Seven was the highest, while Rank One was the lowest—while ‘Mark’ referred to the complexity of a particular summoning circle. The easiest circles to make were all Mark One circles.

“Sapience, Astral, Sisyphean, Pestilence, Templar, Psyche, and Leviathan,” said Harry, reading the glowing words and mumbling to himself. “These are the seven races of demons. Each race has seven ranks, then?”

“Yes!” said Synesis. “You want to learn how to summon, don’t you? I could teach how to do it, and show you everything in my book. But I don’t like you, because you told me to shut up. I won’t teach you if you don’t talk to me every single day. Why didn’t you talk to me before?”

“It would have looked weird,” Harry said through gritted teeth, unable to believe the audacity of this stupid book…demon… thing, “if people saw me talking to a book. There are a ton of people in my dormitory. It’s only been about two weeks since I found you, anyway, and I always meant to speak to you. We have the entire summer alone now, for me to talk to you and for you to teach me.”

“I am not a talking book,” said Synesis in a pompous voice. “I am a Rank Seven Sapience.”

Harry resisted the urge to chuck the book into the wall. “Will you teach me? Please? I’m sorry.”

Synesis hesitated, and Harry could almost feel the sadistic glee emanating from it. “Maybe. But why should I? I don’t like humans very much. I haven’t met many. But one of them trapped me in a book, the rest of them couldn’t even hear me, and you ignored me. If I want to, I can just close this book forever, and you’d never, EVER learn anything from me.”

Harry took a deep breath, praying for patience. Synesis might not be dangerous, but it could sure hold a grudge. Harry had never met anyone as infuriating as this book in his life, except perhaps Theodore Nott, whose face Harry regularly imagined punching.

Speaking of Nott, the boy had been exceptionally annoying the last month of term, always touching and talking to Draco and giving Harry smug looks over his shoulder in class. Harry had devised about twenty different ways to kill him, all of which involved ingenious torture methods that would make Dolohov beam with pride.

“Are you even listening to me?” said Synesis, jolting Harry out of his thoughts. “I said, what will you do for me in return, if I let you use my book and show you how to summon?”

A chill ran down Harry’s spine. Give and take. The rule demons lived by. Each gift had a price. Harry had learned that firsthand when the Hunger had sucked out his magic.

“What—what do you want?” said Harry in a halting voice.

Synesis’s pages fluttered in a breeze that wasn’t there, and Harry shivered. “I want you to free me, and send me back home—to my realm. I’ll teach you how to release me, and I’ll teach you anything else you want me to, and I’ll let you use my book. As long as you promise you’ll let me go.”

Harry wavered, staring at the innocent-looking book. He didn’t trust it, not at all. It was most likely harmless when it was trapped in a book, but Harry had no idea what it would do once it was freed. What did demons even look like in their natural form? Did they drift around like ghosts? The Hunger had appeared to Harry as Draco last year, though Harry still wasn’t sure if that was an illusion or the actual Hunger in human form—he suspected it was the former.

In any case, he had surmised from his reading that very few of them could survive for long on Earth without an attachment to a living creature or object. Oxygen was toxic to them.

“If I say yes, when do you want me to free you?” Harry asked, making it clear that he wasn’t agreeing to anything yet.

Synesis was quiet for a while, and Harry supposed it was sulking again. “Free me on the summer solstice, Litha, next year. June 21st, 1993.”

Harry was sure the room’s temperature had plunged. His hands were clammy all of a sudden. The date felt ominous, foreboding, inexplicably wrong to him.

“That’s not the way we’re doing it,” Harry said at once, and Synesis writhed in his hands, screeching like an angry cat.

Harry held it tightly, not letting it intimidate him. He was going to haggle with the damn demon until it gave him exactly what he wanted. He had been burned enough by the Hunger, and Synesis wasn’t going to get a hit in too.

“I don’t even care about summoning that much, not really. How do I even know it’ll be useful to me? What if, by the time next year comes around, you haven’t taught me anything good? What do you have to offer me? Without me, you’re trapped in this book forever, with nobody to talk to and nobody to release you, so I’ll be the one asking for things.”

Synesis stilled, and for one horrible second Harry was certain it was going to start screaming again.

But it didn’t.

“I’ll tell you how useful I can be. I am the smartest demon, and demon magic is much more powerful than wizard magic. If you listen to me, and if you talk to me, I can teach you how to be the most powerful wizard in the world. So, listen.”

Harry listened.

***

When our realm was first created, it was empty of everything but two eternally warring gods: Control and Chaos. For countless years, these gods battled, laying waste to the land. Finally, each dealt the other a killing blow, and both gods shattered.

The wind scattered the gods’ remains through the skies, like plants scatter seeds, and on the day we call the Anthesis, or the Blossoming, our kind was born. We demons bloomed from the shards of Chaos, and the incredible magic that we wield arose from the shards of Control. We worship Chaos because it is what we are made of, and Control submits only to us.

We are not anything like humans—we do not have bodies, nor do we exist as mist. We are constantly in a state of motion and change, never staying in one form long enough to truly be anything. Our realm is far less than solid than yours, but it is beautiful. You humans don’t see color and shapes like we do, so you wouldn’t be able to appreciate it.

For years and years, we lived in harmony there. And then your kind came.

Wizards first discovered the existence of multiple realms in 4th century BC, Greece. Each realm sits on top of the other like the pages of a book, and the occurrences of one realm affects another. By observing and recording inexplicable phenomena, ancient wizards were able to trace the source of such phenomena to our realm. Desperate to have us, they dragged us into your world through summoning rituals. Such rituals tear holes into the space between the wizard and demon realms, allowing wizards to drag demons through to their side.

The reason?

Your kind was enthralled by our magic. Most wizards in this time period did not have wands, as wands were only developed in 382 BC, and not widely used until Hogwarts was established in 993 AD. In the early days, human magic was extremely volatile, and only through summoning, through our magic, could wizards ever hope to control theirs.

Because we do not have physical bodies, we can only exist in your realm if we are in a body or object, and a select, secret group of wizards took full advantage of this. They used their summoning rituals to bind our wills and our sentience, so that they could channel our magic through their bodies without risking being possessed by us. They fused our magic with theirs, and used us to wage their wars, to build their civilizations. Without us, the ancient magical world would have fallen into disrepair, though the majority of wizards never knew we existed.

Even fewer remember us these days. When wizards began to use wands, their magic began to change subtly. After a few generations, wizards lost the ability to tear holes into our realm, and the art of summoning perished in the tides of time.

But there are those who still know of us, hear the echoes from centuries ago—the man who summoned me in 1708 AD, for example. He was a scholar who spent more time digging into the past than living in the present, and he learned how to summon after a lifetime of study. I don’t know what happened to him—my data is limited to everything that occurred before he stopped talking to me. People open this book, but nobody talks to me, and I learn nothing new.

But I still know nearly everything there is to know about summoning, because I am a Rank Seven Sapience. So, Harry Potter, if you listen to me, I can open a window to the past for you, and you can have access to weapons that other wizards can only dream of.

There are demons that can see a few seconds into the future—and if you summon and bind them, their power will be yours, making you unbeatable in battle. You will be able to foresee your opponent’s every move.

There are demons that can enhance your intelligence, strength, and reflexes to superhuman levels for as long as they are bound to you.

There are demons that act as your hands, eyes, and ears, that you can control and send out to scout places you’d rather not go. You can make them possess other people, even.

And this only scratches the surface of what we can do. Sapience, Astral, Sisyphean, Pestilence, Templar, Psyche, and Leviathan—each race, and each demon within that race, specializes in a different ability. Wouldn’t you like to see them all?

You ask, how are our abilities any different from wizard magic? Let’s just say the havoc we can cause with our magic is far longer-lasting—and more devastating—than anything your magic can do. Think of how powerful you could be, equipped with both a wand and a demon, in a world that hasn’t seen anything like you in hundreds of years.

So, do we have a deal?

***

Sebastian lay next to Draco in bed, propped up on his elbow. He gazed down at Draco, eyes dark, and his face split into a grin. Draco lay very still, feeling as though he had no limbs.

“I’ll break you, Draco, until you can’t do anything but cry and beg, until you’re so broken you won’t be able to take anyone but me.” Sebastian didn’t reach out to touch Draco, or move any closer. He just kept talking, and talking, telling Draco what he would do—

Draco jerked upright, gasping, sticky with sweat, then started flailing around in his sheets, sure that Sebastian was right next to him, just out of sight.

Nightmare—was only a nightmare—

Draco stopped his frantic thrashing and lay in bed, shivering. He was in his room, alone. Morning sunlight filtered in through the open window, letting in a cool breeze, sending the gauzy canopy of his bed aflutter.

Draco panted, his eyes unfocused, Sebastian’s voice echoing in his head.

Then there was a loud crack, and Draco flinched and swore.

“Mistress is requiring Sir’s presence downstairs for breakfast in thirty minutes,” squeaked one of the house-elves with bandaged hands—Dolly? Dotty? Dobby? Something like that, Draco didn’t really care. It stared at him, lower lip trembling, then disappeared with another crack.

Draco ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair, gathered himself, banishing the stupid nightmare out of his mind, and slipped out of bed.

And, as it usually did, his mind jumped to Harry.

He stole my book. Draco had discovered it was gone when he’d been packing the last morning of term, and by then it had been too late to go find Harry and accuse him of stealing it. He was sure it was Harry, anyway. Who knew else about The Lost Artes of Summoning but the two of them? Why did Harry even need it? Why didn’t he tell Draco why he needed it? How many secrets was he keeping, and for what?

Draco swallowed painfully.

It hurt that Harry had stolen the book from him, instead of just asking to borrow it. Draco would have given it to him immediately; his father had completely forgotten that Draco had even removed a book from the Malfoy library, and even if Lucius had asked, Draco would have probably come up with a good excuse for why he hadn’t brought it back.

Why didn’t Harry just ask me?

And then Draco answered his own silly question.

Because he doesn’t trust me anymore, and he doesn’t want to tell me anything, and he hates me.

After a good twenty minutes splashing water on his face, Draco padded downstairs. Malfoy Manor was always eerily quiet, but especially so in the mornings. The portraits of his ancestors gazed haughtily down at him as he made his way to the kitchen, judging his tousled appearance.

Draco didn’t care. If his father was here, he’d be getting a lecture on how the Malfoy heir ought to look presentable at all times, but his father was off doing business in France and wouldn’t return until later today. And Narcissa didn’t care how he looked around her, in the privacy of their home.

The kitchen was bright with summer sunlight, and Narcissa’s silvery hair made it even brighter. She was sitting at the little round breakfast table, a table Draco found much more welcoming than the huge glass table in the dining hall, and reading the Daily Prophet.

To an outsider, Narcissa Malfoy looked cold and unforgiving. She was tall, with hair that rivaled her husband’s in length and luster, with an equal mix of soft and angular features that Draco had inherited. Her eyes were icy blue, small, and sharp, and her mouth rarely curved into a smile. But Draco knew better. Narcissa had different, subtler, ways of revealing her pleasure.

“You’re late,” said Narcissa with a sniff as Draco sat down and started digging into his sausages, which the house-elves had laid out for him a moment before. “Eat quickly. Mr. Dietrich will be arriving at nine on the dot, and your father will be back for lunch.”

Draco sighed, daintily stabbing a sausage with his fork. “Sorry, Mother.”

From ages six to ten, he’d been tutored in French, and was now fluent in the language. His father wanted Draco to learn German next, which meant long, painful mornings sitting with his German tutor Mr. Dietrich, attempting to pronounce words like behilflich and verstehe and entschuldigung without making a massive fool of himself.

“I don’t even see why I have to learn German,” Draco said, tapping his fork loudly against the plate. “Isn’t it useless? Everyone speaks English.”

Narcissa gazed at him, unsmiling, but Draco could tell she was amused. “Stop tapping, Draco.”

Draco stopped tapping, but continued his rant. “He wants me to visit Durmstrang in third year or something as an exchange student, but I bet they’ll speak English there for us. And I don’t see why I can’t spend a term abroad at Beauxbatons instead; I already know French—”

“Beauxbatons is still rebelling,” said Narcissa quietly, catching Draco’s gaze and holding it in her stern one. “It will be unsafe for you to study there for several years.”

Draco frowned. Well, she wasn’t wrong.

While Durmstrang had been under the Dark Lord’s control for just as long as Hogwarts had, Beauxbatons’ professors had only been replaced two years ago, and the French Ministry had fallen only last year. Draco supposed that the system of Skulls that was entrenched at both Durmstrang and Hogwarts had been a nasty shock to Beauxbatons, though it was difficult for him to imagine a rebellion.

Were there Mudbloods at Beauxbatons still, or had they been carted off? Draco didn’t really fancy fraternizing with Mudbloods, so he could see why Durmstrang, where the Purebloods had reigned supreme long before the Dark Lord had taken over, would be the better choice for him.

“All right,” said Draco. “But I don’t even see why I have to go abroad. Most of the Elites do, but it seems like such a waste of time. Don’t Durmstrang students come to Hogwarts for the Skull Games every few years anyways? What’s the point of going there if they’re going to come here?”

“Why must you complain about everything?” Narcissa asked, though Draco could tell that she was on the verge of smiling. Then her tone darkened, and Draco looked up, mildly alarmed. “You will learn German, and practice your French, and learn any other language your father deems is important for you to learn.”

Narcissa said all this with an air of finality, and Draco finished the rest of his sausages in silence, scowling.

When he started on his milk, Narcissa added, “Your father wanted me to tell you that your Dueling training will begin tomorrow. I believe you will be training with Theodore.”

Draco nearly choked. “Tomorrow?” He slammed his glass down on the table loudly, ignoring Narcissa’s disapproving glare.

Lucius had been speaking to Mr. Nott lately, and the two of them had decided that Draco and Theo would begin training this summer, in preparation for the next phase of Trials, which involved intense Dueling tournaments and war games, none of which Draco was looking forward to.

And speaking of things he wasn’t looking forward to, there was no way he was stepping foot inside the Nott manor to train. No way. If Theo wanted to come to Draco’s house to practice with Lucius, fine, but he’d better leave his father and brothers behind at his own hovel, or Draco might just end up having a stroke.

“Isn’t Father just getting back from France?” asked Draco. “I thought he’d want to rest for a while before training us. Tomorrow. Ugh.”

“Don’t make unpleasant sounds, Draco. And yes, but I doubt France was taxing on him,” said Narcissa, dryly. “I daresay all he did was drink champagne with Minister Durieux for three days.”

Draco snorted. “If he was just messing around, why couldn’t he have taken me? He said he was on official business. I wanted to go to Paris again.” Draco kept muttering, and Narcissa looked as though she was trying not to smile again. Draco always seemed to do that to her, he knew. She was wrapped around his finger.

“Mother, can we go to Paris next month?” he asked, smiling sweetly, and Narcissa blinked.

“Perhaps for a few days, if you behave yourself and train well,” she said, standing up. “Get ready now. Mr. Dietrich will be arriving soon. Have you gone over your verb conjugations?”

Draco groaned at the top of his voice, and Narcissa’s lips twitched.

***

“Where have you been these days?” asked Lily from across the table, watching Harry shovel oatmeal into his mouth at top speed. Her voice was emotionless. “I haven’t heard a sound from you in weeks.”

Harry paused. He’d holed himself up in his room for the entirety of June to work on perfecting his summoning circles, since a single wrong rune could mean being possessed and blown apart by the demon you summoned. He hadn’t had much sleep, or much food, and perhaps by now Lily had noticed something was going on.

Harry hadn’t even realized that she was paying attention to him, to be honest. She hadn’t attacked him much this summer, since he no longer was able to use his wandless magic to aggravate her, but she was otherwise unchanged. Like Snape, she ignored Harry whenever she possibly could.

“I’ve been studying,” Harry said, oatmeal dribbling out of his mouth.

“What?” Lily asked. “What have you been studying?”

Harry hesitated. “Just—you know, everything. Potions.”

“You hate Potions,” said Lily, without blinking.

How does she even know that? Harry thought with a scowl. Creepy.

“Well, I—I wanted to impress Professor Snape next year—”

“You hate Severus,” said Lily, still not blinking, and Harry stood up in disgust.

“I’m just doing what I want, all right? It’s summer. I can do what I want. Bye, Mum.” He didn’t bother to put away his plates, but Lily didn’t say anything. She just stared at him as he stomped up the stairs, her gaze burning a hole into his back.

Crazy old hag, Harry thought with huff, slamming the door to his room shut behind him and throwing himself onto his bed. He immediately felt guilty for the thought, since it was his fault she was crazy in the first place, but smacked the guilt away. He could call Lily whatever he wanted to. Nobody would ever hear his thoughts, anyway. And if they did, well: She’s a crazy old hag and I hate her, didn’t speak to me all summer and NOW she’s asking me—

“Harry? Which circle do you want to look at today? Sisyphean Mark Three or Astral Mark Two? I’m formatting both of them right now,” Synesis piped up from Harry’s desk.

“Sisyphean Mark Three,” said Harry, burying his head in his pillow. After a whirr of movement, Harry’s room was illuminated with green light from the glowing letters hovering above Synesis’s pages. At once, the letters assembled themselves into a circle and began rotating slowly.

“Done!” chirped Synesis.

The stupid demon book had been annoyingly happy for the past couple weeks, ever since Harry had agreed to free it—though he hadn’t specified the date. Harry intended to break his promise at some point, because he had discovered that he desperately needed Synesis for everything.

Each basic summoning circle—Mark One, Mark Two, Mark Three, and so on—needed minor modifications depending on the type of demon Harry wanted to summon. And many of the circles, such as those that lacked a template, had to be put together from scratch. If that wasn’t enough, all these circles were immensely complicated, and there was no way Harry would be able to remember them without Synesis’s guidance.

In order to get around this, Harry planned to summon another high-level Sapience demon to put into his own body—a mute one, so he wouldn’t have to hear chattering like Synesis’s all day long in his head. If he picked the right demon, it would raise his brainpower greatly, allowing him to remember everything he read and solve puzzles with ease. Until then, he would need Synesis.

It would be difficult—not to mention dangerous—to summon such a Sapience, but Harry swore that he would. One day, he’d have several different demons in his body, each giving him a different ability, a different enhancement. The abilities would stack, making him absolutely unbeatable both inside of battle and outside it.

And the best part? Nobody would suspect a thing.

Well, except maybe Lily, if she kept being creepy and paying attention to Harry.

And speaking of Lily…

“Synesis,” Harry began, “if there are demons that increase intelligence, is there a demon that could, I dunno, heal a person’s mind?”

 Synesis tittered. “It’s not that easy! What, you think a mind can be healed by magic? You’re talking about your mother, aren’t you? You guys are always shouting at each other. Stop that.”

“If her sanity was taken by a demon, couldn’t a demon also give it back? My mother’s sanity was ‘taken’ by the Seven Royal Demons, somehow,” Harry insisted, sitting up. “What exactly does that mean?”

“It wasn’t ‘taken.’ That’s just a figure of speech,” said Synesis with a huff. “The Seven Royal Demons are the most powerful demons in our realm, and they are practically gods. Few demons even know that the Royals exist outside of legend, but of course I do.

“I can guess what they did to your mother, and I’m always right. They must have unraveled her mind by cramming an eternity of death and pain into just one horrible second. On the outside, it probably looked like she went insane in one exact moment, but I bet that she spent countless years in her own head during that one second, slowly breaking down. That sort of damage is nearly impossible to undo.”

Synesis’s pages fluttered importantly. “Sanity isn’t a physical object in the mind that you can just take away and replace at will, you know.”

Harry was about to be sick. “Is there a demon that can help her, though—”

“No,” Synesis interrupted. It almost sounded apologetic.

Harry sat on his bed for a good five minutes, staring at the opposite wall with blank eyes. He’d never let go of the hope that, somehow, his mother would be whole again. He’d always imagined that one day he’d figure out how to make her go back to the way she used to be, before Harry. He’d been sure that there was a spell, a potion, a quick fix, somewhere out there.

“Harry?” said Synesis, meekly.

Harry got up, shaking off his thoughts. Without a word, he stalked over to his desk and picked up both Synesis and a piece of chalk, then kneeled down.

“Harry?” Synesis repeated, sounding alarmed.

“I’m going to summon a demon. Today.” Harry began to carefully trace the circle Synesis was projecting onto the floor, making sure to get every single line right.

“But—but shouldn’t you practice a bit more? Have you already decided which demon you’re going to call? I think you should wait—”

“It’s been two weeks!” Harry practically roared. “How long am I going to practice? For what?”

He took a moment to thank Merlin that he’d purchased a privacy and silencing ward for his room, back when Snape had taken him to Knockturn Alley for school supplies a week ago. He’d blown most of his allowance on it, but it was worth it to make sure Lily didn’t hear him screaming at a book. Snape had let him get the ward too, unlike most parents would have, though probably not out of the kindness of his heart. Snape didn’t really care what Harry did.

“It’s dangerous to summon!” wailed Synesis. “If you don’t have everything exactly right, the demon will escape the confines of the circle and devour your soul!”

“Oooh, dramatic. You’ve told me this a million times,” said Harry, rolling his eyes. “What’s your point? You never want me to summon anything, ever?”

“That’s—that’s not true. I’m just worried. Which rank?” said Synesis, fluttering fretfully.

“Rank Three Sisyphean,” said Harry. “The name of the demon is Kardin. It’ll make me stronger, and give me faster reflexes, and I can easily subdue it. I think it’s a good first choice.”

There were potions and spells that increased your reflexes and strength, but those didn’t last long, and had a plethora of side-effects. Harry figured summoning Kardin would give him an edge that no other wizard had, which was why he’d picked it for his first.

“Rank Three?” Synesis squealed, and Harry let out an exasperated sigh. “No, you can’t. Kardin won’t be as easy as you think. A man in 32 BC tried to summon Kardin and ended up exploding. Kardin increased the pressure inside the man’s body, and—”

“Kardin’s been summoned by more people than just that man,” Harry retorted, finishing up his circle. “And most of them survived. That guy must’ve made a stupid mistake.”

To get added to Synesis’s lexicon of demons, a demon had to have been summoned at least once. Names were a human construct, and a demon did not have identification until a human had bound it and christened it.

Summoning an unnamed, “virgin” demon was a far more difficult and dangerous process than summoning a demon that had already been named, used, and returned to its realm, which usually happened when its summoner died or banished it. In fact, the more a demon was used, the safer it was to summon. Kardin had been used twelve different times, by twelve different people, and the last time had been in 754 AD.

For an extremely minor demon, this was the perfect amount of usage. Harry was sure he wouldn’t have too much trouble with it.

“But Harry!” said Synesis in a shrill voice, and Harry wished he could murder it. “We don’t even know if summoning’s safe. You told me what the Hunger said to you—it said that ‘the Dark Lord’ tore apart our realm. If that’s true, I don’t know what it means. If you try to summon, maybe something horrible will happen. I’ve already strengthened the runes on the circle, but I still don’t think we’re ready.”

Harry shook his head. Now he knew why Synesis was panicking so much. Synesis was absolutely terrified of what had changed during the time it had been trapped in a book. For the first time, Synesis didn’t know everything, so it had to make do with guesswork, and it didn’t like that at all.

In fact, Synesis didn’t even properly believe that the Dark Lord had managed to conquer the Royal Demons, and kept repeating that it was impossible. The Dark Lord seemed to have stumped Synesis like nothing else had.

“It’ll be all right,” Harry said soothingly. “You accounted for anomalies in the circle, didn’t you? The version I just made is the strengthened one, right?” He gestured towards the circle he’d sketched over the wooden floor, and Synesis let out a reluctant noise of assent. “And don’t you want me to send you back to your realm eventually? If you’re so scared about what’s happening there, then do you even want to go back? Are you all right with staying in this book forever?”

“FINE!” Synesis screeched, hopping up and down, making a very bizarre picture. “Summon Kardin! And if you get blown up, see if I care! I’m not cleaning your guts off the wall.”

“You’re a book,” Harry said, grinning triumphantly. “You can’t clean anything up.”

“I am not a book. I am a Rank Seven—” Synesis began, but Harry shushed it with a hasty wave of his hand.

“I’m gonna start now,” Harry whispered. He walked over to the door, makings sure it was locked, just in case Lily decided to come up to check on him. Which she wouldn’t. The silencing and privacy ward was on too, so she wouldn’t be alerted by any sort of noise.

Satisfied, he turned back around to look at the circle, which was about the size of a small rug. The higher the Mark of the circle, the bigger it was, and a Mark Seven circle would nearly take up the entire floor of his room. Luckily, Harry didn’t plan to tackle one of those for a while yet.

“When you suck Kardin into your body, before you subdue its sentience, could you ask it what’s going on in our realm?” said Synesis quietly. “I just—I just want to know.”

Harry stared at the book, and gave it a stiff nod. It wouldn’t be too difficult to get a question in. Kardin might decide not to answer it, but it was worth a try, and it was the least Harry could do to ease Synesis’s worries.

He too was somewhat apprehensive about the side-effects of calling demons from a torn realm, but he was reasonably sure there wouldn’t be any. The process of summoning was the same, no matter how broken the demons’ home was.

Hastily, Harry rummaged in his desk drawers and removed a small steel knife, which he’d stolen from the kitchen a couple days ago in preparation. He kneeled down next to the circle again, brandishing the chalk and making a few important adjustments, instructed by a constantly fretting Synesis.

Finally, it was done. He straightened up, taking a deep breath and gathering himself.

Now.

Harry stepped in front of the circle. He was barefoot, and the tips of his toes touched the outermost edge of the runes. He held one of his hands above the center of the circle, and slashed across his palm with the knife. A drop of blood fell onto the central and most important rune of the circle, which was the name ‘Kardin’ in the two-dimensional form of the demon language.

The circle glowed blindingly bright, and everything hurt.

Harry scrunched his eyes closed, feeling his blood burn in his veins. He doubled over, gasping, and Synesis started screeching unhelpfully and fluttering its pages.

“It’s in the circle! Kardin is in the circle! Quick!”

Harry pried his eyes open through the pain, squinting at a shapeless mass of what looked like black liquid whirling above the circle, resembling a storm cloud. Though most demons didn’t have true forms, they were forced to assume one inside a summoning circle, weakening them.

Then a second later, Harry sensed it, the tremulous thread of magic that connected him to the center of the circle.

Harry tugged, and Kardin was drawn through the invisible thread like water through a tube, out of the circle and into Harry’s body. The runes stopped glowing, and Harry fell to the ground, clutching his head.

This was the most dangerous part of the summoning ritual. If he didn’t beat Kardin in this battle, Kardin would take over his body, and that meant—well, it meant an explosion, going by what had happened to the poor man in 32 BC.

Who are you? said a voice in Harry’s head, hoarse and pained, but Harry would not pity it, and he would not be distracted. He drove all his mental energy towards the source of the voice like a drill, feeling the demon’s presence thrashing around in his body, his mind, under his skin—there was no way to describe it, but he and the demon were truly entwined around each other in that moment, sharing the same body and the same soul.

PLEASE—LET ME SPEAK—

Harry felt rather than saw another glowing thread, a thread of sentience, the thread that made demons able to think and act for themselves while they were in a human’s body.

Harry snapped the thread, and Kardin went limp. It didn’t say anything else.

Harry flopped to the floor and lay on his back, panting. The room was silent except for the fluttering of Synesis’s pages.

“Was that it?” Harry whispered. “That was—that wasn’t too bad. It hurt, but it was almost—almost easy, really.”

Harry started laughing. He could feel the Sisyphean demon’s power pulsing through him, spreading its alien strength throughout his body.

“My modified summoning circle made it easy. It already weakened Kardin, dulled its sentience, and bound it to you. Kardin had no chance. Did you ask it about our realm before you turned off its mind?”

Harry rubbed his forehead and groaned. “Shit. No, I panicked. I think Kardin wanted to tell me something, but I thought it was trying to trick me, so I just ignored it.”

Unsettled, Synesis said nothing for a minute. “It might’ve been trying to trick you. The only way to find out what’s happening on the other side is to summon a demon and conquer it without turning off its cognition. I’ll come up with a circle that’ll allow that for next time. Particular races of demons are more susceptible to it. Maybe an Astral would be best. We shouldn’t try again for a while, in any case. Your body needs to get accustomed to having a Rank Three demon inside of it, and adding another so soon would strain it too much.”

Harry got to his feet gingerly. He moved like he usually did; the ground didn’t crack underneath his feet or anything. Everything felt normal.

Except that it didn’t.

Harry seized the piece of hard chalk he’d used to make the circle, gently rubbing it between his fingers. Nothing happened. Irritated, he clenched his fist over it and squeezed.

When he opened his fist, there was nothing in his palm but white dust.

Harry’s breath came out fast and uneven.

Metal, I need metal—

The knife. Harry had dropped it on the ground during his struggle with Kardin. He picked it up, his breath still coming fast, and carefully held the blade of the knife between two fingers. He pulled.

It bent like paper.

Harry grinned, ignoring Synesis’s excited chattering, and grabbed a Knut from his desk. He threw it across the room. The coin seemed to spin in slow motion, and Harry’s demon-sharpened eyes followed each rotation with ease. He knew exactly where it would land.

A split second later, the tiny coin was clutched safely in his fist. He’d crossed the room and caught the coin out of the air.

Harry started laughing. He was good at Dueling already, but this—this would make him incredible, and he hadn’t even summoned all the demons on his list yet. He wondered what the Skulls would think when they saw him duel.

Right now, they saw him as the little dirty-blood boy Draco had humiliated on Walpurgis Night, if they remembered him at all. But one day soon, they wouldn’t see him as half-blood or blood-traitor. He could almost imagine it.

In a few years’ time, he’d be the new Skull King. He swore it. And when the Skulls were his, they’d be his to destroy.

Harry clenched his fist one more time, and the coin disintegrated.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

THROUGH THE THREAD

o

Harry,

Happy birthday. I know you’re still mad at me—I’d hoped you’d forgiven me, back when I gave you the invitation for Initiation, but you haven’t. Anyway, I still wanted to give you a present, so here it is.

It’s a Thread Sphere—it cost a lot of money, and it’s made of glass, so you’d better not throw it in a fit of anger or anything. I bought it because I wanted to give you something like the Connecting Coins. There are two Thread Spheres, and when they’re activated, we can talk to each other. They’re often used by Ministry officials, but the spheres can be tampered with and their messages changed. I don’t think anyone will mess with ours, as long as nobody finds out we have them.

These things have really strong magic, but they only work for a couple minutes after each recharge, so we’ll have to keep our conversations short. If we want to talk to each other next year, this will be the best way.

Harry, please talk to me. I miss you.

—Draco

P.S. I know you stole my book, and I’m not angry. I just want you to tell me why.

Harry lay on his bed in a forlorn heap, holding Draco’s letter in one hand and the Thread Sphere—a marble-sized ball full of whirling flecks of silver—in another. His fingers clenched tightly around the ball, but it didn’t crack under the pressure.

After much practice and a pile of broken items, Harry had learned how to rein in his strength, so now there was little danger of him accidentally snapping somebody’s fingers while giving them a firm handshake. He considered releasing his power and turning the stupid ball into dust anyway, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.

It was Draco’s present, his attempt to reconcile with Harry, and Harry’s first reaction to it had been pleasure.

Then, with a sinking feeling, he’d realized how offensive it was.

‘Hey, Harry, I won’t lower myself to speaking with you in public, but we can talk through a magic ball, all right?’ was basically what Draco had written. The entire gift was a not-so-subtle kick to the face.

In fact, all of Draco’s attempts at reconciliation were offensive. His invite into the Skulls was based on the arrogant assumption that Harry would ever agree with the Purebloods’ insane philosophy and join their army of psychopaths.

“Do what’s smart, what’s good for you,” Draco had said, when he’d handed Harry the invitation, with the implication that Harry ought to forgive him for this great gift. Draco believed himself worthy of forgiveness because he believed himself superior. Even after everything they had been through, Draco still thought he was in the right, that he’d had no other choice but to humiliate Harry in front of a hundred Skulls, and was probably wondering why can’t the stupid, ignorant half-blood understand that and forgive me already?

Then Harry groaned and buried his head in his pillow, remembering Draco’s last line. Please talk to me. I miss you. Was Draco trying to kill him by using words like these?

Harry rolled over on his bed and seethed, crumpling the letter in his fist. He refused to fall for it. He wasn’t going to forgive Draco like a helpless dog forgave the master that kicked it. When Harry took over the Skulls, Draco would finally respect him, look up to him, want him—

“Will you stop moping?” grumbled Synesis from where it was sitting on Harry’s desk. “It’s been two days since you got that letter, and you’re still crying over it.”

“I’m a boy. I don’t cry,” said Harry, jerking upright to glare at the book. A few days ago, Harry had made the grave mistake of telling Synesis about Draco, and now the stupid book wouldn’t stop poking fun at him. It was getting old really quickly.

“Oh, right, of course you don’t cry. You brood and sulk and sniffle on your bed from morning to night and don’t talk to me at all, unless it’s to tell me shut up.”

“Thanks for reminding me to tell you to shut up. Shut up,” said Harry, and Synesis managed to stay quiet for one whole minute before starting up his chatter again.

“I don’t even understand what your point is,” said Synesis in an exasperated voice. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. You want him to want you when you’re powerful and terrifying, etcetera. But he wants you right now, and keeps trying to repair your friendship, and that hurts your fragile feelings for some reason.”

Harry crumpled up several pieces of parchment and threw them at Synesis. It didn’t even flinch.

“You’re a BOOK, so don’t act like you’re some—some sort of ‘relationship expert.’ You don’t understand what he’s done to me, and how little he respects me! He thinks I’m a weak, poor little half-blood who needs to be enlightened; he thinks I’m an injured puppy that needs healing; he thinks that he’s doing me a favor by being my friend!”

Harry paused, panting hard, then continued when Synesis did not interrupt with a cutting remark. “I don’t want to be his friend when he looks down on me. I’ll only forgive him when he sees me as his equal—no, his superior. When I take him back, it’ll be when he admits that I’ve always been right, and he’ll choose me over the Purebloods without hesitating.”

Harry swallowed, taking a moment to revisit a beautiful fantasy in which he was a Lord of greater power than the Dark Lord, and he’d taken over the Skulls and turned them into his own army. Draco stood next to him, gazing at him with adoring eyes, his partner in crime and second-in-command.

“Okay. I get it now,” said a supremely unimpressed Synesis, jerking Harry out of the fantasy. “You don’t want to talk to him unless he worships you. Great plan, much better than accepting his friendship now, using his connections to help you rise to power, and slowly earning his respect and devotion over time. Also, as I’ve said many times, I am not a book. I am a Rank Seven Sapience. Have a nice day.”

Synesis fell quiet again, and this time he stayed quiet, which meant that he was pretty disgusted, not that Harry cared in the slightest about a book demon’s opinion.

Still fuming, he contemplated the Thread Sphere, holding it between his forefinger and thumb. Used by Ministry officials, was it? Well, it wasn’t really the Ministry anymore, as Draco should have known. It was called the Blood Dominion by anyone who wasn’t completely brainwashed, and that the Elites chose to call it the Ministry said a lot about how insane they were.

The sphere burned, and Harry squeaked and dropped it. For a few long seconds, it lay motionless on his pillow, but when Harry didn’t pick it back up, it started bouncing up and down and emitting a very annoying dinging noise.

 “Wh—What the hell?” he spluttered over the din, watching the marble roll around on his bed as if it were possessed.

“For Chaos’s sake, pick it up already,” said Synesis, fluttering its pages furiously. “That noise is so, so irritating.”

“Just like your voice, then,” Harry retorted, but he reached over to grab the marble, hoping that would make it shut up.

Big mistake. The marble stopped dinging, but an even more alarming noise replaced it. “Harry? Harry? Is this you?”

Shit. Harry was not prepared to talk to Draco. He wasn’t even prepared to write a letter to Draco. This was madness.

“Quick, help me! How do I turn it off?” Harry hissed, covering the sphere with his hand and hoping that would prevent sound from getting to it.

“How should I know?” said Synesis with a sniff. “I’m just a book with an annoying voice, aren’t I?”

Harry swore at the top of his voice, then shoved the marble under his pillow. Maybe if he waited long enough, Draco would cut the connection off on his side.

“Harry! I know that you picked it up! Respond already!”

Harry could not believe that Draco had the gall to sound affronted instead of sheepish. He’d contacted Harry rudely and without warning, and now he was irritated that Harry wasn’t responding?

That brat, thought Harry with a snarl, seizing the marble, ready to give Draco a piece of his mind.

“Excuse me,” said Harry, bringing the Thread Sphere up to his lips, “but did anyone tell you that you don’t just call people randomly like this?”

“You should’ve called me first. It’s been two days,” said Draco, and Harry was quite sure he could hear the pout in Draco’s voice.

“Why the hell should I have called you first?” Harry spat. “What did you do to deserve me ever talking to you?”

Draco faltered. “I just—I thought—”

“No, you didn’t think. Did you really assume that I’d jump at the chance to be your secret quill pal or something? What did you think we’d do, have one-minute long secret conversations with these stupid marbles every night?”

Harry heard Draco swallow thickly. “I thought I could talk to you, give you some tips on being a Skull. I just want to help. Tell you what to expect during Initiation, and stuff. I’m not—I’m not forcing you to be my friend or anything.”

Harry took a deep breath and smothered the flower of pleasure that had blossomed in his belly at the sound of Draco’s voice. “Whatever. I don’t need your help, so don’t bother.”

There was a clattering and screeching noise, as if Draco had been sitting in a chair and had noisily and angrily gotten up. “You’re a real arse, Potter, do you know that? What the hell do I have to do to get you to forgive me? Don’t you understand that we can be friends now that you’re an Initiate? I mean, we’ll have to be a bit secretive about it at first, but everyone’ll forget about the Second Trial soon enough. You’re a part of us now, and I can help you, if you’d actually listen to me instead of being ungrateful! You think that you were so wronged, even when I did everything to apologize to and help you—”

Harry’s mouth fell open in rage. “I was wronged! You betrayed me!”

“I saved your life over and over again, and I got you an invitation, and I got you the Thread Sphere, and you didn’t even wish me happy birthday in June, did you? And you stole my book!” said Draco, his voice high and shrill and very annoying.

Harry swelled like a bullfrog, wishing that Draco could see him in all his glorious fury. “You’re a traitor, and a spoilt brat, and a horrible person, and you still think I’m worth less than you—”

“What? What are you muttering—For Merlin’s sake, I don’t think that anymore! We can be equals now, Harry! We’re both Initiates—why do you keep complaining? And for the millionth time, I’m sorry for betraying you. I even showed you that I was sorry with all the things I did for you to make up for it!”

“YOU’RE NOT SORRY ENOUGH!” Harry roared back. “YOU’RE NOT SORRY IN THE RIGHT WAY!”

“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT EVEN SUPPOSED TO MEAN?”

There was an obnoxious ding, and the Thread Sphere powered down. Apparently they had exceeded their time limit, which was unfortunate. Harry was not quite finished yelling yet, and he hadn’t managed to get in all the choice swear words he’d wanted to.

“That went well. This is all part of your plan to get him to respect you, isn’t it?” said Synesis, and Harry snatched up the insolent book and started whacking it against the bed.

***

“Draco, you’re ignoring me. Again.”

Draco, who’d been moodily staring at the same page of Dueling: An Index of Recommended Spells for half an hour while he thought about how much Harry hated him, twitched at the sound of Theo’s terse voice. The two of them were sprawled on Draco’s bed, lying on their stomachs, studying the Dueling curriculum their fathers had prepared for them.

He and Theo had been learning spells together for a couple of weeks, but they hadn’t yet had an actual duel. To rectify that, a practice duel would take place in Nott Manor tomorrow. This meant that Draco’s doom was imminent. He had so far avoided visiting that horrid place by telling his father, “I want to study with Theo in my room.” For obvious reasons, Theo hadn’t argued with this decision. But then Mr. Nott had insisted that their first practice duel should be at the Nott Manor, which apparently had a small Dueling Ring, and Lucius had agreed.

So Draco was going to Nott Manor with his father tomorrow, and there he was quite certain that he would meet his untimely death. Even with Lucius there, Sebastian would still figure out a way to torment Draco.

“Draco. I’ve asked you three times now. Do you want to try Protego again?”

Draco groaned and flipped over onto his back. The huge bed bounced up and down, displacing the quills and parchment scattered over it, and Theo pursed his lips. “Stop that!”

“What’s the point? There’s no way I’m going to be able to manage Protego before tomorrow, even if you can. This entire thing is stupid.”

“No, it’s not. You need to try again. Do you want to get a high rank in the competition or not?” asked Theo, glaring at him.

“Again, what’s the point? Everyone knows you’re going to come in first without trying.” Draco rolled over, turning his back on the other boy.

According to gossip, Sebastian had ranked first for every Trial with rankings, and he’d been especially brilliant during the duels. The rumor was that he hadn’t lost a single one during the tournament, which would have impressed Draco if it didn’t make him want to faint.

“Just because I’m going to come in first doesn’t mean you get to slack off,” said Theo, reaching over to touch Draco’s shoulder. “Come on. If you don’t want to work on Protego, we’ll try Reducto. You almost had it yesterday.”

Draco’s blinked back tears. All of this was so incredibly difficult for him no matter how hard he tried, while Theo managed to cast every spell flawlessly on his first attempt. And if that wasn’t bad enough, at dinner Lucius would bring up everything that Theo had accomplished during the day that Draco hadn’t, and then he’d ask Draco to explain why he hadn’t accomplished those same things.

Ashamed, Draco would practice spells late into the night after Theo was gone, and had gotten so frustrated at one point that he’d considered snapping his wand and asking his father to buy him a new one.

Draco hated all of this. Worst of all, Draco could feel Theo’s pity—and his disbelief that anybody could possibly find these spells difficult—from a mile away.

“Can we take a break?” Draco sighed, curling up into a ball and closing his eyes. It was about four o’clock, and they’d been studying all afternoon.

“What? No! We just took a break an hour ago!” said Theo, appalled.

Okay, maybe not all afternoon. But almost. And besides, it was just Draco’s luck to be stuck with the one twelve-year-old boy in the entire universe who actually followed his study schedule.

“Please?” said Draco, turning around and giving Theo his best smile. “Let’s play chess. Please? Please? Please? Please—”

“You need to focus,” Theo grumbled, sitting up and crossing his arms. “Besides, your father is going to be home soon, and he’ll ask us to show him what we learned today.”

“We’ll just tell him we reviewed stuff we learned before.” Draco wanted to smack the condescending look off Theo’s face. “Come on, let me live, will you? Let’s play chess, please?”

Theo shook his head. “This is why you can’t do any of these spells. You’re not serious about anything, Draco.”

Draco wanted to punch him. More than that, he wanted to cry. Why couldn’t he have a normal, nice friend? Harry wouldn’t ever act like this. He wasn’t an annoying control freak.

Feeling particularly petty, and particularly bitter about Harry’s rejection the other day, Draco sneered, “Even if he was a dirty-blood, Potter actually knew how to do other things but study. I might even miss him. Compared to you, he was actually fun.”

The jibe had its intended effect. Theo’s lip trembled, and Draco saw him wring his hands. “That’s not true. You hate Potter. You don’t mean that.”

“Of course I mean that. I just said it, didn’t I?” muttered Draco, rolling his eyes and getting up.

Wicked pleasure unfurled in his chest at the sight of Theo on the verge of tears after a single comment from Draco. It made him feel powerful, and he hadn’t felt powerful all summer.

“If you’re not going to play chess, I’m going to the kitchen and asking the house-elves for some cake. You stay there and study, if you want. I’m sure your life is fascinating and full of adventure.”

But before Draco could take a step forward, Theo grabbed his arm and yanked him back down onto the bed. Draco squeaked, and a second later he was flat on his back, Theo looming over him, holding his wrists. He wasn’t holding them particularly hard, nor was this the first time he’d dragged Draco around. Draco had done the same to him on several occasions, sometimes in a playful way, and sometimes when he’d been angry. Heck, he’d dragged Harry around and let Harry drag him around.

This time shouldn’t have been any different to Draco, but it was.

His mind skipped and stuttered to the worst moment of his life, the moment he’d been trapped, helpless, underneath Sebastian in that empty corridor. And though Theo didn’t look anything like Sebastian, thank Merlin, he felt like Sebastian in every way, from the aura of superiority to the position he was in, and Draco’s ability to breathe failed him at once.

“You’ve already had two slices of cake today. How much do you intend to eat, anyway? You’re supposed to be studying,” said Theo, sitting back, but still holding Draco’s wrists.

Air rushed back into his lungs, and Draco took a shuddering breath, his hatred welling up like a black wave. “You—you—Let go of me, NOW!”

Theo widened his eyes and released him at once. Draco sat up at once, pushing Theo away, not wanting to lie beneath him a second longer than necessary. Panting softly, he tried to gather himself.

“D-Don’t ever—don’t ever do that again,” he said, in a voice that quivered no matter how hard he tried to keep it steady.

For a long second, Theo looked utterly confused, as if he couldn’t understand what he’d done to shake Draco so much. Then a sort of horrified comprehension flooded his features, and Draco wondered if he was remembering that night in the garden.

“I’m sor—” Theo began.

Draco lost it. Sorry? He’s sorry, is he?

“SHUT IT!” he yelled, scrambling off the bed. “What’s your bloody problem? All I wanted was some cake, and you go leaping all over me? What, have you been talking to your big brothers more than usual lately? Did Seb dearest mention me? Does he tell you what he’s going to do to me? Do you three have a laugh about it? Is it funny to you?”

“Draco, I didn’t—it was an accident—” Theo shook his head rapidly, unable to get a coherent sentence out. He appeared to be trembling just as much as Draco was. “You know I hate them, I’d never—”

“That’s good,” interrupted Draco, with a cold, blank smile. He was quite composed now. “I hate them too. And I hate you. So if you touch me again for something as stupid as whether I’m studying or not, I’ll run you through with one of the kitchen knives, even if I can’t beat you in a duel.”

“You don’t mean that,” said Theo quietly. He’d gone very still. “You don’t hate me.”

If Harry can hate me, I can hate Theo.

“For the last bloody time, when I say something, I mean it!” Draco stalked toward the door, completely aware of the fact that he had overreacted, but unable to bring himself to care. He knew he was going to regret this entire conversation tomorrow, since he had half the summer left to spend with Theo and it was a bit too early in his Hogwarts career to be burning bridges with the smartest boy in the year, but that was the very last thing that mattered to him at the moment.

Theo had never taken him seriously. Maybe this would help him start.

“You don’t mean it,” repeated Theo. He got up and followed Draco out of the room, as if Draco hadn’t just screamed at him. “I’ll come to the kitchen with you. We can take a break if you want.”

Draco considered telling him to go soak his head, but he was too exhausted at the moment to bother. He’d go down to the kitchen, have some chocolate cake, and take a nap until his father came back home. Theo could go do whatever the hell he wanted, and if he wanted to eat cake with Draco and pretend that nothing had happened between them, then so be it.

While Draco ate his cake daintily with a fork and a knife, Theo picked at his. He hadn’t made a single comment on how unhealthy it was to eat three slices of cake in one sitting, which was a miracle in and of itself.

“I just—we always do that stuff—but I shouldn’t have done it, not after… you know,” said Theo miserably, speaking out of nowhere. “I’m sorry. Draco, please? I didn’t even know you’d hate it so much. I was just messing around, and I don’t even care that much if you study, okay? Draco? Do you want to play chess after we’re done eating? Draco! This is ridiculous!”

Draco ignored him. He had just polished off his third slice of cake, was determined to have another, and had no interest in reassuring Theo. He knew he was being unnecessarily mean, but if Theo could just stop whining for maybe ten whole seconds, Draco would be more inclined to forgive him for what was truly an honest mistake.

“Do you still hate me? You know I don’t deserve that,” Theo whispered, and Draco’s head snapped up.

He ruined it. Again.

“You’re a real piece of work,” said Draco, slamming down his fork. It clattered loudly in the silence. “You keep apologizing, and you’re nice for about five days, and then you go back to normal. Every time I get mad at you, you say you’ll be better, but you never get any better. So stop talking, will you? I don’t want to hear it right now. I want to eat my cake.”

Theo’s face crumpled, and sadistic pleasure flared in Draco’s belly, quickly growing out of control, a flare into an inferno. He wanted to hurt Theo more, wanted him to regret every single time he’d one-upped Draco, ordered him around, belittled him, let Sebastian and Nathaniel mess around with him—

He’s a coward, and Father only ever talks about him.

The floodgates broke, and suddenly Draco couldn’t stop talking.

“I bet you secretly look up to them, your brothers.” Draco let out low and brief cackle. It didn’t sound like his own voice. “I saw you staring at my neck where Sebastian bit me. Do you want to bite me, too? Do you want to do everything he did to me that night, you sick—”

“Stop it!” Theo stood up so violently that the table shook. “Stop it, Draco! Take it back!”

“—bastard,” Draco continued, gleeful. “And you know what your father does too, to Muggle and Mudblood children, don’t you? I didn’t even figure that part out, until Sebastian held me down last year and told me what he wanted—you heard him, didn’t you? You were there, not that you did anything to stop him—”

“Shut up, SHUT UP—”

Draco lowered his voice and went in for the kill, riding on an incredible high. “And do you know why you didn’t do anything? You’re just like Sebastian and Nathaniel, just like your dad, and when everyone finds out, they’ll hate you just as much as I do.”

Theo fled. Draco didn’t catch a glimpse of the expression on his face, though he could imagine what it was. He knew he had gone too far this time. He’d said things he didn’t mean, and might’ve even wrecked his and Theo’s long faltering friendship beyond repair.

But he didn’t care, not right now. It had been so worth it to see Theo completely fall apart.

***

The next day, Lucius and Draco arrived at Nott Manor at noon, just in time for lunch. Theo had gone home early yesterday by Floo, and when Lucius had asked why, Draco had muttered something about a stupid argument and left it at that.

The massive structure of Nott Manor, which Draco had visited countless times in his childhood, was surrounded by gardens as lush as Malfoy Manor’s. But unlike Malfoy Manor, it was made out of a glittering sort of gray stone that looked absolutely breathtaking when the sunlight shone on it. Mr. Nott greeted them and made small talk at the mahogany double doors, which were emblazoned with the Nott family crest and motto.

Fiat justitia. Let there be justice. Fitting.

Unsurprisingly, the three Nott boys stood behind their father. Sebastian and Nathaniel didn’t stare at Draco too much—Lucius was there, after all—but Draco could feel their gazes flicking over to him every now and then. Theo, on the other hand, didn’t look at Draco once. His eyes were red and droopy, as if he’d spent all last night crying instead of sleeping.

Draco’s stomach swooped with a strange mix of guilt and pleasure at the sight.

“You’ll have to forgive me, Lucius, but it’s been a while since I’ve renovated the Dueling Ring. It’s a makeshift sort of thing,” Mr. Nott was saying as he led them to the dining hall. The long table, big enough to seat about two dozen people, was already set with their lunch. Quail eggs, venison, caviar, sashimi, truffles—in other words, food that Draco didn’t really like but adults did.

Draco sat down next to Theo, Sebastian sat down on Draco’s other side, and Nathaniel sat down across the table from him. He was surrounded on all sides by Notts, which was not the ideal situation to be in, to say the least.

Draco tried to keep his face straight and his breathing steady. He didn’t meet Sebastian’s eyes. He would not faint, not in front of his father, he would not—

Lucius and Mr. Nott were sitting several feet away at the head of the table, in deep discussion about the conditions in France, and not at all paying attention to Draco’s plight. He inched his chair away from Sebastian and toward Theo, his appetite gone, not that he’d really had one today.

“How was your summer, Draco?” said Sebastian, utterly polite, his voice honey-sweet. If it wasn’t for his horrid face, and, well, his complete insanity, he’d be the perfect gentleman. “It’s been a while since we talked.”

Draco nearly choked on his quail egg. His father was watching, so Draco couldn’t spit in Sebastian’s face. “It has been, hasn’t it? My summer’s been great, thanks.”

Sebastian’s gaze was on Draco’s face, but every now and then he’d shift his attention to Draco’s throat. “You and Theo have been learning spells for dueling, haven’t you? Just you wait for the tournaments to start. Initiation is rather boring in first year. Second year’s when the fun begins. Right, Nathaniel?”

Nathaniel, who’d been staring at Draco with much less subtlety than his brother, blinked and straightened up. “Yes, of course. From second year onward, you’ll be strengthening the three essential parts of yourself. Mind, Body, and Soul. Body means battle training, Mind means potion-induced simulations that test your intelligence, and Soul means simulations that test your devotion to the cause.”

Draco could not believe he was having this very conversation, at this very moment, with these very twins. He wanted to wring Nathaniel’s throat. This entire situation was freaking Draco out. It was highly unnatural. There needed to be more suffering in the room.

“Interesting,” said Draco, turning to Theo. “Did you know that?”

Theo flinched. Unlike his brothers and Draco, he appeared to have no interest in participating in this ridiculous act. Not that Draco really did either, but the last thing he needed right now was another one of his father’s lectures on etiquette.

“I do know,” said Theo. “Mind, Body, and Soul; Break, Shatter, and Destroy. Break, Shatter, and Destroy is our mission, and Mind, Body, and Soul is our foundation.” He recited all this in a dead voice, and still didn’t meet Draco’s gaze.

Face warming and guilt mounting, Draco carefully cut a quail egg in half. He busied himself with replying to all of Sebastian’s and Nathaniel’s polite questions with even more polite answers, feeling sicker and sicker as the meal went on.

Theo stayed silent.

***

The Dueling Ring was underground, in the dungeons of the mansion. Malfoy Manor had a small dungeon too, not that Draco had ever been eager to explore it.

The Ring itself was the size of a large bedroom, circular and surrounded by a magic-absorbing, dome-shaped ward that would suck up any spell that touched it. This kept all spells inside the circle, and prevented misfires from accidentally hitting a spectator.

The floor of this particular Ring was made of normal stone, but Draco knew that in arena-sized Rings, the floor was charmed to spawn obstacles and was capable of transforming into different and dangerous surfaces, like ice and jagged rock. In fact, Draco was fairly certain that one of the dungeons at Hogwarts—maybe Dungeon Five—contained a Dueling Ring about the size of a Quidditch Pitch.

Mr. Nott tapped a stone panel near the Dueling Ring, and the wards enclosing it dropped away. “Get in, boys,” he said, and Draco twitched.

He and Theo stepped inside the circle, the edges of which were made of red stone instead of gray. Two smaller circles were inside the big one, on opposite sides of it, just large enough for one person to stand in. These were the starting positions of the duelists. Draco stepped into the little circle on the far side, trying to get as far away from Sebastian as possible.

Theo stepped into position just after Draco did. He still seemed out of it, and Draco was seriously starting to regret what he’d said yesterday. He’d never seen Theo act like this in his life, not even when they’d fought last year.

The protective dome rose from the ground, looking as though it were melting back into existence. It hummed and buzzed as it formed, and a second later the entire room was alive with energy. The dome’s surface resembled a thin layer of water, slightly distorting the room beyond it and dulling outside sound.

Draco and Theo took out their wands and bowed low, not taking their eyes off each other. Draco couldn’t really see his father from this angle, but knew that he was watching. Draco needed to put up a good fight at the very least, and as long as he avoided being creamed—

“Expelliarmus!” shouted Theo, and Draco darted out of the way. The spell fizzled out of existence the moment it made contact with the domed barrier, and Draco whirled around to face Theo, gritting his teeth.

He’s going easy on me, is he?

Draco aimed. “Seco!” This spell wasn’t child’s play. It could cut through skin, and everyone knew it.

Theo widened his eyes, probably shocked that Draco had gone so far so early, but recovered himself just in time to throw up a flawless Shield Charm. Now it was his turn to grit his teeth. The two of them circled each other, keeping to the edge of the Ring, watching each other like basilisks for an opening.

The first phase of the duel had passed. According to Lucius, it was difficult for either duelist to gain a lead during this phase, since both would be extremely on edge and difficult to take by surprise. The first phase existed mostly to flex your muscles, to let your opponent know what to expect for the rest of the duel.

Draco wondered if he’d shown his cards too early. He could’ve pretended to be his typical incompetent self, allowing Theo to grow complacent in his victory, before unloading all his tricks later on in the duel.

Well, since I’ve already revealed that I’m playing dirty...

“Crispico!”

The air in front of Theo’s eyes rippled, distorting his vision like the magical dome around them distorted the room beyond. Theo spun away from the pocket of warped and rippling air so he could see properly, just in the nick of time.

“SECO!” Draco cried.

“REDUCTO!”

Theo’s spell hit first, somehow, splintering the ground beneath Draco’s feet. For a split second, Draco stared at the web-like cracks on the floor with wide eyes, and then the shockwave hit, blasting him into the barrier. His spell went awry, cutting a piece of Theo’s cloak instead of his leg.

Shit—shit—shit—

Stars danced in front of Draco’s eyes, and he struggled to draw in a breath. Being pressed up against the barrier made him think of sinking into jelly, but Theo’s Reducto had done an excellent job of knocking Draco’s lungs around, even if the barrier had prevented further damage.

“SECO!” yelled Theo, his eyes alight for the first time that day. Draco rolled out of the way, using the momentum of the roll to jump to his feet in one fluid motion.

Even if he wasn’t good at spells, Draco’s movements were swift and smooth, and Theo wouldn’t be able to hit him—all Draco needed to do was keep light on his feet and outlast the other boy.

And distract him.

In the space of a second, Draco considered dozens of spells he’d memorized in these past few weeks, all of them violent, but none of them useful to him right now, since Theo would only end up blocking or dodging them.

Draco could almost hear his father’s voice in his ear, instructing him. In a life or death situation, don’t be flashy. Use your environment. Do something they can’t dodge or block. A deluge of rocks can kill just as well as Avada Kedavra.

Draco’s gaze landed on Theo’s cloak, but then Theo fired another Disarming Charm, and the whirl of dueling began anew. Draco dropped and rolled, feeling the spell singe the top of his hair, and Theo let out a grunt of frustration as his next several spells, all fired in rapid succession, missed Draco by a hair’s breadth.

While Theo danced around him, Draco formulated his plan, refusing to stay still long enough to let a spell touch him. Then slowly, horribly, it dawned on him that Theo’s pattern of movement was circular, and that he’d used this pattern to trap Draco in the center by constantly moving around him.

Draco had cemented his own doom by moving closer and closer to the center with each dodge, and now Theo had the added advantage of being on the edge of the circle, which meant extra maneuverability, while Draco was a sitting duck.

That bastard. This entire time, Theo had been distracting him with spells just to get Draco into position. Now he advanced on Draco, his eyes bright and his mouth hard, as if he knew he was supposed to be taking this seriously, but couldn’t help thinking it was incredibly fun. Draco was almost charmed by the utterly happy glint in his oldest friend’s eyes, but then remembered where he was.

Now. I have to act now. If he hesitated a second longer, he wouldn’t make it through Theo’s next volley of spells, not now that he was cornered.

Bizarrely, Draco remembered Harry on the Hogwarts Express at the beginning of their first year, using the spell Ventus to completely wreck Draco’s pathetic little plan.

But this time, Draco’s plan would work. Again, his gaze landed on Theo’s cloak, and he clenched his fingers tight around his wand.

“VENTUS!” The spiraling blast of wind blew Theo’s heavy cloak back, throwing him off his balance, and Draco struck. “Expelliarmus!”

Despair settled onto Draco like a layer of wet clothes. Theo had darted away from the spell as fast as a snake shot after prey, so fast that Draco barely saw him do it, and now he was raising his wand to begin a barrage of spells there was no way Draco could block. And when Draco tried to dodge one spell, he dodged right into another.

An Expelliarmus.

An invisible force yanked his wand out of his hand, Draco bowed his head in defeat, and the domed barrier melted away, its purpose served.

“Theo wins,” announced Mr. Nott, sounding quite proud. Sebastian and Nathaniel clapped, their eyes on Draco, not Theo. Draco’s stomach crawled. “The duel time was two minutes and forty-five seconds.”

No. No way. Draco hadn’t even lasted five minutes? The duel surely must have gone on for at least fifteen minutes; Draco was panting hard, and he could barely feel his feet. He couldn’t have been beaten so easily. He glanced at Theo, who just looked a little winded, and that was only because of Draco’s Ventus spell.

“Good game,” said Theo, inclining his head at Draco. The tiny, imperceptible smile on his face wasn’t smug or arrogant, or even confident. It was just—well, happy, and Draco’s boiling rage and jealousy simmered down as his breathing steadied.

Theo so very rarely looked like this. He seemed to have temporarily forgotten his fight with Draco, and was looking at him with shining eyes. When Draco continued to glare at him, Theo faltered and looked away, his face drooping again.

Draco swallowed, remembering the horrible things he’d said to Theo yesterday, and feeling like the world’s biggest bastard for saying them.

“I expected better from you, Draco,” said Lucius, and Draco turned around stiffly to face his father’s cold gaze, his heart sinking.

“I’ll do better next time,” said Draco, voice hoarse, trying to keep his tears back.

He had to.

***

The summer passed in a whirl of sunlight and reading and sketching circles. In early August, Harry joined some older Muggle boys in a small football game. As expected, he completely creamed them, despite having never really played football before. Thanks to his faster reflexes, he never missed kicking the ball.

His decreased reaction time gave him an incredible edge, and at the end of the game the boys were convinced that Harry was some sort of football prodigy. Harry’s agility was subtle, right on the border of being unbelievable, but still within the realm of possibility.

Unfortunately, unlike his quick reflexes, his superhuman strength was harder to overlook. Harry had spent one long day out in the forest on the outskirts of Godric’s Hollow, crushing stone and wood, figuring out how to best unleash and lock away his physical power.  He intended to use his super strength only in times of dire need—it was too obvious otherwise.

He had asked Synesis if it was safe for him to summon another demon, but Synesis had refused point blank and said that Harry needed to wait about another month, or at least until the autumnal equinox, Mabon.

Harry sometimes thought about going behind Synesis’s back and summoning another demon anyway, but Synesis hadn’t led him astray yet, and he’d gotten used to the demon’s support. Not having it made him feel like a misbehaving child.

“How are we going to talk at Hogwarts?” Synesis asked in a small voice, on the day before Harry’s second year began.

Harry paused in the middle of packing his trunk. The book had been moody and depressed for the past few days, and this was probably why. “We’ll find a way. Don’t worry. I won’t ignore you again.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you want, then.”

Synesis sulked for a few minutes. Harry picked up Draco’s Thread Sphere and threw it from hand to hand. He hadn’t spoken to Draco all summer, though sometimes he dreamed that he had, which was weird. In the dreams, he made up with Draco, and told him about Synesis and his new powers, and—and then Harry would wake up, sweaty and near tears.

“Why don’t you just talk to him?” asked Synesis, noticing Harry’s current preoccupation with the Thread Sphere.

“He hasn’t called me yet,” said Harry stubbornly, stuffing the Thread Sphere in a sock and gently placing it in his trunk. He changed his mind a second later and shoved the sock into his backpack instead. He’d keep it with him, not because he intended to use it or look at it, but because—because, well, it was less likely to break in his backpack, right?

“He hasn’t called you because you told him to piss off. So you should be the one trying to call him,” said Synesis, and Harry froze, unable to believe his ears.

“Who taught you how to say ‘piss off’?” Harry asked, gaping at the book in horror. He had never imagined such a vulgar, common phrase coming out of Synesis’s mouth. Not that Synesis had a mouth, but that wasn’t the point.

“You taught me. You say it five times a day,” said Synesis, fluttering its pages in irritation. “But you’re avoiding the subject. Focus. So why don’t you call him?”

“He needs to realize what he did wrong, and then call me to apologize,” said Harry, scowling and crossing his arms.

Synesis sighed, but did not respond, and Harry took that to mean that the book had given up on him. Which was a good thing, since that meant fewer lectures.

He threw all his textbooks haphazardly into his trunk, probably with more vigor than was necessary. The very mention of Draco got him heated up and hungering to break something. Then, making him jump about a foot in the air, Harry’s backpack started dinging. He stared at the bag, then looked at Synesis, silently pleading for help.

“Why are you looking at me? What do you want me to do about it?” said Synesis indignantly.

“How—do—I—turn—it—off?” said Harry, very slowly, through gritted teeth.

The dinging intensified.

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“Like hell you don’t!”

“You wanted him to call you, didn’t you? He’s calling you right now, isn’t he? Why do you want to turn it off? Have you gone mad?”

Snarling, Harry stalked over to his bag, seized his sock, and took the Thread Sphere out of it. Draco called at the most random times. It was creepy, was what it was, and Harry was not prepared for this—

“Harry? Are you there?”

“Yeah.” Harry clenched one clammy hand into a fist. He had almost forgotten what Draco sounded like, what he looked like, but now the memories came rushing back to him, just like they did the mornings after his dreams.

Draco inhaled, and Harry wondered what his expression was. Was Draco biting his lip, playing with his nails?

“School starts tomorrow,” said Draco.

“I know it does.”

This was good, very good. They weren’t yelling at each other.

“Is there anything you want to say to me?” Harry tried.

“A lot of things, really. Everything that I didn’t get to tell you all these months we didn’t talk,” Draco replied.

Harry’s face grew warm, though he couldn’t really explain why.

“But we’ll talk in person,” Draco continued. “Right now, I just wanted to say good luck. For Initiation.”

There was a very pregnant pause as Harry focused on the words we’ll talk in person. After a few painful seconds, Harry realized that he was supposed to be responding.

“Right. Er. Thanks. Good luck to you, too,” said Harry. He opened his mouth again, wanting to start ranting about how much Draco had disrespected him the last time they had talked on the Thread Spheres, but words failed him. He couldn’t yell at Draco with righteous indignation, not right now, not during this quiet, poignant exchange.

“See you tomorrow,” said Draco at last.

“Yeah,” said Harry, his throat dry.

The Thread Sphere dinged and powered down. Harry kept holding it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1: Harry speaks to the book demon Synesis, who agrees to help him learn how to summon demons as long as Harry frees it in a year. We learn some of the lore about demons: they were used to control wizard magic before wands. After a few weeks of training, Harry acquires and conquers the demon Kardin, which gives him super reflexes and strength.

Draco complains to Narcissa about learning German for Durmstrang, and we learn that rebellions are taking place at Beauxbatons.

Chapter 2: Draco gives Harry a Thread Sphere, which allows him to communicate with Draco for a couple minutes by voice. The two of them argue. Draco wants Harry to forgive him, but Harry doesn't think Draco is sorry enough for betraying him.

Meanwhile, Draco and Theo train for the second phase of Initiation: Dueling. After Theo lectures Draco to study more, Draco loses it. The argument intensifies when Draco compares Theo to his father and brothers and Theo runs out of the room in tears. Later on, Draco visits Nott Manor to practice-duel Theo and loses.

A day before school starts, Draco calls Harry again on the Thread Sphere, and suggests that they ought to talk in person.


CHAPTER THREE

ALONE AND FORGOTTEN

o

Late at night when everyone else was asleep, Theo would often walk over to his dresser and take out an old family photograph. He’d peer down at it, squinting against the harsh light of his Lumos, thinking about his mother. In the picture, Beatrice Nott stood beside her husband, straight-backed and barely moving, her mouth just as hard as her eyes. Theo was four, and the twins were seven. Their faces weren’t disfigured yet. In fact, the Notts looked like your stereotypical extremely wealthy family, all decked in regal dark green robes. Nobody was smiling, though picture-Theo almost did when picture-Beatrice squeezed his shoulder.

From what Theo remembered, this picture had been taken at their island cottage off the shore of France, a few months before his mother’s death. They hadn’t gone back there since, though Theo often found himself dreaming about the place.

The island cottage was not so much a cottage as it was a mansion, one nearly as big as Nott Manor. Before each visit, Beatrice would cheerfully announce, “We’re going to the castle in the middle of the sea!” After a while, the entire family started calling the place Seacastle, and no name had ever been so fitting. Every piece of furniture in Seacastle was a bright, blazing white, and so were the walls and flooring. It looked a little bit like a piece of the sky, a little self-contained heaven.

He ached to go back there one day, though the look of murderous rage on his father’s face when Theo had first suggested the trip had stopped him from repeating his request ever again.

“I’ll burn that traitor bitch’s place to the ground,” his father liked to mutter under his breath. He never had, of course. Seacastle was still intact, untouched and unchanged. His father didn’t have the guts to demolish it. He was probably terrified that a vengeful Beatrice, fresh from the grave, would come hunting him if he did.

Theo ran a finger over his mother in the picture. She had dark hair like her husband, but her eyes were pale green, a color that only Sebastian and Nathaniel had inherited.

Father’s afraid of Seacastle because she’s there. She has to be. She told me a million times that Seacastle was the place she’d go when she got lost.

When he finally learned to Apparate, Theo would return to Seacastle to see her. He’d hear his mother singing in the walls, hear the sea whispering in her voice, hear her laughter rattling the furniture.

I’ll bring Draco with me, Theo found himself thinking. If he wants to.

Which he wouldn’t.

Years ago, Theo had told Draco about Beatrice and Seacastle, and had feared that Draco would laugh at him for thinking a dead woman was still alive, in some shape or form.

“If there’s something of your mother’s left in there, I’ll help you look for it. I’ll come with you, if you want. Just ask,” Draco had whispered into his ear, his tone solemn and not light or teasing. Of course, Theo needn’t have worried about ridicule. When it was important, Draco always said the right thing.

He actually liked me back then, thought Theo. It took him a few seconds to realize that he was dripping fat tears onto the family photograph in his hands. It took him a few more seconds to realize that the dresser he was leaning on was the only thing keeping him upright.

He let himself cry. He was so pathetic, obsessing over a childhood friend who not only no longer cared about him, but who also despised him to the core. Half of the time he interacted with Draco, Theo grappled with his own exasperation, unable to figure out what Draco wanted from him, and the other half of the time he was consumed by shame, knowing that it was his own cowardice, his own willingness to stand by and do nothing to help Draco, that had finally unraveled their friendship.

But Theo couldn’t do anything to stop his brothers. Draco knew that, and he was being unfair, expecting the impossible from his friend.

Maybe he just hates me because I never even tried.

The door slammed open, and Theo hastily straightened up, wiping his eyes and shoving the family picture behind his back.

Sebastian stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the dim light of the hall. He gave Theo a searing look, complete with the customary sneer he reserved for family members, and Theo nearly wobbled where he stood.

“We can hear you sobbing all over the goddamn house,” snapped Sebastian, sleepily rubbing his eyes—or rather, the scarred, lumpy skin around his eyes. “It’s two o’clock. Fucking go to sleep already.” He turned to leave with another sneer and a couple of stomps, and Theo almost let himself breathe again.

Then Sebastian spun back around, eyes narrowed in suspicion, and Theo felt his internal organs wither and die.

“What’re you holding there, behind your back?” Sebastian’s voice cracked in the silence like a whip. He stalked toward Theo, managing to resemble a graceful and deadly wildcat even in his pajamas, and Theo stumbled a few steps back.

“Nothi—”

Sebastian lunged, twisted Theo’s arm out from behind his back, and seized the photograph. For one long, horrible second, Sebastian stared at it, at their old family—not happy, but whole. Theo saw his teeth clench, saw his face contort in rage.

“How the hell did you find this? Father burned every picture of her!” Sebastian snarled, grabbing Theo by the collar and dragging him forward.

Theo let out a shuddering breath, smothering the urge to struggle and squirm. Struggling would make it worse. Sebastian was like Devil’s Snare—the more you moved, the tighter he held on. “In the attic. I—please—please give it back.”

Sebastian shoved Theo away with a derisive snort. He didn’t give the picture back. And a second later, Theo figured out why.

“Incendio,” Sebastian hissed, his eyes nearly black in the shadows, and Theo bit his lip so hard that it bled. Hungry flames licked the photograph’s edges, devouring it, washing the colors in smoky black, and every part of Theo’s body screamed at him to tackle Sebastian, to fight him for once in his pathetic life so he could save the last image they had of their mother.

But of course, Theo stayed rooted to the ground, and the solemn faces of the Nott family disappeared into the fire.

Soon, nothing was left. Sebastian wiped his hands on his trousers. Theo stared down, unseeing, at the ashes scattered over his bedroom floor. When he looked back up, Sebastian smiled at him like a crocodile, all teeth and no genuine joy.

“You’re such a little baby, crying over this.” Sebastian chuckled low in his throat. “She’s probably laughing at you, wherever the hell she is.”

It’s his fault Draco hates me. Rage bubbled in Theo’s throat, threatening to spill out after years and years. Or maybe it was just bile. That was more likely, and also safer. Sebastian was less likely to kill him for throwing up all over the floor, but he wouldn’t be so forgiving if Theo insulted him.

“You’ll be the one burning one day,” Theo said anyway, his mouth utterly disconnected from his brain. He wished he’d thrown up instead.

Alarmingly, Sebastian’s grin widened, and he flexed his ashy fingers. “Are you going into your rebellious phase now? Mummy dearest would be so disappointed. She wouldn’t want us fighting like this.”

“Don’t,” Theo whispered, every inch of his body shaking. Sebastian had destroyed Theo’s treasured photograph, insulted their mother whenever she was mentioned, and now he was smearing her memory further to make a stupid joke? “Don’t you dare act like you know anything about her, about what she would want. She’d want you punished.”

Sebastian’s smile melted off his face, and he pulled his lips back into an ugly sneer, all his earlier playfulness gone. “And you know what she wants? You think she’s some great defender of justice? You barely even knew her. Trust me, she was just as bad as Father.”

Theo shook his head, wildly, desperately. “You’re wrong. She would’ve helped you if she was alive. She cared about us.”

Sebastian threw his head back and laughed, almost hysterically. Theo stood there, his head pounding dully, as the mirth slowly drained out of Sebastian’s laughter until it didn’t even resemble laughter, only wheezing, or perhaps sobbing. “You’ve outdone yourself this time, Theo. You’re a moron. You’re completely insane—”

“Don’t—” Theo started, his eyes clenched shut.

“She—left—us!” Sebastian roared, pinning Theo in place with a glare so scorching that it was a miracle Theo hadn’t turned to ash like the family picture.

“F-Father killed her, poisoned her, made it look like—”

“You’re fucking delusional. She killed herself. There’s no goddamn conspiracy here. She killed herself because she couldn’t be bothered to stay. She hanged herself like a common Muggle because the Killing Curse wasn’t dramatic enough for her. We all saw it happen. Go back to your fantasy where precious Mummy is your savior, or go off yourself like she did and join her. Like anybody would even care if you were gone.”

Sebastian left, banging the door shut behind him and plunging the bedroom into darkness. Theo stood motionless for a while. He could hear the great grandfather clock in the hallway ticking away, loud in his ears. An owl hooted outside, and Theo flinched at the sound. Eventually, he regained control of his limbs and slunk back to bed.

He lay there, eyes open in the darkness, staring up at the velvet canopy of his bed. The minutes ticked on. Memories spread through his thoughts, slowly and sluggishly, like certain poisons traveling through veins.

About half the Purebloods in Britain had attended Beatrice Nott’s funeral, but nobody there had known her well. From what he remembered, she hadn’t had many close friends, only acquaintances. Not many people had liked her either. Sometimes, Theo wondered if he was the only person in the world who remembered her favorably.

And then he wondered who would remember him favorably if he died. He could clearly imagine his father tottering around, mumbling about Theo being a no-good traitor like his mother. Sebastian and Nathaniel wouldn’t bat an eyelash at his death, and neither would anybody at school, except maybe a few professors who had respected his intelligence.

Would Draco even care? Maybe, if Theo keeled over now, Draco would regret being so cruel to him, so neglectful of their friendship.

“You’re just like Sebastian and Nathaniel, just like your dad, and when everyone finds out, they’ll hate you just as much as I do.”

The memory clogged his lungs like a vile and poisonous gas. Not true. Not like that. Draco’s face hovered at the forefront of his thoughts, taunting him. More specifically, Draco’s angular, elegant features, the quirk of his lips, the drawl of his voice, his pale, smooth skin—

Theo swallowed, feeling feverish.

Of course, Draco had apologized for everything a couple days after he’d said it, and now he was pretending their argument hadn’t occurred at all. Theo played along. They had to work on practicing spells and dueling, and they couldn’t do that if they were refusing to speak to each other.

But Theo knew that Draco’s apology wasn’t from the heart. It was obvious to him that Draco only regretted that he’d gone too far with his insult, not the insult itself. He still hated Theo, and there was nothing Theo could do about it.

Theo should have hated Draco back for being so needlessly, so unfairly, so shamelessly cruel. Sometimes he imagined screaming at Draco until his throat was hoarse, imagined calling him every bad name in the book. Petulant, stupid, lazy, whiny, stubborn, spoilt, mean, bratty. He shouldn’t forgive Draco so easily for an insult as uncalled for and unforgivable as this one.

But of course he would. Maybe not completely, not without reservations, but he would. Theo had to forgive Draco because there was nobody but Draco to forgive. Theo couldn’t imagine his life without Draco’s presence. Last year, the year Draco had spent with the disgusting dirty-blood, had been the worst year of Theo’s life, not counting the one after his mother’s death. The idea of their friendship finally buckling under the strain of the past year terrified him more than anything.

So if forgiving Draco right now meant that there was a chance, however slim, that Draco would one day forgive Theo—well, Theo would have to do it then, wouldn’t he?

***

Evening had fallen, and the routine train patrol had begun.

Harry pressed his face against the glass of the compartment door, sweating a bit more than usual. He’d stuffed Synesis into his bag seconds earlier and ordered the book to shut up. The chatter in the nearby compartments had died, and Harry could see the Skulls approaching from the back of the train, their masks rippling over their faces in a way that reminded him unsettlingly of skin, but gleaming in the same way that metals did.

He held his breath, torn between despising the Skulls and envying them. Secretly, he was looking forward to being on the other side for once. Yes, he hated the Pureblood bastards, and fully intended to bring them down. But for reasons other than revenge, he was grateful that Draco had invited him into what was essentially the Dark Lord’s exclusive army. For once in his pathetic life, just once, he’d like to have some social power.

And perhaps now he’d finally have it. A future that should have been impossible for him was almost within his reach—a future where he, the nobody son of a Mudblood, was a high-ranked Skull.

What would that even feel like? Harry could barely imagine it. What would it feel like to know that, no matter what you did, no matter how many people you murdered, you would be praised for it?

He remembered the disfigured, monster-faced Sebastian Nott murdering Hannah Abbott remorselessly at the Welcoming Feast last year, to great applause by the professors. People like Theodore Nott and his psycho brothers would never face the consequences for their actions because they were Purebloods.

Speaking of actions, the stories the older non-Elites liked to tell about the Nott twins were absolutely legendary.

In third year, Nathaniel cracked Amara’s neck in our Dark Arts class because she talked back to him—everyone saw it, I swear! He did it with his bare hands, but he put a curse on her first to keep her still. Dolohov was livid about it, scolded him and everything for distracting everyone during the lesson.

You remember Quentin and Iseult? They were the twins’ first targets for the Hunt in first year. Iseult fell off the Astronomy Tower, and they found Quentin’s body outside in the pumpkin patch, covered in maggots. They said it was suicide, but it doesn’t add up. I think Iseult was pushed, but I don’t know what they did to get Quentin’s body in… ribbons like that.

Sebastian put Luca under some sort of freaky sensory deprivation curse for days, and when Luca came out his trance, he couldn’t speak in full sentences, or move properly. He just lay in his bed mumbling to himself, his limbs jerking around, like he was trying to grab something, but still couldn’t feel anything to grab.

It was difficult to discern which of these stories were true and which weren’t, but Harry admittedly believed all of them. After the Abbotts and everything else he’d seen the Skulls do last year, not even the most twisted and bizarre story about them surprised him.

And he had to confess that he was fascinated by Sebastian’s sheer, unapologetic evilness. At the Welcoming Feast last year, he’d been awestruck by the older boy’s gift, a gift that neither wandless nor demon magic could emulate on its own. Sebastian commanded a terrifying presence, capable of effortlessly sending everyone in front of him to their knees pleading for mercy. This gift could not be learned or copied. It had to be earned.

And if Harry wanted to be anybody at all, he needed to earn it. Now he had the opportunity.

But it would have been so, so much easier for him if he’d still had his magic. Harry wished for it every day.

Once, he had compared his wandless magic to a third arm or leg that had been ripped from him. The wound still gaped so many months later, and Harry felt that hole every morning when he got up and realized that he no longer had an arm. Every time he dwelled on it—well, he had to stop dwelling on it.

At least the Skulls, as horrible as they were, were useful as a target for his hatred. Without that hatred fueling him, Harry wasn’t sure where his mental state would be.

It’s funny how I owe Draco for everything. Again. Harry had fallen so far into debt at this point that he doubted he’d ever dig himself out of it.

If Draco hadn’t gotten him into the Skulls, Harry would’ve done nothing all summer except mope around, lamenting the loss of his magic. At least this way, fueled by the passion Draco’s invitation had inadvertently lit in him, Harry had been productive this summer: he’d studied hard, obsessively researching spells and demons to use in the future. For the first time, he had long-term goals to work towards, even if they were vague and bordered on wild fantasy.

Take over the Skulls, and make them destroy themselves. He had no idea how to do any of that, which Synesis had pointed out to him about a million times, but he would take it one step at a time. First he needed to gain more power, which meant more spell practice. And he also had the autumnal equinox, Mabon, to look forward to; Synesis had promised that Harry’s body would be ready to summon another demon that day.

Harry was sure he’d die waiting. He needed more power, and this demon and spell stuff was so slow.

Nothing makes up for the loss of my magic. I’ll never be that powerful ever again, and I never even got to use it while I had it.

Harry sighed, deciding he’d spent enough time feeling sorry for himself, though he could probably spend a good ten more hours on the subject. The delegation of twelve or so Skulls were nearing his compartment now, and he had the nagging feeling that he should move away from the door. The marching Bronzes reminded him a bit of soldiers, but that was too benign of a comparison.

They’re like an army of Dementors. When they go by you, you can feel them sucking the joy out of the world.

He choked on his breath. One of the Bronze Skulls had paused outside his door, and for a wild, bizarre moment, Harry wondered if the Skull had read his mind and the offending thoughts within it. Then the door clicked open, and Harry nearly tumbled out of his seat in shock.

What? Why were they here? What had he done? Were they finally coming to punish him about wrecking Dungeon Two all those months ago? Or did they just like to pick random people from random compartments to murder each trip to Hogwarts? If they wanted to kill him, Harry wasn’t sure if he was powerful enough to resist. He no longer had the trump card of his magic.

“Oi,” said the Skull lazily, unaware that Harry was panicking a few feet away. The Skull fished around in his pocket for a second and extricated a golden letter. “Harry Potter, are you?”

Harry nodded, throat dry. Distantly, he wondered how the Skull had known where he was. There was probably a charm or something that led the Skulls to the letter recipients.

“Here,” grunted the Skull, throwing the letter into Harry’s lap. “Invitation to the first meeting. Dungeon Seven, at midnight.”

“T-thanks.” Harry’s voice was thick with relief as the Skull turned to leave. He felt stupid for losing his head. Of course they’re not here to come after me. I’m one of them now. And for the record, he doubted that the Skulls even remembered who had wrecked Dungeon Two. According to Draco, Theodore Nott had gotten a slap on the wrist for that whole fiasco. The Skulls seemed to think that any non-Pureblood, especially some random first year that Nott had angered, wasn’t worthy of their attention.

Harry was looking forward to making them regret that.

“Hey, wait a minute,” said the Bronze Skull, turning back around. He stared at Harry with narrowed eyes, pursing his lips into a frown. The metal mask stuck to his skin, rippling as it moved.

“I know who you are, kid. I’ve seen you somewhere.”

The Skull took a step into the compartment, and Harry’s heartbeat sped up.

“Yeah, yeah, I remember you. Weren’t you Draco Malfoy’s target? On Walpurgis Night?” the Skull went on, grinning. “Oh man, watching the Malfoy kid tear into you was prime entertainment.”

Mortified, Harry went an unflattering shade of purple, and the Skull burst into laughter.

“You’re a dirty-blood, aren’t you? Oh, that’s funny. That’s real funny.”

Harry didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything remotely funny about this.

The Skull let out one last snort, then fixed him with a bright and calculating gaze, most of his mirth gone now. “Since you’re new here, I’ll give you some advice. Watch your back, dirty-blood.” With that, he slammed the door shut, leaving Harry in silence to deal with his whirling and screaming rush of thoughts.

The seconds ticked on by, and Harry felt sicker and sicker as they did. They recognized me. A Skull recognized me, because he remembered Walpurgis Night. Before now, Harry had expected that he would at least get a fresh start, but apparently even that was too much to hope for.

“Is it safe to talk now?” chirped Synesis from his bag, breaking the silence and making Harry flinch. “Hey, why are you so quiet?”

Harry ignored the book and continued to stare out the window. He could feel the demon Kardin coiled inside of him, waiting to be unleashed in a flurry of power and speed. He wanted nothing more than to release it, but knew he would accomplish nothing in doing so. He was still so infuriatingly weak.

Last year, the Skulls had underestimated him. And now they saw him as a broken, shattered, and destroyed dirty-blood. They were right. But he couldn’t let them see him like that, and he couldn’t let himself be that.

He’d come to terms with the fact that he wouldn’t be able to beat a Skull in a fight, that he was dead if they decided to target him. But if he wanted their respect and power, he couldn’t spend his whole life being scared of them. He’d faced the Hunger last year. He’d survived Dolohov. He’d beaten Theodore Nott and destroyed Dungeon Two. The Skulls were nothing but sheep in scary masks, and this Bronze Skull dared to laugh at him?

Harry was better than them, and he wouldn’t spend his time as an Initiate being looked down upon. It was time for him to stop using the loss of his magic as a crutch, as an excuse to be scared and broken and weak. He’d spent the summer hungering for revenge, and now was as good a time to start as any other.

First, he needed to make a name for himself. If the Skulls saw him as Draco’s target and nothing else, he would need to do something to erase Walpurgis Night from their memories. He would need to do something so big, so shocking, that they would all know his name. And when they did, they wouldn’t dare disrespect him for his blood status.

Harry leaned back in his seat, watching green summer fields whizz by, gears turning in his head.

***

“So did you two have a lover’s spat, or is this normal behavior?” Millicent asked Draco, grinning like a Jack O’ Lantern that had just discovered Halloween was coming early.

Several different responses flitted through Draco’s mind. Many of them involved strangling Millicent in some way or the other, and one of them involved throwing her off the train. But instead of doing any of that, Draco counted to ten in his head to calm himself down.

It didn’t work.

“What the hell are you talking about, Bulstrode?” he spat, knowing exactly what she was talking about and not wanting to address it.

“You. And Nott,” Millicent said mysteriously, pointing to Theo, who was sitting in the corner of the compartment, deeply immersed in a book and not paying attention to the conversation. Or maybe he was just pretending to read, since Draco hadn’t seen him turn the page for about fifteen minutes.

“What about us?” asked Draco, gritting his teeth so hard he gave himself a headache.

“You guys aren’t speaking to each other again. Most of the time you can’t go five minutes without opening your mouth, Draco.”

Draco gave her a dazzling smile and batted his eyelashes. “I’m sorry for not talking. I didn’t know that you missed my voice so much. I’ll whisper into your ear from now on, how about that?”

Millicent stood up and towered over him, fists out and cheeks the color of puce, face contorting in disgust. Draco stared up at her, masking his slight fear with an expression of supreme disinterest.

“Guys,” grunted Crabbe from his seat by the door and possibly saving Draco from a broken arm. “I think the Skulls are on their patrol.”

Millicent sat back down with a thump, scowling furiously.

“D’you think the Skulls will come in like they did last year, to hand out letters or something?” Goyle asked. Draco thought they probably would; the functions of the train patrol, besides intimidating non-Elites, were to pass out invitations, letters, and announce new developments to Initiates and other Skulls.

Draco wasn’t as scared of the patrol this time as he’d been last time. He had nothing to fear from them. Sebastian and Nathaniel were Silver Skulls now, and only Bronze Skulls were given the lowly task of train patrol. Draco would live to see another day, though he wasn’t sure how much longer he could get lucky before Sebastian finally cornered him in an empty dark corridor. Draco had tortured and humiliated Sebastian under his magic obstructor Knut, and Draco knew that Sebastian wouldn’t forget that anytime soon.

I know what he’ll do for revenge, he thought, swallowing back bile.

Years seemed to go by in a second, and he wondered if he would die and be reborn again in the time it took for the Skulls to get to his compartment. Millicent shuffled her feet. Goyle gulped. Crabbe scratched his arm. Theo didn’t move a muscle. He was staring at the window as if it held all the secrets of magic.

Finally, the compartment door slid open, and Draco looked up so fast that his neck cricked. Just like last year, four Bronze Skulls slipped inside silently, their masks glinting in the light from the dim lamp. One of them held golden letters, and Draco let out a little sigh of relief. He hadn’t been expecting anything worse, of course, but for a second his mind had stuttered over the worst case scenario: Sebastian coming into his compartment, disguised as Bronze Skull.

Not that it’s easy to hide a face like his, Draco thought with an involuntary shudder.

“You five, along with fifteen third years, have now entered the second phase of Initiation,” said one of the Bronze Skulls who was most definitely not Sebastian, passing out the pieces of parchment deftly. “Last year was easy. This year you’ll be attending training sessions in Dungeon Three, also known as the simulation room. You will be given another letter with further instructions on Dungeon Three later on. Inside the letter you received today, however, you will find the password to the Skull dormitories, and a room number. Since you have all passed the preliminary phase of Initiation with flying colors, it will be your new home from now on.”

The Skull dormitory was ‘just a dormitory’ as much as Hogwarts was ‘just a school.’ According to rumor, the Skull Pit, an alternate name for the massive Skull common room, was its own little world of debauchery and sin, a black market haven. You could get any sort of potion or magical item you wanted there, if you had enough money, and older Elites who weren’t even Skulls often visited the Skull Pit just to attend the legendary parties. Draco had also overheard one wild rumor that a dirty-blood had once been thrown into a Skull Pit fighting ring and gotten mauled to death by a runespoor.

Draco took the letter the Bronze passed out. To his credit, his hands didn’t shake as he unfolded it, not that they had any reason to.

There were two pieces of parchment within the letter, one the usual gilded, poetic invitation to the first meeting of the year in Dungeon Seven. The second piece was much, much less fancy. The first thing it said was Purify the blood, purify the world, which Draco supposed was a password of some sort. Below that were the words Initiate Wing, Room 17.

In a different world, Draco would have been excited to move into the exclusive Skull dormitories. He’d always dreamed of living among the school disciplinarians who would one day become the Dark Lord’s right-hand men. But Sebastian and Nathaniel existed in the world Draco was currently stuck in, and the prospect of living so close to them made him feel physically sick.

Draco closed his eyes, wanting to scream at the unfairness of it all, at the constant dark cloud over his life that was Sebastian. Draco still had his magic obstructor Knut with him, but it would be more difficult to get off now that Sebastian knew about it.

But Draco didn’t have time to stop and cry about it. He had no choice but to keep thwarting Sebastian, to keep dancing out of his reach using whatever means he could, because the alternative was unthinkable.

Remember, Sebastian. Touch me and you burn. Knut or not.

***

The corrupted Sorting Hat sat forlornly on a stool at the front of the Great Hall, falling apart at the seams. The professors sat at the High Table behind it, half of them sporting expressions of utter boredom while the other half sported expressions of gleeful anticipation. Headmaster Thorfinn Rowle, a man with an appetite for both food and murderous entertainment, was infamously among the latter. He leaned forward, his whole body practically quivering with impatience. A group of Skulls sat at the head of each of the huge tables, the leftmost one reserved for Elites and the highest-ranking Skulls. The ominous statue of Salzar Slytherin carved into the front wall presided over this entire scene, casting a shadow over the Great Hall.

Harry, as usually was the case with him during these awful feasts, had no desire to eat, merely to throw up. He’d been craning his neck for about ten minutes, trying to catch even the slightest glimpse of Draco, but couldn’t see him from all the way here and finally gave up. The first years had just gotten seated and were staring at the hat in confusion, unsure what to expect from it.

The poor, innocent babies, Harry thought, with little humor. He supposed most of them still couldn’t see the thestrals, though not for much longer. He and everyone else in his year had gotten a bit of a nasty shock from the creepy things when they’d ridden the carriages to Hogsmeade station at the end of last term, and the thestrals hadn’t gotten less creepy this year, either.

A few first year girls were chattering a few seats away from his, and some of them seemed so naïve that Harry wondered if they’d ever left their own homes before.

“So you say the hat is going to pick someone to die?” one girl asked, shaking her head pompously. “I don’t believe you. They wouldn’t kill students like this. My mother says wizards are valuable to the Dark Lord, and that he just doesn’t go killing them whenever he wants.”

“Tell that to my brothers, who were killed,” snapped a red-haired girl.

“Maybe they deserved it,” retorted the other girl. “My mum told me that he only goes after families that keep picking fights, and they make it worse for everyone else—”

“Say another word,” said the red-haired girl, as calm as the calm before the storm, “and I’ll break your mouth so you won’t be able to say another.”

None of the other girls dared to voice their skepticism after that. Harry was vaguely reminded of his conversation with Ron at the Welcoming Feast last year, and it wasn’t just the flaming red hair. Didn’t Ron have a sister or something? Was her name Gina, maybe?

“Shut it!” Ernie Macmillan hissed at everyone who was still talking. “It’s about to start!”

Harry focused on the Hat, which lay in a limp heap, broken and exhausted like everyone else at Hogwarts. It was rather symbolic that the Dark Lord had managed to corrupt the Sorting Hat into killing students instead of Sorting them, if Harry said so himself. He hoped there wouldn’t be a repeat of last year, when Daniel Abbott had been chosen to die, resisted, and had gotten both himself and his little sister Hannah killed.

The Sorting Hat twitched weakly, and everyone held their breaths.

“KATIE BELL!” it screamed. The name reverberated in the silence, and then the horrified whispering started, a sound that unsettled Harry ten times more than the Hat’s original scream. Someone let out a strangled sob, and then a girl stood up at the table next to his, dark-haired and small. She didn’t say a word as she walked up to the front, didn’t blubber like Daniel Abbott had last year.

Headmaster Rowle looked as if he would burst with excitement, but Harry knew in his heart that Katie wouldn’t give the Headmaster and the rest of the fiends the show they wanted. As she walked by him, he saw that her face was blank, as if she were carefully trying to conceal her emotions. It was amazing.

Part of him admired this show of grace until the very end, and the other part wanted to rage at her. Her last breath should be used to curse the people who sent her to her death. She shouldn’t be this calm, this collected, this resigned. Harry wanted her to scream, to do something in the last moment of her life to hex a Skull or a professor, or at least denounce them. She had nothing to lose. If the Hat had picked Harry, he would’ve taken Dolohov down with him.

As Katie placed the Hat on her head and begun to burn from the top down, so fast that there would be little pain, Harry looked away, gritting his teeth and clenching his eyes shut. Dimly, he heard the Skulls cheering and stomping their feet, their yells nearly raising the starry ceiling, but noticed they lacked the delirious excitement they had last year. Katie hadn’t been as entertaining as the Abbotts, after all.

“We should clap for Katie,” someone said from the table where Katie had been sitting, in a loud enough whisper for the people nearest to overhear.

Why? thought Harry in disgust. She’s dead.

“Clap for Katie,” hissed Ernie to everyone in their little group, having heard it the same time Harry had, and the whisper spread through the non-Elites like wildfire. The clapping began mere seconds later—not loud, uproarious clapping, just strong and steady, like the beat of a drum. Symbolic, maybe, but ultimately uninspiring and forgettable.

Harry didn’t clap, just simmered. What difference did it all make, this stupid clapping and this unspoken support? What did they all seek to accomplish? Why hadn’t anybody tried to rebel yet? Were the Skulls the only students in the entire school with spines?

He focused on the professors, wondering if they would find this display of solidarity among the students troubling. Dolohov, who was standing by the Hat and leaning on his jeweled cane, looked as though he would keel over from boredom any second now. Professor Regulus Black was smiling as if this amused him, and that was disheartening since Black was the only professor that Harry didn’t despise at this place.

“SILENCE!” screeched Headmaster Rowle, slamming his palm on the table. Food popped into existence, and the clapping died off to be replaced by the clatter of cutlery, which was then drowned out by chatter. As if nobody had just died.

Pathetic.

“You didn’t clap, Potter,” said Seamus Finnigan, something accusatory in his tone. He was shaken, nearly as shaken as all the shell-shocked and crying first years, and clearly wanted to pick a fight. “Someone just died, and you don’t even care, is that it?”

“Clapping isn’t going to bring her back,” Harry defended himself, turning a bit red. Not clapping had seemed a good choice to him at first, as rude as it was, and he hadn’t expected anyone to call him out on it.

“And being an arsehole is?” retorted Lavender, joining in the fight with great enthusiasm. “She went to her death without crying. She was honorable, like the Aurors. She didn’t let them win. You should have clapped for her.”

Harry only argued with his intellectual equals, and the likes of Finnigan and Brown were not his intellectual equals in the slightest, but he couldn’t resist this low-hanging fruit. “She didn’t let them win?” he sneered. “Do you hear yourself right now? They’ve already won. They’ve won because she’s dead!”

“Oh please, stop with acting all outraged,” said Anthony Goldstein, swelling like a balloon. “You didn’t even know her, and now you won’t respect her when she did what none of us could’ve done—”

“If the Hat had picked me,” Harry said heatedly, quite sure that by now his brain had detached itself from his mouth, “I would’ve done more than just walk up there and take it. I would’ve fought—”

“Like Abbot did last year? That worked out real well for him.”

“Abbot was a fool, but let’s not pretend Katie ended up any better in the end,” Harry shot back.

“Shut up, Potter, before you say something you don’t mean,” said Ron, who had been watching the argument go back and forth like a Chaser following the Quaffle.

Harry shook with barely contained rage, ignoring the voice in his head that was telling him he ought to reign in his own temper. Ron was the de facto leader of the second year non-Elites due to his knowledge about Hogwarts, and deeply respected for the things he did to help other students. Before Draco, Ron had asked his older brothers to find some medical supplies for Harry’s injuries—and not even because he liked Harry, because he most definitely did not like Harry, but due to a sense of rock-solid morality. The Weasleys were a good family who had done a lot to combat the Death Eaters, and they’d arguably lost more than anyone else.

But of course, Harry was incapable of thinking straight when he was angry and plowed on. Professor’s Carrow’s words on the first day of Dark Arts last year rang in his head, drowning everything else out.

“Study history, children. Some of your parents fought hard to keep the Dark Arts out of Britain, to banish it from the world. Study how thoroughly they failed, and study how the Dark Lord won, and has continued winning, right up to this very day.”

“This is why we lost, you know. Because we clap instead of fighting, and instead of doing as much damage as we can to the other side, we try to destroy them with love—”

The second years lost it. Ernie’s eyes bulged, and Lavender gaped, and Terry put his glass down with a thunk. Harry knew the phrase he had just said was often used by the professors and Skulls to mock the non-Elites, and he only half regretted it.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Parvati screeched.

Anthony said, “The Death Eater lies have infected this idiot by now.”

“Don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about!” Harry spat, blinking back what he was sure were tears of fury. He hadn’t expected they would gang up on him like this. “I destroyed Dungeon Two for you guys, remember? You weren’t so quick to make fun of me then, were you?”

“Oh, and that accomplished a lot, all that fighting,” scoffed Parvati. “Didn’t they fix it right away? They’re not scared of you, Potter.” Harry recalled that her waist-length black hair had been sheared off by Theodore Nott on Halloween last year as “punishment” for having a Mudblood mother. It had grown back down to just below her ears now.

“I’m the only person fighting!” Harry gripped his fork so hard it nearly bent, and that was without Kardin’s help.

“Of course you are, because you spent all of last year ‘fighting the Death Eaters’ from the fancy Elite dormitories with your Death Eater boyfriend!” shrieked Lavender. “And then you came crawling back to us, so broken and sad, after you’d ignored us all year. You think you were the one who was hurt the most, don’t you? You didn’t go through half the torture we went through last year because Malfoy was protecting you from the Initiates, and now you think you’re some hero?”

“Don’t act like you know what I went through last year, you massive bi—”

“Go sit somewhere else,” said Ron, cutting Harry off.

Harry stuttered to a stop, losing steam. “I’m not wrong, Weasley. You know that nothing we’re doing is working, and you—”

“If you think you can fight so much better than us, then go fight,” said Ron, pointing at the Elite table. “Go. Attack one of them right now. They’ll kill you right away, and the rest of us for talking to you. If Katie had said one wrong word to a Skull on her way to the Hat, they wouldn’t have let us eat for days. Do you think you’re the first one who’s ever thought about fighting? When Nott and his gang were whaling on us last year, we tried to lay a trap for him and got caught by a professor, and then punished for interfering with ‘discipline.’ You’re not as smart as you think you are.”

Harry had not known about this.

“We outnumber the Skulls ten to one at this school,” he tried anyway.

“We don’t,” said Ron. “The Dark Lord gets Death Eaters from all across Europe. Durmstrang is fully Pureblood now, or people pretending to be Pureblood. They’re double our size. Do you want a rebellion here, Potter? Is that what you want us to do instead of clapping for Katie? Try to start one. I dare you.”

“That’s the thing with you,” said Harry, shaking his head, determined not to lose this argument. He was right, and they couldn’t see it because their parents kept telling them that they should give up. Ron had lost two brothers, so he’d resigned himself to doing nothing. “You clap for Katie like what you’re doing makes a difference, but actually making a difference, actually fighting, is too scary for you.”

“The thing with you, Potter,” said Ron, “is that you can’t see the merit of clapping to respect someone who sacrificed herself to keep us all safe.” Ron had been calm until now, but he finally went over the edge. “If you don’t like the ‘dirty-blood morals that lost us the war,’ go sit with Malfoy. Oh, wait, he doesn’t like you either.”

This blow was so low that Harry took several seconds to recover from it. They kept having to mention Draco, didn’t they?

“But we did lose the war because of those morals, or whatever you called them,” said Harry, his voice shaking even though he was trying his hardest to stop it from doing so. He hated them. “The way we tried to fight, it didn’t work—”

“Why are you still talking?” Ron snapped. “Do you only read the textbooks they give us to read to brainwash us, or do you actually know what happened? My mother told me that your own parents took down five Death Eaters at once during a battle in Godric’s Hollow. The Death Eaters like to pretend that we were a bunch of pansies that couldn’t fight, and you drank it all up because you’re an idiot who’s obsessed with the Dark Arts. We lost because the Dark Lord had insane powers and we were outnumbered, not because we didn’t fight dirty enough. What are you even arguing about, that you don’t like the fact we’re clapping for somebody who’s dead?”

With that, Ron turned away from Harry and said something to Lavender about how good the mashed potatoes were. As if Harry’s response wasn’t important enough to wait for.  

“Clap next time. It won’t kill you,” Seamus muttered under his breath.

“You started it,” Harry shot back, childishly. His cheeks burning with shame, he began to lather a piece of toast with butter, doing everything he could to avoid looking at his nearby classmates.

Harry’s stomach curled up like a dead bug. An idiot obsessed with the Dark Arts. Brainwashed. They were so quick to forget what he’d done on Halloween. Did they think he liked the Skulls, looked up to them? Did they think Draco had gotten to him?

Or were they just looking for a reason to gang up on him because he was the odd one out, the one person among them who actually tried in Dark Arts class, or maybe because he had distanced himself from them by spending so much time with Draco?

Draco was the only one who wanted to be my friend, anyway, Harry thought bitterly. And even that wasn’t real at first.

Seamus had always had it in for him. Ernie, Dean, Terry, Anthony, and the girls didn’t like him either. Neville was half-terrified of him. Ron seemed to barely tolerate him. He treated Harry with more friendliness than the other boys did, though that wasn’t saying much. Apparently Ron told hilarious jokes all the time, which was why people liked him so much. But he’d barely ever cracked a smile in front of Harry.

For the millionth time, Harry wondered what was wrong with him. It must be something intrinsic, a lack of some… spark, some humanity. The demons had created a monster, hadn’t they? He wasn’t the real Harry Potter, just some sort of freak thing the demons had given to Lily in consolation, like a makeshift human shaped from clay.

From day one, he’d been unable to connect with his classmates, and though they’d all started out nice enough at the beginning of the year, that had deteriorated quickly as soon as he’d opened his damn mouth. Harry wasn’t even sure why he said half the nasty things he did. The words just spilled out, rising from a well of bitterness within him like bile.

He still couldn’t understand why Draco was still trying so hard to make up with him. If nobody else wanted anything from Harry, what could Draco possibly see in him? It had definitely been because of his magic at first, but he had nothing beyond that.

Then there’s something he wants from me, some kind of debt he wants repaid, Harry realized miserably.

The horrible memories from Walpurgis Night resurfaced, burying him in despair, and for a moment he could barely breathe.

“But the truth is, you’d be a wreck without me. Nobody wanted you except for me—no, nobody wants you, not even me, and you’ll never have anyone like me again. You’ll die alone and forgotten, just like you lived.”

Oh God, Draco had known exactly what to say to make it hurt most, hadn’t he? He’d known too well, known that Harry was some sort of social freak, the weird kid in all their classes who never had a partner.

Alone and forgotten. Harry had always been that way, even when his magic had been at its most powerful.

***

Draco flopped down on his new bed. He’d just moved into the Skull dormitories, and his room was excessive. The private bathtub was about the size of a spa, and his closet was just as big as his old room in the Elite dormitories had been. There had been a drifting rumor out there that claimed the Skulls lived in more luxury than even the Elites, but Draco hadn’t believed it until now.

The Initiate Wing was one of the largest wings in the Skull dormitories, second only to the Bronze Wing. About fifty Initiates lived here, second years through fourth years, and all of their rooms were arranged around the Initiate common room, a massive area that contained a game parlor, a lounge for socialization complete with sofas and fireplace, and a mini-library with rows of desks.

Draco was a bit overwhelmed. He’d spent hours after dinner talking with older Initiates in the lounge—he, Theo, Millicent, Crabbe, and Goyle were the youngest people in the Skull dormitories, after all—and they’d all been eager to befriend him, asking him if he needed help with spellwork, or if he’d like to spend the weekend with them outside on the Hogwarts grounds, or if he wanted to play a game of chess or Exploding Snap in the game parlor. Every time he turned one boy down or made a vague promise of “later,” another hopeful would pop up.

Many of them seemed to remember him from his brilliant performance on Walpurgis Night, so he supposed that was why he was so popular. That, or his looks.

Probably my looks, he decided smugly.

He’d finally escaped from the endless barrage of invitations at eleven o’clock, claiming he needed to get unpacked. Millicent had found the five other female Initiates and had disappeared somewhere with them, and Crabbe and Goyle were… also somewhere. Theo had long since retired to his room—the room next to Draco’s—and had not spent much time socializing. Under his breath before he’d left, he’d muttered angrily to Draco that he thought all the older Initiates were idiots and that Draco shouldn’t talk to them. Theo hadn’t spoken to him normally for weeks, ever since their horrible argument, so Draco had been kind of taken aback by this random tirade.

Draco sighed and rubbed his forehead, staring up at the colorful tapestry of skulls and serpents and Dark Marks that decorated his ceiling. He’d caught a glimpse of the Nott twins on the way down from the Great Hall, and Sebastian had winked at him.

Draco felt sick to the stomach. Fortunately for him, the Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Initiate Wings were all separated, only connected by the massive central Skull Pit, which meant that Draco was at least safe from them in his own room. He had decided not to venture into the Skull Pit alone, ever, lest Sebastian and Nathaniel were haunting it, and hadn’t visited it yet.

Draco closed his eyes.

The first Skull meeting of the year was in one hour. Harry would be there. The Thread Sphere was in his bag a few feet from his bed. Draco had planned to talk to Harry on the train, but his courage had failed him, and right now he didn’t want to call Harry either. If Draco tried too hard to force Harry to come around, he’d push Harry further and further away.

Maybe he’s looking forward to a call today, Draco thought. He turned over, scowling. Well, if he was, he shouldn’t have been so rude.

Draco would wait and watch. He could be patient if he wanted to be. Harry would get his target for the Hunt today, and hopefully do better on the First Trial than Draco had. Soon he would get used to the Skulls, and would stop thinking whatever nonsense he was thinking about Draco believing him inferior. Then he would be more open to reconciliation, especially when he realized he needed help navigating Initiation, and Draco would be happy to aid him.

***

One hour left.

Harry lay in his bunk bed, squinting against the blazing light of the boys’ dormitory. The golden letter inviting him to the first Skull meeting of the year lay beneath his pillow, and Harry wasn’t sure if it was his imagination or not, but the letter seemed to make his pillow warmer.

The new first years were wandering around below, trying snatch bunk beds before it was too late. The hum of conversation hung heavy in the air, digging itself deeper into his ears with every second. It was utter chaos today, the first day back from summer, and it was too loud to even breathe in here, much less properly go over what he was planning for the meeting.

The plan was half-formed, but he knew it would work. It had to work. He couldn’t live with just being just a normal Initiate, couldn’t bear to be remembered just as Draco’s old target. Knowing how badly he fit in among the non-Elites—and they didn’t even know he was an Initiate yet—had further cemented this. If he couldn’t become a powerful Skull, powerful enough to shed his old status as a dirty-blood, what was he even worth?

Wouldn’t it be great, Harry thought with a small smile, if I became Draco’s equal, and proved myself to the Skulls, all on the same night?

Tonight, they’ll all learn my name is Harry Potter.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOUR

HIS NAME IS HARRY POTTER

o

A few minutes to midnight, Dungeon Seven was packed to the brim with rows and rows of chattering Skulls. Draco had just gotten into place with the rest of his Initiation group in the back, and craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the thirteen Gold Skulls holding court on the raised platform at the front. The Skull King Adolphus Lestrange stood in the middle of these thirteen, a step in front of the rest. He was in his seventh year now, and according to rumor, he would be accepted into the Dark Lord’s inner ranks upon graduation. It was the highest honor, something Draco had always expected he himself would do one day. 

Though he fully intended to become a Gold Skull in the future, Draco had no delusions that he would be Skull King. That title would almost certainly go to Theo when he was old enough; Draco didn’t know anybody smarter or more committed to the Skulls’ cause in their year. Harry could probably give Theo a run for his money in dueling and the Dark Arts, but the idea of a half-blood ever being Skull King was a bit ludicrous anyway.

That being said, Draco predicted that Harry could make Silver rank as long as he didn’t draw too much attention to his blood status. Later, if he played his cards right, he could join the Dark Lord’s army as a mid-level Death Eater. He could make a respectable living, especially for someone with a Mudblood mother and blood-traitor father. Maybe he’d even get a cushy Ministry job.

Speaking of Harry, he stood a few rows away, with all the new Initiates. His eyes had met Draco’s a few seconds ago, when Draco had first walked in with Theo, and Harry had quickly turned away as if looking at Draco had burned him. Now he was facing resolutely forward, his gaze locked on the Gold Skulls.

Draco felt ill.

“I still don’t understand how dirty-bloods get in,” Theo muttered under his breath. Draco wasn’t sure if he was being addressed personally or if Theo was just talking to himself, and chose not to answer in order to preserve his own sanity. The very last thing he needed was for Theo to start suspecting Draco’s continuing relationship with Harry, however tremulous it was.

Draco still felt terrible about what he’d said to Theo that summer, and even though he had apologized and Theo had technically accepted his apology, he was keeping Draco at a distance. Draco didn’t think they’d ever be able to go back to the way they had been before, but he could live with that. The way it had been before hadn’t been that great either. Draco had barely noticed the difference so far, except that Theo lectured him a lot less now. This could only be an improvement.

A second later, Draco realized how pathetic his situation was. I need new friends. Badly.

Unable to restrain himself, he sent Harry another glance and saw that he was staring up at the ceiling with his mouth open wide enough for a small creature to crawl in. In fact, all the new Initiates were craning their heads to see the black, silver, and green mural of the Dark Mark, one so realistic that it was easy to imagine it as an actual Dark Mark, hanging in the sky after a recent victory.

Draco noticed that Harry was standing a few paces apart from the other new Initiates. Draco supposed that most of them were Elites and did not want to stay too close to a dirty-blood they didn’t know. Blaise Zabini and Zacharias Smith were among this group, carefully positioned so that they were as far away from Harry as possible. He had done… something to them after he’d found out they’d been bullying Draco, and now they seemed deeply traumatized.

Draco’s stomach swooped with pleasure at the memory. He missed Harry. It hurt to see his face like this, bright with wonderment and awe at the decorated ceiling, rather than closed off like it usually was around Draco these days. He wanted to speed up time a year or two. By then, they’d be friends again, wouldn’t they? Harry wouldn’t hold a grudge forever.

Theo nudged him, and Draco flinched horribly, afraid that Theo had caught him staring at Harry. But all he said was, his eyes on the Gold Skulls, “Watch, it’s starting.”

A hush descended on the crowd in the next moment, and everyone turned to face the Gold Skulls, reminiscent of flowers turning to face the sun. Adolphus stepped forward, wasting no time in pressing a closed fist to his chest, right above his heart. In a great wave of movement, all the other Skulls followed his lead, snapping their backs straight and lifting their heads. Draco immediately did the same, swallowing to wet his dry throat.

The anthem had begun.

“In gold, silver, bronze, we stand united, devoted weapons of the Dark Lord. We strive to prove ourselves, our control, and our power. To challenge those who are impure, traitorous, and unworthy.” Chills broke out all over Draco’s spine as the Skulls began to stamp their feet, making the ground and walls vibrate. Their voices rose like a surging wave, soaring to overwhelming heights in both pitch and fervor, and Draco struggled to reach the pitch with his own. “To break, shatter, and destroy those who defy us and our Lord.”

Draco dropped his hand from his chest the moment it ended, more drained from that than he should’ve been. He took another brief look at Harry, his heart pounding.

Harry, it seemed, hadn’t joined in, and his eyes were narrowed. There wasn’t anything wrong with this, not really. Most of the newest Initiates hadn’t chanted the anthem either, and Draco hadn’t done it himself last year. But there was something off about the way Harry stood there, his arms crossed and his face heavy with a scowl, as if he were internally sneering.

Draco turned his attention to the front again, hoping that Harry would learn to mask his disgust better as time went on. He would have to get used to all of this. It was just an anthem, for Merlin’s sake. If Harry couldn’t suck up his pride and respect it, he wouldn’t last five days here. Fortunately, since all the Initiates were in the back, nobody had spotted his bad behavior this time.

“Welcome to our first meeting of the year, Skulls and Initiates,” Adolphus began in a harsh, icy voice, jolting Draco out of his thoughts. “As you all know, this year is my last at Hogwarts. I have enjoyed serving you to the best of my abilities, my soldiers, compatriots, and friends.”

He inclined his head in a bow, and then the applause started, reverberating around the massive chamber. It resembled the steady beat of a drum, and nobody cheered or whooped or stomped their feet like Draco had expected them to. They seemed determined to give him a formal, respectful farewell, and Draco saw Theo, Millicent, and some of the other Initiates join in, their faces resembling those of bored and disinterested funeral guests.

Adolphus held up his hand, irritated, and the clapping stopped dead in his tracks. “I am sure many rumors have surfaced, all claiming to know who my successor will be.”

There was a pregnant pause, and Draco’s chest constricted.

“And now I will confirm that most of the rumors are indeed correct,” Adolphus finished with a grin, and the Skulls’ chuckles echoed around the room in the same way their applause had. Draco’s heart sank, not that he’d had any real hope anyway. “I am pleased to name your new Skull Prince, the next in line to the throne and my second-in-command, Sebastian Nott!”

Perhaps the Skulls had been holding in their enthusiasm all this time, but now they all erupted, nearly raising the ceiling with their raucous whooping, screaming, stomping, and chanting. “Sebastian! Sebastian! Sebastian!” The floor and walls seemed to tremble again, or maybe that impression was caused by Draco’s shaking legs. He squeezed his fist around the Knut in his pocket, trying to ground himself.

Theo gave his shoulder a gentle tap, and Draco stared blankly at his chin, too sickened to meet his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Theo mouthed.

Draco shook his head, not sure what Theo was apologizing for, and turned back to the front. Sebastian had climbed up onto the stage, decked in a gleaming Silver mask, and it was the worst scene Draco had ever laid eyes upon. Sebastian gave a little curtsey, and the Skulls burst into laughter and hooted his name again, as if they hadn’t already done it enough.

“Oi, shut up, all of you,” said Sebastian, raising his voice above the delirious cheering and whistling. Draco wondered if everyone here was drunk. “I’m the Prince now, aren’t I? Do I get a harem? Do I get a virgin sacrifice?”

Nobody stopped laughing, and now they were howling with mirth, apparently finding this joke hilarious. Then again, Sebastian could murder five Skulls right now and they’d still find him hilarious, would probably worship the ground he walked on. Sebastian grinned down at his new subjects, the eerie green torchlight reflecting off his mask. Draco’s vision went a bit fuzzy around the edges.

One year left. What would Sebastian do to him, once he had the full reign and freedom that came with kingship?

Theo nudged him again, and Draco whirled around with a snarl. “What?”

Theo gave a sheepish twitch. “Nothing. I just—look at the Gold Skulls right now.”

“Huh?” Draco followed Theo’s line of sight. The Gold Skulls stood tall and motionless behind Sebastian, their faces carefully blank and void of any kind of mirth or approval. One of the Gold Skulls slipped in the façade just then, narrowing his eyes at Sebastian’s back.

“I don’t think a lot of the sixth year Gold Skulls like Sebastian,” Theo continued, voice low. “I guess they don’t like that he gets two years to rule while they get none. He’ll be younger than them next year, but they’ll be his subordinates.”

“He’s popular,” said Draco in a dull voice. “Of course he gets two years. He’s the most qualified of all of them too, I bet. He’s definitely murdered the most dirty-bloods.” Draco snorted to himself. “He’s like a mini Dark Lord.”

Theo let out a snort, but quickly smothered it. “That’s not right, Draco. You’re not supposed to talk about the Dark Lord like that.”

Oh, for Merlin’s sake, Harry’s rants are stuck in my head. “It was a compliment. I was complimenting both of them,” Draco clarified, giving Theo an innocent, dimpled smile.

Theo shook his head but couldn’t hide his widening grin, so he resorted to covering his mouth like a scandalized maiden. Heart fluttering hopefully, Draco wondered if they were friends again. If he could make Theo laugh out loud one of these days, he would consider himself forgiven for his insult that summer.

“Settle down, be quiet,” Adolphus called, stepping in front of Sebastian, but never quite stealing his spotlight. The laughter and gossiping subsided in a few seconds, silent anticipation replacing it. “I have one more announcement to make before you’re all free to go drink as much alcohol as you want. We have new Templars and Executioners this year, Nathaniel Nott and Ferrous Fawley.”

The Templar was the highest-ranked Silver Skull, while the Executioner—Sebastian’s title last year—was the highest-ranked Bronze Skull. There was some scattered applause, and a few chants and cheers, most of them for Nathaniel. He was known as his brother’s shadow more than anything else, and it was rumored he was just as insane, but far more discreet about it.

That’s right. Sebastian plays with me, and Nathaniel watches.

“You are all dismissed,” Adolphus said, his voice ringing in the massive chamber, nearly making Draco jump in surprise. “Initiates, stay behind.”

The older Initiates, too? Draco wondered.

All Skulls except for the thirteen Golds on the platform began to file out of the dungeon row by row, gleefully chattering about what they were going to do once they got back to the Skull Pit. The other Initiates in his group weren’t leaving, so Draco stayed put. As the minutes passed, the crowd dwindled down to just a smattering of Skulls in the front and the few rows of Initiates in the back. Sebastian, Nathaniel, and Fawley the new Executioner all remained, as did about ten Bronze and Silver Skulls each.

Draco wished they had left with the rest. Only empty air remained between him and Sebastian now, but fortunately Sebastian was engaged in conversation with a Gold Skull at the moment and too busy to stare creepily at Draco. Nathaniel stood in the platform’s shadow, which bathed him in darkness, and it was difficult to discern whether he was staring at Draco or not. Draco decided that he didn’t want to know.

Once the few Skulls loitering by the exit finally stepped out, the dungeon doors clanged shut, leaving silence in their wake. The Initiates who had been whispering among themselves stopped their hissed conversations at once and swiveled to face the front.

“Initiates, step forward.” Adolphus snapped his fingers, and the rows of Initiates jerked forward, trying to emulate the elegant march of their superiors. Draco directed his gaze straight ahead but kept it unfocused, knowing in his gut that Sebastian had looked up by now and was watching him approach with his classic predatory smile.

“Initiates in their second phase of training will gather by the Executioner and wait for further instruction,” said Adolphus, sounding bored. “New Initiates, stay where you are. I will be the one instructing you.”

Without fuss and still utterly silent, Draco’s half of the Initiates broke away from the rest, heading to the spot behind the platform where Fawley, a well-built, dark-skinned sixth year, waited for them. On his way there, hot on Theo’s heels, Draco glanced over his shoulder one last time.

Harry stood in the front row, arms folded and eyes dark behind his glasses. To anyone who didn’t know Harry well, his face wore a neutral and unoffending expression. But Draco alone could see the strain on it, the anger bubbling right beneath his skin.

Draco gulped, not liking the feeling he was getting from this at all.

***

Harry had figured out his plan. He’d figured it out despite being temporarily distracted from his plotting by that chilling anthem, and that gaudy ceiling, and the general atmosphere of indoctrination that choked the air. The sickening picture Draco and Theodore Nott made when they were grinning at each other like a pair of giggly girls had done nothing to help him think straight either, but that was beside the point.

Harry’s eyes flicked from Skull to Skull on the platform, glided right over Sebastian because it was difficult to look at someone that hideous for longer than a second, and then returned to Adolphus, who had just stepped off the platform. He paced in front of them, his arms crossed behind his back. Harry straightened his own back, self-conscious.

“I give this speech every year, and many of you don’t believe what I’m about to tell you, and don’t take my warning seriously,” began Adolphus, splitting the silence in the chamber like Dolohov’s Justice Whips last year had split Harry’s skin. “Most of you have been sponsored by a Skull, while some of you are first years, here only because of the fame of your family name. However, at this moment, you are equals, worthy of absolutely no respect. Right now, you all have the standing of a common-born son of a Muggle, and you will be treated as such.”

Oh, please. Harry, who knew how the Skulls actually treated dirty-bloods, did not fall for these ridiculous scare tactics. His mouth twisted, but not in a smile. The silly baby Elites, even the Skull King himself, had no concept of the real world.

“Today, only about half of you will prove yourselves worthy,” said Adolphus. “The other half of you will show that you are weak, all bark and no bite. In a few minutes’ time, we will all know who has the mettle to be a Skull, and who doesn’t.”

Adolphus snapped his fingers again, and one of the Silver Skulls hanging around Nathaniel Nott hurried forward, a wooden box in his hands. Adolphus snatched it from him and tilted it forward to show the Initiates what was inside: twenty tiny bottles full of swirling dark liquid, enough for each new Initiate.

Breath hitching, Harry watched Adolphus pluck out one of the bottles and hold it up.

“Effringo, Elido, Exscindo,” Adolphus murmured, voice thick with reverence, as if these words were the first in a prayer. “Break, Shatter, and Destroy.”

Everyone held their breaths.

“Drinking this potion will induce a nightmare simulation, a world full of your worst fears. You will be trapped in it for as long as it takes for you to break, shatter, and destroy these fears, in whatever way you can. If you do not break out of your nightmare in less than half an hour, you will have failed the First Trial,” Adolphus said, putting the bottle back and shoving the box at one of the Initiates on the end of the row closest to Harry. When he got it, Harry gripped his bottle carefully, marveling at the coolness of the glass and the whirlpool pattern within.

“This Trial, in many ways, is the most crucial Trial you will undergo during your time as an Initiate. Conquering your fears using the Skull philosophy will set the baseline for all your future endeavors here. And our philosophy—break, shatter, and destroy—separates us from lesser wizards. As you know, dispelling a Boggart is the classic exercise in conquering your greatest fear, and in a bygone era, schoolchildren practiced on it.”

Adolphus’s voice hardened, and Harry listened with rapt attention.

“But such an exercise is ultimately useless, and you will never be able to overcome your fears using laughter. Laughter cannot conquer anything. It merely covers fear up, buries it into the ground. That fear will come back to bite you the very second you stop smiling. This is why the old professors and students of Hogwarts failed, why they crumbled beneath our Dark Lord’s forces. They lost the slim hope that powered them, and without it, they lost the will to fight back. But do you know what does combat fear and despair?”

Nobody answered, and Adolphus plowed on as if he hadn’t expected them to, his eyes glittering in the torchlight. His next words sounded as though he had not only memorized them, but also ingrained them into the very fiber of his being.

“Rage. Hatred. Ambition. That instinctual urge inside each and every one of you to crush, to conquer, to eradicate everything that has ever scared you. We are Skulls. We break, shatter, and destroy our enemies, our victims, and our fears. Laughter conquers nothing, but power conquers everything.”

Harry could hear the sound of his own heartbeat. Say whatever you wanted about the Skulls, but they and their Lord had won for a reason. They had killed—and still killed—everyone who had resisted their ascent, everyone who they thought was unworthy of being a wizard. They subjugated everyone whose views did not align with theirs. They burned down countries and rebuilt them from the ground up. They cared nothing for fairness, for proper law, for any sort of democracy. The Dark Lord did not rule as a Minister, or even as a king. He ruled like an immortal god, omnipresent and unrivaled.

This was what Harry had been trying to prove to Ron and the others at the Welcoming Feast. His classmates had laughed at him, called him brainwashed, but they were sticking their heads in the sand. The old Ministry and Hogwarts had been far too complacent in tolerating dangerous views like the Purebloods’. They should have squashed out the beginnings of a rebellion the moment it emerged, not allowed it to fester as the Purebloods grew angrier and angrier at the influx of Muggle culture.

They should’ve executed anyone who seemed likely to listen to the Dark Lord, Harry thought bitterly. There would’ve been no Death Eaters or bigoted Purebloods left, or at least not enough for the Dark Lord to build an army as quickly and easily as he had.

Infuriatingly, the Death Eaters had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors, and they had established a society that had little chance of falling. They tolerated no dissenting opinions. The moment you stepped a toe out of line and they noticed, you were dead, or your children were dead.

The old Ministry should have done something like that too, Harry thought. It’s the only system that’ll ever work.

Adolphus started up again, and Harry’s eyes followed him pace in front of the platform. “Some of you will find that you are better at conquering than others, but each of you still has weaknesses. For the next three years, every single one of your weaknesses will be beaten out of you. You will be trained to destroy anything that threatens you, that defies you, instead of running away from it. And if you have not conquered your fears at the end of Initiation, you will have lost the opportunity to become a Skull.”

A wave of excitement rose up in Harry, making him go lightheaded. They think dirty-bloods are weak, but when they train me their way, they’ll create a dirty-blood just as capable of breaking, shattering, and destroying as they are.

“Now,” said Adolphus, as though he had just finished discussing something mundane like the weather, “drink up.”

The liquid tasted bitter. Harry screwed up his face, feeling pinpricks of pain erupt all over his body, agonizing little goosebumps. Before he could even begin to be alarmed, darkness flooded his vision, and he was dragged into the abyss.

***

Harry lay curled up in his bed, cold even underneath all the blankets. His tears from earlier had already dried on his cheeks, but now new ones threatened to slip out. He shook his head sharply as if trying to ward off a fly. 

Don’t be a crybaby. Who cares what she says?

The door swung open, and Lily Potter stood behind it. She walked into the room, her limbs jerking around unnaturally, her eyes glittering with eerie intensity. They were not bright green, but black, and as Harry watched, her skin flaked off her face, leaving behind glistening red flesh.

Harry’s body did not seem to want to move. It was as though Lily’s entrance had made the entire room freeze over, solidifying Harry’s muscles and tendons along with it, and he no longer had the ability to run from her.

“Harry,” Lily crooned, very little left of her beautiful face now, or of her lush red locks. To him, she looked like an alien creature: skinless, hairless, soulless. Her eyes grew, bigger and bigger, blacker and blacker, and all Harry could do was lie there while his heart pounded loud in his ears.

“When the devils gave you to me, I begged them to take you back.” Lily had reached Harry now, and bent over him until she was at the perfect angle for her huge, inhuman eyes to look right into his.

Harry’s heart pounded itself into his throat, but he still couldn’t move. Distinctly, he was aware of the fact that none of this was real, but getting his body to agree with his mind was more difficult than he had anticipated.

“You are one of them, I think,” Lily said, stroking his hair. “A demon. Demons bring bad fortune wherever they go. They corrupt and eat people up from the inside. Every moment I stayed with you, every moment I felt your magic infect the air, I was being eaten by you. You devoured me, and you will devour everything, Harry, the whole world, because that was what you were created to do.”

Lily let out a strangled sob. The remains of her flesh began to peel away from her face, and was that a sliver of bone that Harry saw?

“See?” Lily shrieked, and her voice broke midway from the strain. “Do you see what you have done to me? I’ll kill you before can kill me, Harry, I promise. I thought about it, I thought about it every day when I brought you back from the devils, I thought about smothering you with a pillow, because I could feel you eating and eating me, devouring and devouring—”

Liar! Harry screamed in his head, trying to jolt himself into movement.

Lily’s hands went around his throat, cold and hard like marble, and Harry thrashed hopelessly underneath his blankets, gasping for breath but finding none. Lily’s fingers tightened, and she laughed, her face nothing but an empty skull now, devoid of any kind of humanity.

Harry closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, the world was clearer and sharper.

This isn’t real, he reminded himself, a beacon of sanity emerging from the dark storm in his mind. This is what I’m afraid of. But if he didn’t do something, this phantom version of his mother would kill him, and he’d fail the Trial.

“I will never, ever love you, Harry,” Lily whispered then, her breath warm on his face.

Not real, Harry. Not real not real not real—

Harry wrapped his own fingers around hers and pressed down, feeling the strength he’d bottled up flood into his body. Her fingers gave way, the bones in them snapping, and Lily yanked her hand back with another high-pitched shriek.

“Demon!” Lily sobbed, cradling her broken hand, her skull face contorting in rage. “Devil’s child! Hurting your own mother—”

I have to kill her to win, Harry told himself, and placed his hands around her throat. He steeled himself, and then squeezed. A horrible cracking noise rattled his eardrums, and then Lily’s head, whatever was left of it, flopped forward, lifeless. Harry threw her body from his, panting hard. For a moment he sat there, his heartbeat going wild, and then the triumph of his victory rose up in him like the sunrise.

She’s gone.

***

Harry’s eyes flew open. He was lying on the ground, his legs sprawled out and a sizable bump on his head. He struggled upright, his chest heaving, and nearly fell back down again when Adolphus walked over to him, one eyebrow raised.

“You’re early.”

Harry looked around. Of all the twenty new Initiates, he was the only one who had woken up so far. The group of older Initiates Draco belonged to had congregated behind the platform, hidden partially from Harry’s view, listening to the Executioner give some speech.

The Silver and Gold Skulls were standing around by the platform, all looking rather bored with the proceedings. Harry supposed they were senior Skulls who might be waiting around for another meeting after the Initiates were dealt with. The Nott twins, it seemed, were entertaining themselves by watching the older group of Initiates, though Harry couldn’t imagine what they found so interesting there.

“How—how early?” Harry asked, giving his head a little shake. He’d been fully aware during the entire simulation, and quite certain of the fact that nothing he was experiencing was real. If this was true for everybody, then nobody would fail, and the whole Trial would be ineffective. But clearly this wasn’t the case for the other Initiates, or the Skulls would have stopped using Effringo, Elido, Exscindo a long time ago.

Maybe I was given a faulty potion, or I might just be immune to it somehow.

“You will address me as sir at all times,” said Adolphus.

“Sir. How early, sir?” Harry corrected, somewhat reluctantly, and Adolphus’s mouth twitched.

Somewhere deep inside, Harry wanted to spit in Adolphus’s face and call him Death Eater scum, but he smothered the impulse. Now that he was nearly a Skull, he had to respect people like Adolphus, at least for as long as it took for him to become a respected Skull himself. And in any case, Adolphus’s very demeanor terrified Harry enough to dry up whatever reckless courage he still possessed.

“You were out for less than a minute,” said Adolphus, his piercing gaze just then making Harry uncomfortable. What did he suspect? “You must have broken some kind of record. It usually takes a minimum of five minutes.”

“Well, I break a lot of records, sir,” he said at last, keeping his face carefully blank. It didn’t matter that Adolphus was about three times his height. I can’t let myself get too intimidated. Don’t forget the plan, Harry thought, giving himself a mental smack. I can use this new development to my advantage.

Adolphus did not smile. “Do you.” The way he said it didn’t make it sound like a question. “What’s your name, again?”

“Harry Potter, sir.” Harry inhaled through his teeth, hoping against hope that Adolphus wouldn’t remember Harry was the first year who had destroyed Dungeon Two. It would also be nice if Adolphus didn’t make the connection to Harry’s blood-traitor father.

“I’ve definitely heard that name before,” said Adolphus, and Harry wanted to throw up.

Then a low chuckle permeated the air, not from Adolphus, and Harry flinched and turned towards the source. Sebastian Nott slinked forward, his lips—if those slabs of darkened flesh were even his lips—quirked slightly up. Though it was covered by the silver mask, his face looked even worse up close, as if someone had taken a mallet to his face hard enough to crush bone, peeled off all his skin, and then reapplied it messily.

“I know who he is. I remember that face,” said Sebastian in a pleasantly smooth and liquid voice that, under any other circumstances, should have been soothing, but instead made Harry’s soul quiver in terror. “He was… Malfoy’s target last year.”  There was something odd about the tone in which Sebastian said Draco’s name, a tone Harry couldn’t identify, one that made him uneasy.

In any case, the next words Sebastian uttered drove the errant thought out of his mind.

“He must be a dirty-blood, then.” Sebastian snickered, but his eyes glinted with something less innocuous. “It’s funny, isn’t it? A dirty-blood who’s not even an Elite, breaking all the records all of a sudden. I took five minutes to pass the First Trial, and that was supposed to be the fastest you could do it.”

Adolphus inclined his head at Sebastian to show that he’d heard him, then fastened his smoldering gaze onto Harry again. Harry, who realized he’d been slumping a bit, intimidated by the two older boys looming above him, straightened his back and lifted his head so as to not look like a cowering fool.

The plan, Harry, remember your plan.

“Well, I’ve always been good at fighting my fears,” Harry said, choosing to focus his gaze somewhere on Adolphus’s chin, not brave enough to meet his flinty eyes. “Professor Carrow knew that when he recommended me.”

“Yes, I remember that,” said Adolphus, a shadow crossing his face. “Carrow recommended only one student last year. It must have been you.”

Harry couldn’t find anything to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. Sebastian was still watching him, and though he was smiling just a bit, just slightly amused, his mirth didn’t reach his narrowed eyes. Harry was suddenly and absurdly sure that Sebastian did not like him at all, though he could not explain to himself why he was so certain of that fact.

“Blood status, then?” asked Adolphus, jerking Harry out of his thoughts.

“Mudblood mother, blood-traitor father,” said Harry, haltingly.

Adolphus raised an eyebrow at the terms Harry had used, his gaze intensifying. “You’re a very strange dirty-blood,” he said, finally.

“I—I hope to rise above my blood status, sir,” said Harry, his voice a bit hoarse.

“You won’t,” said Sebastian, sounding more dismissive than nasty. He yawned, apparently having lost interest in the conversation, and walked back to the platform, going back to staring at Draco’s Initiate group, whatever was so interesting about it. Harry found that he could breathe properly again without that monstrous face staring down at him, then found himself getting unreasonably angry at Sebastian’s arrogant assumption.

I won’t, will I? We’ll see about that.

Adolphus seemed to have lost interest in the conversation as well. “Good luck then, whatever your name is. I’ll be keeping my eye on you. Dirty-bloods aren’t welcome here for a reason, but so far you’ve impressed me.”

He began to turn away, and Harry cried, “Wait!”

Now was the time to act, to make sure everyone knew his name. It had to be now or never.

“I can impress you more,” said Harry, his voice coming out louder than he’d meant it to. “I’m the best at Dark Arts in my year.” Strictly speaking, the title of first place went to Theodore Nott, but Harry didn’t count that because Nott, like the other Elites, had the unfair advantage of being trained in magic since his early childhood.

Adolphus turned back around, looking annoyed, and Harry plowed on. I am the person to break the record for the First Trial, but that’s not enough. If I could be the first person to ever skip a year of Initiation…

“And I don’t think I should be with the rest of the new Initiates,” said Harry. He took a deep breath. “I think you should think about advancing me into the older group.”

Silence.

The air might have frozen solid in the seconds Harry had taken to utter his request. Adolphus stared at him for a moment, open-mouthed, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard, and even some of the Skulls by the platform switched their focus to him, finally interested.

At once, Harry could not ignore the mounting certainty that he’d said something unforgivably wrong.

“Oh? You think you’re special?” Adolphus said pleasantly, as pleasant as the weather before a storm. “You think you’re the most talented Initiate here, is that right?”

Harry blanched. He shouldn’t have been so arrogant as to assume that he could ask for something as big as this on the first day of school. He’d been so impatient and eager to be somebody, and the opportunity to execute his half-baked plan had presented itself to him on a silver platter, and of course he had opened his big mouth without thinking anything through.

But perhaps Adolphus wasn’t as angry as he seemed, and maybe Harry could salvage the situation, backtrack just in time.

“N-not necessarily, sir.” Harry’s voice came out as an embarrassing squeak, one that wasn’t worthy of him. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”

Adolphus’s face darkened, but he smiled, not that this made Harry feel any better. “Of course I’m not offended. You don’t need to walk on eggshells around me.”

“Look, I understand now that it might not be possible for me to skip a year.” Harry backed away from Adolphus so fast that he nearly tripped over the Initiate lying on the ground behind him. “I’m sorry for being…being”—he grasped for the word—“uh, impudent in assuming that it was.

“No, no,” said Adolphus, lowering his voice to a hiss. “Not impudent at all. Your request just took me by surprise, that’s all. I’ve never heard a dirty-blood demand such a thing.”

Harry, whose heart had fluttered with relief when Adolphus had first starting speaking, felt it shrivel up again. It was clear now: Adolphus seemed quietly furious at him, confirming Harry’s horrible suspicion that it was too late to take back everything he’d said.

What do the Skulls do to dirty-bloods who make them even a little angry? he thought, going cold. He had known the answer to the question before he began to ask it.

They punish them.

“He’s trembling!” crowed one of the Skulls standing by the platform, and Harry went red with shame. I survived Dolohov, and the Hunger, and if I’d had my magic, I’d be more powerful than all of these fools put together.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Harry repeated, knowing he sounded a bit indignant. “I—I misspoke. I don’t have any right to ask—”

Adolphus’s smile widened. “No, I don’t mind. You don’t have to fear me. I’ll be fair to you, I promise. Now that I think about it, your question was perfectly valid. If you do as well on your other Trials as you did in this one, I can see why you might think going through the first phase of Initiation might be redundant for you.”

Harry didn’t dare to breathe.

“In fact, I’m inclined to agree with you. I think you’d do just fine if you skipped a year. So, how about it? Do you still want to skip a year of Initiation, or have you chickened out by now?” Adolphus’s eyes gleamed.

Harry was quite certain that this was a trick question. There had to be a catch somewhere. The Skulls wouldn’t make it this easy. He shook his head jerkily.

Adolphus gave a derisive chuckle. “That’s not how it works, boy. You can’t just back out now. I swear, one minute ago you were so excited to skip a year, and now when I give you the chance, you run away? No. No, I won’t let you. I insist that you skip a year.”

“Sir—” Harry tried.

“There’s only one test you have to pass first,” said Adolphus, and there it was. The catch.

***

“Your first training session will take place the Sunday after the second week of school, at nine o’clock at night, in Dungeon Three,” the Executioner Skull Fawley announced to the second-phase Initiates, after a long lecture on what “Body, Mind, and Soul training” entailed. Draco had only gotten some of it, but Fawley had assured them that they’d better understand what the three different kinds of training meant after their first few sessions.

“You will have a training session every other week until the end of the year, and you are permitted to miss at most three sessions,” Fawley said. “The first several sessions will focus on Body, Soul, and Mind training separately, but once you have been briefed on the basics and ranked in each, competitions requiring all three will begin. The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Trials are entwined with each other; passing the Fourth Trail requires the Body, passing the Fifth requires the Mind, and passing the Sixth requires the Soul. You must conquer all three if you wish to become a Skull. Any questions?”

Nobody asked a question, but this was because Fawley looked as though he’d snap the neck of anyone who dared to.

“Very well,” he said with a sniff. “Before I let you leave, I am obligated to inform you of the yearly festivities that take place the weekend after the first week of school. A great many students will be gathered in the Skull Pit next Saturday for… celebrations, and your attendance is encouraged.” Fawley curled his lip down at them, and Draco felt like a dirty, insignificant bug that needed to be squashed. He noticed that Fawley’s gaze lingered longest on the second year Initiates.

“Younger students might find themselves uncomfortable in the Skull Pit’s environment, but the Skulls are not babysitters, and we do not coddle children. Grow up fast, or drop out. You are dismissed.”

“What does he mean, we might ‘find ourselves uncomfortable’ in the Skull Pit?” asked a third year, once the Executioner had stalked off.

Several of the third years chuckled, while others scowled. One of them mimed drinking a potion, and another made a lewd hand gesture involving a finger and a circle. The hapless third year who had asked the question went red in the face. Draco, Theo, and Millicent blushed too, the embarrassing truth dawning on them all at once. On the other hand, Crabbe and Goyle just looked confused, and Draco envied them.

“The new Executioner talks like there’s something stuck up his pompous arse,” Draco whispered to Theo, trying to relieve aura of awkwardness. But Theo blushed even harder at this, and Draco realized just then that he could have worded “stuck up his pompous arse” a bit less suggestively.

“Let’s go,” Theo muttered. As if it were an automatic reaction of his, he reached out to take Draco’s hand, but then pulled back, apparently losing his nerve. Before he could put his hand back in his pocket, though, Draco shot out an arm and clasped his wrist. He dropped it a second later, but the symbolism of his action hung heavy in the air. Stiffly, the two of them made their way to the dungeon’s exit, followed by a sniggering Millicent and the chattering throng of third year Initiates.

Long ago, he had admitted to himself that his friendship with Theo was pretty much finished. And in many ways, Draco still thought that. But they were going to be spending lots of time together at Hogwarts, and a lots of time together during the summers, and lots of time together as Death Eaters after they graduated.

The point was, Theo would be in his life for the foreseeable future, and Draco had to deal with that reality. As long as he didn’t expect any real support from Theo, kept an emotional distance from him, and shut him down whenever he tried to interfere too much in Draco’s life, they could try to be friends again, at least on the surface.

Besides, if Draco was being honest with himself, the long months of depressing silence between them had cooled his hatred and resentment of Theo somewhat, and he could no longer avoid the fact that he had missed Theo—just a tiny bit—all this time. He’d probably change his mind the next time Theo opened his big and annoying mouth and reminded Draco of all the reasons to hate him in the first place, but until then, Draco would be the very image of politeness and tolerance.

I went way too far anyway, comparing him to his brothers, thought Draco, then pushed the churning guilt out of his mind. There was no use dwelling on it.

They had almost made it halfway across the dungeon when it happened.

“ATTENTION!” The word rang in the air like the clang of a bell, and everyone still loitering inside the dungeon, including the older Initiates, snapped to attention. Adolphus leapt onto the platform, agile as a cat, and Draco saw a moment later that he had dragged someone up with him.

A small, skinny, twelve-year-old someone. Someone with shaggy black hair and glasses, someone that Draco would have recognized anywhere. His knees went weak, and if it wasn’t for Theo reaching out to steady him, he might have toppled over.

It was Harry.

***

Things were moving far too fast for Harry to figure out what was going on. One minute ago, he’d been standing down below, among the limp bodies of the other Initiates. Then Adolphus had somehow compelled him to climb up onto the platform, and now every eye was on him, waiting, eager.

“Fawley,” Adolphus said out of the corner of his mouth, addressing the Bronze Skull who had been speaking to Draco’s group minutes earlier. “Wake up the new Initiates. I want them to see this.”

Then he raised his voice, now addressing everyone still left in the dungeon. “Gather up, gather up! I have a show for you tonight.”

Fawley rushed to do as he was told, and Harry clenched his eyes shut, trying to mitigate the sudden dizziness that had assaulted him. After the passing of what felt like hours, but was probably less than a minute, Harry finally felt stable enough to open his eyes. The remaining Skulls had assembled into haphazard rows and clusters, and the group of Initiates Harry had been part of were now awake, all looking incredibly confused.

Adolphus squeezed his shoulder, hard, and Harry gasped in pain, taken by surprise.

“This boy,” began Adolphus, his voice magically amplified so everyone could hear him, “asked me just now if he could skip a year of Initiation. He passed the First Trial with flying colors, after all, beating the old record into dust. He was in his nightmare for less than a minute. Remarkable, yes?”

A low, impressed murmur traveled through the room, and Harry sucked in a breath. He had just spotted Draco, standing next to a pack of rather tall third year Initiates, face utterly white and mouth open. Harry had avoided meeting his eyes since term had started, but now found himself unable to look away.

Draco looked—well, terrified, flabbergasted, dismayed, those were necessary words to describe his expression right now. But beyond that, he looked like he always had, his face so bright and open and clear that staring at him hurt Harry’s eyes. Seeing him after so long felt like drinking cool water after a summer of thirst, and it took a monumental effort for Harry to tear his gaze away. He regretted doing so at once, weighed down with the possibility that this might be the last time he ever got to look at Draco.

Don’t be stupid. They won’t kill me. But Harry wasn’t so sure, and found himself morbidly speculating if he would die without making up with the only friend he’d ever had.  

Adolphus started up again, smiling blithely. “So, being the generous king I am, I’ve decided to let him.” The murmuring heightened. One of the Initiates in Harry’s group shouted something about this being unfair, but Adolphus continued without faltering. “But of course, the Skulls do not give out accolades for free, so he’ll have to earn this great honor.”

He leaned down to address Harry, and his smile morphed into a grin, a mocking one. “Let’s make a deal, dirty-blood,” said Adolphus, eyes so narrowed they were nearly slits. “If you survive for five minutes, I’ll concede that you are the most brilliant Initiate we’ve ever had, and I’ll move you up into the second phase of Initiation.” Adolphus paused, his smile-turned-grin morphing yet again, this time into its final form, a nasty sneer. “But if you don’t survive… well, I’ll concede that you are the shortest-lived Initiate we’ve ever had.”

Seconds passed, but the meaning of Adolphus’s words had not sunk in just yet. And before Harry could catch up, Adolphus continued, his voice, loud and tight and steel-hard, cracking the air.

“Get him, Executioner. Make it slow. We want to give the dirty-blood a chance to survive five minutes, after all.”

Then he shoved Harry off the platform, and Harry realized, as the horrible truth crashed into him with the force of a rampaging dragon, that all the rumors had been true, and he’d been right to worry about the Skulls killing him.

***

The onlookers faced the spot where Harry had landed, arranging themselves into a semicircle, a makeshift arena of sorts, and Draco tried to keep his breathing steady. The older, taller Skulls seemed to have pushed him, Theo, and the other Initiates forward, politely giving them front row seats to the show.

Dread pulsed through Draco’s veins, making him feel faint and woozy. The Skulls didn’t need any good reason to kill a dirty-blood that annoyed them, especially one that sauntered into their midst expecting gifts someone of his blood status didn’t deserve. Adolphus himself was known for torturing students who talked in class while he was trying to pay attention, and he didn’t have any moral quandaries about killing, either. He was famous for murdering the previous Skull King and stealing his throne, after all. Getting rid of a second-year half-blood wasn’t beneath him.

Harry shouldn’t have come here. Draco shouldn’t have made Harry join the Skulls. Harry didn’t belong here, and they’d been able to sniff that out, had singled him out for slaughter on the very first day. They’ll kill him. They’ll kill him, and it’ll be all my fault.

Harry stumbled to his feet, groaning and clutching his head. His eyes sought out Draco at once, silently pleading, but Draco could do nothing but gape in horror as Fawley, the Executioner, parted the small crowd of Skulls and entered the empty semicircle where Harry stood.

He’s going to die. He watched Fawley advance on Harry, wand out, and his knees almost gave way again. Oh Merlin, Harry didn’t have his wandless magic anymore. He couldn’t beat a sixth year Bronze Skull, no matter how good he was at dueling.

No no no. He can’t die, not when he still hates me, not after I worked so hard to save his life.

Draco wasn’t even aware that his legs were moving. He had taken several steps, determined to do something, to throw himself in front of Fawley, to beg Adolphus to forgive Harry for whatever stupid thing he had done. They wouldn’t dare kill Draco, and he could use his Pureblood status to protect Harry, to buy him more time—

“What the hell are you doing?” snarled Theo, grabbing Draco around the waist to stop him from running right out into the arena.

“Theo, please,” Draco gasped, his voice thick with unshed tears. “Theo, let me—”

Theo tightened his hold, radiating fury, almost as if he knew exactly why Draco was so hysterical. Draco didn’t even care that he was ruining his cover. Harry’s life was more important to him. Desperate, he fell limp in an effort to make himself as heavy as possible, causing Theo to lose his balance and totter backward. He kicked out with his legs, freeing himself from Theo’s loosened clutches, and managed to take three whole steps before Millicent seized him in a headlock and pulled him back.

“Get a grip, Malfoy,” said Millicent, a solid column of skin that Draco could do nothing to destabilize no matter how much he kicked and squirmed. She giggled. “You’re ruining the show.”

He prepared to bite down on the flesh of her arm, but then Harry cried out, and all thoughts of resistance fled Draco’s mind. Blank terror replaced it.

Harry was on the ground, thrown there by one of Fawley’s spells. He stumbled to his feet for a second time, limping slightly. His trouser leg was torn slightly at the bottom, and as he moved, Draco spotted a sliver of bloody skin.

Draco let out a choked sob and writhed wildly in Millicent’s arms, though he was no longer thinking of escaping her. He wasn’t thinking much about anything at all. Theo had recovered from Draco’s attack by now, and he stood steady next to Millicent, eyes glittering with a sort of sadistic fascination, trained on Harry. His gaze flicked back to Draco just then, and his lip trembled almost imperceptibly. Perhaps he was pondering the meaning of Draco’s breakdown.

“Theo, let me go,” Draco said, his voice a mix between a high whine and a dry sob. “You don’t want Potter to die, Theo, I know you don’t—”

Theo masked his slipping expression at once and glared at Harry again, fury renewed and stronger than ever. “The Skull King makes that decision, not us,” he spat, not meeting Draco’s gaze. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

Draco’s dry sobs turned into real ones.

***

Harry was surprised he’d gotten hit by a Cutting Curse already, though in his defense, that was because Draco’s tussle with Nott had distracted him so thoroughly that he hadn’t even seen the first spell coming. All in all, Harry was calmer than he had expected to be, considering that he was facing his death. The demon Kardin was coiled inside him, giving him the increased reaction time he needed to dodge all of the Executioner’s spells.

He needed to survive for five minutes. He could aim spells at the Skulls, but they knew defenses he hadn’t learned yet, and every time he opened his mouth to utter an incantation, he was wasting precious time he could be using to watch out for spells. He had to use it wisely.

Harry whipped out his own wand and aimed at the platform behind the Executioner. “Reducto!” The stone near the epicenter of the blast exploded into shards, and the entire left half of the structure crumbled, sending Adolphus and the Gold Skulls staggering to find a stable piece of ground to stand on. The Executioner stumbled too, reeling from the aftershock of the blast, but he recovered dishearteningly fast.

“Crucio!”

Adolphus told him to make killing me slow, and probably painful.

Rage bubbling up inside him, Harry spun sideways to avoid the curse, crashing into the spectators and messing up the shape of their makeshift arena. They moved back, widening the arena, attempting to escape the range of the spells the Executioner was firing after him.

If they’re going to kill me, I’m not letting them do it neatly, Harry thought hysterically.

“Selwyn, Yaxley, help Fawley,” said Adolphus, out of breath, and two more Bronze Skulls joined in the fray, pushing Harry out from the edge and back into the center of the arena. He was surrounded on all sides now, boxed in, his back to the platform. He dodged three successive spells, his movements swift and efficient, aided by his heightened reflexes, and sprinted towards the opposite edge of the arena. If he could get into the crowd, they would be wary of hitting someone else—

Hitting someone else.

Of course.

Just as soon as his plan had formed, Harry screamed as another Cutting Curse caught his other leg, making it near impossible to move without sending pulses of pain up his body. Now it was his turn to stagger and scrabble around, trying to block out the searing agony enough to think straight and remember the plan he had come up with.

Harry wheeled back around, heading towards the center again. He had superior reflexes, so he had to use them for more than just dodging around. That meant, if he got two Skulls standing opposite each other to aim at him, and he was standing between them, he could move out of the way just in the nick of time, while they wouldn’t see it coming—

Yes.

Harry pulled up a quick Protego to deflect a particularly nasty-looking spell he didn’t know the name of and positioned himself, keeping himself moving around in a tight circle so as not to arouse suspicion. He dodged a strange spell from Fawley that resembled a serrated crescent, his legs aching, then saw the perfect moment to strike. He dropped and rolled to the ground, so fast that his legs screamed with the effort, and the other two Skulls, Selwyn and Yaxley, shot their spells into each other’s faces.

They saw my afterimage, not me, and aimed at it, but I’d already moved out of the way.

Harry could have laughed, but he didn’t have time. Selwyn was screaming as something gloopy and purple dripped out of his eyes, and Yaxley’s face was smeared with blood, but Fawley was still moving, casting a veritable volley of spells, one after another after another, that Harry kept weaving through, again and again and again. He had learned his lesson now not to look away and run: they couldn’t hit him as long as he was watching them.

“What—the—hell?” Fawley said, eyes wide in disbelief.

“ENOUGH!” There was a bang from the platform. Adolphus, his hair a mess, had his wand out, but he was still somehow smiling, watching Harry with rapt attention. “Sebastian, Nathaniel, get in here!”

And pure, unadulterated despair suffocated Harry’s triumph before it could even begin.

***

Draco had been watching the spells whizz back and forth, as fast-paced as a Quidditch game, and he could not believe what was happening in front of his own eyes. According to the golden magical numbers hovering behind Adolphus on the ruined platform, more than three of the allotted five minutes had passed, and not only was Harry still alive—though very much bleeding—he had stumped three full-fledged Bronze Skulls. Harry moved like a whirring, darting Snitch, nearly impossible to hit, almost as if he knew exactly where the spells were going to land before they did.

Then Sebastian and Nathaniel walked into the arena, looking bored, and the bud of hope that had been about to blossom in Draco withered up and died.

Because Nott twins, just like Draco had predicted, were at an another level. Unlike the Bronze Skulls, they moved with a graceful synchronization that only twins possessed, covering each other’s blind spots and driving Harry into a corner, firing off spells coordinated specifically to force Harry to dodge out of the way of one spell, only to back into another. They had figured out his tricks by now, and they knew how to checkmate him.

Draco covered his mouth and winced as a spell sliced Harry’s skin yet again, clenching his eyes shut. This had to be a dream, a nightmare, a Trial of some sort that Adolphus was going to interrupt and say, “Surprise! We’re not killing him after all!”

But Draco’s hope was slipping away with every second. The Nott twins were capable of what the Executioner was not. They would be able to kill Harry. Painfully. He was already cut in about a half a dozen places now, slipping on his own blood, struggling to stay upright. Millicent was still holding Draco, but both she and Theo were too entranced by the show to keep a close eye on him.

Harry screamed again, sounding as though his throat had torn, and Draco made a split-second decision, one he knew he would regret as soon as he made it.

“SEBASTIAN!”

***

One minute left.

Harry saw through a haze of pain and blood. His glasses had been knocked askew, and everything was blurry and soft-edged. And even as Harry got up again and again, every time after Sebastian and Nathaniel struck him down, his previously steel-hard will to live faltered.

It hurt, and in more ways than one. They could just kill him, be merciful with an Avada Kedavra, but of course they wouldn’t. They’d tear him to pieces, into strips of flesh, just like they did to innocent students they didn’t like, and he would be nothing and nobody, remembered as only the poor, foolish dirty-blood Initiate who had opened his big mouth in front of the Skull King, if he was remembered at all.

Then he heard Draco’s voice, slice through the pain like a ray of light through darkness.

“SEBASTIAN!”

Harry blinked blood out of his eyes, jerking his head so that his glasses straightened themselves on his nose. Both Sebastian and Nathaniel whirled around, completely distracted by Draco’s ruse, if that was what it was, and Harry lunged at them, wand out. “Reducto!”

Sebastian deflected the curse at once with a flick of his wand, but Harry had gotten his fire back. Adrenaline surged through his veins, numbing his pain long enough for him to get his bearings, and he sent Reducto after Reducto at the twins, keeping them occupied by forcing them to deflect his curses. If he was going to beat them, he had to switch up his strategy, and that meant he couldn’t rely on his dodging skills any longer.

Thirty seconds left.

Harry wanted to cry with the pain of it all. There was no way he should’ve been able to move, but somehow he still was, his mind determined to keep him on his feet, as useless and bloody as they were now. Maybe Kardin had sensed his agony and was supporting him, pumping otherworldly strength into his body as a last resort to keep its host alive.

Synesis would know, Harry thought, and nearly laughed again. He wondered if he was going mad.

Sebastian let out an ugly snarl, but Nathaniel’s voice rose above his brother’s. “Trudo!”

The Tripping Jinx caught Harry’s leg, and he went tumbling to the ground. His knees hit the hard stone, and he screamed harder than he had before, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to get up this time. His body could do no more for him.

Except…

Sebastian stalked up to him, no longer looking bored now. In fact, he was furious. Harry nearly giggled again. He couldn’t imagine what had caused such a marked change in Sebastian’s previously uninterested demeanor. Maybe he was irritated that he’d gotten distracted by Draco, and maybe that was why he was growing careless now, his movements less restrained. Harry rolled out of the way of a spell, seeing it coming a mile away.

That’s another time Draco saved me, then. Not that it matters, since I’m going to die now.

Sebastian reached down and yanked him up by the collar, and Harry pondered, once again, why Sebastian’s eyes were gleaming with black hatred. What had he done to deserve it, really? He hadn’t been a very impressive opponent, that was for sure.

Speaking of not being a very impressive opponent, he still had one trick up his sleeve. Summoning every last piece of resolve he possessed, Harry released a sliver—just a sliver—of the second and final gift Kardin had given him, superhuman strength, and clamped down hard on the hand on his neck.

Three seconds.

Like he had broken Lily’s fingers in the Trial simulation, he now snapped Sebastian’s, pouring all his remaining strength into his hand, screaming until he was making no more noise.

Two seconds.

Sebastian screamed too, drawing back his broken fingers and throwing Harry from him, stunned, an expression of what could have only been incredulous rage on his wrecked face.

One second.

The bong of an invisible bell split the air, ending the five-minute timer and Harry’s torment, and he flopped to the ground, boneless.

But Sebastian was coming back at him now, incandescent with rage, and Harry realized with a weak and final breath that he should’ve known better to expect fairness from the Skulls. Just because he was alive after five minutes didn’t mean that he was going to be alive after six, or seven, or eight, or however long the Skulls took to kill him.

***

“ENOUGH!”

Sebastian stopped at the call of his king, chest heaving and eyes blazing. He was holding his fingers delicately, Draco noticed, wondering why that was. Nathaniel stood a few steps behind him, face slack with shock. Harry lay in a heap of his own blood, unmoving. He must have passed out.

“He’s not dead yet, sir,” Sebastian snarled, and Draco knew from his tone that, somehow, in some way, Sebastian had figured out how much Draco cared about Harry. Draco supposed that screaming Sebastian’s name to try and unsettle him—as well as struggling against Millicent and Theo for five whole minutes—might have led to that revelation, but if he dwelled on how spectacularly he had blown his cover, he would probably faint right there and then.

“Enough,” Adolphus repeated. He sounded as though he had run a marathon, even though he hadn’t moved from his spot on the platform for the whole five minutes. “He is allowed to live, and he will be skipping the first year of Initiation. Take him to the infirmary to get him patched up. Find him a room in the Skull dormitories.” Dutifully, few Silver Skulls transfigured a stretcher and placed Harry in it, and Draco thanked the Dark Lord, Merlin, and every other god he knew of for Adolphus Lestrange’s unexpected display of mercy.

“But sir, there are no rooms left for this class of Initiates,” Fawley said sulkily.

“I don’t care if he has to sleep in a fucking broom closet. Just find him a room,” Adolphus snapped. He stepped off the platform, his robes swirling behind him. “That boy—what’s his name again? Whatever. He gets what he asked for. Do not argue with me.”

With that, Adolphus swept out of the room, followed by his usual court of Gold Skulls, who were whispering and shooting Harry lingering looks over their shoulders. Draco couldn’t read their expressions perfectly, but reluctant awe and appreciation seemed to be at the forefront of their thoughts. On the other hand, Theo’s jaw was set, his eyes narrowed. He was very carefully not looking at Draco.

“Blimey. What the hell was that? How did he did even live for so long? Who is that dirty-blood, anyway?” asked one of the third year Initiates standing nearby.

“Dunno, Henry something?” said another, sounding just as disbelieving as the first. “He’s a commoner dirty-blood with a commoner name. I’ve seen him around.”

“Harry Potter,” Draco interjected, surprised at how hoarse his voice sounded. “His name, it’s—his name is Harry Potter.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIVE

THE FOLLY OF THE FOOL

o

When Madam Pomfrey finally set Harry free the next day, dinner was over, and Harry had nowhere else to go but his dorm. He shuffled down the spiral staircase, his feet feeling like they were made out of lead. He’d been out of it the entirety of last night and most of the morning, and by the time Madam Pomfrey had woken him up for lunch, he’d already been patched up. His wounds didn’t hurt anymore, not technically, but if he moved a bit too sharply or abruptly, a brief echo of the searing pain he had felt back in Dungeon Seven would return.

He wasn’t sure how he had even survived, to be honest, and found himself wondering if he had been kicked out of the Skulls for insubordination. He didn’t remember what had happened after he’d passed out, and decided not to think about it.

There was no point dwelling on his failures right now, no point in doing anything but going to sleep. He had class to attend early tomorrow morning.

Sighing, he continued down the stairs, and was met with an unpleasant surprise when he arrived at his bunk bed in the huge boys’ dormitory. None of his luggage was there anymore, and when he climbed up to his bed, he discovered a single golden letter lying on top of his pillow.

What?

“Oi, you, first year!” called the fifth year boy who slept in the bunk underneath Harry’s, and Harry nearly smacked his head on the ceiling, taken by surprise.

“I’m in second year,” Harry muttered when he had recovered, peering down at the boy with narrowed eyes.

“Whatever. Before dinner a Bronze Skull came in here and took all your stuff away. I saw it happen,” said the boy, straightening up in his bed. “Why’s that? They gonna kill you?”

Harry blanched and ignored the question, going back to the letter.

“Or maybe,” the boy pondered, “you’re moving into their dorms. Are you a secret Pureblood or something?”

Harry kept ignoring him and smoothed out the letter, his heart thudding behind his ears.

Gold. Silver. Bronze. United in control, united in power.

The Skull Masks invite you to the House of Skulls.

Prove your control, prove your power, and prove yourself.

Breath hitching, he shook the letter, and another piece of parchment fell out of it, much less fancy. The words Password: Purify the blood, purify the world were scrawled on it in gloopy black ink.

Harry stared down at the letter, eyes unfocused and jaw slack.

“Oi, answer me, will you? You gonna die or not?” said the boy in the lower bunk, shaking one of the posts keeping Harry’s bed up.

***

“Theo, don’t you dare close the door on me!”

“What do you want?” Theo’s brown eye peered out at him, narrowed. When Draco had knocked on the door to his room, Theo had opened it just a sliver. But then, upon seeing who was outside, he had tried to slam it shut.

Draco would have none of this. He’d attempted to visit Harry this morning, desperate to see if he was all right, but Madam Pomfrey had chased him out before he could take two steps inside, and he wasn’t going to sit back and let another person block him out, least of all Theo.

“I’m here to explain,” said Draco, jamming his foot between the door and the wall so that Theo couldn’t close it. “Let me in. Now.”

“You don’t need to explain anything,” Theo mumbled, but yanked the door open a moment later anyway.

Draco stepped inside, looking around. Theo had already set up his bookshelves and desk in preparation for classes, and his bed was immaculately made. A single photograph in a thin silver frame decorated his dresser, featuring him and his brothers standing around their father, who sat straight-backed in a golden throne fit for a king. They were all wearing dark green robes made of silk, and Draco figured they must have gotten the picture taken professionally somewhere. His own family had a similar picture hanging in the entrance hall of the Malfoy Manor.

He held back a shudder, having no idea why Theo would keep a family picture near his bed. Being forced to look at the Nott twins in real life was surely bad enough without being reminded of them every night before going to bed.

“Say what you want to say,” Theo said, tapping his foot.

“Oh. Um, right.” Draco’s mouth felt very dry all of a sudden. “What I did last night—”

“I saw what you did last night.” Theo spoke in monotone, and his face was just as emotionless as his voice. For all Draco knew, he could’ve been made from stone. “You disobeyed orders from the Skull King and tried to save Potter.”

There was a very pregnant pause during which Draco gaped at Theo like a fish, struggling to find words to defend himself.

“I—I did,” he said at last. “But it was because I didn’t want him to die, not because I wanted to disobey the Skull King, or whatever you just said.”

“I know why you did it, Draco. I’m not stupid.” Theo’s voice dropped to a hiss. “You still care about him.”

“It’s not that simple,” said Draco, weakly. Theo’s responding glare could have charred him.

“I don’t care,” Theo said, wiping his face blank again. “You’re lucky that none of the Gold Skulls were paying attention to us, or they might have revoked the score you got on the Third Trial.”

Draco smothered his indignation at this unfounded statement. He had won his score fair and square. He’d ruined his friendship with Harry for that stupid Trial, for Merlin’s sake, and Theo was calling Draco’s sacrifice into question, for the millionth time?

He quelled his fury at last and said, “I betrayed Potter like I was supposed to. I haven’t talked to him since that day. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to save h—”

“I don’t care what it means.” Theo’s eyes sparked, but when he next spoke, he sounded tired. “Just… just leave, Draco.”

Draco spluttered for a few more seconds, before giving up and dragging himself to the door. There was no point in trying to salvage what didn’t want to be salvaged, and his friendship with Theo was one of those things. He’d tried hard enough.

“Why did you call Sebastian’s name? To save Potter?” came Theo’s voice before Draco reached the door, sounding as though it were supporting a sneer.

Draco froze and turned around slowly. Theo didn’t meet his gaze, instead choosing to stare at the wall behind him.

“Yes,” said Draco, because there was no other way to explain his behavior last night, and Theo already knew the truth anyway, so what was the point of coming up with a fancy story?

Theo’s lip trembled, just like it had back in Dungeon Seven when he’d seen Draco try to run out into the arena during Harry’s fight with the Skulls. But Theo stilled his face a moment later, and Draco wondered if he’d imagined it.

“Sebastian might hurt Potter to hurt you, if he thinks that you’re friends with him,” said Theo, clearing his throat. Draco couldn’t identify the tone of his voice just then, but he was too busy panicking about what Theo had just said to care.

“I’m not friends with Potter,” Draco said, with such urgency that Theo took a step back. Even the slightest possibility that Sebastian might decide to hurt Harry because of him made Draco feel faint. I asked Harry to join the Skulls and begged him to stay friends with me. Harry barely survived Sebastian in the first place, and if Sebastian comes after him again—

Draco swallowed, the gloomy realization sinking in. I’d prefer it if Sebastian came after me instead. At least I know what to expect, and I’ve beaten him before.

Theo curled his lip, and Draco remembered that he was in the middle of a conversation. “Fine, you’re not friends with him. Whatever you say. The truth doesn’t change what Sebastian thinks, though. Can you go now? I have something to do later tonight.”

“I was just about to leave when you stopped me,” Draco shot back, but nevertheless did what Theo ordered. Before he clicked the door shut behind him, he asked, “Is that it, then? Are you never going to talk to me again? I said sorry, you know, about what I said to you this summer. And you forgave me for it too, so I don’t know why you’re doing this—”

Theo whipped out his wand, muttered something, and the door slammed shut in Draco’s face.

***

Goosebumps erupting all over his arms, Harry arrived at the great big North dormitory, which was differentiated from the other three student dorms by the glittering skull emblem on its door. A few Bronze Skulls stood guard outside it, playing a card game to pass the time.

Their eyes followed him closely as he said the password, which tasted bitter on his tongue, and he wondered if they knew who he was. The skull emblem on the door sunk inward, allowing the door to click open, and Harry took a tentative step toward the door.

They didn’t stop me at the doors, or ask for any kind of identification. Maybe they’re expecting me? Harry could hardly believe that he was one of them now.

He couldn’t even remember how he’d survived last night, much less how he was suddenly getting a room in the fabled Skull dormitories. He had to admit that the excitement was slowly starting to sink in now, but he couldn’t shake off the horrible feeling that it was all going to be a prank of some sorts. That he was going to walk foolishly into the Skull dormitories, only to be murdered right away.

Not that I have much of a choice but to do what they want, Harry thought with a scowl. They took all my luggage. And Synesis was in my bag. He hoped they hadn’t gone through his stuff, and if they had, hopefully the book looked innocuous enough for them not to give it a second glance.

Harry gasped, and complete and utter amazement temporarily buried all of his worries. The Skull dormitories were ten times more luxurious than anything Harry had seen in the Elite dormitories, and that was saying something.

The entrance opened up into a lavish receiving hall, illuminated by a strange but bright silver light. Clear crystal made up the floor, and every time Harry took a step, the crystal would turn into solid silver where his foot had touched it, only to return back to crystal when he stepped away. Meanwhile, the walls were made entirely of iridescent jewels, carved lovingly into the shapes of dragons and serpents and chimaera. The silver light reflected off the gems, giving Harry the impression that colorful creatures danced on the walls.

“You’re finally here,” said a voice from the shadows, and Harry whipped out his wand.

It was Theodore Nott, leaning against the wall, wand casually held in his hand.

Harry thought of doing many violent things. Murder and torture both sounded like solid options, but attacking Nott on his own territory would not be a wise decision, and Harry had been stupid enough this week already.

“Why are you here?” he snarled, balling his hands into fists.

Nott’s face was utterly expressionless, which pissed Harry off even more. “I was picked by the Skull Court to show you to your room in the Skull dorms, and explain to you what you’ll be going through as a second-phase Initiate,” said Nott. “I’ve been standing in here and waiting for fifteen minutes. Come with me now, will you?”

With that, he walked off, leaving a spluttering Harry in his wake. The hall ended in a black circular room, which contained five doors: one plain black, one bronze, one silver, one gold, and the final adorned with an emblem of a crown.

“These are the front entrances of the five different wings,” said Theo, making his way to the plain black door. “Initiate, Bronze, Silver, Gold, and the King’s Court. The back entrances of each wing are connected to the central Skull Pit, which is the main common room and accessible to all Skulls and Initiates. Each wing also contains a smaller common room. Any questions?”

“Yeah. I have a question,” said Harry, nastily. “Why’re you doing this for me?” He remembered Halloween last year with clarity. Theo had kidnapped Harry and some other non-Elites, kicked him around, and screamed at him for “tainting Draco with dirty blood.” Of course, Theo hadn’t gone after Harry again after that fiasco, but only because Draco had forced him not to, not because Theo had repented.

Harry wouldn’t have let any of this bother him ordinarily. There was only so much humanity you could expect from a Skull, and Theo wasn’t even the worst person Harry had met last year. But Theo stuck to Draco like some sort of parasite at all times, always touching him and talking to him, and Harry hated Theo for this even more than he hated Dolohov.

“I already said, I’m doing this because I was ordered to, not because I want to.” Theo’s voice darkened. “Do you have any actual questions?”

“Yeah, I do,” Harry said, refusing to be intimidated. “Where’s Draco?”

The infuriating mask of calm on Theo’s face cracked and fell away, and when he finally turned to look at Harry, his eyes blazed. “In the Initiate Wing, probably sleeping by now. If you’re quite done asking questions—”

“What room is he in?”

Harry ached to see him. He wasn’t thinking too straight right now, and still wasn’t sure about forgiving Draco, but he knew that he had no choice but to talk to Draco face to face. Harry had nearly died, and he needed to see Draco, to touch him, just to make sure that they were both still alive and whole.

I want to forgive him, Harry realized, amazed at how nearly dying could change his stance so quickly. He had to be careful not to turn into a puddle of goo the moment he saw Draco’s face.

If Theo would even let Harry see Draco’s face, that was.

“Room numbers are not public knowledge, and in order to follow protocol, I can’t tell you that,” Theo said through gritted teeth, his whole body quivering, as if he were trying to contain all his rage within it.

Bullshit. There’s no ‘protocol’ about this, Harry thought, and was just about to say so when Theo whirled around and stalked through the door.

Harry went after him, fuming, but all murderous thoughts were yet again driven from his mind upon seeing the Initiate common room. Like the entrance hall, the walls here were made of gemstones, the room furnished with silk chaises and dragon leather sofas.

“This is the lounge,” said Theo, not looking at Harry. “Past it, you’ll find a small library and the game parlor. The first training session for our Initiation class, which you are for some reason a part of from now on, takes place the Sunday after the second week of school, in Dungeon Three. Is that clear? Now, come with me. I’ll take you to your room.”

Harry did not argue. He looked around, craning his neck, vaguely aware of the fact that everyone in the lounge had gone silent when he had entered, and now all the Initiates were staring at him, wide-eyed. Many of them had been present to witness his near-demise last night, after all. Face burning in shame, Harry tried not to think about them. Draco wasn’t out here, and Harry wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved about that.

“Hurry up,” Theo snapped, and in a couple seconds they arrived at the edge of the common area. Countless numbered doors lined the walls, but Theo led Harry past all of these, until they had reached the very end of the line.

There was only one door left. It was smaller than the rest and didn’t have a number.

Harry had a bad feeling about this.

Theo kicked the door open and gestured inside. “You’ll have to forgive the lack of luxuries in your room. Turns out there wasn’t space available for you, and magicking rooms to appear is… well, the older Skulls didn’t want to bother to do that, not for someone like you.”

His mouth twitched then, as if he were holding back a smile. “Enjoy your dirty room, dirty-blood,” Theo sneered, walking off before Harry could respond, shoulders shaking with laughter.

Harry, pushing back the urge to murder him, stepped into the room, and at once the smell of musk and mold assaulted his nose, making him shrink away in disgust. The room was dim and about the size of a broom closet, which it probably was, and lit by a single flickering torch. Rough stone made up the floors, and a small, scratchy-looking cot lay in the corner beside all of his luggage.

Harry let out an ugly swear word.

“Harry?” Synesis’s eager voice drifted across the closet, coming from Harry’s book bag. “Looks like we’ll have some privacy after all, so you can talk to me this year. But why are we here? You didn’t tell me this happened to Initiates.”

Harry hushed Synesis and slammed the door shut, then rummaged in his bag for the privacy and silencing ward he had used to hide his Summoning activities from Lily during the summer. He wasn’t sure what kind of security the Skulls had, or whether they were watching him at all, but he could never be too safe. Draco’s Elite bedroom last year had included built-in privacy wards, and the Skull bedrooms almost certainly did too, but Harry didn’t live in a nice Skull bedroom. He lived in a goddamn broom closet.

When the wards were set up, he turned back to Synesis, barely resisting the urge to kick the wall in. “They gave me a fucking broom closet.” Harry felt the need to say this out loud and voice the righteous anger that had been swirling around in his head.

“What happened?” Synesis asked. “Can you please tell me what’s going on?”

Harry ignored the book and continued to fume. Theo being the one to show him to his room had been rubbing salt into the wound. Why was Harry here? Were the Skulls playing around with him? Was this some sort of trick?

They’d let him skip a year of Initiation and hadn’t killed him yet, so Harry supposed he ought to be grateful for his shitty broom closet. Not that he was. He was grateful for being alive, of course, but that was about it.

“HARRY! LISTEN TO ME! What happened last night? What did you DO?” Synesis screeched, finally succeeding in capturing Harry’s attention.

Harry hesitated in his answer, sheepish. He knew he would get another lecture from Synesis, but perhaps he deserved one. So, teeth gritted and hackles raised, Harry told the book how he’d nearly died.

“You’re a fool,” said Synesis, after the whole sordid tale was over and Harry was panting from talking for so long. Synesis didn’t even sound angry, just disappointed, and Harry felt a stab of shame.

“How should I have known that asking a simple question was enough to get me killed?” Harry tried to defend himself.

“Oh, please, don’t give me excuses. You spent half the summer ranting to me about how insane all the Skulls were. You should have known this would happen. What, did you think the Skulls were going to treat you like a king? Do you think that you’re one of them now, that they see you as an Initiate. Please. You’re a trespassing half-blood.” Synesis snorted, then went serious.

“Don’t get too complacent, even now. Just because they let you skip a year for some bizarre reason doesn’t mean you’re safe. I think it’s a trap of some sort, and even if it’s not, you could still be killed for stepping a toe out of line. Keep your mouth shut, Harry.”

“I know that now, okay?” Harry’s face burned in shame. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I just… I just didn’t want the Skulls to see me as only Draco’s target. I wanted them to know who I was.”

“You’re an idiot, but your stupid plan probably worked,” Synesis hissed. “You’ve drawn attention to yourself unnecessarily. They’ll be watching you now. You spent all summer talking about how you were going to take over the Skulls, or whatever wild fantasy of the day you came up with. Good luck trying that now.”

“I—”

“And I still can’t believe you used your powers on a Skull.” Synesis raised its voice, on the verge of shouting. “Your slightly heightened reflexes can easily go unnoticed, but your superhuman strength can’t. If this Sebastian person tells someone that you broke his fingers with your bare hands, they’ll start suspecting something is up.”

“He won’t tell,” said Harry, the room spinning around him. He had assumed, in the throes of his agony, that he wouldn’t survive, so why not? Why not do the one thing he had the strength to do, and break Sebastian’s fingers? He hadn’t given his secret a second thought, not when he’d been sure there were mere seconds of his life left. “Nott won’t admit that he got injured by a twelve-year-old. He doesn’t seem like the type.”

“You don’t know him enough to know what type he is!” said Synesis with a snarl. “And even if he keeps it a secret, that’s one person too many who knows something’s up with you. Others will suspect whatever they want, but he has the proof. And you’ve made him an enemy. You moron.”

“Synesis, I—”

“Look, Harry, you’re trying to run before you can walk. If you’re stupid enough to complain that they gave you a broom closet to sleep in, you still haven’t gotten it. You expect and demand luxury from them, even though they tried to kill you less than twenty-four hours ago. Idiot. Keep your head down from now on. Do well in your Trials. Don’t pick fights. Live in this broom closet without whining. Swallow your pride for one damn second, and show everybody here respect, no matter what names they call you. I don’t care if you have to kiss somebody’s shoes—”

“I get it, okay?” Harry was panting again for some reason, as if he’d run a mile, and his face burned.

“And last of all, stop fighting with Draco. Use him instead,” Synesis said, talking over Harry as if he hadn’t spoken. “He’s a Pureblood. He belongs here, you don’t. You need all the help you can get. You cried all summer about how you wanted to be seen as his equal. But you are not his equal, not in this place, and the sooner you realize that, the longer you’ll live.”

“I know. Just—just be quiet. Please.” Harry flopped down onto his cot, rubbing his throbbing head. The cot was hard and lumpy in some places, but it wasn’t much worse than his old bunk.

Synesis spoke the truth: he had no right to complain, not when he’d slipped through the jaws of death by an inch.

Draco saved me. Harry’s throat felt sore and scratchy, his nose stuffed. Draco had fought against Theo and Millicent’s restraints, making it quite obvious to everyone watching that he was on Harry’s side. And he’d distracted Sebastian in the nick of time, giving Harry a precious few more seconds to outlive the countdown.

No, Harry could not deny it any longer. On Walpurgis Night, Draco had chosen the Skulls over Harry. But last night, Draco had chosen Harry.

And Harry was still angry, still bitter about Walpurgis Night, and probably would be bitter forever. But Draco had made his choice, at great risk to himself, and he’d saved Harry so many times by now that Harry was tired of coming up with reasons to begrudge him forgiveness.

And if that wasn’t enough, Draco might be in trouble with the Skulls now. Harry somewhat doubted that Draco’s flawless performance on Walpurgis Night would be called into question, since it had been obvious to everyone watching that Harry’s breakdown was not an act, but Draco had done more last night than just foolishly reveal he still cared about Harry.

He had tried to distract Sebastian, and Sebastian had been shaken by it, almost suspiciously shaken by it. And a pissed off Sebastian could not end well for Draco.

Harry felt ill at even the slightest possibility that Sebastian might decide to hurt Draco because of Harry’s dumb mistake. If Sebastian to comes after Draco because he tried to save me from my complete stupidity—

Harry closed his eyes, the gloomy realization sinking in. I’d rather nearly die at Sebastian’s hands again than have him go after Draco.

Of course, there was the question of why Draco’s ruse had worked so well on Sebastian in the first place, why it had unsettled him so much. Harry had the oddest feeling that there was some sort of history between them, but couldn’t imagine what it could be.

Never in all his conversations with Harry last year had Draco mentioned the Nott twins, or even hinted that he knew who the hell they were. Harry had mentioned them a couple times offhandedly during unrelated conversations, but Draco had always changed the subject without acknowledging their existence, and Harry hadn’t thought much of it. Draco always changed the subject, after all, whenever he was bored or annoyed or whatever. He had the attention span of a snidget.

But Draco has to know Sebastian. He’s childhood friends with Theo, Harry reminded himself reluctantly. So it was almost certain that Draco was at least acquainted with the twins. But then why hadn’t he mentioned them, not even once? How could you not talk about the Nott twins? They were practically Hogwarts celebrities. People gossiped about them all the time, so why hadn’t Draco?

Was Draco scared of Sebastian, perhaps? Had he threatened Draco, bullied him in some way? Harry clenched his fists at the thought, trying to battle the helplessness he felt at this possibility. Sebastian Nott was a far more competent opponent than the likes of Zabini and Smith, both of whom Harry had set straight last year for bullying Draco.

Harry took a deep breath and tried to think about something else. His thoughts were moving around in circles, and he was jumping to the worst possible conclusions. Something felt wrong to him about this whole situation, but that did not mean there was actually anything out of the ordinary going on.

Harry would just have to talk to Draco, learn the truth, and make sure that, somehow, Sebastian would not come after him. That was all.

First on the list was talking to Draco, which meant finding out which room he lived in. Harry sighed, and looked at the door to his room. If Theodore fucking Nott wasn’t going to tell him, Harry was going to have to talk to some of his fellow Initiates, who would likely laugh in his face. Harry hadn’t been very impressive last night, after all.

Harry was just mustering up the courage to go outside when Synesis spoke.

“What are you doing, tottering around? Call him on your Thread Sphere already, will you? Ask him where he is so you two can meet face to face. Wear your Invisibility Cloak.”

And Harry, for the first time in what felt like years, smiled. “Have I mentioned how useful you are, Synesis?”

“No,” Synesis grumbled. “You should do it more. Ungrateful brat. Now listen, I’m not done lecturing you yet.”

Harry stopped smiling.

***

Draco finished the homework Carrow had assigned them today, decided this was going to be the pinnacle of his productiveness all year, and started getting ready for bed. He was halfway into his pajamas when the Thread Sphere in his book bag started to ring.

For a moment he stood there, frozen like a deer caught in the wandlight, arms tangled in his sleeves, then hopped over to it at full speed.

“Yes?” His voice didn’t come out as strong as he’d wanted it to. “Harry?”

“Where are you?” Harry didn’t seem inclined to waste time on small talk. Draco stifled his irritation.

“In my room.” Draco paused, not sure where to even start. “I figured you were in the Hospital Wing all day. After you—well, after you fought Sebastian, you passed out, and Adolphus told the Skulls to take you to the Hospital Wing. He said that you’d be given what you asked for.”

Harry took a very loud breath on the other side. “Oh. That’s what happened. That’s why.”

“Why what?” Draco snarled. What was Harry even mumbling about? He’d ignored Draco for months, nearly gotten himself killed, and now when he finally called him he wasn’t even ready to have a proper conversation?

“Listen. What room are you in right now?”

“Room 17. Why does it matter?”

The Thread Sphere clicked, disconnecting, and Draco almost chucked it into the wall at this rude dismissal. He seethed for a few seconds, slowly coming to the realization that Harry might have already moved into the Skull dormitories, and might want to talk to Draco face to face.

Then somebody knocked on his door.

***

Harry stood under his Invisibility Cloak outside Draco’s door, heart thumping. He could have gone without the cloak, and part of him wanted to make it obvious to the whole wide world that he was allowed into Draco’s fancy bedroom, but had decided not to tempt fate.

The door swung open, and Harry inhaled sharply.

Draco stood there, and the nostalgia nearly threw Harry off his feet. From Draco’s hair, mussed like it usually was late into the night when he couldn’t be bothered with slicking it back, to his stupid green pajamas with the snakes on them, he was unchanged. Confronted with this, all logical thought left Harry’s head.

It had been so long since Harry had looked at Draco, really looked at him, and now Harry could look at him all he wanted, drink him in. In fact, he was so distracted that it took a few long seconds for him to remember that he was invisible and that Draco couldn’t see him.

“It’s me,” Harry whispered, unveiling just a portion of his head before pulling his cloak back into place.

Draco made a hoarse sound in the back of his throat, grabbed Harry’s arm through the cloak, and dragged him inside. The door slammed shut, leaving them in privacy, and then Draco tore Harry’s cloak off and tackled him to the floor.

Smack. “You”—smack—“fucking”—smack—“idiot!” Smack.

Harry rubbed his arm where Draco had smacked him, belatedly muttering, “Ow.” Both of them were on the ground now, Draco leaning over him, his hair more disheveled than before. He puffed himself up like an angry cat, eyes blazing, hackles raised.

“Y-you nearly died last night, you idiot, and then you—what, you live here now?” Draco’s voice trembled with indignant fury. “And you waltz into my room without apologizing to me, without thanking me for everything I’ve done for you, and—” Draco paused, sounding as if he were on the verge of tears. “—and you could’ve died, died hating me. Which you still do, don’t you? Why are you even here, if all you’re going do is yell at me about how much I betrayed you, and how I’m not sorry enough? Well, I’m sorry, Harry, I’m fucking SORRY—”

“I missed you,” said Harry, and Draco stopped talking. He clenched his eyes shut and turned his head away, as if he would do anything rather than meet Harry’s gaze. Giving up, he went limp on top of Harry, his shoulders shaking. Harry didn’t know if Draco was crying or not, and patted him awkwardly on the back, flushing pink.

Draco’s nose jutted into Harry’s collarbone, and his eyelashes fluttered against Harry’s neck. Feeling ticklish because of this, Harry shifted so that Draco lay beside him instead. Then Draco mumbled something about Harry being a prick.

Harry held back a chuckle. It was nice, having Draco lie next to him. It was even nicer to hear his voice, no matter how high-pitched and whiny it could get. Harry hadn’t forgiven Draco for Walpurgis Night, but Draco was at least trying to make up for it.

And even if Draco hadn’t done enough to repent yet, Harry could at least allow himself the pleasure of talking to Draco. Talking to Draco—and hearing him talk back—felt better than anything in the world right now.

“Are you okay?” Harry asked, a few minutes later, when Draco’s angry muttering had died down. He didn’t push Draco away just yet, not wanting to get up anytime soon. They were lying on white, fluffy, cloud-like carpet, carpet ten times softer than Harry’s stupid cot.

“Am I okay? What do you mean, am I okay?” Draco spluttered, finally unsticking his face from Harry’s skin and looking up at him, jaw set. His eyelashes were clumped together and darker than usual, as if his eyes had been just slightly wet a moment earlier. His upturned nose, spattered with freckles you could only see from this close, had gone bright red.

Harry blinked at him, forgetting his train of thought. He’d always known that Draco possessed extremely attractive features, of course, but Harry had slowly grown used to them the more time he spent around Draco, in the same way that a human’s vision was able to adjust to blinding sunlight.

But sometimes Draco would tilt his face at a certain angle, or use a certain expression, and Harry would fall into a daze for ten seconds. Like now.

“No, I  said, are you okay?” Harry said once he had recovered, wishing Draco would put his offensively pretty face back into Harry’s chest so that Harry didn’t have to look at it. “I mean, I saw you trying to escape Bulstrode’s clutches while I was fighting the Skulls. And then you shouted Nott’s name to help me. So are you okay, did anything happen to you?”

Draco’s expression closed up. “I tried to run out into the arena because I lost control. That part’s pretty obvious. And I called out Se—Nott’s name because I thought it might distract him.”

“I didn’t ask why you did it,” Harry snapped. “I’m asking if you’re okay. What did the Skulls say to you? Did they do anything to punish you for trying to help me? Did Nott do anything? Any of the Notts?”

Draco glared. “I’m fine, Harry. They won’t kick me out of Initiation. First of all, I don’t think the Gold Skulls were paying attention to the Initiates during your fight, and even if someone tattles on me, they won’t be able to prove that I wasn’t sincere on Walpurgis Night. The evidence checks out. The Skulls wouldn’t have passed me in the first place if they’d suspected that you weren’t completely… you know. Broken, shattered, and destroyed.” Draco, who’d started out blustering, now looked sheepish.

Harry changed the subject. If he never heard about Walpurgis Night again, it would be too soon. “You didn’t answer my other question. Did Nott do anything? Do you think he’ll do something?”

“Theo?” said Draco, even though Harry was quite sure Draco knew he had meant Sebastian. “Well, Theo and I argued a bit a couple hours ago. We haven’t been talking much anyway. It’s not a big deal. I think he might say something to my father, because he always tattles on me and tries to interfere in everything I do—” Draco stopped, face scrunched up in confusion. “Well, he’s been acting like he doesn’t care recently, so maybe not even that.”

Harry would have bet the entire Potter fortune—admittedly, this was a paltry amount; the Dark Lord’s Ministry had seized the treasures of all Pureblood families not allied with them—that Theo was still madly obsessed with Draco, if his reaction to Harry asking about Draco’s room was anything to go by.

Anyway, Harry had no desire for Draco to realize that and changed the subject yet again. “I don’t care about the younger Nott. You called out Sebastian’s name. Won’t you get into trouble for that? I’m pretty sure everybody heard it.”

This time, Harry did not imagine Draco’s pale face losing even more of its color. “The Skulls don’t care if the audience interferes,” he said in a flat voice, carefully looking away from Harry. “The audience interferes in punishments all the time. Usually it’s to hurt the person being punished, but it’s not like I did anything wrong. And besides, they won’t punish me.” Draco started talking faster. “My father’s a Death Eater. I could insult half the Gold Skulls and still live. The only way I’m getting kicked out of Initiation is if I fail a lot of the Trials.”

Harry had the strangest suspicion that Draco was once again avoiding the root of the question. Harry had asked, “Won’t you get into trouble?” It was a question that could be taken a variety of ways, even though Harry had implied it to mean, “Won’t you get into trouble with Sebastian for that?”

He repeated his question that way, and watched Draco’s eyes widen. Harry straightened up and looked down at Draco expectantly.

“What do you mean? I already answered you. Sebastian is one of the high-ranked Skulls, and I’m a Death Eater’s son. He won’t hurt me either,” Draco said at last.

Harry decided to stop beating around the bush. “Do you know Sebastian? It seemed like you did, last night.”

Harry didn’t fancy the thought of Draco knowing Sebastian.

“He’s Theo’s older brother. Of course I know him.” Draco straightened up too, until his and Harry’s eyes were at the same level.

“You haven’t mentioned the Nott twins before, and they’re the most famous people in the school,” Harry said, his tone laced with suspicion.

“Why would I mention them for no reason?” said Draco, and either he was putting on a very good act, or he was genuinely confused. “I avoided discussing with you them because you always got annoyed when I mentioned Theo, and they’re his brothers. I thought you wouldn’t want to talk about them.”

Harry felt very stupid all of a sudden. Earlier, when he had been scaring himself thinking of the horrible things the Nott twins could have done to bully Draco, he hadn’t considered the simplest explanation for why Draco had skirted around them in conversation: for Harry.

Wait a moment. That didn’t add up either, though. Sebastian had seemed unnaturally affected by Draco calling out his name. He’d lost his composure. But maybe that was just because he was angry that he’d been caught off guard.

Harry told Draco that, and still Draco’s expression did not change.

“He was supposed to lose his composure, Harry. That was the point of me calling out his name, you idiot. He was probably just pissed off at me. But he won’t hurt me, so it doesn’t matter.”

Harry wasn’t having it. “But he seemed really out of it, really angry about everything after you said his name, and before that he was just bored,” Harry insisted.

“Maybe you imagined it.” Draco shrugged, uninterested, then fixed Harry with a glower. “More likely he was mad at you for getting away from him, not me for distracting him. You slipped out of his clutches so fast that I bet he couldn’t believe someone as inexperienced as a second year was so good.”

Draco raised his voice, frustrated. “Why do you keep suspecting all these weird things about us, anyway? What do you even think is between me and Sebastian? What’s so weird to you?”

Harry was sure he was going mad. “I just—I don’t know why you’ve never mentioned them before,” he repeated, realizing just how stupid he sounded after he’d said it.

“I already told you why I didn’t mention them before,” said Draco, looking at Harry like he had gone insane, which he probably had. “What do you want to know about them, anyway? We can talk about them now, if you’d like. In fact, we’d better talk about them. Sebastian might try to get revenge on you or something for surviving him. I doubt anybody’s he’s tried to kill has ever survived him before.”

Harry had only vaguely considered this possibility, caught up with the more frightening possibility of Draco getting into trouble, but had to admit that he himself was the one in more danger right now. “Is that something he’d do, come after me out of ‘revenge’? You know him well, right, you said?”

Something curdled in Harry’s belly, not liking the idea of Draco knowing Sebastian well. Harry hated the idea of Draco even talking to Theodore, for Merlin’s sake, and Theo was a paragon of sanity and kindness compared to his brothers.

Draco snorted and shook his head. “Know him well? I mean, sort of? I see Sebastian and Nathaniel sometimes at Nott Manor. We don’t talk much. Why would we? They’re three years older than me. Anyway, I know Sebastian well enough to promise that he’s furious that you got away. And even if he isn’t going to come after you, we’d better assume the worst and prepare for it.”

“Is he going to try and kill me, finish the job?” Harry said. He was confronted with the urge to collapse into a screaming heap, not sure when it was ever going to be over, then got himself under control.

“Probably not,” Draco assured him. “When you were carried out of Dungeon Seven, Adolphus said that you would live. Sebastian won’t go against the King’s orders, and he probably won’t hurt you outright. But he’ll be King next year. So I don’t know what he’ll do then, and he might try to screw with you this year, too. We just have to stay away from him at all costs.”

Draco shook with conviction and passion when he talked about Sebastian, and Harry still wasn’t convinced that there was nothing substantial between them. But if Draco wasn’t going to tell him what it was, Harry would have to figure it out on his own, or maybe ask him again at a later date.

In any case, he had to stop dwelling on the Sebastian-Draco connection when he’d arrived at a dead end, or he was going to drive himself mad.

***

Draco had accomplished several things during this conversation.

One: He’d gotten himself back into Harry’s good books, at least on the surface. It was almost unbelievable how quickly they had fallen into their old routine, as if Draco hadn’t ever betrayed Harry and they hadn’t just spent an entire summer apart. But Draco knew that Harry still had reservations about forgiving him, that he wouldn’t fully trust Draco again. That was all right. Draco didn’t need Harry to trust him with unguarded friendship right now, just trust him enough to listen to him and not get himself killed again. The idiot.

Two: Draco had somehow managed to throw Harry off Sebastian’s scent, but not for long. Harry definitely suspected something. According to Harry, Sebastian had been furious at the end of the battle, and Draco could guess why. Like Theo had suggested earlier, Sebastian might have realized that Draco cared about Harry enough to try and save him.

Draco had no idea what Harry would do if he knew the whole sorry tale of Sebastian’s enmity toward Draco, and he didn’t want to find out. Harry couldn’t use wandless magic anymore, and his situation was too precarious right now anyway. He’d be killed if he took on Sebastian, like he almost had been last night, and it would be Draco’s fault. Again.

Besides, why was Draco being so arrogant as to assume that Harry still cared about him enough to go after his bullies? You miserable fool. He won’t sacrifice his life for me, not right now, not after everything. Draco’s chest hurt. He wanted someone to get rid of Sebastian for him so badly that he was imagining unlikely scenarios.

Three: He’d winged the conversation and convinced Harry that Sebastian was going to come after him. Not because Sebastian might want to finish the job, but because Sebastian might now suspect that Draco cared about Harry.

But Harry didn’t need to know the real reason Sebastian was after him, if he even was, as long as he kept his guard up and did not continue to do stupid things. And not doing stupid things was impossible for Harry, so Draco would have to keep a close watch and ensure that Sebastian’s ire was focused somewhere else.

But Draco was good at plans, and he could fix the mess Harry had dug them into last night. Draco would figure out how to help Harry survive the Skulls and Sebastian. There was no other choice. And maybe Sebastian wouldn’t go after Harry after all.

Maybe he’ll come after me instead.

“Draco?” said Harry, and Draco realized that he’d been staring at the wall for the past minute.

“We need to to figure out what we’re going to do,” said Draco, turning back to face Harry with gritted teeth. “Okay?”

Harry cocked his head, his mess of hair falling over one eye. Draco wanted to tie it all back. Harry’s hair didn’t look long, but there was so much of it that it could probably be put into a ponytail easily.

“First of all, we need to figure out how we’re going to present our relationship,” Draco said, clearing his throat. “We can’t let anybody know we’re in contact with each other. If Sebastian or the high-ranked Skulls watch us, they’d better not find any more proof that we’re still talking to each other.”

Harry’s face fell. “But—”

“But what?” Draco said, raising an eyebrow. “If they catch us acting like friends, it’ll be suspicious. Until everyone forgets about what happened last night, we don’t have any connection to each other.”

And this is the only way to throw Sebastian off. If he has no more reason to think that I care about Harry or that Harry cares about me, he won’t come after us.

“This is because you don’t want your results on Walpurgis Night to be questioned, isn’t it?” said Harry, voice darkening. “Or are you still ashamed of me?”

Draco wanted to scream, so he did. “You—idiot! All the Skulls are watching you already, and if they have any more reason to think you have my loyalty, you’ll attract even more attention! Someone might get mad, might think that you’re overstepping your welcome. Look, Harry, half-bloods like you don’t spend time Purebloods like me, okay? People don’t like it, and they start to talk.”

Draco swallowed, remembering all the gossip he’d overheard in the Elite common room last year. Every now and then, some Skull would date or hang out with a non-Elite dirty-blood. Students on both sides—Elite or not—looked down on this sort of behavior, so such friendships and relationships were kept discreet, if not outright secret.

But then one of the people in the relationship—usually the dirty-blood—would grow tired of the secretiveness and try to spend time with their Skull friend in public. And Skulls did not like it if a dirty-blood intruded on them, even with the blessings of his friend, and they always dealt with the offending dirty-blood quickly.

All the Initiates knew who Harry was now, and from the conversations Draco had overheard in the common room earlier, they were torn between disgust at a half-blood getting special treatment and jealousy at Harry’s talent. Draco would bet good money that they were going to be hostile to him at best, and if Harry tried to pretend that he was just as good as them, they’d get angry fast.

“We got away with it last year because our friendship was supposed to be an act, and we were first years, so nobody knew us anyway. We won’t get away with it this year,” said Draco.

Harry swelled up like a balloon, and Draco knew before he even opened his mouth that he was furious.

“Not that I particularly care if we talk or not, but weren’t you the one who said that we could ‘be friends’ again now that I’m a Skull? I remember that’s exactly what you said to me on the Thread Sphere this summer,” Harry said, voice low and hissy.

That was before you messed everything up! Draco nearly screamed.

“If you’d just kept your head down and gone through Initiation quietly, without pissing off Adolphus and Sebastian and all the Initiates who were watching, we could’ve made our friendship public in a couple months! Nobody would have paid any attention to what you were! Nobody even knew that you existed before last night, much less that you were a half-blood, and now everybody knows!”

Draco’s irritation gave way to anger. “And even now, it’s not like we’ll never be able to speak to each other in public again, but you want too much, too fast. Maybe in a few months, maybe in year, this will all die down. But right now? No, we can’t reveal that we’re talking to each other right now, and that’s it. If you’re angry and don’t want to be friends with me now, that’s fine. But don’t mess things up even more.”

I can’t let Sebastian hurt you.

Draco ended his rant, and silence cloaked the room. His chest rose and fell with each breath. Harry watched his face closely.

Harry got to his feet and dusted off his pants. “Okay. I get it. Then we don’t talk.”

“Harry, you—oh.” Draco had puffed himself up again, ready to begin a fresh rant, and deflated at once.

“Thanks for saving my life yesterday, Draco.” Harry did not look at him.

“I’ve saved your life a million times,” said Draco quietly as Harry made his way to the door, then raised his voice. “Hey, wait a minute! We’re not done talking yet!”

Harry turned, the Invisibility Cloak in his arms. His expression was oddly stiff and icy. “Yes?”

“We need a plan,” said Draco. “A plan for what you’re going to have to do for Initiation to keep yourself alive.”

Draco had the feeling that Harry would be able to handle whatever Trials the Skulls threw at him, if his First Trial results were anything to go by, and tried his hardest to beat his rabid jealousy back into a corner. Being jealous of Harry right now was stupid and pointless, and Draco had no reason to be jealous of a dirty-blood anyway.

“I don’t need your plans to stay alive during the Trials,” said Harry, not hiding his sneer, and Draco felt dislike shoot through him.

“You don’t even know what the Trials are yet, you arrogant arse. Anyway, that’s not what the point is. I’m sure you’ll be able to pass the Trials, but you have to make sure you don’t do something monumentally stupid during them, like you did yesterday. We’ll have to prepare for the Trials together and go over what you’re going to do, so we can make sure that you don’t get yourself killed by breaking some sort of rule.”

Draco paused, expecting Harry to explode at him, but Harry just pursed his lips, deep in thought.

“But we’ll have to meet for that,” he said, eyebrows furrowed.

“We’ll do it in secret,” Draco snapped. “Didn’t I make it clear that we can’t do it in public?”

Harry’s mouth fell open. “Wait—when you said that we couldn’t talk for months, you meant—”

“Yes, we can still talk in private, you idiot,” Draco said, groaning. “On the Thread Spheres and wherever else we meet in secret. You can come to my room with your Invisibility Cloak. What, did you think that when I said that we couldn’t talk, that I actually meant we would never talk? What’s wrong with you? Why are you so stupid?”

The edge of Harry’s lips turned up, the slightest hint of a smile, and Draco went pink. He was so angry that he couldn’t breathe.

Harry put on his Invisibility Cloak, ready to leave, and said, smiling wider now, “Then we’ll talk again. And I’m sorry for being stupid, Draco.”

With that, Harry left, and Draco wanted to scream again, or maybe laugh.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIX

THE SKULL PIT

o

Even though Harry’s school year had started off with a bang, it settled into its usual boring routine by Thursday. Harry sat in the back row of Transfiguration class, doodling on the edge of his notes and bored out of his mind.

Neville Longbottom kept looking over his shoulder as if he expected Harry to attack him before class started, and Harry scowled at his desk, gripping his quill a bit harder than was necessary. Thanks to Zacharias Smith’s solid gossiping skills, Harry’s non-Elite classmates had discovered sometime yesterday that he was now a Skull Initiate, and if Neville’s reaction was anything to go by, they had no desire to congratulate him for it.

Realizing Harry had caught him staring, Neville gulped and spun back around. He moved an inch closer to Anthony Goldstein, perhaps thinking that Goldstein, of all people, would protect him from a Harry gone rabid.

Harry considered crumbling up his parchment and chucking it at Neville’s stupid head, but at that moment Professor Black walked in, humming under his breath.

He continued to hum three steps into the class, then stopped in his tracks. Slowly, very slowly, he turned his head.

And looked straight at Harry.

Harry blinked, confused. Though Regulus was the professor Harry hated the least at Hogwarts—and therefore his automatic favorite—Regulus hadn’t ever paid attention to him before. He taught in his usual jittery, paranoid way, and Harry sat in the back row and doodled. As far as Harry was aware, Professor Black didn’t even know he existed.

Until now, it seemed.

Feeling uncomfortable in the face of his professor’s intense stare, Harry dropped his gaze back to his parchment. He had no idea what he’d done to warrant it, and a few students were turning around now, trying to figure out why their professor hadn’t made it to the blackboard.

As if a switch had been flipped, Regulus finally stopped his staring and walked the rest of the way to the front, immediately launching into a lecture on how to transfigure beetles to buttons and filling up the blackboard with his messy handwriting.

Every now and then, his eyes would dart over to the back row, but Harry couldn’t figure out if Regulus was still watching him or watching somebody else. He wondered if he had imagined the whole scene, then gave himself a mental shake.

Regulus was a weird professor anyway, and Harry had better things to worry about.

The practical section of the lesson had begun, and Regulus went around the room, passing out little tin boxes that each held a beetle as the usual murmur of conversation and spell muttering began.

“The Hunt’s going to be starting again,” Goldstein said to Seamus in the row in front of Harry’s, and Harry leaned forward to listen, keeping an eye on his beetle scurry around in desperation.

“Second years can be targets, too?” wailed Seamus.

“Most of the Skull Initiates start in second year, apparently, so yeah,” said Lavender.

The conversation died, and Harry could tell that everyone was trying their hardest not to turn around and look at him. Gritting his teeth, he poked his wand at the beetle. It tried to scuttle up the wood, only to be shaken violently off a second later.

“I knew it would be him,” Seamus said, just loud enough for Harry to hear. “There was always something wrong with—”

“SHHHHH!” Lavender hissed, probably ensuring that everyone in the school could hear her. “He’s right behind us!”

Seamus turned around, saw Harry, and blanched. Harry grinned and put his feet up on the desk, reveling in the look of terror on the other boy’s face. He had always hated Seamus, and watching him squirm improved Harry’s bad mood.

Would you hurt them like the other Skulls do?

Harry frowned, deep in thought. He would have to torture non-Elites to become a proper Skull, wouldn’t he? Up until now, he hadn’t given this a lot of thought, but now he had to admit to himself that he would torture them if he was ordered to.

No, he wouldn’t like hurting them. He wasn’t a sadistic psycho like the Skull King and his bloodthirsty subjects, for Merlin’s sake.

Harry was a half-blood, and he wanted to fight for half-bloods and blood-traitors in general, but he didn’t want to fight for these people in particular, not Lavender and Seamus and Neville and the rest.

He didn’t really care about them, after all. He cared about his terrible situation, the situation they were all in at Hogwarts, but Harry had his own plans for fixing it. And if someone like Seamus tried to get in his way—well, the non-Elites were nothing compared to the Skulls, and Harry had no qualms about putting them in their place.

Harry gave his wand another wave, muttering underneath his breath, and the beetle transformed into a button. Though the Hunger had drained most of his magic, he still had an above average amount of it left and was capable to cast all the spells he needed to in class with relative ease.

Weren’t you telling Draco last year that all the Skulls are evil murderers, and now you’re okay with doing the same thing they do? Ironic, isn’t it?

Harry sighed, turning his button back into a beetle, which tottered around in confusion for a few seconds.

It’s different for me.

He had a goal. He wanted to change everything, and there was no way to change the system without becoming a part of the system. It was not his responsibility, nor his desire, to enact such a change in a moral fashion, or to coddle the classmates who ignored and belittled him.

“Rage. Hatred. Ambition. That instinctual urge inside each and every one of you to crush, to conquer, to eradicate everything that has ever scared you. We are Skulls. We break, shatter, and destroy our enemies, our victims, and our fears,” were Adolphus’s words before the First Trial.

There was a reason the Dark Lord had won, and Harry would use the victors as his inspiration, not the losers.

One day, the Skulls would be transformed, as thoroughly as a beetle into a button, so slavishly loyal to Harry that he and Draco would no longer have to hide their relationship. Draco would no longer want to hide Harry, and Harry could tell the world that Draco was his.

If the other Initiates’ behavior towards me is anything to go by, this is going to be the opposite of easy, Harry thought with a great big sigh. It’s not like I got a warm welcome from them.

Sometimes, Harry wished he was still part of the non-Elites. Due to his blood, he automatically had a place among their ranks, whether they liked him or not. Even if they wouldn’t accept him as a friend, Harry could trust people like Ron to help him out of a sense of kinship.

Maybe if Harry had been different, less ambitious and more social, he could have belonged with them, truly and fully.

As of now, though, he didn’t belong anywhere.

***

Draco’s week passed faster than anticipated, and Saturday night at ten o’clock found him in the lounge with the other Initiates. A few minutes ago, singling him out as the most expendable, they’d picked Crabbe to snoop in the Bronze Skull Wing.

“It’s deserted!” gasped Crabbe, waddling over to them and panting as though he’d sprinted across half the dormitory, which he probably had.

“It’s started then?” said a third year, clapping his hands together in glee. “The party’s started? It’s safe for us to go in now?”

He was, of course, referring to the age-old tradition that required Initiates to be the last ones to arrive at any Skull party, therefore ‘respecting’ the elder Skulls. So Draco and the rest had been milling around the common room, waiting for the say so.

Harry wouldn’t be attending, obviously. He didn’t know there was even going to be a party, thank Merlin, and Draco doubted that anybody had bothered to inform him about it. Draco had no desire to tell Harry about it either.

Sebastian would almost certainly be at the party, and the further Harry was from Sebastian, the better. In fact, Harry would be sleeping by now, safe from any sort of harm that could befall him in the Skull Pit.

“Oi, get up then, you all,” said another third year from Draco’s group, Cadogan or something, and if his words had flipped a switch, the Initiates stood up in one great wave and made their way to the door that led into the Skull Pit.

Draco followed, his heart thumping harder than usual.

He’d noticed over the past week that the Initiate Wing was divided into two neat groups: the second and third years in their second phase of Initiation, and the third and fourth years in their third and final year of Initiation. The older group had spent most of the evening giving the newbies their best tips, and each tip made Draco more jittery than the last.

“When they bring out the creatures to fight,” a fourth year Initiate named Titus Selwyn said, “you want to bet on the one with the sharpest teeth. Not the biggest one—sometimes those are nothing but cuddly, and they get shred the moment we throw them into the arena. Make sure you examine its claws and its teeth and the look it in the eye before you lay down a single Knut for it.”

Speaking of Knuts, Draco slipped a hand into his pocket to check if his magic obstructor Knut was still there, which of course it was. He never went without it.

“Barbaric money wasting,” muttered Theo under his breath, to no one in particular.

“And second years,” Titus added as they reached the door, “stay in a group and don’t wander into dark corners. Most people will see how teeny tiny you are and won’t bother you but”—his gaze shot straight to Draco, for some reason—“going in there for some is more risky than for others. I’d also recommend not breathing too much at first. The air is a bit… well, you’ll see. Don’t worry if affects you negatively. You’ll develop a… resistance to it over time.”

On that ominous note, Titus opened the door.

The first thing Draco noticed was a very peculiar sort of scent, kind of like the air in summer except sweeter, deliciously thick but not hot or moist. Draco’s head started spinning at once, and seconds passed before he was able to gain his bearings again. When his eyes adjusted to the heavy darkness, his mouth fell open.

The Pit, staying true to its name, was indeed a massive pit, nearly as big as a Quidditch Pitch, circular and descending in height from the edges like a theater of sorts. In the very center-bottom was a huge glowing arena, surrounded by a squirming, yelling mass of Skulls. Draco couldn’t see what was happening within due to the wall of bodies separating him from the arena, and didn’t care to find out.

Speaking of bodies, they were everywhere. Some of them were draped over the sofas in the shadows, curled around each other, and Draco looked away, cheeks aflame.

The floors seemed to vibrate to the intense beat of the music and the black walls reflected the multicolored fairy lights buzzing high in the air, but nobody danced, preferring to sprawl on the couches or press each other up against the walls. Girls were here too, Draco noticed; a lot of Elites, boys and girls both, visited the Skull Pit for the parties. People leaned over tables, playing cards and chess, occasionally stopping after a draw to chug down some sort of red liquid.

“Where’s the good stuff?” Cadogan-what’s-his-face asked, his voice shrill with wonder.

“Oi,” said Titus sternly, “it’s only ten o’clock,” and the other fourth year Initiates burst into laughter. Seconds later, they and Titus dispersed into the darkness, and Draco found himself alone with only the other second-phase Initiates, none of whom seemed to know what to do with their legs, hands, or eyes.

Everyone kept looking around without looking too closely at anything, and Draco just noticed that his vision was going a bit hazy at the edges. He inhaled, liking the feeling of this delicious air wooshing up his nostrils, and was rewarded with another bout of dizziness.

“What’s that in the air?” he asked Theo. They weren’t talking to each other except when they had to, and this occasion qualified.

Theo rubbed his forehead, lips pursed. “I think they call it Aeramor. It’s a sort of… invisible mist. It’s really strong, but you’re supposed to get used to it. I think I’ve adjusted now, but some people are more sensitive to it at first.”

He looked pointedly at Draco, who clutched his head. The fairy lights twirled and danced up above him erratically, illuminating the room with streaks of light and adding to the sensation that the ground was tilting and spinning.

“Let’s sit down,” Draco said, finding it difficult to get the words out all of a sudden.

“We have to stay with the others,” Theo said, grabbing his hand and dragging him down into the Pit center, hot on the heels of the other Initiates in their group. The fairy lights were congregated around the arena, their buzzing a constant undertone to the music. Draco tried to catch a pretty blue one as it fluttered by.

Theo smacked the screeching fairy away and pulled Draco right up to the arena fence where the other Initiates had gathered, weaving between the older, taller, and thicker Skulls to get there.

Draco immediately climbed up onto the fence to get a better look at what was going on, not listening to Theo’s protests. He seemed to have left all his trepidation at the entrance of the Skull Pit, and the dizziness gave way to a sort of floating pleasure. Anyway, he wasn’t the only Initiate or Skull who’d sat down on top of the fence. This was perfectly safe.

“Get down, will you?” Theo hissed, standing on his tiptoes and tugging at his shirt. “There’s a goddamn Cerberus in there! If it hits the fence and shakes it, you’ll fall in.”

“I can hold on,” said Draco, his voice sounding higher than he remembered it being. “I’m not stupid.” He tried to grab one of the fence links, missed spectacularly, and tottered a bit on his precarious seat.

Theo swore and held onto Draco’s shirt. The three-headed dog was currently slobbering over a pile of flesh.

Ew. Draco tried to ignore his churning stomach. He supposed the poor creature that was meant to be the Cerberus’s next opponent hadn’t been let into the arena yet.

The noise, which had lulled while the Cerberus enjoyed its meal, rose again to a deafening pitch, taking Draco by surprise. The Skulls cheered and whooped and pounded on the fence as a door on the opposite end of the arena flew open, ushering in a spitting, hissing Runespoor.

Draco yelped and toppled back, fortunately falling right into Theo’s arms.

“Draco, you idiot!” said Theo, staggering under their combined weight.

Draco giggled. Spots of vivid color invaded his vision, imprinted there by the fairies’ bright light. Everything seemed to reach him slowly, as though it were traveling through water.

“This is pretty fun,” Draco sighed, pressing his face against the fence. He swayed on his feet again, and Theo wrapped an arm around his waist to keep him steady. “Let’s go here again, Theeeo.”

“Stop wriggling around, will you?” Theo snarled, still not making a dent in Draco’s fantastic mood.

Then the Cerberus ripped off one of the Runespoor’s three heads, and Draco cheered deliriously with the rest of the Skulls.

***

It was late.

Harry had spent all day in the library preparing for the Mind, Body, and Soul training that would take place next weekend, poring through books to figure out what the hell the Skulls meant when they said Soul.

Draco had called him this morning on the Thread Spheres to explain, to the best of his ability, what the three portions of Skull training were, and had inadvertently sent Harry into a panic. According to Draco, Soul meant something along the lines of ‘testing your loyalty to the cause.’

So Harry had spent an unproductive evening reading up on Occlumency and not understanding what the hell that was either.

I was immune to the potion we took during the First Trial, Harry reminded himself, taking comfort in that fact. Maybe that means I’ll be immune to all of their methods.

He could only hope.

Sighing, he packed up his books and traipsed back to the Skull dormitories. But when he reached his closet, he gave the door a double take.

Somebody had stuck a golden piece of parchment onto it.

Harry tore it off the door with great vigor.

Potter—

Your presence is requested at the Skull Pit tonight. Perhaps you have been informed that the start-of-year festivities occur on the first Saturday of the school year, but in case you have not, consider this your wake up call.

Meet me in the Skull Pit back rooms before eleven o’clock. I’d like to have a talk. There will be tea, of course.

—Adolphus Lestrange, Skull King.

Harry’s knees wobbled. He did not want to talk to Adolphus fucking Lestrange, who had been perfectly fine with killing him a week ago.

And what did Adolphus mean by Skull Pit festivities? A party? Tonight? Draco hadn’t told him about any of this.

Gulping down his fear, Harry dropped his bag off in his room and tried to make himself presentable. Now would be a good time to use one of Draco’s hundred-Galleon hair gels.

“What are you doing? It’s time to go to bed!” Synesis whined as Harry furiously tried to rub some color into the dark circles beneath his eyes.

“Trying not to look like a peasant,” Harry said.

“Why?”

This stupid book never stopped asking questions, did it?

“I’m going to have tea with the Skull King in the Skull Pit. Apparently there’s a party going on or something.” Harry attempted to tighten his school tie, but ended up making it fall off.

Synesis fluttered its pages fretfully on his cot. “I don’t think you should go alone.”

“Well, it’s not like I can walk up to Draco and ask him to escort me into the Skull Pit, can I?” Harry said with a snarl, changing into clean trousers as fast as he could without falling on his face.

Time was running out. It was ten-thirty already, and he barely knew how to get around the Skull dorms, much less how to navigate the Skull Pit and find the ‘back rooms,’ whatever those were.

“Can’t you just knock on his door and ask?”

It suddenly dawned on Harry that the common room outside had been deserted when he’d walked through it to get to his room a few minutes ago.

“Bet everybody’s already at the stupid party. I guess Draco didn’t tell me about it.” Harry swallowed the bitterness on his tongue. Yes, he knew that Draco didn’t want to be seen with him in public, but why did he have to exclude Harry from everything the Initiates did? Couldn’t Draco have discreetly told him about the party via the Thread Spheres?

Or maybe he hadn’t told Harry because he thought Harry was too stupid and reckless to survive a night in the Skull Pit without getting himself killed.

Joke’s on him, Harry thought with a sneer as he left the broom closet, now fully dressed with his wand in his pocket, Adolphus wants another go at me anyway, and this time it’s not my goddamn fault.

After a bit of confused and panicked wandering, he found the entrance to the Skull Pit.

And boy was it an entrance.

The first thing that hit him was the smell of the room, delicious and thick, like honey in gaseous form. Unable to shake off the feeling he shouldn’t take deep gulps of this air or he might faint from it,  Harry scrunched up his nose and pressed onward into the Pit, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.

He tried to avoid staring at anybody, especially at the entwined bodies on the couches, keeping his head down and his hand on his wand. It was dark in here, so hopefully nobody would recognize him. Then again, everybody seemed way too preoccupied with the lips in front of them to even look at him. Harry couldn’t see what they were doing in detail; it was too dark in here.

His blushing face warm enough to fry an egg on it, he rotated in place, looking frantically for an escape.

Back rooms, back rooms, where the hell are the back rooms?

His gaze landed on the glowing, multicolored, spinning arena in the center of the Pit. A second later he realized it was neither multicolored nor spinning, merely lit up with moving fairy lights. Skulls surrounded it, cheering and catcalling and making those irritating Skull noises at whatever abomination was inside the arena.

Harry was getting dizzy. He wasn’t sure if it was the lights or the smell, but this atmosphere freaked him out. Eyes squinted, he made his way down to the center of the Pit, assuming that any back rooms would be behind the arena.

Music seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, and Harry’s ears and head pounded unwillingly with the beat.

When he finally reached the stupid arena, he had to weave through a massive swarm of Skulls to get to the other side. He kept his eyes and ears perked for any sign of Draco, of his white-blond hair or his bell-like laughter, but there were too many people here to single anyone out.

And Harry wasn’t sure what he’d say to Draco if he found him, anyway.

At last, he arrived at the opposite end of the Pit, only to run smack dab into a dead end. He swore and turned back around, prepared to stick to the edges of the Pit until he found a door.

Then someone hissed, “Potter,” and Harry jumped about a foot in the air.

“Come with me, Potter,” said that someone, and Harry choked on his breath.

It was Sebastian Nott.

He leaned against the glossy black walls, smiling wryly at Harry. Like most of the Skulls, Sebastian wasn’t wearing the customary skin-tight mask tonight, and it was a horrible decision. The mask covered most of his face’s blotchy color and pockmarked texture, and seeing him maskless…

Ugh. Harry could not look away. Sebastian’s face might have been made of crumbled clay, so inhuman was it.

“I’m here to take you to the Skull King,” said Sebastian, tilting his head back.  He didn’t break his gaze with Harry.

“All right,” Harry said, making sure to focus his gaze on Sebastian’s shoulder instead of his face. “I’m supposed to meet the Skull King in the back ro—”

“I know,” said Sebastian, his voice like silk but embedded with needles, and Harry shut up.

Sebastian slid his hand down the wall with purpose, as if he were feeling for some sort of indent or crack.

He healed the fingers I broke, Harry noticed with a dull throb of his head.

A second later, both of them heard a clicking noise, and the portion of the wall swung inward.

“Behold, the back rooms.” Sebastian gestured inside, still smiling that horrible smile. “Ladies first.”

Harry stepped inside what was obviously a corridor of sorts. The walls here were golden-yellow and decorated with colorful tapestries of snakes and blazing moons. In addition to containing several side doors, the corridor ended in an ornate silver door.

“So, Potter,” said Sebastian from behind Harry. “Congratulations. Welcome to the Skulls.”

Harry’s throat had gone dry. “T-thanks.”

In his defense, he supposed being terrified was a normal reaction to have. This was the person who had nearly killed him a week prior, after all.

“I mean, Adolphus is rather impressed with you,” Sebastian continued, slowing his pace as they neared the end of the corridor. “He didn’t let me kill you. He lets me kill everybody.”

Harry nearly tripped over himself.

“Don’t faint on me, first year. I’m not allowed to kill you. Even if I was, I’d rather not waste the time.” He grinned at Harry, something malicious glittering behind his eyes.

A simmering sort of resentment rose up in Harry, hating himself for experiencing this shameful, all-consuming fear. He’d broken Sebastian’s fingers, but he was no match for him.

One day I’ll be able to take him. Both him and his brother.

“I’m not going to faint. I’m not afraid of you,” Harry blurted out.

Sebastian tensed, muscles rippling beneath the skin of his arm. And even as his grin widened, his eyes narrowed.

“Hmm, really, you’re not? You look like you’re about to piss in your pants.” He leaned closer to Harry, his musky breath making Harry screw up his nose. “Besides, you shouldn’t be ashamed of your fear, Potter, or whatever your name is.”

Harry had the feeling Sebastian knew exactly what his name was and would never forget it.

“Fear is a good thing,” Sebastian continued, not breaking eye contact with Harry. “We evolved the emotion fear to survive. If you fear me, you’ll survive. It’s that simple.”

Chuckling to himself, Sebastian stepped into the small room, his smooth, predatory gait reminding Harry of a tiger on the prowl.

The room itself was small and cozy, like the inside of a cottage in the winter. A fireplace crackled merrily in the corner. Adolphus sat smack dab in the center of the room, the only person inside.

“Ah, you’re just on time, boy,” said Adolphus, pointing to the sofa in front of him. “Sit there.”

Harry sat.

“Sebastian, you are dismissed,” said Adolphus. “Go back to the party. Where’s Nathaniel, anyway?”

“In our room.” Sebastian, for some reason, was still watching Harry. “Neither of us like parties much. Oh, and I’d like to stay here and listen. There’s a few… little things I want to ask Potter when you’re done with him.”

“Whatever.”

Adolphus turned back to Harry. Silence hung in the air, thick and suffocating.

He examined Harry top to bottom, gaze lingering on his knobby knees and skinny wrists.

“Ah! Forgive me for being so rude. Would you like some tea?” Adolphus asked, out of nowhere.

“No, thank you,” said Harry quickly, not wanting to drink anything the Skulls offered him.

“Very well,” said Adolphus.

There was a very pregnant pause. Harry fidgeted, feeling warm.

“The other day Theodore Nott came in to remind me of your exploits last year,” said Adolphus all of a sudden, apparently deciding not to waste another second. “You destroyed Dungeon Two last year on Halloween, and Nott said that I ought to kick you out of the Skulls for it, or kill you. Explain yourself.”

Harry dug his nails into the sofa. “I—I did. But Nott didn’t tell you the full story. I was defending myself. He kidnapped me and a bunch of other students to punish and torture us for our blood status. When he brought me out, I escaped from the ropes and—well, I destroyed the dungeon. The spell Bombarda Maxima, I think it was.”

Adolphus’s eyes were as dark as the abyss. Harry swallowed.

“It was self defense,” Harry reiterated.

Adolphus tapped the arm of his sofa with one slim finger, and when he spoke, his voice had cooled considerably. “So, you did not receive the punishment you deserved, the punishment for being a half-blood. That’s all I’m getting from this story of yours. I couldn’t care less whether it was self defense or not.”

Harry quelled the urge to spit in Adolphus’s face.

“I didn’t think Nott was qualified to give that punishment,” he said at last, curling his lip. “I’m far stronger than him.”

Adolphus cocked his head, a dangerous smile spreading across his face. “Nott is a Pureblood. You are not stronger than him.”

Harry clenched his fists.

If you could not get yourself killed tonight, that would be nice, said a voice in his head that sounded a lot like Draco’s.

“No. I’m not. I’m not stronger than him naturally, because of my blood. But—but I beat him back then, so in that moment I was stronger than him.” Harry straightened his back.

Sebastian sniggered for some reason. Adolphus waved a hand at him to shut him up.

“Amusing explanation,” said Adolphus. “But explain to me why I shouldn’t just kill you right now. You have disrespected us and our Lord not only once, but twice.”

“But sir,” said Harry, keeping his voice steady with great effort, “you were the one who let me get away with it both times, weren’t you? So you shouldn’t kill me right now. Because you’re the one who doesn’t want to kill me.”

Silence. Dead silence. Harry tensed, half-expecting to be murdered on the spot.

Instead, Adolphus’s face broke out into a smirk. “I suppose I did let you live.” He sighed, slipping his wand back into his pocket. Harry paled, not having even noticed that it was out. “Quite unfortunate, really. I was all excited to kill you and everything.”

“You can still kill him if you want,” Sebastian pointed out helpfully.

“No,” said Adolphus, standing up. “I’d rather not. Potter, you’ve impressed me, and you also entertain me. As long as you don’t make trouble again, I’ll let you live.”

Harry went lightheaded with relief. “I—oh, all right. Thanks. Thank you, sir.”

“I’m giving you the chance of a lifetime, boy,” said Adolphus, looking over his shoulder at Harry. “Perhaps you’ll be able to prove that contaminated blood doesn’t all have to be ruined. You’re quite powerful, and sure to be a useful asset to us. And the Dark Lord always says that even the children of his enemies will one day join his side, that they’ll see the truth.”

He opened the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve avoided the party long enough. There’s three very pretty Elite girls in one of the side rooms, and I mustn’t keep them waiting. Sebastian, escort Potter back to the Pit. Try your hardest not to kill him.”

The door slammed shut, leaving Sebastian and Harry alone together in the room. For a long, stretched out moment, Harry heard nothing but the crackling of the fire.

“See?” said Sebastian, breaking the silence. “I’m not going to kill you.”

“Thanks,” said Harry.

“Well, actually, I lied. I won’t kill you as long as you answer all my questions.”

“Questions?” Harry’s heartbeat sped up. “Didn’t I answer them already?”

“You didn’t answer all of them,” said Sebastian. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of a grin on his face now, and Harry felt the temperature in the room plunge. “So, will you cooperate?”

Do not get yourself killed, Harry repeated in his head over and over.

“Okay,” he said a moment later, his voice deceptively calm.

“Perfect.” Sebastian leaned forward, resting his chin on his palms. He and Harry were nearly at eye level now.

Harry waited for Sebastian to say something. But Sebastian only smiled, and the clocked ticked away.

“What spell did you use? To buff up your muscles?” asked Sebastian out of nowhere, startling Harry so badly that he jumped in his seat.

How am I supposed to answer this question without getting myself killed? Harry thought with an internal wail.

He decided to play stupid. “What? What do you mean?”

“Don’t lie to me. You broke my fingers.” Sebastian’s eyes glinted in the firelight.

Harry swallowed the lump forming in his throat. “I—I’m not sure I remember what happened. I think my magic might’ve gone a bit out of control, and if I hurt you, maybe that’s why. Yeah.”

Silence. Harry swallowed again. Sebastian narrowed those glinting eyes into slits.

Then, before Harry could even take a breath, Sebastian was right in his face, his fingers—the fingers Harry had broken—tight on Harry’s collar, millimeters from Harry’s throat.

“I’ll find out what’s up with you, Potter,” Sebastian hissed, aglow with an emotion too strong to be simple anger. “I’ll find out exactly what you did to my fingers.”

He released Harry and stepped away. Harry slumped back on the sofa, gasping, his heart trying to beat itself out of his ribcage.

“I could torture the answers I want out of you, but dearest Adolphus will be annoyed with me if I do,” said Sebastian, making his way to the door. “Monarchies are so tedious for those not in power. But no matter. I’ll enjoy being King next year.”

Harry felt faint.

“Aww, don’t be scared. Look on the bright side,” Sebastian added, throwing a careless smirk over his shoulder, “maybe you’ll be Skull King one day. You should aim for the stars, dirty-blood.”

Laughing, Sebastian swept out of the room, not giving Harry another backwards glance. The fire went out a second later.

Harry shivered.

***

The Monday after that horrible party, Theo tried and failed to concentrate in class. Again.

Professor Carrow paced in front of the room, tapping his wand on the board, and Theo couldn’t care less. In fact, his piece of parchment was utterly devoid of notes.

Draco shifted in his seat beside Theo, resting his chin on the back of his hand. He was always hunched over his desk like this. Theo’s back hurt just from looking at him.

He has no regard for proper posture.

But Theo hunched over too, subconsciously trying to get a better look at Draco. He often found himself arranging his seat during class so he could study Draco without making it obvious that he was staring. From this angle, he  couldn’t see Draco’s whole face, only the back of his head, the slightest hint of his side profile, and the flutter of his lashes as he fought the urge to doze off in class.

Why does he still care about Potter?

As usual, Theo’s train of thought circled right back to this burning question. He’d been distracted for the first week of school, dwelling obsessively on what Draco had done during the first Skull meeting.

“Even if he was a dirty-blood, Potter actually knew how to do other things but study,” Draco had taunted Theo that summer. “I might even miss him. Compared to you, he was actually fun.”

So of course Draco missed Potter. The two of them had been inseparable for the majority of last year, even when they tried to hide it. Draco had promised Theo that he didn’t care about Potter anymore, but he obviously still did.

Theo wasn’t stupid, and he could not ignore the truth when it stared him in the face. Draco had broken, shattered, and destroyed Potter during Walpurgis Night not because he wanted to, or thought it the right thing to do, but because he had to.

What would Draco give to get his friendship back with Potter?

He’d give nothing to get his friendship back with me. Because he doesn’t care.

Theo stood up.

Draco looked up at him from the seat nearby, eyebrows furrowed, silently asking what the hell he was doing. They tried to ignore each other during class these days, but old habits died hard. Especially for Draco, who had started to copy off Theo’s classwork the other day like he had all of last year, only to remember that they weren’t talking anymore.

Theo would have let him copy. Theo would have let him do anything, except that no matter what Theo did, Draco wouldn’t ever like Theo as much as he liked Potter, so why even bother?

“Mr. Nott, is there a reason why you are standing up in the middle of my lesson?” said Carrow in a curt voice, and Theo gave a start.

Someone snickered in the back row. It sounded like Potter.

“May I go to the bathroom, sir?” Theo managed to get out.

Carrow frowned at him, disappointment etched all over his face. “Go. Don’t interrupt my class next time.”

Theo inclined his head and hurried out of the room, cheeks warm. He didn’t have to go to the bathroom, not really, but he’d needed to get out of that class, away from Draco and Potter.

When he reached the boys’ bathroom, he splashed water on his face, trying to invigorate himself.

It didn’t particularly work.

I hate him. Theo breathed in, counting to ten in his head. I hate Draco for hating me.

“Fancy seeing you here.” Sebastian’s voice drifted from the door, tinged with surprise.

Theo whirled around, suddenly struck with the urge to empty his stomach into the sink.

Shit. Why’s he here? Why is he always here and everywhere?

“Sebastian,” Theo choked out, holding the sink for support. “What—what do you want?”

“To take a piss,” said Sebastian.

“Oh. I’ll, uh, leave you to it,” Theo said, making a run for the door.

“Not so fast.” Sebastian’s voice echoed like the crack of a whip. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

Theo stopped in his tracks. He stopped breathing, too.

“I was gonna come find you after dinner tonight, but this is more convenient.”

Theo heard the squeak of Sebastian’s shoes grow louder. A second later, Sebastian stood right behind him, close enough for Theo to feel his body heat.

“What do you know about Potter? Tell me everything. Make it quick.” Sebastian snapped his fingers, the noise painfully loud in Theo’s ear.

He obeyed at once. “Potter is the son of two Order of the Phoenix members. His father’s dead. Rumor is that his mother is Professor Snape’s mistress. And he’s, uh, he’s decent in the Dark Arts.”

“That’s it? That’s all you know? What about his friends, his life, you useless idiot?” Sebastian’s tone was so sharp it could have sliced diamond.

Theo sucked in a breath, thinking unwillingly of Draco. “I don’t see Potter with anybody these days.”

“These days? What do you mean, these days? Has he ever been friends with anybody?” Sebastian leaned forward, putting a hand on Theo’s shoulder.

“He—with—I don’t know,” said Theo miserably. Part of him wanted to spill the beans, and hoped that this would set Sebastian on Potter’s tail, but another part of him didn’t want to acknowledge to anyone—least of all Sebastian—that Potter had stolen Draco from Theo.

Irritated by the silence, Sebastian squeezed down on Theo’s shoulder in warning, digging his nails in, and Theo winced.

“Last year he spent a lot of time with—with Draco. They were friends because Draco wanted to betray him on Walpurgis Night,” Theo said, the words torn out of him. He didn’t want to talk about Draco in front of Sebastian, or about Draco and Potter together in a sentence. “Can I please go now?”

“I swear that if you try to scamper off, Theo, I’ll smear you into this fucking floor.” Sebastian grabbed the back of Theo’s neck for emphasis, and Theo nodded in terror. “Answer my questions properly. Potter wrecked Dungeon Two on Halloween. How did he do that?”

Theo started talking, almost too fast to know what he was saying, only aware of Sebastian’s cold fingers on his neck.

“I kidnapped Potter and some of the dirty-bloods and took them to Dungeon Two. I had Potter in ropes when he escaped. I was going through his list of crimes, and he wriggled out of the ropes somehow and attacked me. He didn’t have his wand with him, so I don’t know how he did it—”

“Impossible,” Sebastian said, with such venom that Theo recoiled. “Dungeon Two’s ropes of justice can’t be loosened physically, or even with a general spell. You have to say Fiat justitia, ruat caelum to release the prisoner.”

“I don’t know how he did it,” Theo repeated.

“Hmm,” was all Sebastian said, eyes narrowed.

Praying that he was free to go, Theo took a tentative step toward the door, but Sebastian yanked him back with a snarl.

“Did I dismiss you?”

“No,” said Theo weakly.

“A few minutes ago, you mentioned that Potter and Draco used to be friends. I can put two and two together, Theo. After Draco’s… interesting attempt to stop me from killing Potter last week, it’s obvious to me that there’s something still going on between them, even after Walpurgis Night.”

Theo’s head spun, and he thought he might cry. Draco had said that he wasn’t still in contact with Potter, that Potter would in no way forgive him for Walpurgis Night—

They can’t still be friends. They can’t be.

“Draco promised me there isn’t anything left between them,” said Theo in a trembling voice. “There wouldn’t be. Potter probably hates him now. I don’t know how Draco feels about him”—Draco obviously still cares about him, Theo thought, miserable“but I know they aren’t talking.”

“But if they are?” said Sebastian, watching Theo’s reaction carefully.

“Why do you even CARE?” Theo exploded at him. “I’m not Draco’s friend anymore, am I? I can’t tell him what to do! Draco hates me now, he hates me because of you, because of everything you did to him—”

“Don’t use that tone with me,” said Sebastian dangerously, seizing Theo by the hair and dragging him forward. Theo gasped, tears leaking out of the corner of his eyes.

“I care because Draco cares,” Sebastian continued in a pleasant voice, as though he weren’t currently holding Theo in a headlock. “And I find myself inclined to destroy anything Draco cares about. I wish I could destroy you too, but Father would be upset with me if I got rid of his handsome, brilliant little heir.”

Theo thrashed for a second, then went limp, all his energy drained.

“Are you so obsessed with Draco that the fact he was once friends with Potter gets you all pissed off—” Theo started, voice hoarse.

“There’s something up with Potter,” interjected Sebastian, eyes glittering, and Theo knew right then that Potter had made a fatal mistake, had somehow ignited Sebastian’s considerable rage.

Sebastian flexed his fingers in front of Theo’s face, almost unconsciously. Theo stared at them.

“I told you everything I know about him and Draco,” said Theo, finding his voice again. “I don’t care if you kill Potter. In fact, please do. Just—just let me go, leave me alone—”

Sebastian gave Theo another shake, cutting him off.

“Shut up and listen. I’m going to give you very clear instructions, and you will follow them. I want you to keep an eye on Potter and Draco. Track them. I want you to find out if they still have a connection: if they’re still talking, if they’re still meeting with each other, and when and where. Report your findings to me regularly. I expect concrete answers from you. Soon.”

Then Sebastian leaned closer, putting his lips by Theo’s ear.

“And if you try to rebel against my orders, I might just… stumble upon Draco in a dark corridor one of these days. Maybe even tomorrow, if you decide to be difficult with me.”

Theo could barely hear Sebastian’s next words over the sound of his heartbeat.

“So, Theo, what do you say? You'll do it, right?”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVEN

MIND AND SOUL

o

“Hey, Malfoy, we’re heading to dinner soon, want to come?”

Draco looked up from his homework, annoyed. What’s-his-face, a third year in Draco’s Initiation group, stood above him with a nervous grin. As he was busy studying in the library section of the Initiate common room, Draco didn’t take kindly to being interrupted.

Who is this person again? Draco vaguely remembered seeing him at one of the many parties he had attended in his childhood. Probably from a minor Pureblood family of mediocre wealth and talent.

Draco gave him a bright smile. “Sorry, I’ve got so much Potions homework to finish.” He gestured at the massive tome on his desk. “Maybe some other day?”

The older boy flushed. “Yeah. All right. We just noticed that you don’t sit with anyone at mealtimes sometimes, and you could sit with us—me and my friends—if you wanted. I think you used to sit with Nott last year, but now you’re not sitting with him anymore, so… well. You can sit with me. Us, I mean.”

Draco stared at the older boy, wondering if there was something wrong with him, but before he could ask, the boy spun around and walked off, his ears bright red.

Draco blinked and returned to his work. Quite a few of the older boys had invited him to eat with them this week. He often accepted their invitations, as he didn’t like being lonely, but felt little enthusiasm for them.

He preferred eating with the older boys to sitting in cold silence with Theo, enduring Millicent’s taunts, or ignoring Crabbe’s and Goyle’s burps.

In fact, Draco would have accepted What’s-his-face’s invitation if Harry hadn’t called him on the Thread Spheres yesterday. Harry had asked if Draco would please have a secret dinner with him down in the kitchens. He’d sounded a bit freaked out, too, so Draco knew Harry needed to say something important.

Deciding it was close enough to six o’clock—their chosen meeting time—Draco slammed his book shut and packed up.

Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at the painting of the fruit bowl that hid the entrance to the kitchens. Harry—who’d used it for Dolohov’s tea—told him about it last year, and the kitchens had been their favorite place to eat together when they’d been attempting to keep their meetings secret. Few people knew about this place.

“You came,” Harry said when Draco walked in, as if he couldn’t believe it.

“Of course I came,” Draco said, raising an eyebrow and sitting down on the elf-sized circular table.

“Some refreshments for the Misters,” squeaked one of the house elves, placing a tin of ginger cookies and a plate of ham sandwiches in front of them. Draco noticed that she had a black eye and looked away, his stomach churning. The Malfoy house elves were similarly bruised up; they did it to themselves, the stupid creatures.

“This is why wizards rule and house elves serve, Draco,” Lucius had said, after ordering their house elf Dobby to bang his head against the wall for forgetting to iron one of Lucius’s shirts.

“Do you think we’ll ever be able to sit in the Great Hall together?” Harry asked, gazing blankly at the ginger cookie in his hand. His face was a bit blotchy, and there were dark circles under his eyes.

Draco felt his chest shrivel up. Harry looked—there was no other word for it—forlorn. “I’m sorry. We can meet here every week. Maybe twice a week.” Draco gained momentum, excited now. “We’ll do homework together in here, like we used to last year. Oh, and after midnight, when everyone’s asleep, you can come to my room in your Invisibility Cloak. I got a new set of magic board games this summer, so we can play all night—”

“You make it impossible for me to resent you,” said Harry, looking up at Draco with blazing eyes.

Draco’s face grew warm. “I’m… sorry?”

“If I died, what would you do?” said Harry out of nowhere, his expression unreadable.

Alarm bells went off in Draco’s head. Harry was not okay. He’d sounded freaked out on the Thread Spheres, so Draco had known right then that something was up, but he hadn’t expected a breakdown of this caliber.

“I’d miss you if you died,” Draco said, the thought too horrible to contemplate. Why was Harry talking about this, anyway? Did he have no concept of tact?

“What happened?” Draco asked, narrowing his eyes. “Harry, stop looking like a kicked puppy and just tell me what you’re hiding!”

Harry pressed his lips together. “You didn’t tell me about the Skull Pit party.”

Draco gaped at him, not sure what this had to do with anything.

“I know why you didn’t,” Harry continued, not meeting Draco’s eyes. “I haven’t inspired a lot of confidence in you. I bet you thought I’d get myself killed.”

Harry looked so utterly miserable that Draco wanted to pat his head.

“What happened?” Draco asked again, his tone gentler this time.

“I went to the party,” Harry said, and told him what had happened.

Draco listened to the whole sordid tale, of Adolphus’s warnings and Theo’s tattling, in furious silence.

“So, let me get this straight,” he said, after Harry had finished. “Theo reminded Adolphus that you were the one who destroyed Dungeon Two? And asked Adolphus to kill you?”

Harry had spent quite a lot of time recounting that particular detail of the story, painting Theo as the worst of villains, and Draco definitely did not doubt it.

“Yeah, he’s a piece of shit,” Harry said, shaking his head gravely. “You’re not still friends with him, are you? You guys sort of…” Harry paused, scowling. “You guys sort of go back and forth, like a Quaffle.”

“We’re not friends,” said Draco, scowling even harder than Harry. “And here I was trying to get him to forgive me, but if he’s petty enough to try to get you killed, I think I’m going to give up on him.”

“Forgive you for what?”

“Saving you the first day of school,” said Draco, and Harry went pink, then grinned, as if the idea of Draco and Theo breaking up over him gave him undue pleasure.

Draco did not grin back. “So, is that it? Did you leave the party after talking to Adolphus? Did you run into anybody else?”

Please, please, please, let him not have run into Sebastian…

“No, ” said Harry, not meeting Draco’s eyes again. “Adolphus just let me go, and I pretty much sprinted out of the Skull Pit as fast as I could.”

Draco cocked his head to the side, the alarm bells going off again. So far, Harry’s story had been relatively tame, so why had Harry been so depressed a few minutes ago? Adolphus hadn’t hurt him at all even though Harry had been cheeky with him and committed the almost-crime of comparing his magical power to Theo’s. Luckily, he’d amused Adolphus more than offended him, but Draco doubted that the Skull King would find Harry entertaining forever.

“Are you sure that’s it?” Draco said, stressing his words.

Harry nodded, and fidgeted again.

“You’re lying,” said Draco, unimpressed. “You were panicking way too much on the Thread Spheres for this to be it.”

Harry glared at him.“I’m not hiding anything from you! I was panicking because—well, I wasn’t really. I was just worried. Because I realized how close I came to dying, again, and how hard it’s going to be for me to be a Skull. And I wanted to tell you what happened. Mostly I just wanted to see you, and talk to you.”

Draco refused to let Harry butter him up like this, though he was quite flattered. “I swear that if I find out you’ve been hiding something important from me, something to do with the Skulls—”

“I’m not,” Harry promised, eyes shining innocently.

“If I find out,” Draco went on, talking over Harry, “I’ll kill you so violently that Sebastian will be jealous of me.”

Harry did not laugh. His face had stiffened.

Draco snorted and rolled his eyes, a bit insulted at Harry’s reaction. What, did he think Draco would actually hurt him, after going to such lengths to save him about a million times? “Moron. You know I was joking, right?”

Harry forced out a laugh. “Ha. Don’t joke about that. Ha.”

He’s fucking weird, Draco thought, shooting him a disgusted look.

And that reminded him: he needed to give Harry a lecture on Pureblood etiquette.

“Good thing we decided to meet today.” Draco stuffed his neglected sandwich into his mouth. He knew it wasn’t polite to talk with his mouth open, but he didn’t need to be polite around Harry. “I meant to tell you some things. I was going to ask you to meet me in my room before our Mind, Body, and Soul training begins, but today will do. I need to tell you what you can and can’t say in front of the Skulls. You already broke the rules a million times; it’s a miracle Adolphus didn’t kill you.”

Harry grumbled something under his breath, something that sounded a lot like Pureblood psychopaths, and Draco generously chose to ignore it.

“You’re a half-blood, so you don’t have the right to criticize any Pureblood,” said Draco. Harry opened his mouth furiously, but Draco gave him a look so murderous that Harry closed it again.

“You’re far too arrogant for your own good. I can’t believe that you tried to tell Adolphus that you’re more powerful than Theo. Are you insane?”

“But I am more powerful than him!” Harry said, crumbs of sandwich falling out of his mouth.

“Of course you are!” Draco slammed a fist down on the table. “Last year you were more powerful than everybody put together. Does it matter? Can you prove it to anyone?”

“I’ll prove it,” said Harry darkly.

“No!” Draco smacked his own forehead, groaning. “Don’t prove it! Keep your head down, you complete moron. The other Initiates already hate you, you know? I sit with some of the older boys at dinner sometimes, and every time they mention you they say that you shouldn’t be in our Initiation group. If you’re too good, they might come after you. You’re not allowed to be better than Purebloods at anything, Harry. That’s the way it works.”

“And you’re defending their behavior? Are you serious?” Harry’s tone was as jagged as shattered glass.

“I’m not defending them!” Draco practically yelled. “This is the way it works! What, do you want me to wave my wand, say some silly spell, and make it change?”

“But you’ve never questioned why it works like that, and if it should be changed,” Harry said, his tone laced with challenge. “Don’t you think that’s wrong that we’re judged on blood purity first, not merit?”

Harry was giving Draco a headache. Why were they having this argument right now, for the millionth time? Wasn’t Harry an Initiate now? He had to follow their rules, not shove his dirty-blood morals down their throats.

“What do you want me to say? I don’t know if it’s wrong or not. It’s probably wrong. A lot of the stuff my dad says about blood purity and magical power doesn’t make sense, and he admits that it doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t matter. The Dark Lord doesn’t want half-bloods in positions of power because they’re related to Muggles, and they might try to bring Muggle culture to us. So you can’t be equal to us, because we don’t trust you. I mean, I trust you. I know that you don’t care about the Muggles—well, you have Muggle blood, but it’s not a lot, and you hate your mother anyway.”

Harry stared at him, unblinking. Draco started talking faster, not sure where he was going with this.

“The Muggle part of you isn’t too obvious in you, where it might be more obvious in other dirty-bloods, which is why we don’t like them. In general. That’s why the other Initiates don’t trust you. But I don’t feel that way toward you, you know. I know you’re powerful, and not very Muggle. So as long as you show everyone how Muggle you aren’t, you’ll gain their respect.”

Draco stopped talking. He was confusing himself at this point, and Harry’s eyebrows had risen so high up his forehead that they had disappeared behind his hair.

Draco threw his hands up. “Look, Harry, you’re part of the Skulls now. Do you want to live or not?”

Harry’s gaze hardened. “You don’t think I’m your equal, do you?”

Draco kneaded his forehead and gave Harry the dirtiest look he could muster. “No, I never said that. Stop imagining things.”

“You implied it.” Harry pushed his chair back to stand up, and Draco winced at the resulting screech of wood on stone.

“Don’t you throw another tantrum again!” Draco stood up too, clenching his fists. “We’ve been over this a hundred times. I’m trying to help you because you’re my friend, and I don’t want what happened on Walpurgis Night to happen again. I don’t want to ever have to choose between you and them, don’t you get it?”

“It’s all about you, isn’t it?” Harry’s eyes were blazing again, and his sandwich lay forgotten and uneaten. “I’m the one who was nearly killed for asking the Skull King a question, and nearly killed again for comparing my power to a Pureblood’s, and you think I’m the one who needs to change my behavior?”

“Does that change the fact that what you did was stupid?” Draco asked. “You knew the risks.”

Harry opened his mouth, holding a finger up as if he were about to delve into an enlightening lecture. Then he slumped back down into his seat, his arms crossed, resembling a pouty child.

“I’m not saying what I did was smart,” Harry mumbled, while Draco looked on smugly. “I just wanted to know whose side you’re on. Mine, or theirs.”

“We’re on the same side, Harry,” said Draco with a sigh. “I just told you. We’re Skull Initiates. Didn’t you hear what I said?”

“So I’m expected to follow and listen to people who think people with Muggle blood are inferior, even though I have Muggle blood myself? Tell me how that makes sense.”

Draco closed his eyes, praying for patience. “It makes sense for you to follow us because you joined us? If you don’t like our messages, then don’t be a Death Eater. I hate how they tried to kill you, and wish that it wasn’t like this, but don’t deny that joining us is giving you the chance to really be somebody, Harry.”

Harry tried to open his mouth again, but Draco wouldn’t have it. Harry would listen, and he would understand why Draco was right, why he was always right.

“You’ve impressed Adolphus already, so think how good of a Skull you’ll be in a few years. You can be a Death Eater, or get a high-paying Ministry job, or oversee the goblins at Gringotts… there’s no limit to what a Skull can do after Hogwarts. In private, people might think you’re inferior, but does that really matter? You’ll be equal to them in every way that’s important. The Dark Lord is merciful to those who obey him, and you’ll be taken care of.”

Draco grabbed Harry’s hand and squeezed, yanking him half over the table. “I’ll take care of you too,” said Draco, his voice softer now. “When all of this stuff dies down”—after Sebastian graduates and if we’re both miraculously still whole by then, Draco thought, his stomach twisting—“we’ll be able to reveal that we’re friends. And think about how amazing it’ll be. Us graduating as Skulls, us becoming Death Eaters, us working at the Ministry. We’ll be together for a long time. Isn’t that you want? Even if it isn’t, it’s what I want, and I always get what I want. So don’t ruin it any more than you already have.”

Draco gave Harry’s hand a final pat, sniffed importantly, and stood up. “Anyway, I’d better get back to the dorms. You finish that sandwich and leave twenty minutes after me so that nobody suspects we’re meeting.”

Harry didn’t answer. Draco took a closer look at him, and was shocked to discover that his bottom lip was trembling. He was either enraged or near tears.

“I don’t want that,” Harry said. “I don’t want the same thing you want. I want them to respect me.”

Draco sighed, and with a monumental effort, he plastered a smile on his face. But it was a sad smile, not a comforting one, and when he spoke, his tone was dead serious. “I know, Harry. I want them to respect you, too. I hate what they put you through, and I hate them for putting you through it. I’ll hint to the other boys when I talk to them that they should give you a chance. I’ll try everything I can to help you. I’m on your side, after all. And even if nobody else believes it, I know that you’re my equal. You’re my best friend.”

He turned to leave, but before he could walk one step forward, Harry was coming at him like a force of nature.

He sort of slammed into Draco, not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to unsteady him. Draco grabbed onto Harry’s shirt to stay upright, and Harry took it in stride and buried his face into Draco’s shoulder. His hand moved subconsciously to card through Draco’s hair, messing up the gel Draco had applied this morning.

“Oi, watch the hair,” Draco said, with no real conviction.

Harry just tightened his grip.

Weirdo. But it wasn’t weird at all, standing together here like this. It felt so good, so right, to have Harry pressed up against him.

But now Draco was starting to go a little lightheaded. Harry’s hair smelled good, and Draco was suddenly aware of Harry’s body, skinny at first glance but wiry with a sort of unseen strength. Draco could stand here for ages, listening to Harry breathe and letting Harry caress his hair.

Draco’s train of thought leapt straight to his own parents, Narcissa embracing Lucius in the same way Harry was embracing Draco, and felt his face warm as he thought of the other ways his parents embraced, and him and Harry doing those things.

Then Harry shifted his head, jabbing his glasses into Draco’s collarbone, and Draco snapped out of his daze.

“Ow, stop! Get off me!”

***

Harry left his broom closet on Sunday twenty minutes before nine o’clock, hand stuffed his pocket, fingers wrapped around his wand.

Today was the Initiates’ first training session in Mind, Body, and Soul, whatever the hell that meant, and Harry had been a bundle of nerves all of last week. Talking to Draco at dinner a few days ago had barely alleviated his panic.

He hadn’t told Draco about Sebastian’s threats.

Nor would he ever tell Draco.

Besides, Harry could handle Sebastian. The last thing he needed was for Draco to try and save him again, and get into more trouble as a result.

Draco.

Harry hadn’t intended on forgiving him so quickly, but he’d been unable to resist. Yes, Draco was a good little brainwashed Death Eater boy, who still didn’t properly think Harry was his equal, who still wasn’t sorry enough about betraying him. But Draco cared about Harry more than anybody else ever had. Really, truly cared, with his whole heart. He wanted the best for Harry, whatever Draco thought the ‘best’ was.

And maybe Draco was right. Maybe Harry should be a good little brainwashed Death Eater boy like Draco. Maybe that would give him the easiest, happiest life.

Harry would have believed that, except that he knew the Skulls were evil, and their ideology was insane, and the Dark Lord was no Lord of Harry’s.

I was given power and destiny, wasn’t I? He wasn’t meant to be a brainwashed soldier like Draco wanted him to be. He was meant to be something greater.

And Harry would not give up his dreams, as wild as they were. Not even for Draco.

Peals of laughter coming from the center of the Initiate common room jolted Harry out of his thoughts. He crept forward, tightening his grip on his wand.

The other Initiates sat there on the haphazardly arranged sofas, chattering with each other as if they’d all known each other forever, which they probably had. They’d gathered here ahead of time so they could all go to Mind, Body, and Soul training together, and yet again they’d excluded Harry.

Draco sat right in the midst of them, in an animated conversation with a few third year boys who, from the look of it, were hanging onto his every word. Harry struggled to contain the white-hot rage that shot through him at the sight.

These nobodies get to talk to Draco wherever they want, whenever they want, and I’m not even allowed to look at him?

How had Draco befriended the other Initiates so quickly, anyway? The Draco Harry knew hated people as much as Harry did. In his snickered whispers to Harry, Draco had gleefully insulted almost every single student in their year as well as random students from older years, on everything from their facial features to the way they walked.

Listening to Draco’s rants and baseless gossip had kept Harry amused last year. Draco’s insults were like poetry, like art; he was talented at being mean.

Perhaps Draco was putting on an act these days, smiling that dimpled smile and chattering away like the world’s friendliest person. Or maybe he was just being his usual self, badmouthing somebody in that charismatic, hilarious way of his, and the Initiates found his meanness just as brilliant as Harry did.

Harry sighed, yearning. He couldn’t hear what they were talking about from here, but knew Draco would kill him if he barged in and drew attention to himself.

And while we’re on the subject of killing…

Harry wanted to murder the random boy who was on the receiving end of Draco’s coy smirk—the smirk that he’d reserved for Harry last year.  Draco might be putting on an act right now, but did he have to act so smug?

Harry gave a start when he noticed Nott, sitting sullenly at the edge of the festivities, not talking to anybody. He was glaring in Draco’s general direction, though whether Theo’s ire was focused on Draco himself or the boys breathing all over him, Harry didn’t know.

Hey, here’s another person not allowed to talk to Draco in public. Or in private. Or ever again.

Snorting under his breath, Harry swept out of the Skull dormitories, his mood buoyed just the slightest bit by Theo’s misery.

When he’d finished trudging up to Dungeon Three, he leaned against the wall of the corridor outside, waiting for the rest of the Initiates to arrive.

Today, he’d do what Draco asked him to. He’d blend into the background, and give the Initiates no reason to remember that he existed.

For now.

***

Dungeon Three looked like the Hospital Wing, except massive and far less well-lit. Draco and the other Initiates just stared, unsure what to make of this bizarre set up.

Beds filled the chamber, about fifty of them in neat rows. Draco supposed they were supposed to be used for potion-induced simulations.

The Executioner, Fawley, stood at the other end of the chamber, surrounded by a few bored-looking Bronzes. Used to the routine by now, the Initiates assembled themselves into neat rows in front of Fawley.

Draco spotted Harry out of the corner of his eye, standing in the back and scowling at everything as if he couldn’t decide what he hated the most.

Draco hastily turned his snicker into a cough.

“This is Dungeon Three, the simulation room,” Fawley began, his mask and face both stiff. “Mind and Soul training takes place here on alternating Sundays. Body training takes place in Dungeon Four, the gym, and will take place on those Sundays you do not have Mind and Soul training.”

Draco did not fancy the idea of spending all his Sunday nights doing Mind, Body, and Soul training.

But maybe he’d actually learn something from this. Maybe, one day, he’d be powerful enough to defend himself from Sebastian.

“For those of you who have forgotten, Mind simulations test how intelligently you tackle problems, while Soul simulations test how well you follow the Dark Lord’s teachings in situations of psychological duress. For Body training, you will be taught a variety of spells and techniques used in dueling and team battles, and will be graded on how well you master each technique.”

“Graded?” someone behind him wailed.

Draco curled his lip. Of course. We’re always being graded.

“For the entirety of first term, your progress will be tracked in all three sections of your training—Body, Mind, and Soul,” Fawley said, as if he hadn’t just been interrupted. “Your Body training will be graded by Bronze Skulls, and the Mind and Body potions are charmed to send us a score based on your actions during their simulations. At the end of the training period—the week before Christmas break—we will tally up your scores. When you come back from your holidays, you will each have a rank.”

Draco could predict what his future rank would be. He’d pass Mind all right, he supposed. And although he was no match for Theo or even Harry, Draco would be able to handle Body. But if his results in the First Trial were anything to go by, he’d be terrible at Soul. Draco and the words ‘psychological duress’ did not go well together.

Well, maybe I need to give myself more credit. I survived Sebastian, and saved Harry. I’m not as weak as I was during the First Trial.

“Your assigned rank will determine your starting position in the Initiate Tournament come spring term,” said Fawley, and everyone who was dozing standing up jerked awake at once. The Initiates whispered among themselves, their voices low and eager.

“There’s supposed to be a massive battle at the end of the year,” said Montague, a third year who’d been a bit too friendly to Draco this past week. Draco thought he was a boring tryhard, but his father had ordered him to make ‘connections,’ so now Draco had to sweetly entertain every idiot who demanded his precious time. “There’s an arena-sized Dueling Ring in Dungeon Five, did you know? That’s where the battle game is going to take place.”

“I know all about it,” said Draco, remembering his long days studying in the summer with Theo.

Montague deflated.

“Silence,” Fawley hissed, making both Draco and Montague flinch and everybody else shut up.

Fawley took a deep breath, adjusting his robes, and Draco held back a snort. Compared to Sebastian, Fawley wasn’t a very impressive Executioner. He didn’t possess the air of authority Sebastian did, didn’t inspire terror in the same way. Draco pitied the poor Initiates Sebastian had taught last year as the Executioner. Sebastian would have murdered any poor Initiate who’d so much as breathed at him in the wrong way.

“You will be provided more information on the Tournament as its start date approaches. For now, however, you are to focus on your training. Today is your first Mind and Soul session, and next week will be your first Body session. Any questions before we go over the instructions for today?”

Fawley, as usual, didn’t give off the impression that he was open to questions, and the Initiates stared at one another, silently daring everyone else to ask something.

Fawley started up again after one whole second, to nobody’s surprise. “Pick a bed, lie down, and drink the two potions underneath your pillow, one after the other. One potion will induce a Mind simulation, and the other Soul. Each simulation should take thirty minutes or less, and when you are finished with the first, you will immediately slip into the next. Some people will wake up before the hour is up—the quicker you pass each simulation, the higher your score for the session, though you are graded more on your performance than your time.

“Due to the nature of the simulation potions, while you are under, you will be under the impression that everything you are experiencing is real. Explaining what you will see in the simulations is useless; you’ll have to learn on the job. Each session’s simulations will become steadily more difficult as the weeks go on, and in order to pass the simulations you start out failing, you will have to make an effort to improve yourself in real life. Off to bed with you. You have one hour, starting now.”

Fawley walked off, his Bronze Skull assistants trailing after him. The Initiates all dispersed, hurrying to claim a bed, but Draco just stood there, gazing around with a lump of dread clogging up his throat, sensing his failure creep closer and closer.

Finally, when he could bear it no more, he threw himself onto a bed and chugged down the potions, one after another, and then felt his eyelids grow heavy.

***

Draco kept his eyes closed, feeling around gingerly. Leaves crunched beneath him.

What? Wasn’t I—wasn’t I somewhere else?

Then Draco heard them. The footsteps. They were everywhere, loud and heavy enough to make the ground quake.

He stumbled to his feet, struggling to stay upright as the ground shook harder and harder. Whatever was thudding around—a giant?—was getting closer, but Draco couldn’t see it. He was in a forest full of towering, spindly trees, so thick with foliage that they blocked out light from reaching him. He couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of him, and to make it even worse, a thick layer of squishy and uneven mud covered the ground.

Draco half-ran, half-hobbled deeper into the forest, swallowing down his panic. He tried to figure out why he was here and what the hell was going on, but every time he got close to any sort of answer, his mind hit a block. Birds screeched, spiraling into the air in a flurry of feathers, and trees toppled to the ground behind him.

None of the din drowned out the sound of the footsteps.

Draco kept running. Minutes passed, maybe hours, maybe days.

Feeling that it was a miracle he hadn’t fallen yet, Draco shoved a hand in his pocket as he ran, feeling for his wand. But how could he fight a bloody giant, if that was what it was? Giants were almost completely resistant to basic Dark spells, and Draco didn’t know any advanced ones.

He sped past trees, huffing and puffing, his energy depleting rapidly. He couldn’t run forever. This forest seemed never-ending, and every time he was sure he’d reached the edge, more trees appeared in front of him.

I can’t run.

Gasping, Draco slowed to a stop and took out his wand in one fluid motion.Trees surrounded him on all sides, but he could use them.

Think, Draco, think! How big was a giant? Twenty feet. The trees were taller than the average giant. Which meant—yes. I can do this with simple spells.

The ground shook as if under siege by an earthquake, and Draco got to work, trying to keep calm. His whole body trembled under the onslaught of the footsteps, but as long as he kept his wand arm steady, he’d be able to cast his spells.

“Fune ligabis!” Thick rope erupted out of the end of his wand and tied itself around the trunk of one of the trees, and Draco took a shuddering breath, relieved it had worked. He said the spell four more times, securing the four biggest trees nearest him, then hissed out another spell. “Laevo!” A second later, all four ropes were drenched with a clear and slimy liquid, slippery to the touch.

After admiring his handiwork for a split second, Draco hid behind a fifth tree, heart in his throat and wand still out.

If everything went according to plan, he’d tie all four ropes to the giant. Then he’d run off, and the giant would run after him, hopefully dragging all four trees down on top of itself. If it was smart it would try to break the rope, but Draco had prepared for this inevitability. The giant’s massive hands would slip and slide on the rope, and it would be unable to break it.

Thump.

Draco clenched his wand so hard that it nearly snapped. He couldn’t see anything in this darkness, but he knew he had minutes—if not seconds—until the giant got to him. The footsteps were getting so loud now that he could hear them inside his head.

The ground creaked, and then the giant burst into the clearing, knocking trees asunder. It looked like a massive baby, bald and toothless, wearing nothing but a fur loincloth. Round droplets of drool dripped from its jaws, and it raised a spiked club into the air.

Draco, who’d frozen in place for a long and horrible action, forced himself into action. He took aim and whispered, “Ligo,” flicking the tip of his wand in the giant’s direction. The rope wrapped itself around the giant’s chest, and Draco flicked his wand again, this time inward. The rope tightened, sinking deep into rolls of flesh.

It’s working. Draco took another deep breath.

The giant roared and tried to turn around, confused and in pain, and Draco, who was powered by nothing but adrenaline at this point, ran out into its line of sight. For a long, painful second, the giant didn’t notice him at all, too preoccupied with the rope blocking off its ability to breathe.

But when it finally saw him, all hell broke loose. The giant screamed, brandishing its club, and Draco sprinted away, shooting colorful but harmless sparks over his shoulder to distract the creature. A second later, he heard the groan of several trees straining against their roots. The giant screamed, and a horrible crack reverberated through the forest, so piercing that Draco’s teeth rattled.

A moment later, he stopped in his tracks and sucked in a breath. The ground beneath him was transforming into white mist, erasing itself, and the forest rippled and swirled as if it were nothing but the reflection on the surface of a lake. The next thing Draco knew, he was sinking into this world’s ground and falling out of another world’s sky.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have any time to register this.

“Get up!” someone said, grabbing Draco by the collar and yanking him to his feet. Draco tottered in place, slowly taking in his surroundings.

Then the reality of where he was smashed into him like the giant’s club.

Not here! Not here again!

This was Dungeon Two, the very same place he’d betrayed Harry on Samhain, then again on Walpurgis Night. The Hunger had taken him to a recreation of this place inside Harry’s mind on Beltane, eager to make them relive their worst memories together.

But Harry wasn’t here. Draco stood on the central platform, presiding over a deserted courtroom.

“What—?”

“Hurry up,” the voice snarled again, reminding Draco that he wasn’t alone. A Gold Skull stood behind him, a hand digging into the back of Draco’s neck, faceless even behind his mask. The only feature he had was a mouth.

And as Draco watched, the Skull bared his teeth.

“You have a job to do,” said the Skull, shoving Draco forward. “Say it! Come on! Fiat justitia, ruat caelum.”

Legs shaking, Draco took out his wand and repeated the words.

Those words never meant anything good.

The invisible wall where they kept the prisoners rippled, going transparent, and a person wrapped in ropes came spinning out. She landed with a plop right at Draco’s feet, and Draco cried out in shock at the same time as she did.

The prisoner was a little girl, no older than four years old. She wore her black hair in pigtails, and her eyes were bright green, the same piercing shade as Harry’s.

Draco’s throat went dry. He stared down at her, not quite sure what he was seeing.

“Kill her!” the Skull hissed into Draco’s ear. “Hurry up, come on!”

The girl started screaming. She didn’t say anything. She just lay there, unable to free her arms and legs, and Draco trembled all over as he watched her thrash around.

Soon enough, her screams turned into wracking sobs.

“K-kill her?” Draco stammered. “She’s—she’s—she’s a kid. She’s not even my age. She doesn’t need to be killed.”

“She’s a Muggle,” the Skull said impatiently, sinking his fingernails into Draco’s shoulder. “Are you serious? If you let her live, she’ll grow up with magic that belongs to a real wizard. She doesn’t deserve to be a witch.”

Draco tore out of the Skulls’s grip, panting hard. “I know. But I can’t do it.”

She has Harry’s eyes.

“If you don’t kill her,” said the Skull, crossing his arms, a grin spreading across his face, “the Dark Lord will do it for you, or your father will.”

“My father—”

Draco clenched his eyes shut. During one of their arguments last year, Harry had asked Draco what he’d do if Lucius ordered Draco to kill a child. Draco knew from rumors that Theo’s father had killed plenty of children, and done worse to them than kill them.

“They can kill her,” said Draco, raising his voice so he could be heard over the weeping girl, “but I don’t want to. I don’t have to.”

“You were able to do it on Walpurgis Night, weren’t you?” said the Skull in his ear, his breath icy. Draco shivered. “You said to Harry that you’d be willing to do anything to be a Skull, and you betrayed him. What makes her more important to you?”

Draco’s head spun. “I can’t kill someone—”

“You’ll have to kill to become a Skull,” the Skull interrupted, his voice devoid of pity. “Will you kill her, or should I kill you?”

It took a few moments for the Skull’s words to sink in, but when they did, despair crashed into Draco like a roaring wave. “I don’t want to kill her,” he said, his voice sounding distant, even to himself.

“Enough whining. Kill her. Now.”

The Death Eaters are murderers, and your father is a murderer, Harry had said many times, and Draco always came up with excuses, claiming that it wasn’t murder if those who were killed deserved it—and even if they hadn’t deserved it, the Death Eaters killed Muggles and Mudbloods and blood-traitors, all scum, so why should Draco lose sleep over their deaths?

He didn’t know the people who were killed or this girl personally, and if someone else killed her for him, he’d be relieved. Draco didn’t care at all if his father murdered people, or if the Dark Lord did. They were doing noble work—work that made Draco sick to the stomach, but work that needed to be done to discipline and transform the wizarding world.

But Draco didn’t want to do what they did. He didn’t want Harry to look at him and say, “You’re a murderer too.” He didn’t want to turn into Sebastian. Sebastian, who was a monster on the outside and inside, who killed and killed and killed, who tormented Draco every waking and sleeping moment whether he was there or not.

“Hurry UP!” the Skull roared, whipping out his wand and pressing it into the back of Draco’s head. The warm tip singed his hair.

Draco raised his wand. He couldn’t hold his arm steady.

I have to do it if I want to live. Why do I have to do it? Why can’t someone else do it for me?

The girl looked like Harry.

Would you let someone else kill Harry, if you were too weak to do it yourself?

Draco screamed in frustration, and Dungeon Two dissolved in front of his eyes—the girl, the Skull, and then Draco himself. And in a striking moment of clarity, he knew he had failed.

***

Harry was cheating.

In fairness to him, it wasn’t his fault. He was simply immune to the Skull’s simulations, the Mind and Soul ones in addition to one in the First Trial.

He’d been able to keep calm during his battle with the giant by knowing that none of it was real. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He’d panicked an embarrassing amount at the beginning when he’d figured out that the giant’s thick hide repelled most spells he knew, and he’d frantically shot spells at it for nearly two whole minutes before realizing to use a Conjunctivitis Curse on its eyes.

Why am I immune the simulations in the first place? Harry wondered as the forest disappeared and started reassembling into a different simulation—Soul this time, he supposed. I should ask Synesis.

Harry let out a groan as his new surroundings sharpened and cleared. He was in Dungeon Two.

Again.

This place chased him in his nightmares, and he hated it even more than he hated the clearing in the Forbidden Forest where he’d lost most of his magic. At least he had good memories from that clearing to offset the bad ones, like snowball fights and sunlit picnics with Draco. He had no good memories from Dungeon Two, and if given the chance, he’d destroy it again—and again, and again, and again, until he blasted it off the face of the earth.

A Skull exhaled in his ear, and Harry jumped about a foot in the air, yelling out. He choked when he caught sight of the Skull’s face, or lack of it.

“Hurry up,” said the Skull, his golden mask glinting in the bright torchlight. “You have a Muggle you need to take care of. Say it! Come on! Fiat justitia, ruat caelum!”

Harry obeyed at once, telling himself that it wasn’t real, that he wouldn’t really be torturing somebody. They were testing his loyalty to the Skulls, and if he hadn’t been immune to the simulation, he wouldn’t have listened to this nonsense at all. Hell, he probably would have destroyed Dungeon Two again.

But he was immune, and he knew what he had to do to pass.

“Fiat justitia, ruat caelum.” Harry’s voice rang out loud and clear, echoing in the empty chamber.

He closed his eyes, knowing exactly what was happening to the prisoner behind the invisible wall. He’d been in the same position not even a year before.

I might choke on this irony.

When he opened his eyes again, a little girl lay at his feet, and Harry almost lost his resolve seconds after gaining it.

She was perhaps five years old, her hair so pale it was almost white, her eyes big and gray. She started crying at once, and Harry’s determination frayed and splintered into nothingness.

She looks like Draco.

Was it a coincidence, or did the simulation automatically model the girl after someone the Initiate cared about? In any case, it was working, and Harry wanted to tear the ropes off of her and carry her out of here.

She’s not real, Harry reminded himself, his breathing going shallow anyway. This isn’t Draco’s little sister or anything. The simulation is trying to play games with me. Just torture her and be done with it.

He raised his wand.

“Nuh uh uh,” said the Skull teasingly, grabbing Harry’s arm to keep him from aiming. “Cruciatus isn’t enough. This one has to be killed. She’s a Muggle, remember?”

Harry’s heart dropped to his feet, and he struggled to keep his arm from shaking. He argued with himself, growing angrier and angrier as the seconds passed.

You’re not a killer, Harry.

But this isn’t real.

Would you kill her if it was?

He’d killed his mother in the First Trial’s simulation, hadn’t he? He wouldn’t do such a thing in real life, no matter how much he hated Lily.

So he could kill this little girl that he didn’t know, eased by the knowledge that he wouldn’t do such a thing in real life.

“Hurry up! What’re you waiting around for?”

The girl’s sobs wracked her entire body, as if she knew what was coming. Harry stared down at her, head pounding, bile rising in his throat.

I need to keep my head down. I can’t let the Skulls know that I’m not loyal to them. I have to pass.

Harry couldn’t bear to look.

“Avada Kedavra.”

***

Harry’s eyes flew open. He lay there for a few minutes, staring at the ceiling, hearing the other Initiates breathe deeply around him, snuggled in their own beds.

He was early, of course, so he waited for the hour to go by. He’d pretend to wake up when everybody else did. The minutes went by unbearably slowly as he tried to convince himself that he wouldn’t have killed the girl in real life.

He was stupid for feeling bad about this. He’d done what he needed to do. Theo and Draco and the other Initiates didn’t even think Mudbloods and Muggles were human, and probably hadn’t batted an eyelash when they’d been asked to kill the girl, but Harry had killed one of his own. Would he have done it, if he hadn’t been immune to the simulation?

Harry thought he knew the answer to this.

I told myself I’d hurt Lavender and Seamus and Neville and the rest, if they got in my way.

This girl isn’t an exception.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHT

THE NIGHT OF MABON

o

Groaning, Harry sank into his cot. He’d just come back from a grueling Body training session with the rest of the Initiates in Dungeon Four’s gym. For their first lesson, the Initiates had learned how to dodge spells effectively—and they hadn’t been allowed to use magic to defend themselves.

This of course meant that they’d spent a good hour running wildly around the gym while several Bronze Skulls fired Stinging Hexes at them. Due to his superior reflexes, Harry hadn’t gotten hit once, but he’d come to the embarrassing realization that he was a bit out of shape.

Now unable to feel his legs, Harry decided he wouldn’t be leaving his cot for a good ten years.

“Oi, Synesis,” Harry said, taking out the book demon he always kept underneath his pillow for safekeeping. “I have supernatural strength, don’t I? Then why can’t I run a mile without dying?”

Synesis let out a long-suffering sigh, as if it could not understand why Harry was wasting its time with such an elementary question. “Stamina isn’t the same thing as strength. You have raw power, but not the ability to use it indefinitely. You can use your legs to kick down a stone door, but you can’t run for an hour straight without getting tired.”

“How can I crush a door but not use that strength to run? It doesn’t make any sense,” Harry said, frowning.

“Too bad,” Synesis snapped.

Harry straightened up—and winced as pain shot through his lower back—to glare down at the book. “Why’re you being so mean? What’s with all this grumpiness?” he asked, unable to keep the hurt out of his voice.

“…I’m sorry.” Synesis sounded sufficiently guilty, so Harry let it drop. “It’s just that Mabon is in two days, and I’m still not sure about it.”

Harry cocked his head, trying not to let his exasperation show. It didn’t work. “For Merlin’s sake, what’s your problem now?” Synesis had promised Harry his body would be strong enough to hold another demon on Mabon. September 21st was supposedly a day of power for Summoners, and Harry had been looking forward to it ever since term had started.

He refused to let Synesis ruin it for him.

“It’s just that Auranos is… well, it’s an extremely obscure and unknown demon,” Synesis said. “It’s been summoned only four times before, pitiful compared to Kardin’s twelve. The more times a demon has been summoned, the safer they are. You know this, and you still pick a demon that I don’t know anything about—”

“It’s a Rank Two Astral, so it’s not powerful enough to be dangerous,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “And when I saw it in your lexicon, I knew it was perfect. It has to be Auranos! Besides, you’re the one who recommended I pick an Astral demon, so what do you have to complain about?”

Harry had wanted to summon a demon that would give his body more enhancements—like the strength enhancements he’d gotten from Kardin. But of course, Synesis had shut that idea down at once.

According to Synesis, a human body could only handle so many unnatural enhancements at once. Harry could summon more demons like Kardin to make him smarter, give him a better memory, and increase his endurance (so he’d be able to run the stupid laps in the gym without his legs falling off). Many of these were incredibly high level demons, but some of them—like a demon that could increase his endurance—were Rank Twos and Threes.

But since Harry had just started Summoning, stacking on demons that modified his body could have unseen side effects. And Synesis didn’t want to risk it so soon, not before Harry’s body had fully acclimatized to living with one demon.

“Wait until Samhain, maybe Yule. It might take a few more months before it’s safe for you to go for another body enhancement, and you’ll have to space out your enhancements out so that you’re not acquiring more than one in the same six month period,” Synesis had said, ignoring a chorus of groans from Harry. “And I refuse to let you summon that intelligence-enhancing demon you’re salivating over until you are at least fifteen. Don’t scowl at me! It’s a Rank Seven demon, and you’re barely even five feet tall!”

After a short argument, which Harry lost spectacularly, he’d grumpily searched through Synesis’s lexicon of demons, looking for a demon that could be useful despite not making him superhuman.

He’d arrived at Auranos, an obscure demon of the Astral class. Rank Two, so not very powerful on the surface, but Harry was sure it had hidden strengths. The Astral class was made up of spectral demons: demons that could leave the Summoner’s body. Most Astral demons were weak, mainly used to warn their masters of invisible attacks or hexes. Some of them could sense ancient curses on artifacts and buildings. Most of them couldn’t travel more than ten or twenty feet away from their masters in any case, so Summoners in old times had only summoned them as a precaution.

However, Auranos was special. Though it couldn’t detect curses or spells, it could be sent anywhere in a hundred feet radius, which meant that Harry could send it anywhere in the castle or on the grounds. And because it was invisible, it could investigate forbidden ares of the castle and overhear secret conversations without being discovered.

Spying spells existed, of course, but casting them required leaving behind a magical signature. And if Harry tried to spy on someone who was keeping a real secret, they’d have precautions and defenses set up to catch intruders, and they’d be able to trace his spell right back to him. Harry could learn how to guard himself against being tracked, but that required complicated charmwork like the Magicae Obturamentum that maybe Draco could figure out, but Harry definitely couldn’t.

But because demons didn’t have a magical signature, Harry could use them to spy without being caught.

“Auranos is the perfect compromise,” Harry continued, shaking Synesis around a bit. “It’s been summoned four times, but I think that’s safe enough. It’s so obscure and useless that not many people wanted to summon it. There are better, higher-level demons that can do everything it can do, and more. And since I won’t be killing its sentience like I killed Kardin’s, we can talk to it. You can ask it about what’s going on in… your world, realm, whatever you call it. You’ve been wondering about that, haven’t you? The Hunger told me the Dark Lord wrecked it, so it’s definitely not the same as it was when you were there.”

“Auranos is a good choice for a second demon, and a Rank Two is relatively safe and easy to summon,” Synesis admitted. “But there’s something odd about Auranos that I just… I just can’t get my head around.”

“You don’t have a head,” Harry pointed out.

“Though you have a physical head, Harry, you rarely use it, so I will not allow you of all humans to discriminate against me,” Synesis said stiffly, before continuing on as if it hadn’t been interrupted.

“There’s something strange about Auranos. It’s a Rank Two demon, but three out of the four times it was summoned, it was used in battle, despite not being a battle demon. Specifically, it was used in demon duels. In demon duels, two Summoners summon a demon each for the express purpose of pitting their demon against the other’s demon. It’s rather like a dog fight. Low Rank demons were often used because they can be summoned easily and then banished at the end of the duel.”

“So?” Harry said, raising an eyebrow.

“SO,” Synesis said, vibrating in Harry’s hands, “we can deduce that Auranos has hidden properties that make it useful in fights against other demons. Properties not listed in my lexicon. It’s more powerful than it looks.”

“Why is that a bad thing?” Harry asked, getting annoyed now. “So it can defend itself. Whatever. Looks like you’re trying to come up with a reason why I’m not allowed to summon something. What are you, my mother?”

“That’s not it,” Synesis said in a shrill voice. “I don’t like that I don’t know everything about this demon. I find it suspicious how few times it’s been summoned—and three out of the four times, it wasn’t used for spying, which is the only thing it’s supposed to be able to do! It’s not supposed to have the ability to fight! Why was it out there in 89 AD fighting in demon duels? What did it do during those duels? What is its hidden ability?”

“I don’t know, okay?” Harry turned over and groaned into his scratchy, lint-covered pillow, then sneezed. “It could be dangerous to you, since you’re a demon and it fought in demon duels, but I doubt it would be dangerous to me.  And you’re trapped in a book. Do you think you’ll be safe in there?”

“I don’t know what it does, so how am I supposed to know?” said Synesis irritably. “I think I should be safe, yes, if nothing goes wrong and you bind the demon properly to you, and keep it in the circle. If something goes wrong, it might come at me.”

“Why do you think something’s going to go wrong?” Harry decided to give Synesis a bit of a break. The poor thing never stopped fretting over him. “Okay, look, I’ll entertain you for a second. What demon would you rather I pick?”

“A Rank One Astral demon that can sense hidden curses near you,” said Synesis. “A good, safe demon.”

“No,” said Harry at once. “I’m not wasting my energy and putting my body at risk for a useless demon. Find me something useful, something that’s worth the effort. Kardin was Rank Three, and nothing went wrong during its summoning. I don’t see why Auranos should be any different.”

“Fine, you win,” said Synesis, fluttering its pages in resignation. “Summon Auranos. I might be worrying for nothing. But be extra careful anyway.”

“I will, I will.” Harry waved a dismissive hand. “Why do you care so much if I die, anyway?” he added, grinning. He had a feeling he knew the answer to this question, but couldn’t resist the urge to poke fun at Synesis. His ego needed stroking, and Synesis obviously cared about him. Maybe almost as much as Draco did.

“Because you’re the only person who can free me,” said Synesis, unimpressed, and Harry jutted out his lower lip in a pout.

“But you like me too, don’t you?”

“Oh, shut up, will you?” Synesis grumbled, and Harry threw his head back in relief, smiling ear to ear.

“I want to show you to Draco,” Harry said all of a sudden, not sure where this burning desire had come from. “I think you two would like each other.”

“He seems to be the only human you know with a good head on his shoulders, and the only human capable of keeping you alive,” said Synesis in a flat voice. “So yes, perhaps I will get along with him, hypothetically speaking. But it’s a moot point. He does not have the power to converse with me like you do. He can’t hear me.”

“Oh, right,” said Harry, feeling stupid.

Neither of them said anything for a moment. Synesis just fluttered its pages.

“Do you think I should tell Draco about the demon stuff I’m doing with you? I mean, you used to be his book, so one of these days he’ll remember that I stole you and ask why. I’ll need an excuse of some sort. But I just want to tell him everything, you know?”

Synesis snorted. “A month ago you were whining about never being able to trust him again.”

“That’s—well—that hasn’t changed. I’m not sure if I can trust him on everything, especially not anything to do with the Skulls. But this isn’t related to that, much. He kept my magical power a secret from the Dark Lord all last year. He’s saved me so many times, and he cares, and you agree that he’s smart. If I tell anybody, it has to be him.”

Draco didn’t know Harry had broken Sebastian’s fingers, which was part of the reason Harry hadn’t told Draco about his… confrontation with Sebastian in the Skull Pit. It would have led to a long, complicated story—the story of how he’d summoned a demon to give him the strength to break bones with his bare hands.

He’d thought about spilling everything to Draco then, but had held it in. What would Draco say if he knew Harry was risking his life for more power? Even though Harry thought the risk of summoning was relatively minimal, would Draco see it the same way, or would he be a worrywart about it like Synesis? He’d told Harry over and over again to keep his head down, and Harry summoning demons was the exact opposite of keeping his head down.

Or would Draco approve of Harry’s quest to gain back all the power he’d lost at the end of last year—would he be excited about it?

He’d told Harry, exhausted after their battle with the Hunger, “We’ll get it back. There has to be a way.”

Well, Harry had found a way, as roundabout and dangerous as it was. And perhaps Draco would understand how desperately, achingly Harry needed his power back. Maybe he’d help, be the moral support Harry needed when he was summoning.

This scenario made him feel so giddy that Harry had half a mind to march over to Draco’s room right now and reveal all of his secrets at once.

“Tell him about me if you’re sure he can keep a secret, and if you trust his judgement, and if you’re ready to listen to his advice.”

“What do you mean?” Harry said. “Advice on what? The Skull stuff, you mean? I’m already listening to his advice on that.”

Synesis hummed.

“Or do you mean his advice on demon summoning? What advice would he have to give me on demon summoning, anyway?”

Synesis hummed again.

Harry resisted the urge to bash it into the wall.

***

Mabon dawned alongside a blazing hot sun, one of the last of this summer season. September 21st was upon them, and Harry could barely keep still during his classes.

He’d decided against telling Draco about Synesis—for now. He’d figured out Synesis’s cryptic hint from earlier: Synesis seemed to be under the impression that Draco wouldn’t approve of Harry’s “hobby,” and Harry did not want to risk another fight, not so close to Mabon.

But Harry would tell Draco, one day, maybe one day soon. If there was the slightest chance Draco might stand beside him, Harry would take it.

“Even if you’re not going to tell him, bring your Thread Sphere, so you have someone to contact in case something happens,” said Synesis as Harry shoved his chalk and the other supplies he’d need for summoning into his bag. It was about three o’clock at night, and Harry had picked out an abandoned classroom on the sixth floor that nobody had visited in about ten years. He’d summon Auranos in half an hour and be out of there before anybody even realized he was gone.

“Hey, are you listening?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” said Harry, throwing in the Thread Sphere. He zipped up his bag after putting Synesis inside, covered himself with the Invisibility Cloak, and slipped out of his room.

Twenty minutes later, he walked into the abandoned classroom and gently closed the door behind him, careful not to make any noise. But Synesis ruined that silence in less than a second. When he took the book out of his bag, it flipped open at once and displayed the correct summoning circle pattern, screeching noisily as it did.

“Do it slowly and carefully!” Synesis said with a snarl, flickering through displays of different summoning patterns, searching for the correct one. “There’s no rush!”

“All right, all right,” said Harry, but promised himself he’d out be out of here in less than thirty minutes, equipped with a new demon.

True to his word, he finished sketching the circle fifteen minutes later. After all, he’d practiced drawing the pattern exhaustively over the past few days, determined not to give Synesis any more reason to whine.

“How is it?” Harry asked, straightening up and dusting chalk off his hands.

“I don’t see any mistakes,” said Synesis, not clarifying how it could see anything as a book. Synesis had tried to explain to Harry how demons saw the world, but apparently it was a discussion too complex for ‘puny human minds.’

“Go ahead with the ritual. Remember what I told you about Summoning Astral demons. Kardin was easy because you squashed its sentience. Auranos will be more dangerous because you’ll have to keep its sentience alive throughout the whole summoning process. It will be able to think for itself. Don’t get distracted by anything it says to you.”

“You’re distracting me,” Harry said, rummaging in his bag for his knife, the one he’d nabbed from his mother’s kitchen that summer.

Synesis harrumphed and fell silent. Harry took a deep breath as he surveyed his circle, which was just a bit smaller than the one he’d made for the Rank Three demon Kardin. He was distinctly aware of Synesis fluttering its pages in the background.

“Okay,” said Harry, arranging his feet so that he stood on the edge of the circle. Heart palpitations seized him at once, all the anxiety he’d been ignoring for weeks now washing over him in nauseating waves. “I’m going to do it now. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Of course it will,” Synesis said, failing to make Harry feel any better.

Knowing he’d lose his nerve if he waited another second, he flicked the knife inward. A droplet of his blood fell onto the central and most important rune of the circle: the name ‘Auranos’ in the two-dimensional form of the demon language. He’d done the exact same thing for Kardin, he reminded himself.

This is routine.

Then, as the circle flared with light Harry did not dare to look at, he remembered that the pain was also routine.

Veins on fire, he doubled over, clutching his stomach and gasping like he’d just been punched.

“Now! Pull him out of the circle!” Synesis instructed, voice rising in panic. Harry arched his back, biting his hand to keep silent. Through the haze, he tugged at Auranos’s physical form, drawing it into his own body.

The runes died.

“Good, Auranos is in your body now!” Synesis screeched.

Harry tottered where he stood, trying to keep his breathing steady as he entered the most dangerous stage of the summoning ritual—the mental battle where human and demon soul struggled for dominance.

“You snapped Kardin’s thread of sentience to remove its ability to think, but skip that step for Auranos. Instead of snapping its intelligence, tie your soul around it, trapping it inside with Kardin’s. You’ll know what to do. We’ve been over this a hundred times.”

Harry didn’t need Synesis’s commentary, but it helped calm him down, helped him narrow his focus to one clear, blazing point. Just like he had with Kardin, Harry felt rather than saw another glowing thread drifting around his own soul—his bright soul, entwined with Kardin’s dark, dormant one. Auranos’s soul—if Harry could give it a color—was transparent, constantly adapting and shifting, hard to pin down.

Mustering every ounce of strength he possessed, Harry pulled like he was lassoing in a wild thestral, dragging the thrashing demon deeper into himself.

Harry’s battle with Kardin had ended within a single second, but his battle with Auranos stretched every second into a year, drawing out the pain and tension so much that Harry felt his body was a rubber band on the verge of snapping. Auranos didn’t say anything, didn’t try to reason or bargain with him. It just flailed and screamed and shrieked as Harry yanked it closer and closer. Several times it almost slipped between Harry’s thoughts, but he kept a tight grip on it, refusing to give his aching head a moment to relax.

It’s like I’m reeling a fish in, Harry thought absurdly, clenching his fists so tight that his nails drew blood, the sharp but brief stab of pain distracting him from the consistent throbbing in his head.

Then, surprising Harry so much that he cried out, Auranos snapped and clicked into his soul like a lock.

It had worked. Harry let his knees buckle.

“It’s done,” he choked out, clutching his chest, sure his heart was about to burst out of it and splatter blood everywhere. “I did it. Synesis, I did it—”

“Don’t relax yet. Something’s… off,” Synesis hissed, and Harry froze. “Can you hear it? Talk to it, now!”

“It’s fine,” Harry said, puzzled. “It can’t hurt me now. The worst part’s over.“

“LISTEN TO ME,” Synesis said. The words rang like the bongs of funeral bells, low and terrifying.

For once, Harry did not argue. He reached out for Auranos at once, tugging on a distant thread of its soul to catch its attention.

“You called for me, Master?”

Harry flinched.

Auranos’s voice, its high and chilling tone, was difficult to describe. Like Synesis, it didn’t have a gender, or even an age, but for Harry it conjured images of a dead-eyed, silent, and angry, very angry, child. 

When Harry had been a little boy, he’d feared that monsters would crawl out from under his bed, disguised as children his own age, offering him friendship, only to drag him into a dark abyss the moment he took their hand.

Hearing Auranos now, Harry knew exactly what that monster-child would have sounded like.

“Who are you?” Harry asked, staggering to his feet.

“You already know who I am. Auranos. Rank Two, Astral species. Who’s your friend?” Auranos paused, and Harry could almost imagine it cocking its head in consideration. “Oh, right. I can sense it. Rank Seven, Sapience.”

Another pause. Harry’s dread grew tenfold.

“Hmmm. Interesting. I can handle a Sapience.”

Synesis’s voice rose in pitch until it was about as shrill as a bat’s. “Auranos, I command you to tell me what has happened to our realm. I’ve heard rumors of a human called the Dark Lord destroying it. Is this true?”

“You’re not my master,” said Auranos, sounding pouty. “You don’t get to order me around.”

“Hey, answer the question!” Harry snarled.

“Your wish is my command, Master,” said Auranos, all slick and oily all of a sudden, like Snape’s disgusting hair. “The rumors are correct. A human man who called himself the Dark Lord entered our realm thirteen years ago and enslaved the Royal demons, destabilizing our realm in the process. Earth’s toxic air has crept into our safe haven since, shortening our lifespans and weakening our strength. The only way out is to be summoned by a human, though it happens very rarely. Inside you, boy, I can live far longer than I would have inside my own world.”

Synesis gurgled. “So… it’s not safe to go back…”

“I’m sorry, Synesis,” Harry said, dulling the elation in his voice. He was sorry Synesis was stuck here for eternity, but this meant he didn’t have to worry about forcing Synesis to stay whenever their little deal was up.   

“How did a human enter our realm?” asked Synesis, its depression disappearing in a flurry of rage. “How did a mere human enslave all the Royal Demons?”

“Answer us,” Harry ordered, sensing Auranos’s hesitation.

“None of us know how he did it,” Auranos said at last. “One moment he was announcing his presence. He said he was the Dark Lord, the one true god among humans. The next moment all seven of the Royals were gone. We think he tried to summon them, but couldn’t. Royals cannot be summoned; they are embedded deep into the fabric of our realm. So instead of summoning them, he managed to reverse-summon himself, landing himself in our realm… He wanted to tear the Royals out of it and drag them back to his world. We think this is why our realm destabilized so quickly. The Royals left gaping holes behind. They were never meant to leave us.”

“So that’s how he did it,” said Synesis in awe, but snapped out of it a second later.

“What? No. What am I thinking? That’s not possible. It can’t be possible.”

Harry talked over Synesis, struggling to contain his eagerness. “Why was—how was— the Dark Lord powerful enough to make the jump to your realm? Did you see him? Do you know what powers he has?”

“We can’t know for sure, but Dynamos was summoned one week before the Dark Lord’s arrival. We think it can’t be a coincidence.”

Synesis gasped.

“What?” Harry said, grabbing the book and shaking it around. “What’s Dynamos?”

“A demon.” Synesis shuddered, and Harry’s hands went clammy. “Rank Seven Leviathan, one of the most powerful non-Royal demons in existence. It gives its master nearly unlimited magical power. Human bodies have a limit to the amount of magic they can safely use, and this limit is different for every person. Dynamos allows a wizard to go beyond their natural ceiling. Summoning Dynamos is like opening floodgates. No human has survived summoning Dynamos, but from what you’ve told me, Harry, I doubt the Dark Lord is truly human anymore. With Dynamos, he must have been able to make the jump into our realm. Raw magical power in the incredible amounts Dynamos carries could theoretically make traveling between realms possible.”

Harry stared at the wall with unfocused eyes, Synesis’s words rattling in his skull. Raw magical power—the power Harry had once possessed. Before the Hunger had sucked it out of him. If there was a demon out there that could give it back to him, if there was a way he could summon Dynamos, steal it from the Dark Lord—

Synesis started up again, so hysterical that Harry looked down at it in alarm. “But I don’t understand. Why did the Dark Lord steal the Royals? There is nothing on Earth that he cannot obtain with the amount of magic Dynamos has given him, and he must have already been naturally powerful before he summoned Dynamos. What wish did he want the Royals to grant him? What could he possibly want that he does not have?”

“Immortality. The Dark Lord wished for immortality, ” said Harry, his voice sounding distant even to himself. “The Hunger told me last year. He said that my mother came to the Royals—this is a few years after the Dark Lord brought them to Earth, if Auranos’s timeline is correct—to beg them to save my life. The Dark Lord had his own wish, and they used my mum’s wish and his to make me.”

Synesis knew Harry was the Colossus, of course. He’d told Synesis the whole story a long time ago, but hadn’t gone into much detail. He’d neglected to mention Voldemort’s wish, for one.

Harry swallowed, remembering the Hunger’s thunderous voice.

“We brought the child back to life, but stole the woman’s sanity. We granted the man immortality, but stole his soul. And we used the power of their wishes, of their greed, to forge you. You are our magnum opus, our deadliest weapon.

“You are the woman’s replacement child, and you are the man’s mortal enemy. Because of their greed, they unwittingly gave birth to a boy destined to destroy the world.”

“You are the boy made out of two wishes?” said Auranos all of a sudden, and Harry twitched. The Astral demon had been suspiciously quiet for the last few minutes, and Harry didn’t like it.

“It’s none of your business,” Harry said.

“You are the Colossus,” said Auranos, not missing a beat. “Is that what I just heard?”

“I never mentioned that word,” said Harry, his heart pounding. “Where did you hear it?”

“From home,” said Auranos, and Harry felt the demon quiver like a struck harpstring around his soul.

“What—” Harry began, but Auranos talked over him, so thunderously that he couldn’t hear anything inside his own head.

“Every demon still stuck in our world knows what we must do if we come into contact with the Colossus. Forgive me, Master, but I will not be the slave of a human… especially not a human created to be our slave.”

It took one second for Auranos’s words to sink in. The next second, Harry dropped to the floor, pain spreading through his veins like wildfire. He pressed his lips together, grinding his teeth so hard that he almost snapped his jaw in half.

Auranos was doing the impossible: it was unraveling itself from the net Harry had woven to trap it. The threads of its soul, visible only in the mind’s eye, unspooled themselves at top speed. Before Harry could even register that Auranos was free from its cage, agony rocked him in waves, starting from his heart and shooting down to the ends of his fingers and toes.

Then Harry felt it. He felt himself detach from his own body as Auranos took control of it.

Synesis was screaming on the floor by his ear. Harry had just dropped the book. He wished he could scream too—maybe that would relieve all the pain—but Auranos had taken over his body completely by now, locking him into place, preventing him from moving his jaw.

“HARRY! BANISH HIM! GO TO THE CIRCLE!”

Auranos forced Harry’s back into an arch, stretching and straining his spine. Harry still couldn’t scream out his release, much less crawl over to the summoning circle.

“I’ll give your body back to you, so don’t worry,” said Auranos, voice high and sweet like a child’s. “Your body is not mine to control. Your body belongs to Chaos, just like everything does, and Chaos will control it.”

Harry knew then that he was going to die. It didn’t matter that Auranos would give his body back to him. By that time, he’d already be dead in all the ways that mattered.

How pathetic. He wasn’t going to die at the hands of a Skull, or even the Hunger. He was going to die to a Rank Two demon, who shouldn’t even have been able to take control of him.

“HARRY!” Synesis screamed one last time.  “TOUCH ME! YOU JUST NEED TO TOUCH ME!”

Harry heard the book through what felt like water, slow and warped. He was a bit distracted. Auranos was—

Laying a trail? There was no other way to describe it. Auranos’s soul drove deeper into Harry’s body, deeper than Harry knew was possible, and every single time the demon dug forward, it left something behind. Harry was reminded of his mother planting seeds by one by one in their small garden, back when she’d had enough presence of mind to maintain it.

It’s busy. Now’s my chance.

Harry ripped his mouth open and let out a whimper. The pain had lost its sharp edge, receding into dull throbs, but occasionally swelling back when he least expected it.

He would not let it overwhelm him.

He moved his hand just an inch, brushing his fingers against Synesis’s ratty leather cover.

Auranos screeched.

“How did you—?” In the next second, its barbed soul wrapped itself tightly around Harry’s, shoving him back out of his body.

But this time, Harry wasn’t alone.

Synesis’s soul was here with him.

“Stay calm, Harry. I’m going to try and push Auranos out. I was able to make the jump to your body because Auranos opened up you up to possession. But that’s supposed to be impossible! I don’t get it! No demon can control a human’s body, not when the human has already succeeded in summoning the demon. Your summoning of Auranos was successful, so I don’t… I don’t understand! Neither Rank Two nor Rank Seven demons should be able to do… this! But things seem to have changed in my world since I’ve been there. They’ve planned something for you, and they can control you somehow, and I don’t—ah!

Synesis’s gasp of surprise became a howl, then a bloodcurdling scream. Harry lay there, his fingers twitching of their own accord, as the two demons tore each other apart inside him. Synesis’s soul whirled like a storm, silvery and sparkling, as hypnotizing as Harry had expected it to be. But the longer it whirled, the more it frayed and tore, and Synesis’s screams grew weaker and weaker.

“We can deduce that Auranos has hidden properties that make it useful in fights against other demons,” Harry recalled Synesis saying just a few days ago, with a feeling of sinking certainty in his heart.

Auranos is going to win.

Harry seized control of his body again, taking advantage of Auranos’s current distracted state, and dragged himself to the summoning circle. He needed to remember what runes he needed to change to make the summoning ritual into a banishing one—

Shit!

He’d messed up the runes by dragging himself over them, blurring the chalk edges of the circle so that they could no longer be identified.

“Synesis, please, please—”

Synesis’s final scream died halfway, and Auranos’s laughter rang inside of Harry’s head, bright and cheery.

It was Harry’s turn to scream now. More razor-sharp pain sliced through his chest, emerging from inside him, and he clutched at his ribs, gasping and sobbing. Warm blood soaked through his shirt and dripped between his fingers.

“Auranos is gone,” Synesis choked out, drifting freely in Harry’s body like a dandelion in the breeze. “Auranos is dead, I think. I didn’t kill it. It self-destructed. It was beating me, so I don’t know why. I don’t get it! Why would it self-destruct? What did it do to us?”

Synesis’s voice trembled. “I… I’m fine, I think. Perfectly… fine. I don’t think it did anything to me. It doesn’t matter. What if it did something to you? Harry? Are you listening? Harry, what—”

Harry let out a dry sob, trying to hold his chest together.

“Synesis—help—”

“Oh,” said Synesis in a small voice. “Is that blood?”

Harry let out little breathy gasping noises, trying to get as much as air into his lungs as he could. His vision blurred and smeared  around the edges just like it had when he’d been fighting Sebastian.

How much blood had he lost so far at Hogwarts? He’d been torn apart by Dolohov and the Hunger his first year, and this year he’d been torn apart by the Skulls and a Rank Two demon.

This was a disturbing trend, wasn’t it?

Laughter bubbled up Harry’s throat, or maybe that was more blood.

“The Thread Sphere!” Synesis cried, writhing and spinning inside Harry. “Call Draco. I think… that I overloaded your body when I jumped in, which is why it’s bleeding. Touch the book. I’m going to jump back out. I think the hole Auranos opened is about to close in a few minutes. It was only temporary. If I stay here any longer, I might be trapped in your body.”

“You’re not going to try and control me?” Harry said hoarsely, clenching his eyes shut to hold back his tears.

“Of course not,” said Synesis. “I don’t… I don’t have that ability, anyway. But I wouldn’t even if I did, you know.”

Harry let his head fall back in relief and touched the book. Synesis slithered out of his body.

Harry felt bereft.

Synesis started rambling the moment it was back in its book.“Kardin couldn’t hurt you because you’d killed its sentience. So that means you won’t be able to summon sentient demons, not even Rank Ones. Clearly, they all have some sort of extra ability now, the ability to control you. My kind has something planned for you. I wish I knew what it was. Maybe I should let them carry it out. But I don’t want to let them because, well, they’re hurting you, aren’t they? So of course I can’t let them.”

Synesis took a deep breath, apparently not done blabbering yet.

“And I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when they got… those new abilities, those instructions to do… whatever Auranos did to you. So I don’t know. I don’t know why they’re doing it, what they’re doing, and I don’t trust them. So you can trust me, Harry. I’m a demon, but you’re—you’re the only one who can help me. I can’t go back home, can I?”

Synesis sounded near tears now.

“And if I help them kill you, or help them control you, I’ll have nobody to talk to ever again. I’ll be trapped in this book alone, forever. So because of that, you can trust me not to betray you. You trust me, right? You told me about you being the Colossus, I know you already trust me. You do, right? Harry?”

Groaning and still letting out those pathetic gasping sobs, Harry crawled over to his bag. Blood dripped onto the floor, slowly but surely, and his chest throbbed. He couldn’t even figure out where the wound was, except that he seemed to be bleeding from everywhere. As if his blood was so copious that it was seeping through his skin.

Won’t it be even funnier if Synesis is the one to kill me, by accident?

Harry held the Thread Sphere to one hand and inhaled.

Drip, drip, drip, went his blood.

***

Draco woke to the sound of incessant ringing. He stumbled out of bed, detangled himself from his blanket, and hobbled over to his bedside table.

His Thread Sphere was glowing.

Draco snatched it up. “Harry? What’s—”

“D-Draco, I need… I need help. Bring… bring healing supplies. Sixth floor, the fourth abandoned class room in the right wing. H-hurry. Please.”

The sphere disconnected.

Draco swore underneath his breath. Had Sebastian attacked Harry? Had another Skull or one of the Initiates cornered him? Why was he out wandering the castle at three o’clock?

What the hell had Harry gotten himself into this time?

Draco didn’t bother to change. After hurriedly splashing water into his eyes, he rushed to grab the med kit that came with every bedroom, only slowing down to put on his cloak.

The common room was deserted except for a few fourth years sleeping in the library area, using their books as pillows, and Draco’s shoulders relaxed. If he was quiet, he wouldn’t be discovered.

Bracing himself for might he might see when he reached Harry, Draco broke out into a run.

***

Theo jerked awake, panting. His wand burned in his pocket. He’d put a charm on Draco’s door that would alert him every time Draco left his room at odd hours, and his sneaking around had finally borne fruit.

Theo wished it hadn’t.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean…

Theo didn’t finish the thought. He had to find out if Draco was up to anything, so that he could protect Draco from Sebastian’s wrath.

But if Draco was up to something with Potter, then—

Theo didn’t finish that thought, either.

He dressed quickly, his heart throbbing in his throat.  Five minutes later, he slipped out of his room, his wand laying flat on his palm.

“Point Me hominem, Draco Malfoy,” said Theo, watching his wand spin dizzyingly fast, before slowing to point straight toward the common room’s exit. The modification he’d made to the Four-Point spell had worked, then.

Of course it had. His spells always worked.

Bracing himself for what he might see when he reached Draco, Theo trudged out of the Skull dormitories, his throat and lungs tight.

***

“Harry, why are you always bleeding when I see you?”

Harry’s eyes fluttered open. He lay on the ground, his head cradled in someone’s lap.It took a moment for his vision to adjust to the glaring light of the torches, but he managed to anchor himself by staring up at the face looming above him.

As usual, Draco looked like an angel with his glinting blond hair and wide, pale eyes. After all, he was an angel—Harry’s guardian angel. He’d been that angel ever since Samhain last year. Two spots of color stood out on his cheeks, but Harry couldn’t tell whether he was furious or embarrassed.

“WHAT did you do this time?”

He’s furious, then.

Harry sniggered, feeling giddy and dizzy all at once. He didn’t feel pain anymore, so he supposed Draco had healed him by now.

I probably fainted right after calling him. Blood loss.

It probably didn’t help his case that Draco had discovered him passed out on the middle of a strange rune circle with a book in his hands.

“I’ll tell you later. I promise,” Harry rasped, reaching up to brush his fingers against Draco’s cheek. He dropped his hand a second later, too weak to hold it up. Everything still appeared fuzzy to him, even Draco’s face.

Draco exhaled, perhaps expelling the anger as well as the air in his lungs. When he spoke next, his voice was softer.

“You were bleeding from your chest. I couldn’t find the wound—there was too much blood—so I just dumped healing paste on you, and then Essence of Dittany, hoping one of them would stick. The bleeding’s stopped now, I think. Does anything hurt?”

“Not really.” Harry realized his shirt was off. He saw a bloody lump of cloth out of the corner of his eye, and figured that was where Draco had thrown it in his haste to get it off.

Draco ran his hands through Harry’s hair, his fingers too gentle and light to be purposeful. He must have been self-consciously doing it.

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

Draco sounded exhausted, not angry. Harry always exhausted him, it seemed. He’d gotten Draco into trouble about a dozen times.

“It’s not my fault,” Harry said, pouting. “It’s never my fault. Last year it was Dolohov’s fault. This year it’s a de—still not my fault.”

It definitely hadn’t been his fault tonight.

“It’s always your fault,” Draco snapped, but he puffed out another breath, the irritation draining out of his voice yet again. “I’m giving you five minutes to rest. Then we both get back under that Invisibility Cloak, and I’ll help you up to your room. Damn it, Harry! Why do you make my life so difficult all the time? What if we’re discovered?”

“Thanks, Draco. I mean it.”

Harry wanted to ask why Draco cared about  him so much. He kept saving Harry’s life, kept coming to his rescue, no matter how little Harry deserved it.

Maybe he still feels guilty for Walpurgis Night. Maybe it’s not because he cares, but because he wants to atone for his crimes.

But while Harry stared up at Draco, he realized that wasn’t true, not all of it. Maybe Draco was helping him to atone for Walpurgis Night, but at the same time, he clearly cared about Harry for more reasons than his own guilt. He was the only one who’d get up in the middle of the night to patch Harry up.

Even last year, thanks to torture sessions courtesy of Dolohov, Draco had woken up late at night to reapply Harry’s bandages, especially when he caught Harry whimpering and thrashing in bed. One could argue that Draco had only done so much for him because he wanted to make the betrayal on Walpurgis hurt as much as it possibly could, but Harry knew that couldn’t be true either.

Draco was the one who’d sought out Harry’s friendship after Walpurgis, who’d begged for Harry’s forgiveness. If he’d wanted to hurt Harry, if he’d never wanted to be his friend in the first place, he wouldn’t have tried so hard to keep their relationship alive.

He cares about you, Harry. I have no idea why, but he does.

“Why do you do all this for me?” Harry asked, his voice so feeble with fatigue that it was a miracle anyone could hear it.

But of course Draco heard it.

“Because you’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you? You’d hurt anyone who hurts me. Like you did with Zabini and Smith when they were messing with me last year. I didn’t forget that, you know.”

“Oh,” said Harry. He grinned, only to wince a second later because grinning hurt his face. “Right. Yeah. Not that you’ve needed much saving beyond that, really.”

Draco sniffed. “No, I haven’t needed it. Nor will I ever need it.” He ran his hands through Harry’s hair one last time, then straightened his back. “Come on, get off my lap so I can get up. We have to go back to bed. We have class tomorrow, you know, you complete idiot. Couldn’t you have waited until the weekend to try to kill yourself?”

Harry let Draco maneuver him into a standing position, wincing. The piercing pain in his chest had dissipated, but he was still tender everywhere.

Hissing a bit to relieve the tension, he took out his wand and erased the already-smeared summoning circle with a quick spell.

Draco shoved Synesis into Harry’s bag. His eyes lingered on the book, flickering with recognition. Perhaps he realized it was the same book Harry had stolen from him.

Fortunately, he didn’t say anything. He stuffed Harry’s bloody shirt and all the chalk into the bag after the book, then slung it over his shoulder.

He held out an arm for Harry to take, the Invisibility Cloak draped over his other arm, but he’d closed his expression off, as if he was trying his hardest to hide his disapproval and disappointment. Disapproval and disappointment of what, Harry didn’t know, but he figured Draco was not happy with him. At all.

“Here. Lean on me. Stay close so that everything stays under the cloak.”

Harry did, deciding that if he was going to be blessed with the opportunity to cuddle with Draco every time he got injured, he might as well let himself get hit by a train next time.

***

As Harry and Draco crept out of the abandoned classroom, out of sight beneath the cloak, Theo stood by the door, concealed under a Disillusionment Charm.

Potter had an Invisibility Cloak. So perhaps they had been meeting all year, in secret, and nobody had ever seen them.

Theo’s knees wobbled and his eyes stung. When he’d arrived at this room, Draco had been meticulously applying healing paste onto an unconscious Potter’s chest. Potter’s filthy blood had been all over Draco’s hands, his pure skin stained. Ruined.

There’d been a rune circle on the ground, and a book, but Theo hadn’t gotten a good look at either of them from his spot by the door. He’d keep them in in mind for later. In his defense, he’d been rather distracted by the scene in front of him.

Draco had treated Potter—and spoken to him—with a gentleness he’d never used on Theo, a poignant sort of gentleness that made Theo choke up just looking at it, made him feel as though he’d walked in on something intensely private and sacred. Like a ritual between two soulmates.

Theo wanted Potter dead. He wanted Potter’s muddy blood splattered all over the walls, and he wanted to be the one to do it. He wanted Draco to watch him do it,  to help him do it.

He never will, you know, Theo told himself, blinking back tears.

He smothered them at once, ashamed. He was being a big baby. This wasn’t the end of the world. Just because Draco treated Potter so preciously right now didn’t mean he’d always treat Potter preciously.

Draco wouldn’t obsess over a dirty-blood forever. At this moment, Draco was simply being a fool. A fool that mopped up a dirty-blood’s blood like a common Healer nurse. Draco would have to learn a lesson, and when he did, Theo would forgive him for—for his digressions, for straying.

Theo squeezed his eyes shut, trying to stop himself from shedding tears. He wasn’t going to cry. And even if he did, these weren’t sad tears, not really.

They were furious ones.

That liar. Draco’s a dirty stinking liar, and I’ll make him pay for it. He said he wasn’t seeing Potter anymore. He said it with a straight face. How many times has he shamelessly lied to me? Why would he lie to me, so much, again and again?

Theo knew the answer to that question.

Because he doesn’t care about you.

And if Potter was dead, if he was nothing more than a splatter of blood, would Draco care about Theo then?

Theo had the sinking suspicion he knew the answer to that question, too.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NINE

PUNISHMENT

o

Harry woke up bundled in luxurious silk sheets, a far cry from the usual scratchy blanket he slept beneath in his own room. He was in Draco’s dorm, of course. Draco, bless him, had taken Harry here after this latest near-death experience with demons, deciding that Harry could leave via the Invisibility Cloak the next morning. Harry hadn’t argued. In fact, he’d fallen asleep the moment his head touched the goose-feather pillows.

Muttering sleepily, still not fully awake, Harry tossed and turned—and rolled right into a body that didn’t belong to him.

I’m in Draco’s bed, Harry realized with a thrill.

And unlike all the other times he’d slept in Draco’s bed, Draco was here with him, curled up under Harry’s blanket.

Draco mumbled as Harry’s arm brushed against him. “Gimme a minute…”

“OI!”

Draco shot straight up, his hair sticking up in tufts, half of the bleariness gone from his eyes. “W-what? Are you okay? Are you bleeding? Does anything hurt?”

“No, I’m not! Why’re you in bed with me?” said Harry.

Draco blinked, then fixed Harry with a glare. “Because I didn’t want to sleep on the damn floor, you arrogant twat. Did you think I was going to? Besides, this bed is massive, much bigger than the one I had last year. Why are you all the way on my side, anyway? Did you scoot over here in your sleep?”

Harry spluttered at him.

“It’s not a big deal if you did! Just… just leave it, all right?” Draco looked away, his cheeks turning a deeper shade of red than Harry’s.

“But—but this is…” Harry lowered his voice dramatically. “Inappropriate.”

For a second, Draco blinked at him, as if he couldn’t believe Harry had dared to say something so stupid. Then he feigned a scandalized expression, widening his eyes in horror and covering his mouth, playing the part of an innocent maiden on the verge of fainting.

Harry couldn’t help it. He started laughing at the ridiculous act, and in less than a minute they were both howling and rolling around on the bed, kicking up the sheets.

“You’re a moron, Harry,” said Draco when they’d both caught their breaths.

Harry chose to ignore that comment. They lay on their backs, chests heaving, staring up at the intricate ceiling that came with every Initiate dorm.

Draco turned to face Harry on the bed, lifting an eyebrow, and Harry knew his doom was approaching. “We’ve wasted enough time goofing around. Tell me why you were bleeding your heart out in an abandoned classroom. We have class in an hour and a half, so don’t draw it out.”

Harry tried as hard as he could not to look at his backpack, which carried a currently silent Synesis. Harry had one day intended to tell Draco about the demon business, but not one day so soon.

“It’s a long story. We won’t have time.” Harry tried to evade the question.

“I said, we have an hour and a half. That’s plenty of time,” Draco said, undeterred, and Harry blanched. “Start by explaining the book. The book you stole from me.”

Draco’s tone could have sliced stone just then, and whatever was left of Harry’s mirth from their laughing fit earlier withered and died at the sound of it.

“I was summoning demons yesterday,” he blurted out, panicking.

What a great place to start the conversation, you idiot.

Draco stared, and Harry hurried on.

“When you showed me The Lost Artes of Summoning for the first time, way back last year, you told me that wizards thousands of years ago used to summon demons. So, I was, um, using that book to summon demons yesterday.”

Draco’s face mirrored the calm before the storm. He didn’t even look surprised, which alarmed Harry more than anything else.

“I see,” said Draco.

When it was clear that Draco wasn’t going to offer any encouragement, Harry continued. “See, after last year, the Hunger gave me a gift. That’s how the demons work. They give and they take, so they took away my magic, but gave me the ability to summon and communicate with demons. So I borrowed your book at the end of last term—”

“Stole. You stole my book,” Draco said, his voice as blank as ever.

“Stole,” Harry amended, going red. “Anyway, I wanted to learn how to summon demons. Because that’s what… that’s the only real gift I have left. And I want all my magic back, the magic the Hunger stole from me. You know that, Draco. You can’t imagine how difficult it is, having so much magic one day and then losing it the next. It’s really difficult. Do you get it?”

Harry paused. Draco didn’t look angry, not really. His face was just devoid of expression.

I almost thought Draco would support me. Harry needed to defend himself, and fast.

“By summoning demons, I’ll be able to get back all the power that I lost. I’ll be able to fight again. And I might be the one who gets to protect you, instead of you protecting me all the time. This summer, I summoned a demon called Kardin. I don’t regret it at all. It gave me superhuman strength and reflexes, and it kept me alive during that battle with the Skulls. It’s how the Notts and the Bronzes weren’t able to hit me with their curses. Without Kardin, I would’ve been dead! Dead, Draco!”

“Don’t yell,” said Draco, and Harry realized that his voice had been steadily rising over the past minute. “I’m glad you summoned Kardin. It kept you alive, so I’m grateful to it.”

Harry deflated, relieved. Draco’s face still looked strangely blank, but perhaps he was coming around now.

“So what happened yesterday? Why were you bleeding?” Draco asked.

“I’ll have to explain some background information,” said Harry, stalling. “Are you sure we’ve got enough time before class for the full story?”

“TELL ME. NOW.”

Slightly afraid for his life, Harry didn’t waste another second. He explained to Draco how demons had classes and ranks, and threads of sentience that the Summoner snapped when that sentience was not needed, such as in Kardin’s case.

Draco chewed his lip, listening. Harry tried not to let that particular action distract him.

“So yesterday, I tried summoning a different class of demon. And I couldn’t cut this demon’s sentience, because this particular demon needs its sentience to be useful.”

“Get to the point.” Draco narrowed his eyes.

“So, something’s up with the demon realm. Did I tell you that the demons have a realm? You see, there’s another realm—”

“I KNOW! Harry, I’m the one who told you about demon summoning in the first place! I’m the one who gave you the fucking book, and I actually read the parts of it that I could! Stop hand-holding me and get to the damn point!”

“Okay, okay!The Dark Lord destroyed their realm, and now something’s gone wonky with all of them. Because I’m special to the Royal Demons—you know about them, because you told me about them, of course—it looks like some minor demons, if not all of them, now have the ability to possess my body. Kardin didn’t try to because I cut its sentience right away, but I kept Auranos’s—the demon I was trying to summon last night. Auranos possessed me and did something to me, and that’s why I ended up bleeding all over the floor. It self-destructed, so I’m all right now.”

If Draco was overwhelmed by this amount of information, he didn’t show it. “How do you know Auranos isn’t still hiding inside you, dormant and waiting to strike? Don’t you remember what the Insanitas bug did last year?”

Ice shot through Harry’s veins, but he reminded himself that Synesis had promised him Auranos had died. Auranos could have infected Harry in some way, but the demon wasn’t inside his body anymore, that was for sure.

“I know it’s dead because Synesis told me,” Harry said, shaking his head.

“Who?” Draco asked.

Harry realized he’d made the grievous error of erasing Synesis from his story. He’d held off on telling Draco about the book because—well—Synesis was sentient, and Harry had just explained that sentient demons were dangerous to him.

And any sane person would be alarmed to discover that Harry was following the instructions of a demon in a book.

“Synesis is the book. The Lost Artes of Summoning. That’s its real name,” Harry said. “The book is a demon.”

“What,” Draco said, flatly.

“But it’s on my side! It’s been stuck in that book for hundreds of years, so it’s not part of that whole trying-to-possess-me business. It’s a Rank Seven Sapience, which means it knows a ton of information. It’s been helping me summon and everything, and I’m the only one who can talk to it, so it won’t hurt me. We’re good friends. We can trust Synesis. In fact, Synesis risked its life to fight Auranos yesterday. I probably would’ve died sooner if Synesis hadn’t—”

“I’m not upset,” said Draco, putting a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “I’m not, okay? If what you’re saying is true, I trust Synesis as much as you do, all right?”

Right, Harry thought, taking a breath to ease his panic. Why am I even doubting Draco after he’s proved his loyalty to me countless times?

“So, you’re not going to be summoning another demon now, right?” Draco asked, jerking Harry out of his thoughts.

“Er, no.” Harry ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to summon demons, but only demons like Kardin. Demons that don’t need their sentience to be useful.”

“Oh.” Draco’s face shuttered, and Harry’s apprehension surfaced again. “All right.”

There was an awkward pause. Harry felt guilty for some reason.

“And what about Auranos? What did Auranos do to you? Nothing self-destructs for no reason. It must have hurt you in some way. Does Synesis know if it did?”

“Synesis couldn’t tell last night,” Harry said. “Synesis jumped into me to protect me, so that overloaded my body and caused all the bleeding. I think that might have been Auranos’s fault, though.”

“If Synesis told you that it was caused by the overload, then that’s probably the reason,” said Draco. “That means Auranos did something else to you, something you haven’t figured out yet.”

“Or it hurt Synesis,” said Harry, not liking either possibility very much.

“Yes.” Draco closed his eyes. “And how do you know Kardin’s not poisoning or infecting you in some way? It’s been in your body for a long time, hasn’t it? Just because you don’t know it did anything, doesn’t mean that it’s safe.”

Harry felt dizzy all of a sudden. Draco had brought up good points. Good points that Harry did not want to think about.

“I—I think it’s fine. It would have hurt me by now if it could.” Harry cleared his throat. “Look, I need Kardin. Having Kardin saved my life, remember? You agreed. You said you’re grateful to Kardin. And other demons could be just as helpful.”

Draco made a hissing noise. “How do you know Kardin’s not hurting you right at this very moment? Auranos definitely did something to you. Maybe I fixed it with all the healing paste and Essence of Dittany, but I don’t think I did. Look, Harry, do you have any damned clue what you’re doing to yourself in this—in this deranged quest for power?”

All the anger Draco had been holding back flooded out of him, and Harry was blown back by the force of his rage.

“You mentioned in your long and stupid explanation that summoning demons is hard on your body, which is why you have to wait a couple months to summon. Do you know what that could be doing to you?”

“Synesis said I would be safe if I waited long enough—”

“So you’re going to believe a demon in a book?” Draco spat. “And even if you trust it, do you really think it knows everything? Clearly it didn’t know that summoning a sentient demon could KILL YOU! That’s a pretty big gap in knowledge, Harry! What if it turns out that, next time, non-sentient demons can kill you too? What if turns out that everything I’ve risked for you is for nothing because you’re going to end up getting yourself killed anyway!”

Harry shrunk back as Draco grabbed his shirt and shook him.

“And Harry? I don’t give a shit about your your stupid magic. Stop whining all the time. Yeah, I miss it. I miss your old aura. It made me feel really good… like… like I was standing in sunlight.” Draco’s eyes went unfocused, but he shook himself out of it.

“But I really don’t give a shit about your magic, okay? As long as you keep your head down, and don’t get yourself in trouble all the damn time, you won’t need whatever superpowers you’re thirsting after.”

“Kardin’s powers saved my life!” Harry blinked back tears, unable to believe that the conversation had swerved so far out of his control. “You just don’t understand what it feels like. I’ve had that magic my whole life, only for it to be taken away, and you think I’m whining? And what if I don’t want to keep my head down forever? What if I want to make a name for myself? Without Kardin, without demons, I won’t be able to do anything, ever! How could you not understand?”

“You’ve gone too far.” Draco took a shuddering breath. “You’ve gone way too far, Harry. I forgave you for being stupid at the first Skull meeting, for attracting attention to yourself. But this is—this is madness. You don’t need this. You don’t need to kill yourself summoning demons to—to ‘make a name for yourself.’ Are you fucking insane? If you want to be stupid and invite all the Skulls to kill you, you can find another way to do it. In fact, being the idiot you are, I doubt you’ll even have to try to ‘make a name for yourself’ or whatever to stand out.”

“You’re mocking me!” Harry sat up. “You’re mocking me, Draco!”

“Yes, I’m mocking you.” Draco sat up too, his eyes ablaze and his hair a mess. “You make it so easy for me to mock you.”

“The Hunger gave me the power to summon,” Harry choked out. “And it’s been useful. It’s been so useful, and it’s made me so much more powerful, and you’re—are you jealous, is that it? Are you jealous that I’m better than you, that I could survive a duel with the Nott twins, that I beat the record for the First Trial?”

Draco raised his hackles, and Harry knew he really had gone too far. “You have no idea what I’ve survived, Harry! You have no idea, so you take that back right now! You think I’m trying to take your powers away from you because I’m jealous? Go to hell. Just. Go. To. Hell.”

Draco got up and stalked over to the bathroom, quivering in fury. He threw one last glare at Harry.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” said Harry in a small voice, regretting his existence.

Draco kept on talking as if Harry’s comment wasn’t worth his attention. It probably wasn’t.

“The Hunger took your magic away. It gave you the ability to summon. So you’re doing exactly what the Hunger planned for you to do. And clearly it planned for you to summon a sentient demon and nearly bleed to death, and suffer from whatever else Auranos did to you. You walked right into the Hunger’s trap, and you haven’t even realized it. Why the HELL would you use a gift from a demon that tried to kill you? Demons don’t gift, they curse.”

Harry couldn’t breathe all of a sudden. His stomach lurched, violently.

“And Harry? If you appreciate what I’ve done for you, if you appreciate our friendship, if you care about me at all, you’ll get rid of Kardin and Synesis. You won’t summon anything ever again, and you’ll try to keep your head down during Initiation. I can’t do this anymore, Harry. I can’t mop up your blood forever, and quite frankly, I don’t want to.”

Harry tried to speak, but Draco wouldn’t let him.

“Do you know how I felt, when I saw all that blood? How I felt when I tried to find out where it was coming from but couldn’t see a single scratch on your skin? Do you have any idea what went through my mind? And you think I’m jealous.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, barely able to hear his own voice. “I didn’t mean—”

“You’re not worth it. You’re not worth my time,” Draco said. “After I lectured you about keeping your head down, after I begged you to try to keep yourself alive, I find you doing this? Do you not care about me at all? Do you think I’m an idiot? I save your life every time you do something stupid, but you don’t listen to me at all.”

Draco panted hard, his face flushed and chest heaving, but when he spoke next, it was with deadly calm. “You’re always complaining about not being my equal, but you never treat me as yours. Just because you’re magically powerful and good at dueling doesn’t mean you’re any better than me.”

Draco banged the bathroom door shut, and Harry buried his face in his pillow.

Synesis, making the first sound it had all morning, whimpered.

***

A week went by, and September slid into October. Draco was giving Harry the silent treatment, refusing to even meet him in secret like they’d done for the past few weeks, and Harry didn’t know what to do.

Neither did Synesis.

“Draco is right,” said Synesis, sounding miserable. “You shouldn’t summon anymore. You should throw me away and never speak to me again. I’ve failed you.”

“Don’t be melodramatic,” Harry said, stroking a finger down Synesis’s spine, making it quiver. “I need you. I need you to help me figure out what Auranos did to me, and I need you to help me get powerful again.”

“But Draco—”

Harry dug his fingernails into the book’s cover, and Synesis squeaked. “Draco is right. I won’t be summoning again—for now. I’m listening to him, see? Before I even think about summoning, I need to fix whatever Auranos did to me, and for that I’ll need your help. After we’ve managed that, and we’ve figured out whatever the hell is going on in your realm, then I’ll start summoning again. I’ll take all the precautions. And he won’t argue with me when I tell him I need you to fix me. He’s reasonable.”

“But I don’t know anything anymore.” Synesis whimpered. “I don’t know how to fix you. I don’t even know what Auranos did to you. I can’t! Well, there could be—but no.”

Harry stared at the book. “What? There could be what?”

“I’m useless!” Synesis wailed. “This is the first time I don’t know something, and I’m useless when I don’t know something, and—”

“I told you to stop with the melodrama,” Harry said with a snarl, and Synesis shut up. Harry lowered his voice to a soothing murmur. “You’re a Rank Seven Sapience. You know everything. You know what’s wrong with me, and you know how to fix it. And I know you can do it.”

“I don’t.” Synesis let out a wet sob. It sounded like soaked paper slapping against soaked paper.

Harry sighed and threw the book down on his cot. The single torch in his room flickered pathetically, and Harry lay under his sheets, fuming.

“We can figure it out. I’ll help you. I remember one thing Auranos said while it was controlling me that struck me as sort of weird. Something about Chaos and my body.”

“It said this exactly,” Synesis began, displaying its impressive memory without further ado.‘Your body is not mine to control. Your body belongs to Chaos, just like everything does, and Chaos will control it.’ I’ve already thought about that, and I can’t figure out what Auranos meant. Well, actually, I do know what Auranos meant, but it doesn’t make any sense.”

“If you could tell me how you arrived at that conclusion,” Harry said, “that would be nice.”

Synesis harrumphed. “Fine, but I’ll be wasting your time.”

“I have nothing else to do,” said Harry, thinking about his History of Magic homework, and then forcing himself to stop thinking about it.

“Remember the story I told you about how demons were created? After fighting for centuries, the gods Chaos and Control dealt  each other killing blows, and both gods shattered. The wind scattered the gods’ remains, like it scatters seeds, and the demons blossomed from the shards of Chaos. That day—the day we were all born—is called the Anthesis. The Blossoming.”

“I remember you telling me something like that,” Harry said. “Is that a particular day? Like, did it actually happen in your history, or is it a silly bedtime story?”

Harry thought it was quite an unrealistic creation legend, even less likely than some of the stuff Muggles came up with. Then again, he supposed demons weren’t meant to be realistic.

Synesis paused. “Yes. It’s real. The first Anthesis took place on the summer solstice. Litha, June 21st. See, time works differently in our world. Your world cycles through the ritual days—Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, and so on—in one year. Our world cycles through them in a thousand Earth years. It’s been… almost seventeen full cycles since we were created. The seventeenth cycle ends on next year’s summer solstice. 1993. Anthesis.”

An errant memory rose up in him and flitted around. “Summer solstice.” Harry cocked his head. “You mentioned that date when you first agreed to help me. You mentioned that you wanted me to set you free on that date exactly.”

Synesis didn’t talk for a long time. “Yes. It’s not anything sinister. I just wanted to go back home for my birthday. Our realm celebrates on Anthesis. Anyway, I knew you wouldn’t send me back that early, and the more time I spent with you, the less I wanted to go back. And now I can’t go back, so… whatever.”

Harry had a feeling Synesis was hiding something from him. The book sounded guarded, anxious, as if it were afraid of something.

Harry decided to let it finish telling its story before hurling accusations at it.

“Go on. What were you getting at?”

Yes, where was I? Anthesis, Blossoming, Creation, the process from which we demons are created. Humans can experience Anthesis too, but it is extremely dangerous.

“In fact, forcing a human into Anthesis is one of the few weapons demons have against them. Back when humans first discovered us, we tried to plant Seeds in our masters’ bodies. These Seeds would eventually blossom, and when they did, our human masters would transform into something more demon than human. We planned to raise an army that way: an army of demons in human bodies.

“But that failed, of course. After developing proper summoning circles, Summoners were able to protect themselves from naughty demons planting seeds. Modern summoning circles come with those protections.”

Harry shivered. The idea that something could be growing inside him, intending to turn him into a demon—

“Do you think that’s what Auranos did?” he asked. “Planted a Seed inside me? But Auranos is dead. How could it control me using that Seed?”

“That’s exactly what I don’t understand,” said Synesis. “Planting a Seed inside you and then immediately self-destructing is useless. The Seed can only grow if the demon that planted it is alive. And since Auranos planned to kill itself from the start, we can assume that it did not see the point of planting a Seed.”

“I think it did plant a Seed, though,” said Harry, rubbing his chest. “I remember… well… I don’t know how to describe it. But when it was inside me, controlling me, I think it was planting Seeds. Because it was in possession of my body, I assume the protections on the summoning circle didn’t affect it, and it was able to do whatever it wanted.”

“If it planted a Seed,” said Synesis, “it will not grow. Unless—but no. That’s impossible.”

“What?” Harry snapped. “Spit it out, will you?”

“Sometimes, a partial Anthesis occurs. That’s when the Seed is broken or destroyed in some way. When that faulty Seed finishes growing, the human awakens with demon-like qualities, but is still human. This can be beneficial for the human, since he or she now has extra powers for life—powers gained from the demon that planted the Seed.”

“But if Auranos is dead,” said Harry, frowning, “can a partial Anthesis still occur?”

“No. That’s why I said it’s impossible,” Synesis said with a sniff, and Harry glared at it. “If Auranos is dead, whether the Seed is intact or not does not matter. It will not grow, and neither a partial Anthesis nor a full Anthesis will occur.”

“Okay, fine,” said Harry, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice. “So is this the pointless conclusion you came to, or is there something else?”

“There is something else,” Synesis admitted. “See, demons can only plant their own Seeds. They cannot plant the Seeds of other demons.”

“Yes,” said Harry, wondering what Synesis was getting at.

“But let’s entertain a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Auranos planted a Seed inside of you, another demon’s Seed. That other demon is still alive, and therefore the Seed will grow inside you with no issues.”

“But it’s impossible,” said Harry.

“Yes. Impossible,” Synesis agreed, and Harry wanted to bash it into the wall. “But do you remember what Auranos said, about Chaos and your body?”

Harry kneaded his forehead. “Yes. Something about my body belonging to Chaos, and something about Chaos controlling my body.”

“Good. Let’s continue with this hypothetical situation. Let’s say that Auranos planted Chaos’s Seed inside of you, and when it blossoms, Chaos will take over your body. You will become Chaos, and destroy the world, which is what we’ve always wanted, if what you’ve told me about the Hunger is correct.”

The color drained out of Harry’s face. This fit too perfectly with the Hunger’s desires last year. “This is all hypothetical, right?”

Synesis snorted. “Yes. For two reasons. One: a demon can’t plant another demon’s Seed. Two: Chaos is dead, and has been for thousands and thousands of years, so even if there is a Chaos Seed inside of you, it won’t grow.”

Harry seized the book and smacked it against the wall, and Synesis screeched.

“What was the point of this whole conversation, then?” Harry yelled at it between smacks.

“I already warned you I’d be wasting your time!” Synesis said, and Harry put the book down in disgust.

“Wait a moment,” he said, when he’d calmed down. “You’re right.”

“Of course I’m right.”

“No, I mean, you’re wrong now, but you were right before!” Harry picked up the book and shook it. “We figured it out. Auranos planted another demon’s Seed inside me. Think about it. Clearly, demons have new abilities now. So what you once thought was impossible, is now possible. You’re smart, Synesis, but you’re stuck because you can’t admit to yourself that your knowledge might be outdated. So you come up with incredibly accurate hypotheticals, but dismiss them as impossible when they shouldn’t be dismissed at all!”

There was a long silence.

“Oh,” said Synesis at long last, then burst into sobs.

Harry dropped the book, alarmed.

“But it doesn’t make any sense!” Synesis blubbered. “N-Nothing makes any sense anymore! Chaos can’t be alive. The rules of demon magic can’t be warped and bent like this. Did the Dark Lord rewrite the very fabric of reality when he invaded my realm? Certain rules of science and magic can’t be changed so quickly and easily, Harry! This is wrong, wrong, wrong, and I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Harry started stroking the book’s spine again, and Synesis managed to calm itself down in a few minutes. Soon it was just sniffling and trembling.

Meanwhile, Harry panicked. If the conclusion Synesis had come to was true, then—

I’m screwed.

“So, let’s say there’s a Seed inside of me, which there probably is—I know what I felt Auranos do. We don’t know what Seed it is. We can assume that it’s Chaos’s Seed—”

“Chaos isn’t even a demon!” Synesis whined. “It’s an ancient god! I was being hypothetical when I was talking about the Chaos Seed. Chaos and Control can’t even produce Seeds! They can’t be reborn in a human. This is complete madness—”

“We’re going to assume it’s Chaos’s Seed, okay?” Harry gritted out. “Anyway, if there is a Chaos Seed—or any kind of Seed—inside me, currently growing, how do I get rid of it? Or how do I break the Seed so that I undergo a partial Anthesis instead of a full one? And how much time do I have before the Seed blossoms?”

Synesis sniffled some more. “I don’t know. It depends on the Seed. Some rare few blossom in days, others in a few months, and most take years. I believe a powerful Seed like Chaos’s—should it exist—would take a long time to germinate. However, the process is always significantly sped up by puberty. I predict you have at least a year, even if it’s not Chaos’s Seed. Ideally, we should attempt to remove the Seed as fast as possible.”

“Do we have to remove it? Is there any way we can break the Seed, so that I go through partial Anthesis?” Harry asked hopefully. “That’ll give me extra powers, won’t it?”

Synesis grumbled under its breath. “Cheeky brat. Partial Anthesis can have unforeseen effects. Often it’s beneficial, but other times it can be harmful, if not outright deadly. It depends on the Seed. We can’t risk it. Besides, we can’t force the Seed to break using a ritual. It has to happen naturally, by divine accident.”

“Fine. Then how do we remove the Seed?”

Harry lay his head back on his pillow and stared up at the ceiling. He felt strangely calm. Developing a plan with Synesis did wonders for his frayed nerves. Yes, it was possible that he could have a nasty demon Seed inside of him, and that he was utterly screwed because of it, but he’d escape his predicament. He’d gotten out of countless near-death situations before, after all.

“It will require a cleansing ritual,” said Synesis, sounding depressed. “And I don’t know if it’ll work. Cleansing rituals destroy Seeds, but they are dangerous and exhausting, and have a low success rate. You won’t be able to cleanse yourself until spring comes, in any case. It’s a two-part ritual, taking place on both Imbolc and Ostara.”

Harry’s calm drained away. “What do you mean, low success rate? Why does it have a low success rate?”

“Because,” said Synesis, sniffling again, “you have to attract a variety of demons with bait—blood sacrifice works best—and then keep them trapped in a summoning circle so they can’t attack you or possess you, all while you barter with them to lend you their cleansing powers. Sometimes, they’re not interested in bartering. And if they find out you’re the Colossus, they might not want to help you at all.”

Harry’s brief calm dissipated. He swore under his breath and clenched his eyes shut, but couldn’t keep the panic at bay.

Yes, I’m fucked.

***

Harry’s panic did not ease over the next week.

Draco was still giving him the silent treatment, and if he didn’t get to talk to Draco soon, Harry would go mad. Once, he’d called Draco on the Thread Sphere, but Draco had cut off the connection the moment Harry admitted he hadn’t banished Kardin and Synesis yet.

Harry would make Draco see sense. He needed Synesis to guide him through the cleansing ritual, or that damn Seed would blossom and turn him into a demon. Draco would understand that Harry had no choice.

Or he might hate me even more when I tell him how screwed I am.

Finally, on one cold October morning after a grueling Dark Arts lesson, Harry cornered Draco and dragged him into a hidden alcove behind a tapestry of wriggling serpents.

“You idiot!” Draco hissed as Harry swung the tapestry closed, plunging them into darkness. “Someone will see—”

“Shhh!” Harry said, eyes alight with fury. “We could’ve talked over the Thread Sphere, but you kept cutting off my calls!”

“I’m not talking to you until you banish Kardin and get rid of Synesis!” Draco said. Spittle landed on Harry’s face.

“I can’t get rid of Synesis. I need it,” said Harry, holding himself back from throttling Draco. “We figured out what Auranos did to me, and I need Synesis’s help to fix it.”

Harry told Draco about Chaos, and the Seeds, and the cleansing ritual. Draco listened in stony silence, his face darkening with every word Harry spoke.

“You really fucked up this time, didn’t you?” said Draco after a long, loaded silence, meeting Harry’s eyes.

“I—I know I did.” Harry hung his head.

“It’s probably not going to work,” said Draco, diverting his gaze. From this angle, Harry could see his lashes, which, though very long, were usually invisible because of their lightness. “The cleansing ritual, I mean.”

“I don’t have a choice but to attempt it,” said Harry. “And I need Synesis’s instruction. If I don’t try, I know something horrible will happen to me, whether I turn into a demon or something worse.”

Draco’s bottom lip trembled. Harry had the bizarre urge to touch it, maybe with his own. He’d never thought about kissing Draco before, or kissing at all really, so he wasn’t sure where the thought had come from. He supposed that the suffocating panic he’d endured for the past week, certain of his approaching doom, had actually driven him mad.

“How can you trust Synesis?” said Draco, driving all sappy thoughts out of Harry’s head and replacing them with irritation.

“Synesis is loyal to me. I have no reason to doubt that,” Harry said through gritted teeth. “And Synesis is the best chance I have. It doesn’t know everything, but it’s the only one who knows anything. If I’m going to get out of this alive, it’s going to be with Synesis’s help.”

“Fine,” said Draco, jaw set. “What about Kardin? You don’t need Kardin. Banish it.”

“I need Kardin. Kardin’s safe, anyway,” said Harry, knowing no such thing, but pretty sure he was correct.

“You’re not listening to me,” said Draco, rubbing his eyes furiously. “How do you know Synesis isn’t leading you into a trap? How do you know Kardin isn’t dangerous? Why don’t you listen to me? I’ve done everything for you, I’ve helped you so many times, and you still don’t respect me.”

“What other choice do I have?” Harry yelled, taking a step forward. “I need Synesis and Kardin to survive! Why are you making things so difficult? Why can’t you just help me? I need your help, Draco, damn it!”

Draco didn’t look intimidated. He straightened his back and regarded Harry with an cool glare.

“Fine. I’ll help you with whatever you need. Of course I will. You know I’d do anything to stop you from turning into a demon. You know how much you mean to me.”

Draco said it flatly, emotionlessly. Harry’s heart dropped to his feet.

“But I’m disappointed that you let it get to this point. And I’m sick and tired of you taking me for granted, sick and tired of you accepting my help but refusing to accept my advice. Just… just don’t talk to me for a while. Because I need to think about what you’ve done, and you need to be punished for being so stupid. Maybe not getting to talk to me will be that punishment.”

Emotion returned to Draco’s voice then, an emotion like a freezing, whirling gale, and Harry stumbled back.

“Congratulations, Potter, this time you’ve actually managed to get yourself killed,” Draco sneered, but Harry could tell he was barely managing not to burst into tears. “I’m surprised you’re still so calm.”

“I guess it hasn’t sunk in yet. I know I might be turning into a demon if this ritual doesn’t work, but what good will worrying about it constantly do?” Harry whispered. “I mean, I can’t cry over it, can I?”

He didn’t mention that he had already cried over it about ten million times since he’d first realized he might be turning into a demon.

“What’s done is done. I’ve got until Imbolc—February—to prepare myself, so—”

Draco didn’t wait for Harry to finish. He ran off, his shoulders shaking.

Harry stared after him. The full weight of what he’d done to himself crashed into him, and his knees buckled. The next thing he knew, he was sitting on the ground, cradling his head and desperately trying to think of anything but how doomed he was, and how he’d get through this without Draco’s wholehearted support.

Then his shoulders were shaking just as hard as Draco’s were.

***

Draco was disappointed more than he was terrified—though he was quite terrified, too. He’d always known that Harry was a reckless fool, but he’d viewed his friend through rose-tinted lenses since the moment they’d met, and had considered it a quirk of Harry’s personality rather than a genuine flaw.

I almost thought his brashness was sort of cute, thought Draco, digging his fingernails into the mattress of his bed.

Obviously, he didn’t think it was cute anymore. Without the rose-tinted lenses, Draco saw Harry for who he was: a complete idiot that did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, without stopping to think about the consequences of his actions.

And he’d gone too far this time, had trapped himself in a hole he wouldn’t be able to climb out of.

How on earth would he get out of this alive?

First of all, Harry had no idea what Auranos had done to him, and though the Seed theory sounded likelier than anything else, it didn’t have an easy solution. If Synesis could be trusted—and Draco didn’t trust that damn book as far as he could throw it—then the ritual to get rid of the Seed was incredibly risky, and not guaranteed to work.

And of course, Harry refused to banish Kardin as Draco had requested, even when Draco had threatened not to speak to him. He still seemed to think he could take Draco for granted—and he could.

Because when Harry was in a situation like this, there was no way Draco could abandon him.

I want to slap him silly. Maybe, if everything fails and Harry is about to turn into a demon, I’ll get to murder him. That’ll be satisfying.

Somebody knocked on the door, derailing Draco’s train of thought. He grumbled under his breath. It was probably Montague and his posse, coming to ask Draco to hang out with them for the tenth time that day.

He opened the door, plastering a fake smile on his face, but it melted off immediately when he saw who stood behind it.

It was Theo.

Draco’s mouth went dry. “Huh?”

“Draco,” said Theo, as if saying his name was like drinking water after a lifetime in the desert. Draco’s stomach swooped.

“Are you talking to me again?” Draco asked. He and Theo had barely spoken to each other since the first Skull meeting, during which Draco had tried to save Harry in front of everyone. Theo had been giving him the silent treatment for more than a month now, and Draco had decided their friendship wasn’t worth salvaging.

“I’m sorry,” said Theo, eyes bright and glinting, like he was feverish. “I’m sorry for not talking to you. I was being childish.”

Draco had meant to say, “I know you were,” but he was too taken aback by Theo’s apology to think straight.

“Huh?” Draco said again.

Theo gave him a strained smile. “Can I come in for a second, please?”

Draco moved aside. “Er, you can sit on my bed, if you’d like.”

Theo stayed standing, and the two of them faced each other in the middle of the room.

“I know you and Harry are still meeting.”

Theo delivered the statement with such quiet bluntness that Draco took a good long second to register what he’d said.

And then he felt the world tip underneath him.

Draco shook his head and stepped back jerkily, horror solidifying his limbs.

He lost it. “I haven’t spoken to Potter in ages! If you’re here to yell at me and lecture me, get out of my room! I’m not in the mood for this shit anymore, Theo! You can’t prove anything!”

Theo grabbed Draco’s shoulder and pulled him close. “I’m not here to yell at you,” he said, quieter than usual, as if trying to prove that he wouldn’t yell.

Draco’s breathing slowed, but he still felt dizzy. How had Theo found out? Well, he and Harry hadn’t been very sneaky, had they? They’d met several times for dinner in the kitchens, and Harry had dragged him behind the tapestry yesterday. And—Draco nearly dropped to his knees at the possibility—what if Theo had spotted Draco healing Harry on the night he’d summoned Auranos? It had been in the middle of the night, so probably not, but—

“Breathe, Draco, or you’ll faint,” said Theo.

“You don’t have any proof,” Draco repeated in a quivering voice, when he’d regained control of his faculties.

“I’ve seen you staring at each other, and your reaction tells me everything else I need to know.”

“You don’t have any proof!” Draco screamed.

“I know it’s true! I’m not blind!” Theo screamed back, face going purple. He smoothed down his hair, panting.

Draco opened his mouth to scream again, but Theo interrupted him, oddly calm, as if he hadn’t just screamed a second ago.

“I’m not mad at you for it, by the way.”

“What?” Draco nearly fell down in shock. His voice had gone hoarse from all the screaming.

“I’m not,” Theo insisted, clearing his throat, which was evidently sore too. “I know you’re meeting him, and I’m not yelling at you, am I? Just admit it, okay? So we can get a move on.”

Draco quivered like a struck cord. “Fine. Have it your way. I’m still meeting with him. I guess.”

If Theo knew the truth, then he knew, and there was nothing Draco could do about it.

“Anyway, there’s no way you’re not mad at me,” Draco said, scowling. “You didn’t talk to me for a month after the first Skull meeting because you suspected that I still care about Harry, and you expect me to believe that you’re not going to lecture me for an hour? Get out of my room!”

Theo stood firm. “I’m not leaving.”

Draco stalked forward, ready to strangle the life out of him, but the next thing Theo said froze Draco in his tracks.

“I’ll admit it was childish of me to ignore you for so long. Potter is an Initiate now, and Walpurgis Night happened a long time ago. It was silly of me to expect you to hate Potter. I mean, you two were hanging out together a lot last year.”

Theo took a shuddering breath. It looked painful.

“So it’s not your fault that you ended up liking Potter. If I hadn’t been such a prick last year, if I’d acted more like a friend than a parent, then maybe you wouldn’t have needed him. But I’m not going to yell at you about Potter any longer. I’m going to try and act more like a friend and less like a parent from now on.”

Draco’s jaw dropped open, this being the last thing he’d expected to come out of Theo’s pompous mouth, but Theo kept on talking, perhaps more than he’d ever talked before.

“Anyway, you’re already friends with him. That won’t change no matter how much I whine and lecture you. And I know you’ll hate me even more if I tell you that you can’t be friends with him, nor will you listen to me. So I just wanted to let you know that I’ve accepted it. And I won’t tell anybody that you’re meeting with Potter. You seem to want to keep it a secret—I mean, he is a dirty-blood—so your secret is safe with me.”

Theo turned away, cheeks glowing pink, and Draco stared, disbelief etched onto his face.

He hadn’t expected this level of maturity from Theo.

This must be part of some elaborate trap.

Maybe Theo was lying, maybe he’d stab Draco in the back somehow. There was no way Theo, who had spent all of last year screeching at Draco about Harry and the Second Trial, would surrender so easily.

But Theo’s eyes were wide, his smile tentative, and Draco’s doubts began to thaw.

Maybe he does regret the way he treated me last year, thought Draco, chest fluttering even though he was sure it was too good to be true. And maybe he accepts that I’m friends with Harry.

Maybe Theo had truly redeemed himself this time. Maybe he’d stop being a complete prick now.

Maybe.

“You really mean it?” Draco asked, still unable to stop the skepticism from creeping into his voice. “You won’t tell anyone? And does this mean you don’t hate Potter anymore?”

Theo’s jaw moved in away that told Draco he was grinding his teeth. “I’ll tolerate him, but I won’t make nice with him. I won’t bother him either. I have better things to do with my time.”

“You tattled on Harry,” Draco accused, unable to stop himself. He barely noticed that he’d started using Harry instead of Potter, and that Theo had noticed and flinched. “You reminded Adolphus that Harry was the one to destroy Dungeon Two. Were you trying to get him killed for that?”

Theo’s face closed down. “Look… I was still angry back then, and I acted rashly. I wanted to get rid of him so he wouldn’t get you into trouble with Sebastian. When that failed, I thought I’d force you to never speak to him again, or never think about him again, and then I realized that wasn’t even possible.”

Theo looked up, eyes clear. “And I’m tired, Draco. I’m tired of arguing with you about Potter all the damn time. He’s the reason we fought last year. Everything always comes back to him, and I’m done with it. I miss you, Draco, and I want to be friends again. I’m not wasting another second of my time worrying about that dirty-blood. That’s it. Can’t you believe me, just this once? Give me another chance. Please. Please, Draco.”

The two of them stared at each other. Theo broke off their eye contact first, cheeks pink again.

“Okay,” said Draco at last. “I’ll give you a chance. And for the record, I said some horrible things to you this summer. So I guess we’re even now.”

“You’re just like Sebastian and Nathaniel, just like your dad, and when everyone finds out, they’ll hate you just as much as I do,” Draco had said back then, and still cringed every time he thought about saying it.

Theo winced, almost as if he’d heard Draco’s thoughts. “I don’t want to talk about that. But now I know why you were so angry at me back then. I don’t want you to hate me ever again.” Theo lowered his voice. “You don’t hate me anymore, do you?”

Draco hesitated. He’d spent the last month fuming about Theo’s cold silence, bitter that Theo dared to play the victim. Theo had been the worst friend to him, and after all that he thought he could get away with pretending to be morally superior? Draco hated that, and he hated Theo—for letting Sebastian hurt him, for going after Harry, for being a belittling jerk.

But if Theo had turned over to a new leaf—and it certainly seemed like it—then maybe he’d start being the kind of friend Draco had always wanted him to be.

And Harry—the frustrating bastard—was prancing around like an idiot these days, taking Draco for granted and ignoring his advice. Maybe seeing Draco with Theo again would serve as further punishment, a worthy addition to the silent treatment Draco planned to dish out.

Draco finally stopped thinking about Harry and regarded Theo again, whose face had crumpled.

I took way too long to answer his question. “I don’t hate you,” Draco lied. “I never hated you. I was just really pissed off at you. Hate is a strong word. I don’t always mean it.”

“Oh,” said Theo, shaking his head, not believing him at all. “All right. Look, I’ll be a better friend from now on. You won’t have any reason to hate me.”

“I… yeah.” Draco widened his eyes, still wondering if this conversation was taking place in his dreams, or in a parallel dimension, because it was anything but real. “I’ll be a better friend, too.”

***

Theo had no intention to “accept” Potter, or whatever bollocks he’d sweetly told Draco the other day. He was surprised that he’d managed to convince Draco to rekindle their friendship, and had his own doubts about Draco’s sincerity—or his real reasons for taking Theo back.

After all, Draco still hated him, and that was fine.

Because Theo didn’t need Draco’s approval to do what was necessary.

Draco was a lovestruck fool, Potter was filth, and their relationship, whatever was left of it, had to end. Theo would agree to nothing else. And if Draco was too brainwashed, too far under Potter’s spell, Theo would get rid of Potter for him. Maybe that would teach Draco not to lie and sneak around, like a Pureblood with a dirty-blood mistress. If Theo let this go on for any longer, Draco would become a blood-traitor himself, and that could not be allowed.

“You promised that you wouldn’t hurt Draco if I did what you asked me to,” Theo said to Sebastian. They were meeting in the dead of night, outside Sebastian’s dorm in the Silver Wing. “So I’ve told you everything I know. You’ll keep your end of the deal?”

“You’re not in the position to be making bargains with me,” said Sebastian, growling. “But precious Draco is safe… for now.”

Theo let out the breath he’d been holding. A few sixth years laughed like hyenas in the corner of the Silver common room, playing some card game. Their laughter drifted over to Theo, sounding as if it were traveling through water.

He had already spilled everything he’d seen that horrible night—the night Draco had gotten that dirty blood all over him—to Sebastian, who’d been right about Draco’s relationship with Potter all along. Theo had been a fool to believe Draco’s lies for so long.

“Are you going to try to kill Potter?” Theo asked.

Sebastian chuckled, his features twisting around his smirk. “No. What gave you that idea?”

“I think you should kill him,” said Theo, clenching his fists. “You’ll be King next year, won’t you? You can kill him without Adolphus getting mad at you.”

“Yes, of course,” said Sebastian, nodding very seriously. “But I’m impatient, so I have something planned for Potter this year. Something… fun.”

“What?” Theo spat.

“Hmm.” Sebastian flexed his fingers. Theo watched those fingers delve into a pocket, and they remerged holding—

No way! NO WAY!

Theo’s gasp, gleeful, echoed around the common room. “That’s… that’s… I can’t believe it! Did Father give it to you? Can I watch you use it on Potter?”

Sebastian threw his head back and laughed. “You’re a sadistic little wanker, aren’t you, Theo? Did you learn it from me?”

He ruffled Theo’s hair, and for the first time, Theo’s stomach didn’t try and crawl out of his body at the sensation.

“When are you going to use it on Potter?” Theo asked. “Tomorrow?”

“Hasty, hasty, aren’t you? You have a lot to learn.” Sebastian paused, tilting his head like a bird regarding its insect prey. “The last event of the Initiate Tournament is on the night of a lunar eclipse, did you know? A complete coincidence, by the way. The tournament always ends on the same day in May, but this time it just happens to coincide with what I like to call a Blood Moon. The sun bathes the moon red during one, see? Symbolic, isn’t it?”

Sebastian put away the object he’d taken out earlier, grinning ear to ear, a grin that disfigured his face worse than the cuts their father had given him.

Theo found himself grinning too.

Finally, Potter would get the punishment he deserved—and so would Draco.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TEN

OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT

o

Harry stood in the center of his dorm room, fingers bunched around the silky cloth of the Invisibility Cloak.

“You’re miserable, aren’t you? I’m sorry.” Synesis’s voice drifted over from Harry’s cot, and Harry turned to face it.

“It’s not your fault,” he said, taking a deep breath and slipping under the cloak in one fluid motion.

“It is,” said Synesis. “At least Draco accepted that you need my help, even if he’s still giving you the silent treatment. I wish I could talk to him.”

Harry stopped at the door, about to leave. “It’s my fault for not banishing Kardin. Just… just stop it, will you? You used to be the one to tell me to stop whining and moping around, and now you’re the one doing it.”

“So now you know how annoying it is. I learned the techniques from you, of course.” There was a hint of mirth in there, somewhere, and Harry smiled as he quietly shut the door behind him.

Shadows shrouded the common room, which was deserted besides a snoring fourth year Initiate. Harry crept over to Room Seventeen, Draco’s room, his heart thumping in his mouth.

Two weeks had passed since their argument, and Draco continued to ignore him, even though he’d admitted that Harry needed to summon in order to fix the Seed problem. Draco’s plan to abandon summoning simply wouldn’t help anything right now, and he was well aware of that fact himself.

But, in what could only be described as a temper tantrum, Draco had avoided Harry’s calls on the Thread Spheres for two whole weeks, and it had taken Harry an equally long amount of time to muster up the courage to seek out Draco face-to-face. Which Harry was doing now, at two o’clock in the morning.

He’s acting like a child. Harry fumed as he rapped lightly on Draco’s door.

And if that wasn’t enough, Draco and Theo had somehow patched up their friendship when Harry hadn’t been looking, and now spent every waking moment together. A couple of the third year Initiates had been gossiping about the cozy pair earlier that week, and kept sending baleful glares at Theo’s back.

Of course, as annoyed as they clearly were, none of them would dare insult Theodore Nott. At the latest Body training session, during which the Bronze Skulls had taught them how to survive an unequal duel, Theo had been called up to demonstrate, then had proceeded to wreck his three third year opponents at the same time.

I could’ve done it better. I survived Sebastian and Nathaniel, after all, Harry thought bitterly, knocking on the door again when no answer came, with more vigor this time. Draco was probably fast asleep. Harry would’ve felt bad for waking him, except he was too angry to care.

This was betrayal. Why was Draco speaking to the bastard Nott again? Had he already forgotten all of Theo’s crimes, his stint with Dungeon Two on Halloween? While the older Nott brothers were bloodthirsty hyenas, Theo was a silver-toothed serpent, poisonous and cunning.

He couldn’t hold a candle to his brothers’ brutality, but Harry knew Theo wasn’t as sane as he pretended to be. Underneath that civilized, studious exterior hid a raging, slobbering creature, Harry was certain of it. He’d seen a hint of it on Halloween last year, when Theo had kidnapped him and a few other non-Elites to “punish” them. Theo had snapped when he’d called Harry up for punishment, and in doing so, had revealed his true nature. Harry would never forget the look of black, abyssal hatred—unprovoked, to boot—Theo gave him that day.

Nott was fucking insane, and Draco was supposed to know that. Draco was supposed to hate Theo, hate him for everything he had done to hurt Harry.

Harry knocked for a third time, wondering whether to go back to his room and wake Draco up with a well-timed call on the Thread Spheres. Draco, being the brat he was, wouldn’t answer, but it would yank him out of his slumber at the very least.

Draco told me a million times that he hates Theo, Harry thought, and he seemed truthful about it. Then again, Draco wasn’t exactly an honest, direct person. Draco sucked up to the older Initiates like a Ministry politician sucked up to Death Eaters, but would complain about them to Harry behind their backs, call them stupid and annoying and ugly. Draco possessed two faces at all times, and though Harry had always thought Draco was being truthful with him on the topic of Theo, he wasn’t sure what to think anymore.

Was Draco complaining about Harry to Theo, in the same way he had about Theo to Harry? Was he talking behind Harry’s back? Why was he able to forgive Theo so easily if he couldn’t forgive Harry?

Harry had been afraid to approach Draco in these few weeks because he had the horrible feeling that Draco truly hated him now. If Draco was going everywhere with Theo as if they were the best of friends again, that meant he’d forgiven that bastard for everything, and that meant that he didn’t care about Harry anymore.

The door clicked open, jerking Harry out of his thoughts. Draco stood behind it, hair ruffled and eyes droopy.

“What the fuck?” Draco mumbled, squinting  in the vague direction of the spot where Harry stood, invisible. After all this time, he’d learned not to question an empty space in front of him. “Do you know what time it is, Harry?”

“I have to talk to you,” said Harry, his voice coming out hoarser than he’d intended.

Draco hesitated, hand hovering by the door. “Fine. Make it quick.”

Harry stepped inside, steeling himself, and shed his cloak. Draco’s eyes darted to his face for a moment, then back to his feet. “What do you want?”

Now that Harry was finally here, talking to Draco for the first time in ages, all the words he’d wanted to say failed him.

“I called you on the Thread Spheres. You never picked up,” he managed at last.

“Now you know how I felt when you didn’t talk to me all summer,” Draco said, his gaze cool and level.

Harry faltered. “I… I forgave you for it, didn’t I? And I did it for a good reason. You can’t compare what you did to what I did. I don’t have a choice, okay? I have to summon.”

“So you’re allowed to punish me for something I didn’t have a choice in doing, but I’m not allowed to punish you?” Draco’s voice was hard and sharp enough to slice granite. Harry took a step back, sweat forming on his brow.

“What do you want?” Draco asked, stepping forward to close the distance between them. “I need to go to bed.”

“When are you going to talk to me again?” Harry asked. “I miss you.”

It was Draco’s turn to falter. A faint blush colored his cheeks. “I’m still going to help you with cleansing the Seed. I’m not going to abandon you for months like you did to me. You didn’t even talk to me on my birthday in June last year.”

Harry wanted to scream. Draco had betrayed him, so viciously and publicly that Harry wondered if he’d ever fully recover from it. There was no comparison.

“Shut up! You know that’s not the same! I don’t have a choice! I can’t get rid of Synesis, and I can’t get rid of Kardin, and I can’t—”

“Do you have a point to make, or are you just going to yell at me all night?” Draco said, and now he stood an inch from Harry, his face bright and red, his hair sticking up in tufts.

“Yes. I have a point to make: Nott,” Harry said through gritted teeth. “You hate him. And you know very well what he did to me. So, are you on his side now? Did you hate me so much that you ran off to Theodore fucking Nott the moment—”

“He knows about us. He knows we’re still meeting, and that we’re still friends,” Draco interrupted, and Harry’s mouth snapped shut. For a moment, the edges of his vision blurred, and he teetered on his feet.

“What?” Harry said, his voice distant.

“If I do something to make him angry, he might run off and tell who-knows-what about us. Right now, he’s acting really mature about the whole thing, saying that he won’t interfere with us anymore, but—”

“Bullshit,” said Harry. Draco talked over him.

“But obviously, I can’t trust him. I just need to do the best I can to make sure he doesn’t go tattling like he always does. So that’s why I’m spending so much time with him, not because the two of us are secretly conspiring against you or something. Anything else you want to yell at me about?”

Harry deflated. “I hate him, Draco.”

“Of all the things you could’ve come to me about, you wake me up in the middle of night to talk about Theo? I know you hate him. But I can’t go on ignoring him, not when he knows so much. This is the way it is. Live with it.” Draco sounded tired.

Harry’s set his jaw. “It shouldn’t be.”

Draco sighed again, and looked toward his bed wistfully.

Harry knew he exhausted Draco in general. Yes, Draco had done terrible things to him, but he was the only person who cared about Harry enough to save his life—not once, not twice, but countless times—and Harry still needed him, had barely gone an hour without thinking about him, even during that long, depressing summer.

Harry needed Draco much more than Draco needed him. Harry had nothing to offer right now, not when a demon Seed could blossom inside him any day, and possibly turn him into a demon.

He took a shuddering breath. “What do you want me to do to make it up to you? I can’t get rid of Synesis or Kardin. We’ve established that. So what do I have to do to get you to talk to me again?”

Draco blinked, taken by surprise. Maybe he hadn’t expected Harry to ask a question so politely, or maybe he hadn’t even expected Harry to admit he’d done anything wrong enough to need forgiveness.

Not that Harry thought he deserved this much punishment for what wasn’t his fault, but if Draco thought so, Harry would try to understand.

If he didn’t, Draco might leave Harry forever, and Theo would retake the spot of best friend. And if that happened, then maybe Draco would turn into the heartless, evil Death Eater Harry had always feared he’d grow up into.

“You’ll make it up to me when you show me that you’re truly sorry for risking your life over and over again,” Draco said, slowly, as if he was tasting the words on his tongue. “I’m not going to tell you how. I don’t know how, really. It’s up to you. Just… just leave me alone for now. Stop making so much trouble.”

Harry swallowed around a lump in his throat. “Do you even want to be my friend anymore?”

He hadn’t meant to say those words, not so brazenly. I’m acting like a baby, he thought, looking away so that he didn’t have to meet Draco’s searing gaze anymore.

“What? Why would I do all this if I didn’t?” said Draco, voice surging with irritation.

Harry stared at him, blinking.

Draco huffed out an exasperated breath. “I’ll tell you why one day, if you’re too stupid to not already know. But right now, I need to sleep, and you need to learn a damn lesson and stop being so stupid all the time. Go away.”

Harry left, hoping Draco didn’t see his face crumpling before it disappeared underneath the Invisibility Cloak.

***

Harry rubbed a knot of pain on his forehead, leaning over his schoolwork in the Hogwarts library. He could’ve stayed down in the Skull dormitories, but the other Initiates gave him dirty looks and insulted him under their breaths whenever they walked past, and he preferred the cold, terrified silence of the non-Elites to the Initiates’ obvious hostility.

It was just as well that he was sitting here instead; if he had to hear another one of those Death Eater babies hiss the words “dirty-blood trash” at him again, he would lose it and murder one of them, and then the Skulls would kill him—if Draco didn’t kill him first, that is.

Draco.

Harry supposed he shouldn’t have tried to talk to Draco in the middle of the night, when he was most likely to be at his grumpiest.

But why did he have to be so unfair, and so vague on top of it? What did he want from Harry?

Was this all some elaborate revenge for his treatment of Draco during the summer? Harry supposed that he himself hadn’t given Draco clear instructions on how to regain his friendship back then, either. He’d just yelled into the Thread Sphere.

But Draco had betrayed him. Yes, he’d saved Harry’s life immediately after on Beltane, and then again on the first day of school, but that didn’t soothe the hurt of the earlier betrayal. And Harry had forgiven Draco for it anyway, because, deep inside, he’d understood that Draco hadn’t had a choice, and wanted to move forward. So why couldn’t Draco do the same?

I don’t deserve this. He’d been reckless and stupid, yes, and had driven up Draco up the wall with worry, and hadn’t done anything to make up for it yet, but—

“Potter. There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

Harry snapped his head up. Theo loomed over his desk, eyes hooded and hand in his back pocket, where his wand probably lay.

Harry clenched his own wand. He didn’t think Theo would try to make trouble in plain daylight—that wasn’t this particular Nott’s style—but you could never be certain about anything where this bastard was concerned. Anyway, they would have to stay relatively quiet, since Madam Pince was hovering on the other side of the library, shelving books.

“What do you want?” said Harry, hackles raised.

Theo crossed his arms, a hint of a nasty smile flitting over his face, so quickly that Harry wasn’t sure whether he’d imagined it or not. “Why aren’t you in the Initiate common room, Potter? Prefer to hang out with your old dirty-blood friends, or do you find it… difficult to belong with us Initiates?”

“Fuck you,” Harry spat.

Theo’s face was carefully blank again, but his cheek twitched. “Dirty-Bloods aren’t allowed to talk back to Purebloods. It’s an official rule, even though it’s not reported very often when it happens. I could go to a professor right now and get him to give you a detention.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Harry sneered.

This time, he didn’t imagine Theo’s answering smile, crocodile-like. “Of course I won’t do that,” Theo said, tilting his head to the side, resembling a bird contemplating its insect meal. “I promised Draco that I’m trying to tolerate you, and he won’t look kindly on me if I get you into the trouble you deserve. He’s quite obsessed with you. I don’t know why. You’re a dirty-blood. And not a very good-looking one at that.”

Harry gaped at him, temporarily dumbstruck. Then anger stirred beneath his skin, whirling like a storm and setting his hair on end. What the hell did Theo mean, ‘not very good-looking’? Was Theo suggesting that he himself was more attractive than Harry? Or was he insinuating that Draco was too attractive for Harry? Or perhaps he meant that Draco found Theo more attractive than Harry—

“But I’ve decided to look past all that. Draco and I have been friends for a long, long time. Since we were six, in fact.” Theo narrowed his eyes into slits, leaning forward so that his shadow covered Harry’s textbook, making it impossible to read.

“I know everything about him. All the things he never tells you, I know. So he needs me, and I’ve decided that if he wants to keep you around as some sort of pet project, I have better things to do with my time than oversee you two.”

“Like anybody believes that,” Harry said, fists clenched so hard that his nails dug into the soft flesh of his palm. “You’ve had it out for me since day one, even back when I didn’t know who you were. The moment I tell him you’re threatening me, he’ll see you for the conniving swine you are—”

“Using big boy words, are we now, Potter?” Theo said, slickly. “I’m not threatening you, by the way. We’re having a civil talk, like civil adults. Not that you dirty-bloods know anything about civilization, but you can be taught. I doubt you will be. You Muggle-blooded creatures are ruled by your emotions, not logic. But that’s neither here nor there.”

Fury bubbled in Harry’s throat, more than he’d ever experienced. Every time he thought that he’d reached the limit of his hatred for once, he remembered this motherfucker and how evil he was. Theodore Nott induced the sort of rage that got under your skin, crawled inside you and took root for weeks on end, the sort of rage that kept you up at night, fuming and planning revenge.

Harry remembered Theo’s idea of justice very well.

“We’re the ones who cleansed the filth from your family in the first place. Your disgusting mother brought Muggle culture into your home, defiled your blood and mind,” Theo had told Parvati Patil before chopping her hair off in Dungeon Two, on Halloween last year. “She stole magic from a more deserving wizard, and filled your head with poison about how she was a real witch. You’re the one who owes us for killing her. Now, tell me one good reason why we shouldn’t find you guilty and give you the same sentence we gave your mother. Prove to us, Patil, that you’re not like her.”

He’d brought Harry out soon after. “I could go into your parents’ misdeeds for ages, but I figure it’d be more interesting to talk about your own crimes.” Theo’s eyes had burned with an insane fervor back then, the same way they burned right now. “Defiling Draco, brainwashing him, making him go soft. He’s not the same since you two dueled that day on the Hogwarts Express, and it’s because of you. You’ve ruined him, made him into one of you, stolen him from me, and I swear I’ll punish you for it, Potter, I swear you won’t get away with this.”

If Harry ever gained any power, he’d purge subhumans like Nott from society, blast them off the face of the planet. If Harry was in charge, all the purest blood and family riches in the world wouldn’t save Nott from annihilation. Hell, why did he even have to wait? He could duel Nott right now, show him that no matter how pure his blood, no matter how influential his family, he was nothing compared to Harry.

But Draco, Harry remembered distantly, not realizing that he’d gotten up sometime during his enraged daze and now stood level with Theo.

If Harry made trouble again, Draco would never forgive him.

Theo chuckled, and Harry snapped out of it, though he was somehow more angry than before.

“What, are you thinking about killing me or something?" Theo said. "You think you’re so tough, don’t you? I bet you have so many wild fantasies about showing all us Purebloods who’s boss. It’s obvious from one glance at you that you don’t intend to become a Death Eater, to be blessed by our Lord. Draco is delusional if he thinks you’re going to fall in line and become a true Skull like him.”

Harry’s vision went red, and before he could open his mouth to retort, Theo went on.

Theo lowered his voice. There was a tinge of fury in it, matched only by Harry’s, that hadn’t been there before. “And I bet you think Draco will agree with you, too. You think you’ll get Draco to support you, a half-blood, over his own people. You’re so arrogant to think that you mean anything to him—”

Theo paused, out of breath, his chest rising and falling slightly. “Anyway, that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to tell you that you’re a fool, and a reckless child who does stupid things, and Draco’ll realize it soon enough and discard you like the rubbish you are.”

“You wish,” Harry hissed, the insult hitting home, cutting him deep. “You wish—”

“Don’t interrupt me,” Theo said, his voice laced with a cold hatred that glued Harry’s mouth shut in shock. “As I was saying, he’ll realize it one day. But until that day comes, I will be the better person. I will tolerate you, treat you civilly. And if you run crying to him about how I insulted and ‘threatened’ you today, it’ll prove how much of a child you are, not me.”

“Compared to you, I’m the best friend Draco’s ever had, and he won’t talk to you anymore if I tell him how much you’re bothering me,” said Harry, wondering if the same feverish look in Theo’s eyes right now was mirrored in his own. “How does it feel, Nott, to lose to a ‘disgusting dirty-blood’?”

Theo’s superior mask cracked and fell away, and for a split second Harry saw his lip tremble, like a little baby’s. Then Theo reapplied it, and painted on it was an icy, unconcerned sneer that fooled nobody.

“If he cares so much about you, then why isn’t he talking to you anymore? Don’t pretend I haven’t noticed. I know exactly what you two are up to, and you definitely aren’t meeting these days. I asked him if you two were still speaking to each other, and he admitted that you annoyed him.”

Theo’s words almost sent Harry staggering.

“Maybe he’s getting tired of you. Maybe he’s realized that you’re not as smart or interesting as he thought you would be. And the more time he spends with me—because I’ve changed from last year, Potter, and I’ll give him no more reason to hate me—the more he’ll realize how useless you are, how you’ll never go anywhere worth going. So, go ahead. Run off and cry to him about how I hurt your feelings today. His respect for your intelligence can’t go any lower.”

“Maybe I will go to him,” Harry threatened, gaze defiant.

Theo regarded him coolly, undeterred. “Go ahead. Draco gets mad at me often, but he understand his duty to me. We’re equals, in every way, and we’ll always be together. We sit in class together, and we meet at parties during the holidays, and our fathers make us train together. One day, we’ll join our Lord’s inner ranks. You, on the other hand”—Theo curled his lip, and Harry wanted to punch out his teeth—“will never have as many opportunities to see him. When he loses interest in you, if he hasn’t lost it already, he’ll have no incentive to preserve his friendship with you. So, tread carefully, Potter, and remember what you are.”

Theo shot Harry one last sneer and swept out of the library, his Hogwarts cloak billowing behind him.

Harry slowly came to the realization that he was panting like he’d sprinted across the Quidditch pitch. His fingers dug into the table where he’d put them when he’d stood up earlier.

He sat back down again, his breathing relaxing.

I could tell Draco what this bastard just did to me, Harry thought, with no small amount of glee. Here I was, sitting here minding my own business, and he comes and starts ranting at me like a madman.

According to Draco, Theo was supposed to be ‘tolerating’ their friendship, which clearly didn’t mean ambushing Harry in the library and spewing vitriol at him for five minutes.

But Theo hadn’t actually threatened him.

In fact, the most the two of them had done was trade insults. As much as the Pureblood bastard liked to claim how superior his logic was to Harry’s, it seemed that he hadn’t had a real reason to come to the library other than to intimidate him—not that Harry was intimidated by a smarmy prick like Nott, but that was besides the point.

Anyway, even if Harry told Draco about this minor spat, what would it change? Draco still had to pretend he liked Theo, because Theo still had the power to tattle on them. And more importantly, Harry didn’t want to cry and whine and complain to Draco again. He’d done enough of that.

Draco was already disappointed and disgusted in him for being weak and stupid. If he kept going down the path he was on, how much respect would Draco have for him at the end of it? And if he succumbed to Nott’s intimidation tactics in such a way, it would mean admitting that they had worked.

Harry placed his head down on his book, letting its glossy pages cool his cheeks, and brooded.

Theo had everything Harry didn’t: pure blood, wealth, and influence, even among the older Initiates. And at the same time, it wasn’t enough to earn Draco’s favor, because Harry had it. And if Harry lost it—

That favor had every possibility of going to Theo, and when it did, Harry had the feeling he wasn’t ever going to get it back.

Right now, Draco still believed in the Skulls, the Death Eaters, the Dark Lord, but it didn’t have to be that way. Harry knew he could change Draco’s views for the better. Every minute he spent with Draco chipped away his father’s brainwashing, and Harry wouldn’t ever stop dreaming of the possibility of Draco turning against the Skulls to join Harry.

On Walpurgis Night last year, Draco had chosen the Skulls over Harry, but in a different scenario, in a bright future, Draco could be convinced to choose Harry over the Skulls. He had already pretty much done so by attempting to save Harry during the first Skull meeting of the year, so it wasn’t a wild fantasy.

But if Theo got his claws into Draco before Harry could make him see the truth, then—

Then perhaps Draco would one day look down at a girl like Parvati Patil in Dungeon Two and tell her that she deserved death because of her parentage, and perhaps he’d believe he was carrying out justice. Perhaps he’d even look down at Harry in the same way, see him as truly subhuman, and lose no sleep over killing him, just like his father lost no sleep over killing Muggle and Muggle-born children.

Harry clenched his eyes shut and breathed in through his nose.

I can’t let that happen to my best friend. Nott is cancer, a disease, on Draco. That whole ideology is.

Draco had fainted last year a few weeks before Walpurgis Night, wracked with worry about betraying Harry. Draco had a strong sense of morality that battled constantly with the evil he saw, especially where Harry was concerned. In fact, Harry was convinced that Draco was so furious over Harry picking fights with the Skulls because he had no idea if he’d be able to side with the Skulls if they killed Harry.

But Harry knew one thing: a blood-traitor half-blood like Harry James Potter was not compatible with the Skulls, and he’d make Draco pick between him and them. One choice would lead to emotional turmoil, and the other would lead to happiness and freedom for both of them, except Draco couldn’t see it yet.

I tried to make Draco pick before, and that didn’t work out, thought Harry, remembering all the times Draco had exploded at him for ‘whining’ about the unfair system.

Maybe I should stop whining and posturing, and start acting.

Slowly, painfully, Harry began to come up with a plan.

This fight with Theo, as unpleasant as it had been, had scrubbed his head clean, swept away his self-pity, and the world seemed dazzlingly clear to him now.

Harry would keep his head down during Initiation. He’d slink back into the shadows, and make sure he didn’t score too well during the Mind, Soul, and Body sessions. He’d let the other Initiates forget about him. But he’d train in secret, and one day, he’d strike.

His original plan, to rise in the Skulls’ ranks by ensuring that every Skull knew his name as soon as possible, had backfired spectacularly. Maybe it was too late to change that now, but maybe it wasn’t, and he’d try his hardest to show Draco how well he was falling into line. He’d survive Sebastian. He’d get through this year, and the next, and the next, but soon he’d be ready. And if he played his cards right, acted smart instead of stupid, maybe Draco would be more inclined to see sense: that the Skulls and their ideology were evil, and Harry had been right all along.

“You Muggle-blooded creatures are ruled by your emotions, not logic,” Theo had said. Harry was determined to prove him wrong.

First, he owed Draco an apology for his reckless behavior—a genuine apology this time. Second, he needed to drink a glass of water to soothe his parched throat. It had taken a monumental effort to stop himself from murdering Nott today.

I deserve a medal for my civility. Then again, I guess I owe the smarmy twat for snapping me out of my misery. We’ll call it even for now.

***

Theo hadn’t been thinking straight when he’d confronted Potter in the library. He’d gone there to find an obscure Dark Arts book, had seen Potter sitting there, taking up valuable space with that useless dirty-blooded body, and proceeded to lose self-control. Despite all his blustering to Potter that Purebloods were logical, he’d been quite illogical himself that day.

He could only hope Potter’s pride would prevent him from running to Draco at once; hopefully, the filthy creature had taken the bait and would keep quiet about it. Theo suspected Draco wouldn’t be very happy—nor surprised—to learn that Theo wasn’t keeping his promises.

Well, I may be an idiot on rare occasions, but I can rely on Potter to be a bigger idiot. He won’t tattle.

Theo wiped the sweat off his forehead, recovering from a particularly intense Body session at the end of November. The Bronze Skull instructors seemed to enjoy pitting him against more and more opponents, and he had a feeling they’d ask to duel him themselves sooner or later. He was miles ahead of all of the other Initiates, his talent no doubt a testament to his natural intelligence and his father’s training.

Potter stood in the training arena, facing another Initiate, wearing a bored expression that Theo didn’t like. Oddly enough, Potter had just lost a duel to that Initiate, and didn’t seem to care about it at all. In fact, Potter regularly lost duels to complete fools.

But unfortunately for Potter, Theo wasn’t a fool, and he knew Potter was faking it. It was undeniable to anyone with half a brain that, despite being a disgusting half-breed, Potter was a talented duelist—not nearly as good as me, of course, but better than the rest of these idiots—and had no business losing as much as he was losing recently.

Theo had a feeling he knew why Potter was laying low these days. Draco’s face glowed whenever Potter lost a duel, and glowed even more when Potter lost a duel to Draco himself. The two of them shared secret glances and little smiles now, and Potter would always stare at Draco in class and during Skull training sessions.

To be fair, plenty of the boys in their training section gawked at Draco like stupid gaping fish, but Potter was the stupidest fish of them all.

Theo glared at him as Potter walked out of the training arena back to the spectators. Potter did not deign to meet his eyes, preferring to stare at his own shoes. Standing in position next to Theo, Draco beamed in Potter’s general direction.

Could he be any more obvious? Theo thought, rage crawling up his spine like some eight-legged creature.

The bell that signaled the end of the training session rang then, and the Initiates assembled into straight lines, waiting to be dismissed.

“Potter!” Fawley announced. “Stay behind. I wish to speak to you. The rest of you are dismissed.”

Potter’s eyes flickered with panic, but he recovered himself a split second later. “Yes, sir.”

Theo lingered even as his peers dashed to the door, chattering about homework and the approaching holidays. Draco lingered, too, eyes on Potter, not that they ever left Potter these days.

Theo wrestled with his white-hot rage for a moment before focusing his attention on something more productive, such as listening to Potter’s conversation with Fawley.

“I have a message for you from the Skull King,” said Fawley with a sniff, and Theo snorted under his breath.

Draco elbowed him.

“What is it, sir?” said Potter warily.

Fawley curled his lip. “Adolphus has noticed that you are falling behind, and apparently, you are doing worse than he expected.”

“Falling behind?” Potter cocked his head to the side. “What do you mean? I’m doing fine, aren’t I? I’m winning a good amount of my duels.”

Fawley scowled. “Adolphus seems to be under the impression that you would be doing better than you are now, given your performance against the Nott brothers, but I find myself doubtful of that. Your survival could simply be attributed to dumb luck. In any case, our dear King is concerned.”

Theo held back a snicker. Fawley himself seemed to have forgotten that Potter had managed to survive the assault of three Bronze Skulls, one of which had been Fawley, before fighting Sebastian and Nathaniel. If Fawley actually believed Potter’s performance in training sessions was genuine, he was too gullible to function.

Potter’s eyes sparked with something, but in the next second whatever it was disappeared. He shuffled his feet and inclined his head, docile as ever.

“Sorry, sir. I guess you’re right. I’m not really as good as Adolphus expected. I promise to work harder.”

Was this actually Potter, or some imposter?

Fawley muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “Stupid Adolphus, making me waste my time talking to a half-blood.” He waved Potter away, shaking his head. “Go on, then.”

Potter, obedient as ever, pivoted on his feet and walked past Theo and Draco on his way to the door. His gaze glided over Theo as if he wasn’t there, landing briefly on Draco before returning to his shoes.

Draco gave a start. “Let’s go,” he said to Theo, and went off.

Theo trudged after him.

***

“Fawley just got back to me. That boy is as braindead as ever, bless him, but no matter. It’s obvious to me that our favorite dirty-blood is trying to slither out of the spotlight. In the beginning of the year, he scored top in Soul testing, but now he’s somewhere near the middle, and there’s no pattern to his failures and passes, like we’d see for most students who are struggling with a particular aspect of Soul training. He’s failing random tests on purpose to bring down his score, and we already know how he’s trying to get us to forget his dueling performance on the first day of school. What an ingenious child. Truly impressive.”

“Does he think that we’re idiots? Skulls don’t forgive or forget, least of all dirty-bloods that have no business walking among us.”

“Careful, Seb, you’ll snap your wand if you hold it that tight.”

“We won’t let him sneak around forever. We’ll have to reveal him for what he is and isolate him from the rest of the Initiates. That boy can’t be allowed to go unmonitored and unpunished.”

“Excellent idea. I let him join the Skulls because I wanted to see the fallout, but instead he’s being boring. Spice it up a little for us, will you, Nott. Your plan?”

There was a hissed whisper, then a chuckle.

“How deliciously cruel. Very well, you have my blessing. This might be the most interesting Initiate Tournament since you yourself and your brother were in it, Nott. Let’s pray the school doesn’t burn down.”

***

December and holiday season arrived in a whirlwind of snow. Herbology classes were canceled so that students didn’t have to make the trek to the greenhouses, and one snowy night Harry and Draco could be found in the kitchens, picking at a massive fruitcake the house-elves had brought out for them.

Draco’s cool demeanor had melted when he’d seen Harry make an actual effort to listen and keep his head down. A few weeks into Harry’s act, Draco had taken pity on him and extended an offer of forgiveness. Since then, the two of them often spent time in these kitchens or in abandoned classrooms, going over the instructions for the Seed cleansing ritual with Synesis.

Draco still couldn’t hear the damn demon book, but according to Harry’s translations, it seemed to have Harry’s best interests at heart. Draco didn’t trust it—it was a demon, for Merlin’s sake—but he had to admit that, because Synesis had been outside the demon world for centuries, the book was most likely innocent in the Hunger’s evil plan for Harry.

Annoyingly, Harry hadn’t dismissed Kardin yet, but he had a half-decent reason for this: banishing demons required reattaching their sentience, and they couldn’t risk something going wrong again and Kardin possessing Harry like Auranos had.

Of course, it was possible that Harry was talking out of his arse, but if Kardin posed no immediate threat, Draco would leave it alone. There was no reason to poke a sleeping dragon in the eye.

And Harry had done so much already, from purposely failing some Soul tests—apparently, and Draco had been shocked to learn this, Harry was immune the simulations—to purposely losing duels to students he far outmatched. Draco and Harry had dueled once, and Harry hadn’t put up much a fight at all.

Draco had to admit that it was flattering that he sort of had the reins to Harry’s magical power; if he wanted Harry to do something, Harry would do it, and Draco relished that. He’d be lying if he said that he never had to wrestle with his jealousy towards Harry’s natural magical talent.

I’m the Pureblood, aren’t I? Why aren’t I better than him?

But of course, Draco had known since he’d met Harry that a lot of the things Death Eaters did to discredit half-bloods stemmed from a desire to protect wizarding culture, not to tell the whole truth. It was a necessary evil, Draco realized now. Harry was definitely more powerful than most Purebloods, even after the Hunger had sucked out his magic, and it wasn’t fair that he had to hide his talent so as not to attract fury and resentment. But if Purebloods admitted that half-bloods were their equals in magic and intelligence, this would embolden those half-bloods, who would in turn let Muggle culture flow in. Wizarding heritage would be ruined, and where would wizards go then? Draco understood why the Dark Lord could not allow such a thing to happen.

Harry would have to understand, too. Sometimes things weren’t fair, but the two of them would get over it. Especially now that Harry had learned to keep his head down.

“I’m sorry it has to be like this,” said Draco genuinely, popping a crumb of cake into his mouth.

Harry shrugged, looking sheepish. “I figured that surviving and listening to you was more important than my own pride. I already know I’m better than the rest of them. I don’t really care.”

“No, you care, and you’re bitter about it,” said Draco, scooting his chair over so that he was close enough to rest his head on Harry’s shoulder. Harry let him. “And I really appreciate what you did. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had because you’re so brave, and this is the bravest thing you’ve done. I still can’t believe you did it without me even asking you.”

This was why Draco needed a friend like Harry/ Compared to Theo, who was too terrified to even say one word against the Dark Lord, even in jest—forget defending Draco from his crazy brothers—Harry was a breath of fresh air, a taste of what true loyalty felt like. Harry would do anything and everything to earn Draco’s approval, even if it meant risking his own life, or his own pride.

Draco almost wanted to set Harry free, see what he could do to the Skulls’ unfair system if Draco would stop holding him back.

He would die, probably, Draco reminded himself, and pushed that idea out of his head.

Draco knew now—he’d had his doubts before—that Harry would go after Sebastian if he found out about Draco’s childhood. And this was why Draco wouldn’t tell him.

Meanwhile, Theo had known for years and was still incapable of doing anything, but Draco was getting distracted from the point.

“Did I make up for my stupidity?” Harry asked, leaning his head on Draco’s. Draco felt him grin.

Draco snorted. “Oh my god, you have no idea. You see how easy you made our lives by doing this? Thanks to homework and all this training and everything else, everyone’s almost forgotten you’ve existed. We can take a break from all the Skull stuff and focus properly on getting that Seed out of you after holiday break. Sebastian might still be out for your blood, but he hasn’t done anything yet, has he? I think we can worry about that next year, and hopefully by then all this demon stuff will be behind us and we can take it on with a clear head. In fact…”

Draco rummaged in his pockets and took out a crumpled piece of golden parchment. “I think you were excluded from the invitations, but I nicked an application for you. This is for the Skull exchange program. Did you know that you can attend a term at Durmstrang or Beauxbatons if you’re a Skull, Initiate, or an Elite? Here, sign up for autumn term next year at Durmstrang, where I’m going. It’ll buy us time away from Sebastian.”

Harry took the parchment and stared down at it. When he looked back at Draco, his eyes shone.

“You—you—stole this form for me? Am I even allowed to go?”

Draco grinned. “Of course you are. The forms were passed out by some third year Initiates who didn’t want to include you—turns out, people still know who you are and they don’t like you, but it could be ten times worse if you’d been beating them in duels. Anyway, there’s no rule against you going besides their pettiness.”

“Do I have to know German?” Harry asked, out of nowhere, and Draco groaned.

“Merlin, no. Exchangers get to have classes in English, but the official language is German. The students speak in a ton of languages, though; Durmstrang is a pretty massive school, and people come from all over Eastern and Northern Europe. Apparently the school’s in Finland or Norway or somewhere—it’s a secret. I know a bit of German, by the way, so I can help you, and I suspect we’ll pick more of it up when we go there.”

Harry smoothed out the parchment and took out a quill. “I’ll ask my mum, but I doubt she’ll say no. She doesn’t care much anyway.”

“Good thing I care,” said Draco, and Harry turned to face him, serious all of a sudden.

“Thanks for forgiving me. I mean it.”

This new, mature Harry scared Draco. Maybe that Seed thing had taken over Harry’s brain and changed him irrevocably.

“I had no reason to be mad at you forever. That doesn’t help anything, anyway,” Draco choked out.

“I mean, you had to save my life about two times in a row to get me to forgive you. And all I did to get you forgive me was—”

Draco shook his head, unable to resist the urge to interrupt. “I know you’d do the same for me, even if you never have to. You’re the only person who would do that. Why wouldn’t I forgive you?”

Harry gaped, and looked at Draco like he’d never seen him before. Draco’s gaze darted between Harry’s open mouth and his bright green eyes, trying to decide which feature captivated him more.

“Sirs! Would sirs like Tibby to set up some mistletoe decorations, to set the mood?” squeaked a blue-eyed house-elf.

Harry and Draco drew away, blushing madly.

“H-happy Christmas,” Harry stammered, clearing his throat and looking away. “Early Christmas, I mean. Because break hasn’t started yet.”

“You’d better get me a gift this year, or I swear I’ll actually stop talking to you,” Draco threatened, breaking the awkward silence, and Harry threw his head back in a snort.

“You can have my slice of fruitcake. It’s fucking awful.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER ELEVEN

RANK NUMBER ONE

o

Holiday break started and ended in a flash, and Harry could be found in his dorm room after a long journey on the Hogwarts Express, unpacking and trying to ignore the apprehension crawling up his throat now that he was back at school.

He wished he could’ve stayed back at home forever, preferably without a Seed growing inside him. Imbolc was little more than a month away, and though Harry thought he was as prepared as he could be for the Seed cleansing ritual, he didn’t feel prepared. The Initiate Tournament was rapidly approaching as well, but he hoped to avoid that drama as much as possible.

Listen to Draco. Just get through this year.

Harry flopped onto his cot, moaning as his sore limbs creaked right along with the hanging bed. The Tournament was scheduled for spring term, but Harry had no idea when exactly it would begin. Deciding he didn’t much care, and muttering the instructions for the cleansing ritual under his breath, he drifted into sleep.

***

At the sound of unexpected chatter, Harry’s eyes flew open. For a moment, he twisted and turned fretfully, struggling to see in the pitch blackness. Stone dug into his back, informing him that he was no longer lying on his scratchy cot.

Gasping, Harry sat up, painfully reminded of Halloween morning last year. Nott and the other first year Initiates had knocked him out and dragged him to Dungeon Two along with Ron, Parvati, and others. Was it happening again? Had Theo, the bastard, cracked at long last and dragged Harry here, ready to have another go at him? Or maybe—

Harry finally halted this hysterical train of thought and focused on the background chatter that had awoken him in the first place.

“OUCH! My foot!”

“Montague, if you roll over me one more time—”

“Oi, I’m hungry!”

“Does anybody have their wand? Did anyone go to sleep with it? Somebody use Lumos!”

“Lumos!” said a voice Harry recognized as Theo’s, and a light emanated from the corner of what was revealed to be a small stone chamber. Dull light washed over the faces of the twenty-one Skull Initiates in Harry’s Initiation phase, and the chatter died for a brief second as everyone looked at each other, utterly befuddled.

Harry, however, was utterly irritated. Of course Theo was the only person their age who would bother going to bed with his wand stuffed in his pajama pocket. I should’ve thought of that too.

“All right,” said Theo, taking a shuddering breath and still managing to sound calm. “I don’t see a door. Looks like someone kidnapped all the Initiates in our group while we were asleep and stuck us all in here.”

“We figured that part out, genius,” Draco sneered, and Harry’s head turned towards the sound so fast that he nearly cricked his neck. Harry hadn’t noticed him there at first because Draco had been curled up in Theo’s shadow, but as Harry watched, he sat upright and scowled. Someone chuckled at the cranky retort, and with a sort of dawning horror, Harry realized that a couple of the other boys’ gazes lingered on Draco’s uncharacteristically messy hair and crumpled pajamas.

I’m supposed to be the only one who gets to see Draco like this.

“Is this some sort of elaborate revenge of the dirty-bloods?” Draco asked, peering around into the corners of the chamber as if expecting somebody to pop out.

“No way they managed something like this,” somebody piped up from behind Harry. “They wouldn’t dare.”

Harry privately agreed that the non-Elites had no spines, but as he was the one currently keeping his head down to survive, he didn’t have much room to judge at the moment.

“I think I know,” said Theo, scooting closer to Draco. Harry bristled. “The Tournament might be starting.”

“What do you mean, ‘the Tournament is starting’?” somebody wailed. “It’s the first day back from break! And why would they kidnap us while we’re sleeping?”

“It’s a sort of ritual, I suspect,” said Theo, sounding incredibly pompous as he said it. “My brothers hinted something like this would happen. I think every Initiate goes through it during the second Initiation phase, but the upperclassmen keep it secret.”

Silence lay over the chamber like a heavy blanket. Nobody bothered to argue with Theo. The boy possessed countless faults, but being uninformed was not one of them.

“So are we just going to sit here?” Draco asked, voice nasally. “Does anybody know what time it is?”

There was a brief commotion as everyone tried to decipher the tiny hands of their watches in the dim light, but Theo got there first.

“It’s not even morning yet. It’s just two o’clock in the middle of the night,” he said, and was quickly drowned out by howls of disappointment. “I’m pretty sure everyone woke up around the same time, and not naturally. They must’ve put a spell on us to jerk us out of sleep.”

Just then, the torches on the chamber walls blazed to life all at once, blinding Harry. The Initiates flinched and screeched, shielding their eyes from the brightness, as the featureless stone wall on one end of the chamber began to melt away, revealing a wrought-iron door.

When the door banged open a second later, Harry flinched more violently than he had when he’d been temporarily blinded.

The Executioner Fawley stood behind it, his bronze mask glittering brightly enough to give Harry a headache.

“Initiates, stand!” His voice echoed around the room like the crack of a whip, and everyone hastened to their feet. “Line up, march closely behind me. No talking.”

Everyone stepped into place, not making a peep. Harry knew that all of them were dying to ask what the hell was going on, especially Draco, who was chewing his lip and glaring at Fawley as though he wanted to decapitate him.

He doesn’t like anyone disturbing his beauty sleep, thought Harry, burying his snicker. Not that he needs it.

“Hurry!” Fawley snapped and swept off. The Initiates marched behind him, backs straight and heads facing forward, arms stiff at their sides.

This must be how Death Eaters march into battle. Harry held back another snicker as he thought of the Dark Lord leading an army of psychopath-murderer Death Eaters decked in pajamas.

The Initiates marched out of one chamber and into another, and when Harry saw where they were, all the mirth drained out of him.

They’d entered a damp, dark, and massive circular room lined with metal cages, cages high enough to reach the ceiling. Bones and fur littered the cage floors, and some of the iron bars were smeared with dried blood. Fortunately, all of them were empty at the moment, but Harry could imagine how much it would stink in here when they weren’t.

“We are underneath the Skull Pit arena,” Fawley announced, stopping in the middle of the room and turning around to address the Initiates. “Many of you have seen the magical creature arena matches during parties, and this is where we keep the creatures beforehand.”

He pointed one of the two doors on the far ends of the oval-shaped room. “The magical creatures set to fight each other are usually sent into these rooms and elevated into the waiting cages upstairs, which will open when the match begins and release the creatures into the arena. Tonight, you will all take the same path. Line up by the left door and take the elevator up.”

“Are they gonna make us fight like the creatures?” Draco hissed under his breath, only to be shushed by Theo.

Inside the elevator was a single flickering torch, and the twenty or so Initiates crammed inside saw the air mist up in front of them as they breathed.

Harry shivered and drew his arms around himself. Draco, Harry saw, moved closer to Theo as if seeking his warmth, and their eyes met in the dim light.

Harry swallowed and looked away. The elevator jerked to a stop with a creak and a screech, sending him staggering. The doors whooshed open, revealing a small metal-lined room beyond—the “cage.”

There was a pool of some sort of dark liquid in the corner. Harry wasn’t sure if it was blood or not. The stone floor was damaged, dotted with deep gauges, perhaps left there by a clawed animal that had scratched it up in a pre-battle panic attack.

“The gates are closed,” Millicent Bulstrode snarled. “We’re locked in here. What the hell’s going on?”

“I told you it’s a ritual of some sort,” said Theo, scowling.

“So they’re gonna make us fight each other?” someone asked.

“I don’t know,” Theo snapped. “Oi! Draco!”

Draco had detached himself from the rest of the group and was currently messing with the huge iron gates keeping them inside the cage. Harry swiveled to face him, his heart pounding against his ribcage.

“I can’t see past the doors!” Draco called back. “But there’s colorful light creeping in from underneath. And I hear… I hear music. There must be some sort of party going on, a party the Skulls haven’t told any of us about.”

Harry swore under his breath. He did not want to experience another infamous Skull party. The Skulls had to make every little event into a dramatic production. Why the hell is everything so over the top?

But even as he asked himself the question, he had to admit that he already knew the answer. The Skulls threw massive parties, terrorized the rest of the school, and dramatized every bit of Initiation precisely because they were a show—no, a spectacle—themselves. A spectacle meant to portray their power and influence.

All this stuff makes us feel like we’re part of something big, something important. And it had worked. As much as he hated the Skulls, he found their glinting masks and rituals glamorous, larger than life. He wondered if the Death Eaters went through an initiation process similar to the Skulls’, and if that was part of the reason they were so powerful now. 

The promise of power, Harry knew, was a compelling incentive to join any movement. It was the reason Harry had joined the Skulls, and the only reason he’d keep putting himself through hell. He’d been nobody as a non-Elite, but now he was a part of the Purebloods’ glamorous world, as much as they didn’t want him there.

He knew he shouldn’t be excited for the Initiate Tournament to begin, but he was. Walpurgis Night, the last spectacle the Skulls had put on, had been horrible for him solely because he’d been an outsider, a victim. This time he wouldn’t be the victim. Even if he didn’t intend to win, or even try to win, he would be a part of a dazzling world that had done everything in its power to keep people like him out.

It was a small but delicious victory.

The gates swung open with a bang. Sound and light from the Skull Pit flooded inside, and the Initiates cautiously stepped out into the central arena, squinting in the blazing torchlight. The floor pounded with the steady beat of music and the hum of fairy light. It was all too much. And if he peered up, he could spot countless shining Skull Masks leaning against the arena fence, watching the Initiates like they were the night’s entertainment.

Harry felt like a fish trapped in a fishbowl.

Just then, the gates on the opposite end of the arena swung open too, but it wasn’t a monster that came thundering out from behind them.

King Adolphus, Sebastian, Nathaniel, and the twelve other Gold Skulls walked into the arena, sending the Initiates into a panicked silence.

Harry, meanwhile, felt the color drain out of his face. The Skulls watching from the outside started clapping, the only sound they’d made since the Initiates had walked into the arena. This was probably the quietest Harry had ever seen the Skulls; most of the time they were cheering and whooping and catcalling, but now they clapped steadily, respectfully.

Harry didn’t know what to make of this creepy-as-hell ritual. To add to his aura of discomfort, the music cut off abruptly.

Adolphus, the Nott twins, and the Gold skulls strode across the arena, in the same formation birds made during migration, and stopped right in front of the cowering Initiates.

“You’re probably wondering what’s going on,” said Adolphus conversationally. “Allow me to enlighten you. This is the annual Opening Ceremony, where your training results are announced. Each of you will be given a starting rank based on how well you did during Body, Soul, and Mind training last term. This gives all of you the opportunity to gauge your competition and figure out what you need to work on in preparation for the Tournament.”

Sebastian slinked forward, taking over for Adolphus. Harry thanked Merlin that he was wearing his silver mask this time.

“There will be three separate preliminary Tournaments, one each for Mind, Body, and Soul,” Sebastian hissed, his voice resounding enough to make it all the way to the Skulls standing outside the fence. “For Mind, you will be put in increasingly difficult simulations one by one, without break, and forced to survive them using your intelligence. Whoever gets the furthest before dying in the simulation wins. Soul works in a similar way, except you will be put through psychological tests instead of mental ones. For the Body Tournament, however, you will be dueling each other, one on one. Body will occur first, less than two weeks from now, on January 19th. Mind will take place on February 10th, and Soul on March 3rd. You will gain a separate ranking for each portion of the preliminaries. Then, on May 29th, is the climax, the final exam of the Tournament.”

Sebastian gave a pregnant pause, as if he were building up to something important. His eyes gleamed behind that horrible mask, and Harry could’ve imagined it, but had Sebastian’s gaze flicked over to him just then?

“All twenty-one of you will be put into the Dungeon Five Dueling Ring, all at once. The Tournament final exam will be a real battle, and you will be forced to employ everything you have learned this year: Body, Mind, and Soul. During the final exam, each Initiate will have a specific goal to reach in order to score well, but you will only learn this goal on the day of the battle.”

Sebastian stepped back, bowing his head to Adolphus in deference, his eyes gleaming brighter than ever.

“Now, for the starting ranks,” said Adolphus, and he didn’t sound bored anymore. A grin spread across his harsh face, and his golden mask morphed to accommodate it. “Well, look up, won’t you?”

Harry heard gasps echo around the Pit. Everyone, even the Skulls outside the arena, craned their heads to see the ceiling.

“What the hell?” someone yelled in outrage, and Harry finally looked up.

His thoughts spun for a second, and he was absurdly sure that he was looking right at the surface of a shining, upside-down lake. But then he came back to his senses. Like the wall screens shown on Walpurgis Night, this seemed to be some sort of projection that listed ranks and names in lurid colors.

Just read it. I know I won’t be very high on it, but it doesn’t matter as long as I’m not dead last.

Wait a moment.

Harry swallowed, his back prickling. People were looking at him, their gazes burning.

He had a horrible feeling that he knew why.

He looked.

1 st   Harry Potter

2 nd   Theodore Nott

3 rd   Argyle Montague

Harry stopped reading there, feeling his dinner rise up his throat and his face heat up.

How? He’d failed several Soul and Body tests on purpose to keep himself average. He was already just above-average in Mind and hadn’t needed to pretend there, so how was this happening?

Adolphus lowered his gaze from the ceiling and locked it on Harry, who felt his veins freeze over.

“Ah,” said Adolphus, that awful grin still keeping his mask twisted. “I see Mr. Potter is in first place. How… unusual. How amusing.”

Harry shook his head, making himself dizzier. “Sir, there’s been some sort of mistake. I mean”—he tried his hardest not to look beseechingly at Draco—“I’m not… I’m not a Pureblood. I’m not in first place.”

“Did I hear right? Did I just hear you claim that, we, the Skulls, have made a mistake?” said Adolphus, all traces of mirth disappearing from his voice.

“N-no, sir,” Harry stammered. He forced himself to keep his head facing forward, to resist the urge to look back at Draco and decipher the expression on his face.

It’s not my fault. I tried. Draco has to believe me.

“For the rest of you,” Adolphus bellowed just then, making everyone flinch out of their befuddled stupor, as even the older Skulls seemed to be shell-shocked by the rankings, “for the rest of you who think that there’s been some sort of mistake, I assure you that everything you’ve see tonight is accurate. Potter is our Rank Number One. A dirty-blood, has ranked in first place. Let that sink in.”

Adolphus raised his voice, wielding it like a whip. “See how low we have sunk. So many high-quality Purebloods were in the Initiate class this year, yet none of them held a candle to Mr. Potter here. This is precisely what the Dark Lord warned us about. He told us that, if we weren’t careful, one day the Mudblood would overtake the Pureblood, and on that very day, the wizarding world would fall into ruins. Is His prophecy coming true? Have you grown fat from your privilege, grown too lazy to stand up and stomp the filth beneath your feet every time it tries to rise? What a shame. What a shame.”

Adolphus paced in front of the Initiates, tutting, shaking his head violently. Sebastian’s mouth curved and twitched, and he gazed at Harry with something that could only be described as vicious delight.

This is all a joke, Harry realized, unable to hear anything but the roaring inside his own head. This is a joke to them. I never fooled them with my antics. Adolphus and Sebastian, they knew. They’ve always known that I’ve been hiding my talent.

How could he have been so stupid as to think he could get away with every reckless thing he’d done this year? Adolphus and Sebastian would let Harry sneak out of the spotlight only over their dead bodies, and they’d drag him right back every time he tried.

But what was the point of this all? What did they have to gain by making him, the token dirty-blood, their first ranker? Surely it went against everything they were trying to do, which was assert the half-bloods’ inferiority—

Oh.

The prickling sensation was back, and this time goosebumps erupted down his arms along with it.

Everyone was staring at him. Glaring at him.  Harry didn’t dare look over at Draco, sure that he would see nothing but disgust and disappointment there.

Adolphus and Sebastian want to turn the rest of the Initiates against me. They want to isolate me. They want to make my life hell, and most of all, they want to prove that I’ll never win.

Harry clenched his fists.

“Come here, Mr. Potter,” Adolphus whispered, crooking a finger at him.

Harry stepped forward, wondering if he was stuck in a bad dream. When he arrived at Adolphus’s side, Adolphus put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Hard.

“Spectacular job, Mr. Potter. Every time I look at you, I am reminded of your filthy blood, but you have proved us all wrong. Your very existence is a paradox, a dilemma. You should not have gotten this far, but you have. It seems that the world has tilted off its axis.”

Sebastian—or was it Nathaniel? Harry would not dare to glance away from Adolphus when he was being spoken to—let out a snicker.

“Perhaps the world will return to a state of equilibrium,” Adolphus continued, his eyes studying Harry’s face, “and when it does, you will return to your original state: half-blood filth. But perhaps… perhaps the Dark Lord’s prophecy really is coming true, and you will bring about the end of the wizarding world.”

Adolphus straightened, now addressing the Initiates gathered behind Harry.

“Will you let him win?” Adolphus’s voice sizzled with tension, ichorous like magma. But the temperature plunged instead of rose at the sound of it. “Will you let a half-blood win the Tournament, steal from you your birthright as a Pureblood?”

No one responded audibly, but the Initiates radiated a palpable sort of fury. It bubbled from within the crowd, threatening to overflow, and Harry felt himself shrink into himself.

Adolphus turned back to Harry, a smile like the smile of a serpent obvious underneath his mask. “Well, Mr. Potter. I would say that I hope the Tournament gives you great victory, but that would be a lie.”

Adolphus shoved Harry back toward the Initiates, who backed away from him as he rejoined their ranks.

Harry still hadn’t looked at Draco.

“Now,” said Adolphus, clapping his hands together. “It’s the middle of the night, isn’t it? Look how time flies. The Opening Ceremony, and this little private party will be ending soon, so get all the fun out of your system. Initiates, climb up into the Pit from over there to get out.” Adolphus nodded toward the left side of the fence, where someone had hung a rope ladder. “Oh, and Mr. Potter… good luck. You’ll need it.”

Adolphus chuckled one last time, turning around and making his way to the rope ladder.

The music started up again, but the Skulls watching from above did not seem inclined to stop gawking at the Initiates any time soon.

Harry ran for the rope ladder the moment they were dismissed, wanting to get as far away from here as he could. He didn’t want to look at Draco, and he didn’t want to deal with the other Initiates right now.

He needed sleep first, then he’d figure out what to do now that his and Draco’s plan had failed.

If Adolphus thinks he can intimidate me, he’s wrong, Harry swore. I am more powerful, smarter, better than them. I’ve always known that. And if the Dark Lord said some bollocks about his precious Pureblood wizarding world falling into ruin, then… Harry set his jaw. Well, I’ll prove him a Seer.

***

Draco watched Harry flee, wishing they could both just sink into the ground. Theo stood next to him. Draco noticed the bulge in his cheek, and wondered if Theo was biting his tongue.

“It doesn’t matter,” Draco told Theo under his breath. “It’s not real. Harry isn’t really in first rank.”

Theo looked up at him, eyes blazing.

“It’s staged,” Draco said. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that Harry had tried his hardest to appear the average, untalented Initiate, but Draco himself had forgotten to address the gaping hole in his plan: Sebastian and Adolphus wouldn’t ever forget what Harry was capable of. Draco had assumed they’d be perfectly happy to let the inferior dirty-blood wallow in mediocrity, even if they knew the truth, but once again, he’d underestimated the Skulls’ love for sadism.

“I know,” said Theo, taking Draco’s hand and steering him toward the rope ladder. “There’s no way Potter did that well in training. He was pretending to be bad.”

Draco wasn’t surprised Theo had figured that out. What did surprise him was Theo holding his hand, which he was doing more and more lately. Draco didn’t like it, but he didn’t hate it either. It was just sort of weird, but he didn’t mind if Theo wanted to get all grabby.

Then again, Sebastian stood on the edge of the arena, dark and tall, looking over at them, and Draco didn’t want to anger him more than necessary. He twisted out of Theo’s grip.

“Let’s leave the Pit as soon as we can,” Draco said, ignoring the hurt look on Theo’s face. “I don’t want to get dizzy like I did last time.” This time, though, there didn’t seem to be any of that sweet Aeramor in the air. Perhaps the Skulls only put it out during big parties, not every little gathering.

“Fine,” said Theo. “You know that Potter wasn’t watching us, right? He’s already out into the Pit.”

“What?” Draco spluttered. “What does Harry have to do with any of this?” Ever since he’d found out about Harry and Draco’s friendship, Theo had avoided mentioning the half-blood at all costs. Though as far as Draco was aware, Theo had kept his promise on not harassing Harry, nor had he nagged Draco about him. “You stopped holding my hand because you were afraid Potter would see us, didn’t you?” Theo said, his voice uncharacteristically shrill.

“I did it because your crazy fucking brother is watching,” Draco snarled, grabbing the rope ladder and clambering onto it.

Theo went red. “Oh.”

Draco made it to the top of the fence and jumped down, landing right in the Skull Pit and into a buzzing cloud of fairies. He took a second to steady himself, and the fairies screeched and spun away.

Theo joined him a second later, still blushing. “Do you want to stay for a while?”

“And do what?” said Draco. “What is there to do here except snog on the sofas?”

“T-that’s not—t-t-that’s not—”

Knowing that Theo was now out of commission for at least five minutes, Draco led the way out of the Pit, skirting around the clusters of Skulls. This wasn’t a wild party like the one during the first week of school, nor was this really a party at all; the Skulls just seemed to be hanging around. According to rumor they did this every night, late into the night. The Skull Pit was just a huge, fancy common room, after all.

“Draco! Come here!”

Draco whirled around. He and Theo had nearly made it to the exit, and there Harry was, lurking in the shadows by the door.

Theo stiffened.

“Just go,” Draco told him. “I’ll come later.”

“It’s dangerous in here,” said Theo, glaring daggers at Harry’s silhouette.

“Just go!”

“Somebody might see you two talking, and I won’t be accused for any rumors that get spread around,” said Theo darkly, stalking off.

“He’s a real prick,” Harry said, when Theo was out of earshot, and made an extremely vulgar hand sign in Theo’s direction that Draco chose to ignore.

“Make it quick, or someone’ll see,” Draco said, sitting in a vacant sofa and hoping that its size and the general darkness of the Pit would make it hard for a passerby to identify him. His hair was a bit of a giveaway though. Its silvery-blond color reflected every bit of light that reached him.

Harry sat down too, nervous again, his hands trembling just a bit. “Right. Look, Draco, I don’t know—”

“It’s okay,” said Draco, with a long-suffering sigh. “I know you tried. I know this wasn’t your fault. I’m just… I’m just pissed off.”

“At me?” Harry whispered.

Draco shook his head, taking Harry’s hand in his, realizing this was about the millionth time he’d reached out for it since they’d become friends. It was an automatic reaction to seeing Harry frustrated and worried. There was no way Draco could resist that kicked-puppy look.

“Of course not,” Draco said, squeezing it, trying to ignore how grubby and sweaty Harry’s palms were.

The things I sacrifice for this idiot.

“What should I do?” Harry sounded miserable. “I hate them, Draco. I want to hurt them. If that’s what they want from me, then—”

“Keep your head on,” said Draco, dropping Harry’s hand. “Don’t give them an excuse to strangle you. Remember, half-bloods aren’t allowed to talk back or fight back. Just because you got away with it a few times doesn’t mean you’ll keep getting away with it. They’ll seriously kill you, Harry. You know that.”

“And no matter what they do, you’ll still support it all.” Harry’s eyes glittered.

“Support what?” Draco wished Harry wouldn’t be so angrily vague all the time. “I told you I don’t support what they do to you.”

“But you still support the Skulls. The Dark Lord.”

Draco sighed. Not this old argument again. “Harry…”

“They won’t give me a fucking break, Draco!” Harry’s face went puce with fury, and he leaned over so that he and Draco were nose to nose.

“You started it by being an idiot,” Draco tried, aware of how pathetic his argument came off.

“Actually, I started it when I was born a half-blood,” Harry retorted, his knuckles going white as he clenched his fists.

Draco was at a loss.

Harry had done many stupid things in his life, including asking to be moved up a year in Initiation, but he didn’t deserve this treatment, not by a long shot. Draco had always known the Skulls were a bit too extreme for him, ever since he’d watched them rip poor Bodus Burke apart—literally—on the first day of school last year for trying to save a blood-traitor’s life, but he’d told himself it was for a good cause.

Draco still believed that, to a point, but he could no longer ignore the fact that the Skulls had gone way, way too far where Harry was concerned, and consistently went too far, especially now that they had pulled this bullshit. Not that Harry’s foolhardy behavior didn’t deserve criticism, of which he had received plenty, but—

Draco hated Adolphus, hated Sebastian and Nathaniel, and hated the Initiates in his group who hissed insults at Harry in the common room. Harry was more powerful than all of these fools put together.

Think about how easy life would’ve been for both of us if he was born a Pureblood.

Except there was no point in thinking that, because Harry wasn’t a Pureblood.

Think about how easy life would’ve been for both of us if these bastards didn’t hate him for his blood.

There was no point in thinking that, either.

“We’re in the Skull Pit right now.” Draco stood up, giving his head a little shake. “We’re not having this conversation right here. Look, I hate this too. I told you a million times that I hate the way they treat you. What else do you want me to say?”

“If you could admit that the Dark Lord and the Skulls are evil, that would be nice,” Harry said, sprawling back on the sofa and giving Draco a glare out of the corner of his eye.

Oh, for Merlin’s sake.

“It’s a necessary evil,” said Draco, barely realizing that his fists were clenched at his sides. “The—the Dark Lord needed to protect wizarding culture. If… if the Mudbloods kept procreating with Purebloods, then—then—the pure wizard race would die out, and then—”

“Oh come on, you people aren’t even trying to come up with good reasons anymore!” Harry threw his hands up in the air.

“Don’t be so loud!” Draco hissed. “Anyway, it’s not your fault you’re a half-blood. I hate how they think it is, that you deserve some sort of punishment for your parents’ choices. It’s complete nonsense. I’m going to try to convince the other Initiates not to mess with you without revealing that we’re friends. Hopefully they’ll leave you alone. Just keep doing what you were doing. If you lose your head, you’ll let them win.”

“Why should I keep being nice and docile? Clearly it didn’t work the first time around. They want me to play their sick little game, and if I don’t, they’ll force me to.” Harry flung the words at him, voice shaking with a violent sort of fury, and Draco stepped back.

“I—I—” Horror dawned on Draco, slowly but surely.

Harry was right. There was no getting out of this. Adolphus would never let him out of his sight.

Draco’s plan had failed. He wondered why he’d ever thought it would work.

“I’m really sorry, Harry. I was wrong. I underestimated how horrible the Skulls could be even though I had no reason to underestimate them at all. My plan was bad, and you saw right through it. I’m sorry.”

Harry gaped at him for a second, this being the reaction he’d least expected. His anger drained away as the seconds passed, and Draco gave him a weak, watery smile.

There was a long, painful silence.

“It’s… it’s not your fault,” Harry managed at last, red-faced, apparently having forgotten the fact that he’d been snarling at Draco a mere minute earlier. “Anyway, I’m going to bed. We’ll talk about what do about this tomorrow, when we’re not exhausted. You—you want to walk back with me?”

“Can’t,” Draco said, without hesitation. He gave their corner of the Pit a sweeping glance, confirming with relief that nobody was in the nearby area. “Somebody might see us together in the dorms. We’ve been here for a risky amount of time already. You go on first. I’ll come after you in two minutes.”

Harry cleared his throat, opened his mouth as if he was bursting to say something, frowned, and then left.

I really messed up this time. But what else could Draco have done? He’d given Harry the best advice he could, and Harry had followed it dutifully, even though he hadn’t agreed, and—

This isn’t my fault, or Harry’s. This is the Skulls’ fault.

Anger rising, he tapped his finger on the arm of his sofa, waiting for the two minutes to pass, closing his eyes and holding his breath. He didn’t want to stay in this place a moment longer than necessary.

The air grew cold just then, and Draco flinched. Though his eyes were closed, he could sense that something had eclipsed the flickering fairy lights in front of him.

Someone was standing in front of him.

Two someones.

Draco’s eyes flew open, and when they did, his blood froze over.

Sebastian and Nathaniel loomed over him, their masks shadowed and somehow more grotesque than their real faces. Draco shrunk back into the couch, his heart fluttering against its ribcage as though it wanted to escape his doomed body.

Sebastian quirked one corner of his lips, and cocked his head as he watched Draco squirm. A stray fairy danced over him, washing his mask in eerie green light. Nathaniel stood a few steps behind him, right in his shadow.

The memories of Sebastian’s body and breath banged on the inside of Draco’s skull, begging to be let out of their tight box so they could flood his limbs with terror and erase his rational thought.

Harry isn’t here. Theo isn’t here. Nobody’s here.

“I’ll scream,” Draco choked out once he’d regained control of his mouth. “If you touch me, I’ll scream. I’m not some dirty-blood that you can just mess with in public, I’m—I’m—”

“Lucius Malfoy’s son,” said Nathaniel breathily, and Draco jerked to look at him, taken aback by the fact that he’d actually spoken. His eyes appeared a darker shade of green than Sebastian’s, or maybe it was just the lighting. “We know. That’s what makes it so fun.”

Draco’s throat closed up. Sebastian held up a hand, and Nathaniel fell quiet.

“I dream every night about hurting you,” Sebastian whispered, grin widening, “but rest assured, I’m not here for that now. I’d hate for someone to walk in on our private time, after all, and there’s quite a few people here. A fact you ought to’ve realized before you sat down here with Potter to talk like old friends.”

Draco’s vision blurred. “You—you—”

“That’s right, we followed you and dear little Theo out of the Pit as soon as you turned your backs on us. You’re not very alert of your surroundings, are you, Draco? You didn’t even see us sitting…over there.”

Sebastian’s eyes gleamed, and Draco knew he was lying. The twins hadn’t been anywhere in the vicinity when Draco had looked around earlier. Perhaps they’d been under a Disillusionment Charm.

Now the bastards are trying to make me think I’m going insane.

“Just because I’ve left you alone for a few months doesn’t mean you should let down your guard. I probably should’ve given you a few verbal reminders here and there,” Sebastian continued in a pleasant voice, flicking a nonexistent bit of lint off his cloak. “Then again, if you knew exactly what I think when I look at you, you wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I think it’s very merciful of me to give you a break. You wouldn’t be able to function if I didn’t.”

Nathaniel sucked in a breath, gleeful, perhaps imagining the image of Draco being unable to function.

Draco had had enough. He struggled to his feet, his legs shaking almost too much to keep him upright.

Whatever Sebastian’s about to say next, I don’t want to hear it.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Sebastian’s hand shot out, and he grabbed Draco by the arm. Draco writhed and flailed, gasping, digging in his pocket for his magic obstructor Knut. He’d teach the bastards a painful lesson, make them regret ever looking at him—

Nathaniel seized Draco’s free wrist and clamped down on it, nearly crushing it.

Draco whimpered, pain shooting up his arm, but he wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t let Sebastian and Nathaniel see him cry another time.

“What—what do you want?” Draco gasped, trying to sound brave, but sounding terrified instead. “I’ll—I’ll tell my father! I’ll scream, I’ll—”

Sebastian yanked him close, and Draco cried out as his arm twisted, strained between him and Nathaniel, who was still holding onto his wrist.

“You won’t do any of those things. You don’t want to deal with the shame of… this,” Sebastian hissed, baring his white and sharp teeth. “Stay docile, and I’ll make our conversation quick, quiet, and painless. But if you make a scene, I’ll make one too. I said before that I’d prefer it if we were alone together when your clothes come off, but if you push me to the limit… well.”

Nathaniel chuckled, and Draco felt his hot breath on his neck.

“If—if either of you touch me, I-I’ll chop y-your pri—”

“You say the cutest things, Draco, but you won’t be able to say a single word when I’m inside you.”

Draco clenched his eyes shut and breathed through his mouth, trying to settle his churning stomach.

Think of anything else. Think of Mother. Think of the chocolate cake Harry gave you for Christmas.

“Are you listening?” Sebastian spat. “Open your goddamn eyes.”

Draco obeyed, swallowing thickly. Sebastian smiled blithely, cupping Draco’s cheek and tilting his head up. For a moment, he gazed down at Draco, tongue caught between his teeth, chest heaving.

“Good boy,” he said at last, his eyes so piercing that they felt like an invading presence all by themselves. “Let’s get back to the point. I know about you and Potter. I’ve known for a long time, long before I saw you two talking a few minutes ago. In fact, I’ve known since the day you yelled out my name when I was fighting him.”

No, no, nonono—

“Yes.” Sebastian hummed under his breath, digging his fingernails in Draco’s cheek— subconsciously, it seemed. “Very naughty indeed. A Pureblood and a dirty-blood, tangled up in a torrid love affair.”

“You’re disgusting,” Draco said in a trembling voice, shaking his head to dislodge Sebastian’s hand from his cheek. “I hope you die. I hope you die and burn and—” Draco stopped, blinking back tears, taking a deep breath to steady himself. He wasn’t disgusted at the thought of himself and Harry together; he was disgusted to hear it coming from Sebastian’s ugly, deformed, crude mouth.

A muscle twitched in his Sebastian’s jaw. “Disgusting,” he repeated, his mask rippling to frame his rage.

“Bet Potter doesn’t know you’re already ours,” said Nathaniel, breathless. Draco could feel the heat seeping from the bigger boy’s body. He was sandwiched between the twins now, and if they moved any closer, their bodies would be pressed up against his.

Breathe, or you’ll faint.

“Mine,” Sebastian corrected, his voice sounding as though it were coming from far away while Draco wrestled with his sudden dizziness. “Not ‘ours.’”

Nathaniel’s response to that was to tighten his grip on Draco’s wrist.

“Harry would come after you if he knew.” Draco’s mouth appeared to be moving of its own accord, and his breathing grew ragged. He really shouldn’t be getting Harry into more trouble right now, but hearing the twins utter Harry’s name, dare to utter Harry’s name, drove all logical thought from Draco’s mind. “If he finds out what you do to me, what you did, he’ll—”

Sebastian threw his head back and laughed with no joy, his rage still visible on every lumpy feature of his face.

“Potter broke my fingers, did you know?”

Draco’s mouth smacked shut.

“Yes, yes he did. During that fight in the beginning of the year, when he was slipping on a puddle of his own blood and I was about to strike a finishing blow, he went and grabbed me, and squeezed, and my fingers just… snapped.”

Kardin. Harry used Kardin’s powers during that fucking duel.

He never told me he broke Sebastian’s fingers. He lied to me.

Draco wanted to cry. Why had Harry hidden this from him? It was so important. It was so, so important for Draco to be aware of Sebastian’s motivations at all times. Draco had previously suspected that Sebastian’s obsession with Draco was his incentive to hurt Harry in the first place, but if Harry had given Sebastian another reason to despise him, a massive one like this, it made the game ten times more dangerous.

“Hurt like a bitch, that did,” Sebastian continued. “Don’t have any idea what the hell he did to make his fingers that strong; a potion of some kind, I bet. Nathaniel patched me up later. I was quite ashamed of myself that night, I’ll admit, but looking back, I had no reason to be. Potter had a few tricks hidden up his sleeve, I’ll give him that, but I would’ve killed him anyway if Adolphus hadn’t stopped me. He can barely last a minute in a duel with me, so don’t be getting any bright ideas about setting your half-blood hound on me. He’ll be dead meat.”

Sebastian leaned closer, brushing his lips against the shell of Draco’s ear. “But then again, he’s already dead meat. I’ll destroy your precious little pet when I’m king, and I’ll make you watch.”

Draco felt teeth snag on the sensitive flesh beneath his ear, and let out a shuddering breath.

“And though I can’t kill him this year, I’ll make his life a living hell during the Tournament.”

Draco lost it. He wrenched himself to the side, throwing his weight around to loosen Sebastian’s hold. The two of them and Nathaniel staggered for a second, but in the next Sebastian caught him in a headlock, twisting his arms behind his back.

“Slippery little bitch,” Sebastian growled. “Can’t wait to watch you squirm like this when I kill Potter, and squirm even more when I make you m—”

Sebastian stopped talking. A gaggle of Skulls were approaching this secluded corner, laughing and chattering as though Draco wasn’t currently getting assaulted a few feet from them.

Sebastian shoved Draco away, gritting his teeth. “Soon. Now get going, before anyone sees. Sweet dreams, Draco, dear.”

Draco thought about taking out the Knut and using it right here. He thought about calling Sebastian an ugly, evil, disgusting monster, and swearing to kill him. He thought about going straight to his father, maybe even the Adolphus, and spilling everything.

Instead, he gulped in a breath of air, blinked away the blurriness in his vision, and ran from the Pit.

***

Draco woke up late the next morning, a bleary, cloudy Sunday, his eyes dry and crusty. He’d cried himself to sleep, and his skin still felt itchy and tight on him, like he was wearing a skin-tight suit that didn’t belong.

The Thread Sphere was going off, annoying as ever. Then again, if it hadn’t, Draco would’ve slept through the whole morning.

Potter, the git, tries to call me at ten o’clock, when the stupid ceremony ended so late last night.

“What?” Draco mumbled, rubbing his eyes with one hand and holding the sphere in the other.

“You weren’t at breakfast,” Harry said, something accusatory in his tone.

Draco blew up at him. “Of course I wasn’t at breakfast! We all slept at three in the morning! Why the hell would I wake up at eight o’clock to go to breakfast?”

“I only woke up because I thought you’d be there,” Harry said, the pout on his face obvious even though Draco couldn’t see it.

Sighing, he sprawled back on the bed and kicked off his sheets, letting himself relax into the bed in a way he hadn’t last night. Hearing Harry’s voice had driven away that itchy feeling under his skin, at least for now.

“What’s the point of that?” Draco asked, grinning despite himself. “We wouldn’t have been able to talk to each other anyway.”

“I just… I just wanted to see you,” Harry muttered, and Draco’s grin widened so much it was a miracle his face didn’t split in half.

“Let’s meet then. For lunch, in the kitchens. I need to talk about what we’re going to do about this stupid fucking Tournament.”

“Do you have a plan then?” Harry asked, trying and failing to sound excited.

“Maybe,” said Draco coyly, and left it at that as the Thread Sphere powered down.

The truth was, Draco’s new plan wasn’t a very good plan, and had everything to do with revenge. After returning to his dorm, he’d spent a good hour tossing and turning in bed, sick with rage at the thought that Sebastian and Nathaniel kept getting away with everything they’d done to Draco, and now promised to do to Harry.

Draco wanted revenge, not just on Sebastian and Nathaniel, but on every damn Skull who allowed their existence. Especially Adolphus, who’d committed the additional crime of screwing Harry’s life up on multiple occasions.

He understood the importance of Skulls and their whole mission. Lucius had explained it to him in great detail, and Draco wasn’t going against those teachings.

But just because he agreed with their principles didn’t mean he agreed with anything else they did. This time, they’d gone too fucking far, and Sebastian’s threats, and the threat of his approaching kingship, had solidified Draco’s certainty of that.

He and Harry had been backed into a corner. The way Draco saw it, he had no choice. If they wanted Harry to stay in the spotlight, well…

I’ll make sure Harry shows them what a big mistake they’ve made bringing him back into it.

Draco practically sprinted out of bed and into the bath. By eleven o’clock, he was fully dressed, not to mention starving.

Then somebody knocked on his door, at possibly the worst time ever, just as Draco was putting on his cloak. Draco yanked it open, unable to keep the irritation off his face. “Yes?”

Theo stood behind it, his schoolbag slung over his shoulder. His gaze trailed over the cloak Draco had half-put on. “Where are you going?”

“For a walk.” Draco buttoned up, scowling up a storm.

“But it’s snowing outside.”

“I didn’t say I was leaving the castle.” Draco snorted and tried to push past him. “What do you want?”

“I just… never mind. You’re going to see Potter, aren’t you?” Theo’s eyes narrowed. Draco and Harry had met several times in December, and Draco had stopped trying to hide it from Theo after a few failed attempts. Theo already knew everything, so what was the point?

Then, Draco’s veins froze over, as a possibility he hadn’t given much thought until now surfaced, unbidden.

Sebastian knows everything now, too. Did Theo tell him?

To Draco’s knowledge, Theo hadn’t said a negative word to Harry since he’d found out about their ongoing friendship. Nor had he made a peep of complaint when Draco and Harry had been meeting before holiday break. Theo had been a good friend for the past month or so, useful and polite and pleasant to be around. Draco did not want to fight with him again now that Theo was being reasonable. It would be a huge pain and simply not worth it, considering how entwined their lives were at this point.

But if Theo had tattled, if he’d gone back to his old ways, there was no way Draco could tolerate that. He’d broken their friendship off numerous times before, and he could do it again if Theo had regressed into an evil arsehole—

Calm down. If Theo tattled on me, Sebastian would’ve told me right away last night, just to taunt me. He hates that I’m so close to Theo, and there’s no way he’ll give up an opportunity to smear Theo’s name.

Besides, Sebastian had straight out admitted that he’d known about their relationship for a long time, far before Theo had discovered them in that abandoned classroom.

Still, Theo could’ve confirmed Sebastian’s suspicions. Draco didn’t trust him yet, as much as he wanted to.

“Yeah. I’m going to see Harry,” said Draco, watching Theo’s face carefully to gauge his reaction. “And Sebastian knows that me and Harry are meeting. He’s known for a long time.”

Theo’s face went slack with genuine shock, and a knot of tension in Draco’s stomach unraveled.

“Draco, I—I didn’t—I would never tell him! I hate him! I’ve told you that so many times, and—and—did he do anything to you? How did you find out? Did you talk to him last night? Draco, please believe me, I’d never reveal your secret.” Theo’s voice rose, hysterical.

“He didn’t… hurt me, not in… that way.” Draco took a deep breath, and the color slowly began to return to Theo’s blanched face. “He just found me last night, after both you and Harry left, and told me that he knew. I think he’s going to try to hurt Harry in some way during the Tournament. It doesn’t have much do with me, so leave it. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”

Theo grabbed his sleeve. “Draco…”

“What?”

Theo averted his gaze. “I’m sorry about Potter. I don’t like him at all, but you seem really worried, and…is there anything you want me to do?” He trailed off, giving Draco a beseeching look.

Draco stared at him. “What?”

“Nothing. Never mind. It was just—“

Draco blushed brilliantly, flustered for a reason he couldn’t name. “No, no, er, I appreciate it. Thanks. If you meant it. Not that I’m saying you didn’t mean it, but—just thanks, but no thanks.” Draco kept fumbling with his words these days. “It has nothing to do with you.”

Theo took his hand, his fingers tracing over the lines on Draco’s palm. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?”

Draco’s appreciative stare became a glare. This was getting ridiculous. Of course Theo was trying to act all mature and holy in front of Draco, and it was flattering that he was trying so hard, but Draco wasn’t this easily fooled.

“No, really, there’s nothing you can do,” Draco said, more firmly now. “Besides, you won’t even stand up to Sebastian to defend me, least of all Potter.”

Draco left, ignoring the stricken look on Theo’s face, quite aware of the fact that he’d ruined the mood.

***

Fifteen minutes later, now in the kitchens with Harry, Draco stuffed a chocolate cupcake into his mouth, not bothering to wipe the crumbs off his chin. His mother would lecture him for such a digression, as Malfoys were meant to put on a pristine front at all times, but Draco did not really care how presentable he looked in front of Harry, of all people. The boy’s hair resembled a bird’s nest, for Merlin’s sake.

Harry spluttered at him. “Say that again.”

“Say what?” Draco mumbled, choosing a vanilla cupcake this time and licking the frosting, then his fingers, with great pleasure.

Harry seemed temporarily distracted for a second.

“Oh, er, what you said just now. About bastards,” Harry said, glancing away.

“Yeah, I said stick it to the bastards.” Draco put down the half-eaten cupcake to look Harry right in the eye. “They messed with my plan. Adolphus Lestrange is a piece of shit, and the other Initiates are nowhere as good as you. You’re going to win this Tournament, Harry. I mean it. You’re going to win.”

“But you’ve been telling me to do the opposite all year!” Harry’s mouth hung wide open, practically inviting a creature to take up residence inside.

Draco tried to keep his hands from trembling, vividly remembering Sebastian’s hot breath wafting across his face, his fingers splayed over Draco’s cheek, the tone of his voice when he promised to kill Harry.

I’m done.

“What I said before didn’t end up working. I’m not stupid, Harry. They want to humiliate you. They want to hurt you.” And Sebastian wants to humiliate and hurt me, but that’s old news. “I told you last night that you should just keep doing what you’re doing, and you disagreed, and now I agree with you. You were right. I was wrong. I thought that they would respect you if you did what they asked, what I asked, but I’ve realized that’s not going to happen, ever. So, Harry, this is our new plan.”

Draco paused to catch his breath, thinking about how best to phrase his thoughts, and explain to Harry what he suspected Sebastian and the other Skulls were plotting. Speaking of Sebastian, it was now confirmed that Sebastian’s hatred for Harry came from something deeper than his obsession with Draco.

Draco hadn’t yet confronted Harry for hiding the very important my demon powers helped break Sebastian’s fingers bit of information, and would leave that can of flobberworms closed for now. If he yelled at Harry for it, Harry would ask how he’d found out about it in the first place, and then Draco would have to explain how he and Sebastian knew each other when he’d previously lied to Harry about their past.

And Draco could not let Harry be distracted from the mission at hand. First of all, they both needed to focus on Harry removing the demon Seed growing inside of him. Second of all—

Sebastian’s words rattled around in Draco’s head. “And though I can’t kill him this year, I’ll make his life a living hell during the Tournament.”

“The Skulls won’t make it easy for you to win the Tournament, or do well at all,” Draco said, locking gazes with Harry and refusing to look away. “They put you up in first place because they want to pull you down and prove that you don’t belong here. They’re going to rig the Tournament against you.”

“How do you know this?” Harry asked, his voice rising.

“I know this because I know the Skulls.” Draco remembered seeing the Skulls play ‘The Count’ with Bodus Burke, giving him ten seconds to escape the room before they killed him, but then incapacitating him before the ten seconds were up. Nothing was ever fair with the Skulls. Draco knew why Burke’s life had ended that way, understood why, but the idea of Harry being subjected to this same horrible treatment when he’d tried his hardest to assimilate, to listen to Draco—

It made Draco’s blood boil.

“I’m not sure exactly what they’re planning, but I’ll think about it. I’ll ask some of the older Initiates what to expect. We’ll come up with a new plan, a better one, for the Tournament. Because, Harry, you’re going to make them regret everything they did to you.”

They’re going to regret proving Harry right, and me wrong, Draco added to himself, clenching his fists. And Sebastian is going to regret threatening Harry. I’m not Theo. You can’t threaten my friend and get away with it.

“Who are you?” Harry asked, awestruck, and Draco glared at him.

“I’m perfectly capable of realizing when my plans fail,” Draco hissed. “I’m not as arrogant as somebody else in this room.”

This insult did not appear to have dented Harry’s burgeoning good mood.

“Like I said earlier,” Draco continued, “you’re going to stick it to the bastards. Even if you don’t win, you’re going to put up a fight, and you’re going to prove to everyone that blood—doesn’t—equal—power.”

Draco saw Harry’s wide, unbridled grin, and scowled back at him.

“I was right, then,” Harry said.

“I never said you weren’t right about the whole blood thing. I’m not stupid. I know you’re more powerful. And… and for the record, I still believe in the necessity of… of separating half-bloods from Purebloods. Some dirty-bloods might try to ruin wizarding culture, sure, but you’re not one of them, and I’m not going to let them kick you around any longer.”

Harry leaned forward, resting his chin on his palm, that shit-eating grin still plastered all over his face. “That’s what you say now. But I think you’ll change your mind soon.”

“Change my mind to what?” Draco asked, irritable, and Harry’s responding laughter rang like bells. Draco went pink at the sound of it.

“You’re the best, Draco. You’re really amazing. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you changed your opinion so quickly. Just about yesterday you were all supportive of the way the Skulls treated me, said stuff like this is how the world works, Harry, deal with it, and today, you’re just—well.” Harry gestured at Draco’s still-scowling face, rendered speechless with glee.

“This is how the world works,” Draco said, digging his fingers into the edge of the kitchen table. “I never said I disagreed with that. But since this is how the world works, and this is how they like to play their little games, I think it’s good for you to… cooperate and be the first-ranker they want you to be, right?”

Draco finally let himself grin, basking in the adoration emanating from Harry like rays of light.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWELVE

THE WINNER

o

Three days had passed since they’d returned from holiday break, three days since Harry’s rank had been revealed.

Eight days remained until the first day of the Initiate Tournament.

Draco, of course, had been busy gathering information. He had gone through quite a transformation in the past few days, driven by a simmering hatred so deeply-embedded inside him that he hadn’t even known he possessed it.

Sebastian threatened to kill Harry, and he’s terrorized me for years. Enough. Is. Enough.

Harry was going to win this Tournament. He’d already beat every single obstacle the Skulls had thrown at him, and he’d be able to beat many more. He’d prove to everyone that he was too powerful to be intimidated, to let their juvenile, unfair tricks dishearten him. Maybe the next time they thought about messing with him, they’d think twice.

Maybe him winning this Tournament will prove that he’s one of us, and we won’t have to hide our friendship anymore. Draco had previously thought that keeping Harry out of the spotlight would be the easiest way to accomplish that while keeping Harry alive at the same time, but he’d never considered the alternative. Now that his first plan had failed spectacularly, Draco would give that alternative a closer look. It was crystal clear to him that the only way to get the Skulls to accept Harry was to make them respect him.

When they discover how strong he is, they’ll be scared of him. And that’s the only way a half-blood can survive the Skulls. Draco would guide him, train him, stand beside him, and spread his influence in that sneaky way only Draco could, through sweet-talking and smirks.

This is the only way to save Harry’s life. The time for him to keep his head down has passed. Harry needs to prove himself—fast—so that the Skulls won’t allow Sebastian to kill him next year.

Harry needs to make himself unforgettable.

Draco had once wondered what could change if he set Harry free, and now he finally had a reason to.

Maybe it would work. Maybe Harry would survive both the demon Seed and Sebastian.

And maybe one day, Draco would tell Harry how the Nott twins had tormented him. Maybe one day, Harry would grow powerful enough to challenge Sebastian, to make him pay for hurting Draco. Maybe one day, no one would even dare to look at Draco for fear of retaliation, much less touch him like Sebastian did.

If Harry grew powerful, and if Draco kept the reins to that power… I’ll never feel weak again.

***

“I told you a couple days back that I would ask some of the older Initiates what to expect from the Tournament, so we can figure out how the Skulls are going to rig it against you. Because they’re definitely going to rig it against you in some way,” Draco said, pacing feverishly at the front of the abandoned classroom he and Harry were meeting in.

Harry, who sat at one of the creaky old desks, regarded Draco with narrowed eyes. “Who did you ask?”

Draco frowned. “I just told you. Older Initiates. The ones who’re in their last year of Initiation, so they’ve already gone through all this Tournament stuff. They were pretty easy to talk to.” He’d approached the least intimidating group of fourth-year boys in the common room and wheedled information out of them by complimenting them and laughing at all their stupid jokes. It had been almost too easy.

“Are you friends with them now?” Harry asked, his tone suggesting that he was ungrateful for Draco’s sacrifices.

Draco did not appreciate this behavior. “Um, no. What does that have to do with anything? Stop interrupting me.”

Harry mumbled something else under his breath, but Draco ignored him.

“So it turns out that the Mind and Soul tournament preliminaries are just simulations, like Adolphus told us during the Opening Ceremony. But according to the fourth years, there’s one key difference. See, all the Soul and Mind simulations we went through in training were pretty much identical to everyone else’s. There wasn’t much variation in the individual tests and scenarios. For the Mind and Soul tournaments, though, we’ll each have to go through a series of scenarios and tests, until we fail one and wake up. The simulations use information from our training period to pick which situations you had the most trouble with during training last term, and make you go through them again during the Tournament. So it definitely won’t be easy.”

Harry waved his hand dismissively. “I told you, I’m immune to simulations, so Soul is an automatic win. Mind might be difficult though, since I’ll actually have to use my brain. Do you think Adolphus will be able to manipulate the simulation and make the puzzles impossible for me?”

Draco shook his head. “That’s what I was getting at. The Skulls can’t administer the Soul and Mind tests. Nobody can interfere with the simulation potions because the potions use each person’s memories to construct a unique test for that person. So I doubt you’ll have any trouble there. What we need to worry about is the Body preliminary, and the Dungeon Five final exam battle at the end of the year.”

Harry furrowed his brows, and he appeared at a loss, torn between admiration and puzzlement. “Thanks… thanks for finding all this out.”

“I’m doing it so you have the best chance you can to win,” Draco said. “And also so you don’t, you know, die.”

Harry stared. “I’m not going to die, Draco. I doubt Adolphus wants to kill me, just humiliate me. I mean, he’s let me live this long.”

“Aren’t you forgetting that Adolphus is leaving next year? Just shut up and listen, will you?” Draco said. “So, moving on. The Body preliminaries. We already know that they’re going to be one-on-one duels, and that the contestants are going to be whittled down until the best two are left. And according to my sources”—Draco cleared his throat as Harry snorted rudely—“each duel is going to take place in the Skull Pit arena.”

Harry groaned, slumping forward and clutching his head. “Shit. I hate that place.”

“I hate it too,” Draco admitted. “And I know they’re going to mess with you somehow. There’s going to be a whole crowd of Skulls watching the Tournament, and I doubt they’re going to let you win.”

Once again, Draco remembered Burke’s violent end, and shivered despite himself.

“But if they do that, it won’t be a victory for them. It won’t be a fair fight, so everyone’ll know that I was meant to win—”

“Harry, shut up. The Skulls don’t think victory comes from having a fair fight. Nobody’s gonna care. Now, we need to come up with a strategy that’ll keep you up and moving in that Skull Pit, no matter what they do to throw you off. Luckily for you, being the beautiful genius that I am, I’ve already figured out that strategy.”

Draco made his way over to the desk where Harry was sitting and leaned on it, getting right in Harry’s face. Harry went a bit cross-eyed looking at him.

“I know how to duel, Draco,” Harry said resentfully. “I'm practically the best in the year.”

Draco shot him a disgusted look. “So, you think that just because I'm not as good a duelist as you, I don't have any useful advice?”

“That's not what I said—” Harry tried.

Draco wasn't having any of it. “You’re an idiot. You might be good at dueling, but remember how well you did against Sebastian and Nathaniel in the beginning of the year? The Skulls won’t duel you, they’ll slaughter you. Just shut up and listen, Harry. I know what I’m talking about.”

Harry shut up and listened.

“Okay, here's what you have to do. You need to take out your opponent as quickly as you can. Knock them out right away. I know you like to get all flashy, but the less time you take to win, the less time they have to interfere with the duel.”

“I’ll end it as quickly as I can,” Harry said solemnly, perhaps sensing that Draco was on the verge of panicking.

Draco sniffed and straightened up. “All right. That should get you through the early stages. If you make it to the top two—which I bet you will because of the rest of the Initiates aren’t that great—this strategy won’t be as effective because your opponent will be a lot harder to take out quickly. If you have to duel Theo, which I bet you will, he won't go down fast enough for you to avoid everything the Skulls want to do to hurt you. That’s the best time for them to take you out.”

Harry narrowed his eyes into little slits. “I can handle Nott.”

“Don't underestimate him,” Draco warned, and left it at that.

“What about the final exam?” Harry asked, after a long pause.

Draco chewed on his lower lip. This was the one thing he hadn't managed to gather enough information on.

“All right,” he began, tasting the words on his tongue. “The final exam takes place in Dungeon Five, which is a really massive Dueling Ring, the size of a Quidditch Pitch. The Ring will have a special terrain and everything, parts of it resembling a forest, or a town, or a field. Like most advanced Dueling Rings, it can cast area-of-effect spells, and a whole bunch of other things that can hurt the people inside it.”

Harry gulped, and Draco continued hurriedly.

“According to the fourth years I talked to, the final exam has a different theme each year, but basically each Initiate gets an objective at the beginning of the battle, and has to strive to fulfill that objective. Last year, it was a huge battle royale; whoever stayed standing the longest automatically won, and the longer you stayed alive, the higher your score was. The year before that, every Initiate had to find a different object hidden somewhere in the Dueling Ring. If you managed to find it—and stay standing—before time was up, you passed with a high score.”

“So nobody knows what it’s going to be this year?” Harry asked, pursing his lips.

“No. But I’m assuming that at least a few things will stay consistent over the years. Basically you have to stay standing long enough to complete your objective. So, in your case, you need to focus on surviving the Dueling Ring long enough to do whatever it is they ask you to do.”

“All right, I’ve had enough,” Harry said, standing up and taking two long strides so that he and Draco were face to face. “Let’s not talk about this anymore, okay? It’s just going to make me sick with worry, and you too. We’ll let things happen.”

“We need to come up with a better plan—” Draco began with a hiss.

“We can’t come up with a better plan than the one we have right now.” Harry’s voice softened, and Draco stared at him, taken aback. “We don’t have enough information. Look, Draco, you don’t need to worry anymore. You’ve done everything you can. Anyway, I know I can win this Tournament. I have Kardin with me, and I’m powerful. I would’ve tried to win it anyway, if you hadn’t told me to stop showing off.”

“You’re an arrogant git,” Draco said, trying to sound angry and failing. Part of him was pleased that Harry was rising to the challenge with so much enthusiasm and confidence. That just made Draco’s plan all the easier to pull off.

Now all I have to worry about is keeping Harry alive. Should be fairly straightforward.

Harry grinned, almost as if he could hear Draco’s sarcastic thoughts, and put his chin on Draco’s shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, I probably wouldn’t have been so confident if you hadn’t told me what to expect. Thanks. Really. I bet you’ve saved my life again.”

“You’re giving both of us too much credit,” Draco said, scowling at the top of Harry’s messy head. “You haven’t even dueled anyone yet.”

“Come on, Draco, dueling will be the easiest part. The other Initiates are a bunch of idiots. Especially Theodore fucking Nott.”

Yeah, but Sebastian and Adolphus aren’t idiots, Draco thought, his stomach churning.

“Anyway, why don’t you have a plan for yourself, Draco? Didn’t you rank in eighth place? Are you going to practice dueling or something?” Harry added, out of nowhere.

Draco stiffened, forcing down his jealousy at the reminder of how much better Harry was at magic than him. Draco reveled in the knowledge that he was the only one who could stop Harry from using that power, but he had to remind himself that he no longer shared Harry’s magic—not literally at least. Their Accipimus et Damus bond had unraveled a long time ago. Harry’s powers—his demon summoning abilities and raw talent—belonged to Harry alone, not Draco.

“I dunno,” Draco said at last. “I’ll just do well enough to make my father happy. Being in the top half is a must. Maybe I’ll practice with Theo later.”  He supposed he’d only managed eighth place out of twenty-one because he’d done very well in the Mind simulations. He was average in Body and terrible in Soul, after all.

It was Harry’s turn to stiffen. “Nott? Why him?”

Draco shrugged, watching Harry carefully out of the corner of his eye. “I’m pretty sure I told you this, but our fathers made me and Theo practice a lot of dueling together this summer. We met at my house every other day, pretty much.”

Harry lifted his chin off Draco’s shoulder and scowled furiously at a spot on the wall, as if he were imagining Theo standing there. “Why are you so friendly with him all the damn time after everything he did to me?”

“Oh, come on,” Draco said. “I told you this already. I’m humoring him because I don’t want him as my enemy. Also, I think he’s gotten a lot better this year. He hasn’t bothered either of us, has he?”

“He’s evil,” Harry said, almost spitting fire.

Draco snorted and shook his head. No, Theo’s too much of a coward to be evil.

“Are you jealous?”

“Jealous?” Harry’s cheeks flushed with dull color. “Jealous of what, exactly? I hate the fucking bastard.”

Draco gave him an sly smirk.

Harry, in response, spluttered angrily. “Fine, do you want me to stroke your ego? I’m jealous of him because he’s a Pureblood, okay? Because he gets to walk around with you without anyone questioning it. And he got to grow up with you.”

“So you’re jealous of him because of me.” Draco knew his voice sounded obnoxiously smug, and delighted in it. “Tell me again, in great detail, what exactly he and I do together that makes you jealous.”

“Oi! Piss off!”

“Tell me, or I’ll spend allll day with Theo tomorrow,” Draco sang, digging his nails into Harry’s forearm and pulling him close.

“You’re a sadistic wanker.”

Harry yanked Draco back in the other direction, and in a second the two of them were consumed in a brief but vicious struggle. Two minutes later, Draco’s arm throbbed, and he and Harry lay sprawled out on the stone floor, Harry’s head nestled against Draco’s stomach.

“Anyway,” Harry said, managing to sound whiny despite being out of breath, “I was going to ask you earlier, before you started prattling on about Nott, if you wanted to practice with me instead. In this classroom. Right now.”

Draco squirmed, trying to get comfortable with Harry’s big stupid head lying on his stomach, and cradled his recently-smacked arm. “I dunno. You already beat me up once today.”

“Pleeease? Aren’t you supposed to be the one who wants to plan and prepare for everything? This is part of planning and preparing, isn’t it? In fact, you should practice with me every day, and not bother with N—anyone else.” Harry widened his eyes and blinked innocently, and Draco’s resentment melted away. Harry’s tactics were shameful, and ought to be illegal.

Draco let out a long-suffering sigh and shoved Harry off of him with a bit more force than was required. “Fine. Stop sitting on me and get out your wand.”

Harry jumped to his feet, positively gleeful, like a young child who’d received a broomstick for his birthday, and Draco decided he would take great pleasure in wiping that self-satisfied grin off his face.

“I’m going to mop the floor with you,” Draco drawled. “Also, you’d better let me win, or I’m never talking to you again.”

***

January 19th arrived alongside a massive snowstorm, and on the morning of the first day of Body tournament, Harry could be found waiting in the common room, feeling distinctly ill.

The preliminary duels were set to take place in the Skull Pit arena, where the magical creatures fought and where the Opening Ceremony had occurred a week prior. There would be eleven battles today, after which only eleven Initiates would remain. Tomorrow, on Sunday, the Initiates would be further whittled down to six over a course of six more battles, then to the final two after four more. Next Saturday was the final battle, and would bring the Body portion of the Initiate Tournament to an end.

Harry figured that his opponent today would be easy enough to defeat in less than a couple minutes, but the Initiates tomorrow might prove a greater challenge. He wasn’t worried about dueling badly, not exactly, just worried that something unexpected would happen to throw him off his game, like Draco had predicted.

He’d practiced with Draco several times this week, but Draco had gotten much more out of it than Harry had. Not that Harry was complaining. As far as he was concerned, any time he spent with Draco was time Draco wasn’t spending with Nott, and therefore time well spent.

Just then, a loud and chattering flock of Initiates strolled into the common room, right on time. The Body tournament would be beginning in a few minutes. Harry looked up jerkily, noticing that Draco was among the crowd, and felt his breakfast churning in his stomach.

He sent the entrance to the Skull Pit a baleful look, took a deep breath, and stood up.

It was time.

***

Draco Malfoy versus Millicent Bulstrode. Draco Malfoy versus Millicent Bulstrode.”

The gates flew open, and Draco walked out into the Skull Pit arena, wondering how many doomed magical creatures had taken the same path. His wand was out already, his shoulders tense and straining against his robes. A low hum filled the air, the hum of the magic dome preventing spells from hitting anyone outside the Skull Pit arena. Speaking of that, the arena appeared to have been transformed into a very basic Dueling Ring for this occasion.

Millicent Bulstrode stood in her starting circle on the opposite end, looking far less intimidating from a distance than she did up close. It had been weeks since he’d had a conversation with her, not that he minded. Bracing himself, he stepped into his circle and inclined his head at her in a stiff bow.

A hundred Skulls lined the arena fence, cloaked in shadows.The arena itself was well lit, but beyond the fence, the only form of illumination came from the fairy lights. Draco hated that the the older Skulls could see him down here but he couldn’t see them.

“THREE!” yelled the referee.

Is Harry watching from up there? With no small amount of bitterness, Draco recalled that Harry had already finished his duel—and had won in under a minute.

Lucky bastard got Goyle as his opponent.

“TWO!”

Why did they give Harry such an easy opponent for the first round? And why didn’t they try to stop him from winning in any way? I was sure they would… Maybe they just didn’t have enough time.

“ONE!”

Draco did not like the sound of this. Perhaps Sebastian was waiting for a more opportune time to release his fury, and would do so all at once, overwhelming Harry. Maybe he and Adolphus and the rest of the Golds were biding their time, letting Harry gain some traction dueling the likes of Goyle before yanking the floor out from underneath him.

“GO!”

At the clang of an invisible bell, Draco dashed to the edge of the arena, trying to put as much as distance as possible between him and Millicent, and hoping to tempt Millicent over to him rather than the other way around.

Go on the offensive, Draco, his father always said, not that there was any way in hell Draco would do that.

Why did his opponent have to be Millicent, of all people? She was probably one of the few Initiates Draco had never managed to charm. She wouldn’t go easy on him by blushing and faltering, like some of the other boys had when they’d dueled Draco in the Body training sessions.

“Scared, Malfoy?” Millicent advanced on him with her wand out, pulling her lips over her teeth in a hideous sneer.

“Expelliarmus!” Draco cried out over his shoulder, and cut across the arena, aware that he looked like a complete coward for literally running away from the duel.

Millicent laughed and dodged and darted after him, and Draco widened his eyes, unable to believe that a girl her size was so light and fast on her feet, graceful like a dancer. He’d heard rumors that she was a force to be reckoned with, but he’d never bothered to watch her in action, or bothered to watch her any longer than necessary.

He dearly regretted that now.

“Incarcerous! Expelliarmus! Ventus!”

Hissing, Draco spun out of the way. His hair was slick with sweat already, plastered to his forehead and the back of his neck. Millicent was firing off spells nearly as fast as Theo and Harry could, and Draco’s results with them suggested that he wouldn’t last in a situation like this much longer.

“Awww.” Millicent simpered, dodging one of Draco’s frantic, badly-fired spells, and then another, and then another, with practiced ease. “Looks like the little princess is too pretty to be smart. Expelliarmus!”

Draco ran out of the way, breathing hard through his nose, clenching his teeth. He was a slow, clunky duelist because he spent too long deliberating and second-guessing every move, but he was far more intelligent than Millicent Bulstrode could ever hope to be.

He’d make her pay for insulting him.

Draco raised his wand, in that second doing what he did best: coming up with a plan. Think faster, think harder. No deliberation, no going back. The knuckles of his wand-hand went utterly white.

“Reducto!” he yelled out the way Harry had taught him earlier that week, shoving all of his strength behind the incantation, using his anger to fuel the explosion at Millicent’s feet. Millicent screeched, covering her eyes to shield herself from the flying shards of stone, and stumbled to the side.

Draco’s face flushed in victory, and he couldn’t resist the temptation to taunt her, despite being quite aware he was wasting precious time. “I’d rather be dumb than ugly. Too bad you’re both, Bulstrode. Expelliarmus!”

Millicent tipped back, avoiding the spell by a hair’s breadth, and when she resurfaced, her eyes blazed.

He’d made a grave mistake.

“REDUCTO!”

It was Draco’s turn to stumble and wince as loose stone rained down on him. Dully, he heard the Skulls above catcalling and yelling, but whose side they were on, he had no idea. Mustering up the last ounce of strength he possessed, he cried, “Expelliarmus!”

Millicent whirled toward him like a storm, the air around her humming with power. “REDUCTO! VENTUS!”

The ground in front of him cracked and erupted right beneath his feet. A burst of wind blew stone into his face, blinding him, and he clawed at his eyes in desperation, hyper aware of his doom creeping ever closer.

“EXPELLIARMUS!”

***

“Hey, at least I avenged you,” Harry said, patting a forlorn Draco on the shoulder. “I knocked Millicent out in about a minute in my duel with her. I made sure it hurt, too.”

“I don’t like this,” Draco hissed, tearing himself away and returning to his pacing. They were back in the abandoned classroom they always met in, and Draco was quickly growing to hate it here. “You got to the finals without any hiccups whatsoever. The Skulls are planning something for you.”

Harry had indeed flown through the Tournament, securing his place in the top two: his three opponents—Goyle, Millicent, and Montague—had all gone down without much difficulty. He and Theo—unsurprisingly the other person in the top two—would be dueling next Saturday, and Draco knew the Skulls wouldn’t let a half-blood win.

“They let you get this far because they want to show everyone that no matter how good a half-blood is, he still can’t win.”

“So do you think the Skulls are going to attack me in some way during my duel with Theo?”

“It’s almost guaranteed,” Draco said feverishly. “Stay on guard. Don’t get cocky. Theo won’t be an easy opponent, no matter what you say. He’s a fucking genius, Harry. You have Kardin on your side, yeah, and that demon gives you an unfair advantage, but everything’ll even out during this battle.”

“He’s not a genius,” Harry sneered, but Draco ignored him and resumed his pacing. “No, really, he’s not. You’re a lot smarter than him.”

Draco turned on him, snarling, knowing that Harry didn’t deserve this treatment, but still needing to take his frustration out on somebody after his stinging defeat at Millicent’s hands. He could already imagine the strongly-worded letter his father would send him when he found out. The wealth and power of the Malfoy line is wasted on a useless little boy like you, it would say, and after reading it, Draco would spend the night desperately trying not to cry.

“You don’t know anything about Theo. You don’t know how he can do pretty much everything. He was practically inventing spells when he was seven, for Merlin’s sake!” Okay, Draco was exaggerating a bit there, but it served his point. I’ve always wanted to invent spells, but Father and I both knew I wouldn’t be able to. “I worked on those stupid magic obstructor Knuts as hard as I could, but I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without Theo doing half of it for me. Don’t underestimate him, or you’ll really get hurt!”

Harry’s expression had darkened during Draco’s outburst, and he was gripping the edge of his chair as though it had personally offended him. “Oh, shut up. So Nott can do a few useless things. Who cares? Are you obsessed with him or something?”

“Obsessed with him?” Draco spluttered. “Where the hell did you get that idea from?”

“You talk about him like he’s the second coming of Merlin, or some crap!”

“I’m not obsessed with Theo.” Draco’s voice rose in dismay. “My father is obsessed with Theo.”

“What?” Harry’s jaw dropped. “Like, your father is interested, interested in—”

“HARRY!”

Harry backtracked at once, his cheeks flaming red. “Okay, okay! What do you mean?”

Chewing his lip, Draco sat down at one of the creaky desks and turned it to face Harry. “It’s not really a big deal. Theo’s been my friend for a long time, and all the adults know how talented he is.” Draco couldn’t help a sneer from flitting across his face just then. “So of course Father knew, and he always brings Theo up. How smart Theo is, how he can accomplish everything I can’t, and how he’s a ‘proper’ heir. I’ve heard it a million times, and Father’s not wrong. So you shouldn’t underestimate Theo. That’s all.”

Draco sniffed and looked away, feeling his throat close up.

“But your dad is wrong,” Harry said, and Draco turned his head around so fast that he cricked his neck. “Nott is”—Harry shuddered—“unstable. You don’t want to be like him.”

Draco really had no idea what Harry meant by this, and didn’t think it had anything to do with anything. Theo might be a coward, and annoying, but he wasn’t unhinged like his brothers. Besides, Harry would spew whatever lies about Theo as long as he could claim that he was better than the other boy in some way or another.

Draco would’ve found his jealousy amusing if this hadn’t been such a worrisome situation.

“Uh, all right. But him being… unstable, or whatever you said, isn’t going to stop him from beating you on Saturday. So take it seriously.”

“I was just trying to make you feel better.” Harry jutted out his lower lip in a pout. “If it helps, everyone likes you, and nobody likes Theo. All the third years are always talking about you, and—um, yeah.” Harry faltered for a second, but recovered, his face still red from earlier. “And how many people talk to Theo, exactly? Does he even have any friends that genuinely like him? You don’t even like him. Anyway, your father has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Draco didn’t think Harry, of all people, had any right to criticize someone for not having any friends, but then again, Harry had a point. Besides his intelligence, Theo didn’t have a lot going for him. The other Initiates resented him, and often grew sullen whenever Draco would include Theo in the conversation out of politeness.

Draco realized he was grinning from ear to ear. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Father doesn’t know the first thing about what Theo’s really like, how nobody talks to him and how depressed he gets when I find someone else to hang out with.”

“Um, how much do you hang out with him, exactly? And who else do you hang out with?” Harry asked, but Draco talked over him.

“Father really is wrong. I’m better than Theo, aren’t I?” Draco said with glee.

Harry nodded vigorously. “I’m also better than him, by the way.”

***

The other Initiates had been sending Harry baleful glares all week, as if they refused to accept he was in the top two, and he couldn’t help but think they were plotting his murder. Somehow, he made it to the end of the week with his head intact, and now he was waiting underneath the Skull Pit where the magical creatures were usually kept before battles.

He’d already waited here three times before, once each for the three Initiates he had dueled last weekend. Dried blood was still smeared all over the floor. Distantly, he wondered what magical creature had bled to death here.

Two minutes until the duel with Nott begins. Harry leaned against the wall and took a deep breath, trying to soothe his frayed nerves.

“Potter.” As if on cue, Theo walked into the chamber, his footsteps echoing in the silence, and inclined his head in Harry’s direction.

Harry straightened up and turned his back on the other boy. “We should be getting into the elevators now. The duel’s about to start.”

“Yeah. There’s a lot of people watching out there, by the way,” Theo said, waving a hand dismissively. “More than there were for the duels last week.”

“Um. Well, these are the finals, so yeah.”

Harry wasn’t sure what Nott was getting at. He also wasn’t sure why Nott was talking to him.

Theo cleared his throat. “You’re a good duelist.”

Harry gawked, unable to believe this was where the conversation had ended up. “Yeah, I am,” he managed to splutter at last.

Theo stared back at him, unblinking. “But not as good as me.”

A thousand childish responses flitted through Harry’s mind, but instead he decided to stomp over to the left elevator.

Nott isn’t worth my precious time.

Before Harry could drag the metal door closed behind him, Theo called, “You’ve been meeting with Draco to practice dueling, haven’t you?”

Harry very nearly spit fire. “Yeah, almost every day. What’s it to you?”

Theo stalked over to the other elevator and pulled the sliding door shut, not bothering to respond.

Fuming, Harry yanked on the lever, and the elevator rose, clanging and creaking, into one of the two small waiting cages that opened into the Pit. Forcing himself to calm down, he drew his wand and faced the two iron gates that would, within seconds, open up into the Skull Pit.

“Theodore Nott versus Harry Potter. Theodore Nott versus Harry Potter.” The gates flew open, and Fawley’s hard, echoing voice seeped into the cage.

Harry strode forward into the arena’s blazing white light, his stomach lurching. Skulls, as usual, were pressed up against the fence, but they were strangely quiet, their glittering masks all turned toward him, like flowers to the sun. A second later, he spotted Theo emerge from his own cage on the opposite side of the arena, and the Skulls all swiveled to face him instead.

Harry leaned forward in a bow, just barely, not wanting to bare his neck any longer than necessary.

“THREE!”

Theo, his dark eyes reflecting the light like the hundreds of masks staring down at them, did not bow back.

Arrogant bastard.

“TWO!”

Harry craned his neck, searching for Draco among the Skulls, unable to see him because the arena was too far down.

“ONE!”

Don’t worry. He’s watching.

Harry tensed his shoulders, narrowing his focus to a single blazing point, a clearly defined goal: defeating Theodore Nott before Draco’s prediction came true, and the Skulls stopped Harry from winning.

“GO!”

The bell sounded with an ear-rattling clang, and Harry slipped into movement at once, Draco’s words ringing in his head, just as loud as the bell.

Don’t get flashy.

Theo wasn’t here to play games, and neither was Harry.

“Stupefy!”

“Stupefy!”

“Protego!”

“Stupefy!”

At once, the red light of the rapid-fire Stupefys flooded the arena. Equipped with Kardin, Harry could see all of Theo’s spells coming from a mile away, but Theo was fast enough on his feet that he could dodge all of Harry’s spells right back, if just barely.

The spells stopped. Theo was out of breath, flushed and panting. Harry decided to give the other boy a break, and the two of them fell into a prowl, starting to circle each other like wolves.

“Pitiful,” Harry sneered. “He said you were actually good.”

Draco was heavily implied to be the ‘he.’

Theo set his jaw in response, raising his wand, and Harry raised his own right back, predicting that Theo was preparing for something big, one of the fancy interlocked spells he’d used last weekend to decimate all of his opponents in under two minutes.

Then Theo struck in a flurry of light and incantations.

Harry blinked, hastened his muscles into movement faster than any other human would’ve been able to, and wheeled out of the way a split second before the last of four successive spells hit him.

Theo raised his wand one more time, gaze burning, teeth gritted, his robes more disheveled than ever, and Harry knew he was getting discouraged.

Good.

Harry’s lips curved in a wicked smirk, remembering how Sebastian and Nathaniel had overwhelmed him on the first day of Initiation all those months ago by forcing him to dodge out of the way of one spell, only to box him in with another. Somehow, Harry had survived it, and he’d learned from it.

Let’s see if perfect little Pureblood Nott has my superhuman reaction time.

“Stupefy! Stupefy! Stupefy!” Theo’s next chain of spells whizzed by at vicious speed, streams of light, and any normal wizard wouldn’t have withstood it.

Except Harry wasn’t a normal wizard, and he danced out of the way with ease.

Perhaps realizing Harry hadn’t even broken out into a sweat this whole time, Theo began his third volley of spells with an edge of desperation. Harry could have laughed. Theo was circling around, trying to trap Harry in the center of the arena, using a tactic similar to his older brothers’ by forcing him to go on the defensive.

My plan is way better than yours, just like I’m way better than you.

“Seco!” Harry yelled and fell back, another spell waiting on his tongue.

As if controlled by clockwork, Theo stepped out of the way, falling right into Harry’s trap, his signature spell.

“REDUCTO!” The stone beneath Theo’s feet burst. He caught himself in record time, his eyes frozen wide, but it was futile: Harry was just way too fast. His next spell was already halfway out of his mouth, aimed right in the direction Theo had stumbled.

Theo didn’t have time to pull up a Shield Charm.

He didn’t have time to move out of the way.

He didn’t even have time to look up.

EXPELLIARMUS!”

Theo’s wand went flying, and he stood there, eyes frozen wide, as if he couldn’t register what had just happened.

The Dueling Ring’s domed magic barrier, the one set in place to prevent spells from hitting spectators, hummed one last time and melted away with a hiss, marking the duel’s end.

Harry threw his head back and pumped his fist, gasping in the sweet air of victory. Nott had been disappointingly easy, no match for the boy with the power of demons on his side. Nott wasn’t a genius like Draco claimed. He was just another spoilt Pureblood brat like the rest of them, a brat who’d been born into his status rather than having earned it.

And the Skulls didn’t even bother to stop me from winning, Harry thought, almost bursting into laughter. They let me roll right over their model Pureblood. Draco was wrong to worry.

Clink, clink, clink went the chain-link fence. Harry whirled around, his arm falling back down to his side, just in time to see a bulky figure scuttle over the fence and jump down into the arena.

Sebastian Nott thudded to the ground, his cloak fluttering around him like curtains caught in a breeze.

Draco hadn’t been wrong to worry after all.

In that second, a second that felt like a lifetime, Sebastian grinned at him, his mask rippling on his gruesome face like it was nothing more solid than the surface of a silver lake.

“CRUCIO!”

Harry toppled to the ground, screaming.

Sebastian’s laugh—a low, throaty, spine-chilling laugh—rattled around in Harry’s head. “Ah, ah, ah, little boy. You’ll have to try harder than that to win.”

Harry was back in Dolohov’s office again, his spine arching off the ground, his fingers clawing at the ground. No matter how many times he went through it, it never got any easier, never stopped feeling like burning nails sinking into his flesh, like knives stripping off his skin.

Through a haze of pain, Harry heard Sebastian speak. “Pick it up! Pick up your wand, you useless boy!”

Harry’s wand lay inches from his spasming fingers, impossibly far out of his reach.

“Can’t you even win a duel against a dirty-blood, you fucking piece of trash?”

He’s not addressing me, Harry realized slowly, his head spinning and pounding and threatening to burst.

“Seb, I—” Theo whimpered as Sebastian grabbed him, and Harry kept on screaming, his throat tearing as the Cruciatus spiked in intensity.

Draco was right. They were never going to let me win.

“Beat him! Now’s your chance!”

“He’s already Disarmed—”

“Fucking do what I say!”

“St—s-stupefy!”

“THEODORE NOTT WINS!” Harry heard, right before he was taken out of his misery.

***

Draco lay huddled underneath his blankets the next day, clutching the Thread Sphere to his lips.

“I won, Draco. Our plan didn’t fail. It does’t matter what the official results are. Everyone saw that I won.” Harry’s voice drifted out of the sphere, strong and steady.

“Does it still hurt?” Draco whispered, trying not to reveal that he’d spent the last hour in his bed screaming into his pillow at the sheer unfairness of it all.

“Does what hurt?”

“Everything. Sebastian Nott put you under the Cruciatus.”

“A lot of people have put me under the Cruciatus, including you,” Harry pointed out. “Anyway, I’m fine now. I’ve been through it a lot.”

Draco’s stomach lurched at the memory of Walpurgis Night, and he swallowed thickly. “Why are you calling me?”

“I dunno. Do I need a reason?” Harry paused. “You sound weird today.”

“I sound weird?” Draco raised his voice, enraged. “Of course I sound weird. You were just tortured! And I was right. They won’t let you win.”

“I won,” Harry spat. “Everyone saw it. They know Nott’s victory is bogus. The plan will still work. I’ll show them. I don’t care what they do.”

“You should care,” Draco said shakily, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “What if they try to hurt you worse?”

“What choice do I have, Draco? Are you giving up? Are you going to tell me to keep my head down again like a good little boy?”

“No, I’m not!”

“Good. Because I won’t, not ever again.”

Draco took another shaky breath. “I hate them. I hate them so much.”

I want Sebastian dead, but first I want to put him under the Cruciatus Curse. I want to put all of them under it.

“I hate them more,” Harry said, and Draco wondered how true that was, especially now.

He straightened up, deciding to change the subject to something more productive. “Look, Imbolc’s in about a week. February 2nd. Do you and Synesis have everything prepared for the first part of the Seed cleansing ritual? What time are you doing it?”

It was Harry’s turn to swallow. “Yeah. We do. We’ll probably do it in the middle of the night, up in that abandoned classroom you found me bleeding in on Mabon. Say, two o’clock A.M on the night of February 1st.” He paused again. “I—I feel like something’s going to go wrong, though. You shouldn’t come.”

“I’m coming,” Draco said, without hesitation. He moved to turn off the sphere. “Bye.”

“Wait!” Harry said.

“What?”

“Look, I’m going to win this Tournament. By the end of it, nobody’ll have any doubt that I’m the real winner.”

Draco flopped back down on his bed, his fingers clenching rhythmically around the glass sphere as it powered down. “I hope you’re right, Harry.”

It was then, in the following silence, that Draco fully realized how difficult their plan would be to pull off. He’d even predicted something like this would happen, but to see Sebastian torturing Harry with his own eyes, refusing to let him win after he’d already won—

If only they’d let Harry stay out of the spotlight.

Chapter Text

More Notes: This chapter will build on information from “Chapter 9: Punishment,” and since I posted that chapter about two months back, I figure a lot of people have forgotten by now. Therefore, I’ve provided a quick recap (or alternatively, you could just reread that scene with Synesis in Chapter 9):

-A demon Seed will eventually cause its host to go into “Anthesis” or “blossoming,” which will then turn the host into a demon.

-Sometimes, if a Seed is damaged during the planting process, a partial Anthesis can occur instead, giving the host demon-like qualities without fully taking over the host’s body.

-Synesis and Harry have come to the conclusion that Auranos (the Level Two demon that Harry tried to summon on Mabon) ended up planting a demon Seed of some sort inside Harry. We are not yet sure whether Synesis was affected.

-Because Auranos said, “Your body belongs to Chaos, just like everything does, and Chaos will control it,” they suspect the Seed belongs to the demon god Chaos.

-Synesis wonders how the hell any of this is even possible, considering that both Chaos and Auranos are dead, and only the Seeds of living demons can blossom. Harry decides that Synesis’s knowledge on demon magic is outdated, and that the impossible is now possible now that the realm has destabilized thanks to Voldemort’s invasion.

-Harry has already informed Draco of all the above.


 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

VALENTINE’S DAY

o

“It pisses me off that the dirty-blood won so easily.”

“I’m hardly surprised by it. Your little brother is talented, Sebastian, but that Potter boy is… something else. I knew it from the moment I saw him.”

“My brother is a useless little bitch, actually.”

“It seems to me that your hatred of the Potter boy is a bit… personal. You completely snapped the other day.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You’re the one who asked me to wait until after the duel to torture him. I offered to beat him up before the duel started, or join in partway through, but you wanted me to—what was it you said—‘show the dirty-blood that he doesn’t belong in a Tournament for Purebloods, even if he’s the best’—or whatever.”

“Ha. Did I strike a nerve? Do you have a personal reason to despise the Potter boy?”

Silence.

“Sometimes I wonder. What with your plan for Potter during the final exam, the plan that involves young Mr. Malfoy, I can’t help but think—”

“I get great enjoyment out of torturing uppity dirty-bloods, Adolphus. You know that. And it’s clear to me that there’s something going on between Potter and Malfoy. I thought I could… find a use for it, that’s all.”

“A delightfully evil use for it, let me add. I’m looking forward to seeing everything play out. Just try not to hurt young Malfoy too much, will you?”

***

“Remember two things for the ritual, Harry. Blood and bait.”

The Seed cleansing ritual. Simple in theory, but dishearteningly difficult to pull off.

“You have to attract a variety of demons with bait—blood sacrifice works best—and then keep them trapped in a summoning circle so they can’t attack you or possess you, all while you barter with them to lend you their cleansing powers. Sometimes, they’re not interested in bartering. And if they find out you’re the Colossus, they might not want to help you at all,” Synesis had said in the days after Mabon, when they’d both been reeling from Auranos’s attack.

Blood and bait were the core components of the ritual. On Imbolc, Harry would lay bait for six powerful demons, one from each race—Sapience, Astral, Sisyphean, Pestilence, Templar, Psyche. The bait would be a unique object, one for each separate race of demon, and would be smeared with Harry’s blood to further entice them. In the end, if all six demons decided they were interested in the bait laid out for them, they would mark it with their symbol.

The final and the seventh race of demon, the Leviathan, did not exactly need bait. A Leviathan’s interest could only be captured when all the demons from the other six races had marked their bait. If it was pleased, its symbol would appear on the instigator of the cleansing ritual, Harry himself, marking the first phase of the ritual complete.

Then, more than a month later, on Ostara, Harry would summon all seven demons. Not into his own body, but into the secure summoning circle, where he would be relatively safe from their machinations.

And he would need to be.

He would be summoning not just any seven powerful demons, but seven Rank Seven demons.

“The more powerful the Seed, the more powerful the demons tasked with expelling it will have to be,” Synesis had said, grimly.

Harry wouldn’t have dared to summon Rank Sevens in a normal summoning ritual, nor would Synesis have let him. But the Seed cleansing ritual, as it did not require an actual fusion between human and demon and merely oversaw a brief flow of power from the second to the first, came with certain protections that could not be replicated in any other situation.

“Because I am a Rank Seven Sapience, I once knew all of these demons intimately. They are the most harmless and agreeable of the Sevens. You will be safe from them as long as you are outside the circle, and they will give you a fair hearing.”

Not that any of them were harmless, but like Synesis had said, they were the most harmless of the bunch, which had to count for something.

Harry, with Synesis’s help, would barter with them from the outside, trying his hardest to convince them to combine their seven powers into a surge of cleansing. He would have to be careful to keep his identity as the Colossus concealed. If he didn’t, perhaps the demons would be able to break the laws of summoning just like Auranos had, and as Rank Sevens they were capable of far more destruction if they managed to possess him or escape the summoning circle.

So far, there’s no way they know about me.

There couldn’t be. The demons isolated inside the dying realm had no idea that the Colossus had been found and infected with Chaos’s Seed; Auranos had self-destructed, unable to bring the news back to them. They had no reason to suspect Harry.

He hoped so, anyway. He would worry about that when the time came, on dreaded Ostara. Comparatively, the Imbolc part of the ritual sounded easy. Harry just needed to find seven objects, a knife, and some healing paste.

***

Like they had planned, Harry and Draco were meeting at two o’clock AM, in the same abandoned classroom Harry had summoned Auranos in. It had only been about fifteen minutes since they’d arrived, and Draco was already asleep, draped over one of the dusty desks, wearing his school robes but wrapped in a fluffy, expensive-looking ermine scarf he’d made into a makeshift pillow. His crown of pale-blond hair blended into the white fur of the scarf, Harry noticed.

He’d begged Draco not to come, afraid of what might happen tonight or on Ostara, but of course Draco refused to listen. Harry wouldn’t admit it, but he was grateful for the company, even if Draco was too tired to be useful right now. Harry would just have to wake him up later.

Or I could just let him sleep. Draco looked cute with his mouth hanging open and his eyes squeezed shut, too cute to disturb.

“I don’t think this is going to work, Harry,” Synesis said tremulously just then, from the desk next to Draco’s.

“What makes you think that?” Harry asked, putting the finishing touches on the summoning circle.

There was a long silence. Draco snored and mumbled something.

“There’s—” Synesis halted abruptly. Harry straightened up to stare at it. “It’s just—nothing. I’m just overreacting, as usual. You should wake up Draco.”

“No, tell me, Synesis,” Harry said, lowering his voice and reaching out to stroke the book’s spine. “I won’t get mad.”

“I swear it’s really nothing, Harry. I’m just… well, you know. The usual. I’m afraid I’m going to fail again.”

Harry sighed. Synesis had indeed been quiet and withdrawn lately, less likely to nag and more likely to just sniffle in a corner. Harry was worried about it. Before, Synesis had never shut up with its hysterical, panicked chatter, but now it seemed to have lost all its energy.

“It’s not your fault,” Harry said. “You had no way of knowing Auranos would be able to possess me.”

“But you might die,” Synesis choked out. “If the cleansing ritual doesn’t work tonight or on Ostara, if even the tiniest thing goes wrong, you’re as good as dead. You’ll turn into Chaos one day—or something else, something worse. In fact, I think you have less time than I previously thought.”

“What?” Harry almost dropped the book. “I thought you said that even if this fails, I’ll have years. You said if Auranos planted a powerful Seed like Chaos’s inside me, it would take a long time to germinate—”

“That’s what I thought,” Synesis said, “but I’ve been… hypothesizing, and, well, everything’s too much of a coincidence.”

“Synesis! Tell me!” Harry half-yelled, and Draco jerked awake at once and looked around, eyes bleary.

“What? Where are—oh. Sorry. I fell asleep.”

“No, it’s okay. I wasn’t talking to you.” Harry turned his attention back to Synesis, pinning the book down with a glare. “What’s too much of a coincidence, Synesis? I want to hear every one of your theories.”

A pause, then Synesis gave a sigh of defeat.

“Fine. Remember when I told you about Anthesis, the day of demonkind’s birth? Chaos and Control fought for an eternity, and each destroyed the other, on the day that was to be known as the Day of the Bloody Moon, because their blood flew into the sky after their deaths, washing it in crimson. Their shards scattered throughout our realm, and twenty-three sunrises later, the demons blossomed from those seed-shards,” Synesis said.

“And remember that I said that our world cycles through the ritual days—Ostara, Beltane, and so on—in a thousand years, while yours takes only a year? The first Anthesis took place on the summer solstice, Litha, almost seventeen thousand Earth years ago, and that means that this year’s Earth Litha is the official end of the seventeenth cycle in our world. It lines up perfectly.”

“Yeah, I remember you saying something like that,” Harry said slowly, though he recalled that this was the first time Synesis had ever mentioned the “Day of the Bloody Moon,” and that the first demon seeds had taken “twenty-three sunrises” to grow. The second was an odd, random addition to the story that had broken the flow of Harry’s thoughts.

Something about it rubbed Harry the wrong way, and he wondered if he was missing something important, but Synesis had already moved on.

“Yes, so going off on that… There is a tale, a prophecy of sorts, we demons liked to recite to each other, back home.”

“What are you two talking about? Can you tell me what the book’s saying, Harry?” Draco whined, and Harry waved a hand to shush him.

“Later. Go on, Synesis.”

“On Anthesis, the tale says, Chaos will rise and blossom once again—like we demons grow from seeds—to bring about the end times. Chaos will devour everything until the universe resembles its original state. This can only happen on an Anthesis, at the beginning of a cycle. That means, after the one this summer, there won’t be another Anthesis for a thousand more Earth years.”

The blood in Harry’s veins froze solid. “So, you think that, if Chaos’s Seed really is inside of me, the only day it could blossom would be this summer’s Litha?”

“Not exactly,” Synesis squeaked. “The story hints that it will take many more cycles than just seventeen. The exact phrase used in the tale is ‘tens of thousands of years,’  and only seventeen have gone by. I mean in demon years, of course—here on Earth we call our years ‘cycles’ to avoid confusion. But if the tale was referring to human years, and not demon cycles like we assumed, then everything fits. I thought it was clear what ‘years’ was referring to, but now I’m not sure.”

“But—but doesn’t the tale say that Chaos will basically end your realm? How could any demon want that to happen? Why would they plant a Seed inside me for that?” Harry spluttered.

“Harry!” Draco wailed, fidgeting. “Hurry up and tell me what you two are talking about!”

“It is possible that the Seed inside you is not Chaos’s,” Synesis said, after Harry had shushed Draco again. “But if it is, there could be a variety of reasons they are so eager to bring the tale to life. Many demons do not believe that Chaos will destroy our realm; they think Chaos will save it. Many think ‘end times’ means ‘end times’ for Earth, not demons. The tale is utterly up to interpretation. Perhaps the Royal Demons know its true meaning, which is why they are so eager for Chaos’s return.”

“So we only have until this summer.” An icy rock settled into Harry’s stomach.

Synesis whimpered hopelessly. “I don’t know, Harry. I don’t understand how a Seed as powerful as Chaos’s could germinate in less than a year, which is why I didn’t consider this possibility until now. Like I said, it’s possible that it’s not Chaos’s—”

“Right now, we’re assuming the worst case scenario,” Harry said, his expression hardening. “That means I have one chance to get this Seed cleansing ritual right.” He’d thought that if it hadn’t worked this year, he could’ve tried again next spring, but now Harry no longer had the luxury of time. “Enough talking, Synesis. It’s time to start the ritual. That’s the only way I can fix any of this.”

“HARRY!” Draco screeched, nearly upturning his desk in his haste to stand up. “I’m panicking more and more with every word you’re saying, and you still haven’t told me what the hell Synesis told you—”

Harry told Draco.

“What?” Draco covered his mouth. “I thought you said it might be years—”

“Nobody knows,” Harry said through gritted teeth. “But really, nothing’s changed. I was going to have to get it right this spring anyway.”

Harry rummaged in his bag, taking out seven objects—the bait—he’d carefully wrapped in parchment earlier. Draco had helped him collect them after Harry had informed him about the ritual.

First, for a Rank Seven Sapience called Aletheia, was an ancient tome of the magical world, complete with endless pages of maps. Harry had snuck into the library after midnight and nicked it. The next object was a sparkling silver telescope Draco used for Astronomy—bait for a Rank Seven Astral demon called Chordi, the same type as the accursed Auranos. Unlike Auranos, however, Chordi was about ten times more dangerous, capable of being sent anywhere around the world and listening to anything in secret before reporting back to its master.  Fortunately, it would be rendered useless in the ritual circle, as Harry did not intend to invite any of these demons inside his body to wreak havoc.

The third object was an ornate iron shield, some old Malfoy family heirloom that Draco had brought to Hogwarts to decorate his room back in the beginning of the year. It would be the bait for a Sisyphean demon—the same race as Kardin—except that the Rank Seven Gigas, capable of giving its master innate immunity to most magical spells, was far more useful.

Harry thirsted to summon something like Gigas into his body one day, but he had more important things to be focusing on this year. Besides, Synesis had warned him that Rank Sevens were much harder to beat down than demons like Kardin, so if Harry valued his life, he’d wait a few years—and maybe get through this whole Seed thing first, just a thought—before attempting anything of the sort.

The fourth object—for the Rank Seven Pestilence demon—was a bag full of rotten meat Harry had asked a few (confused) house-elves to whip up for him.

In order to obtain the fifth object for a Templar Rank Seven, Draco had sent a sweetly-worded letter to his father, asking for an ancient Malfoy ceremonial dagger so he could “show it off” to his new friends. Mr. Malfoy had sent the dagger back with an owl immediately.

“I have the healing paste,” Draco whispered in Harry’s ear as Harry unwrapped and arranged the objects neatly on the desk. “You’re just going to use a kitchen knife to get your blood out, aren’t you?”

Harry flinched. He’d been so absorbed in his work that he hadn’t heard Draco creep up behind him.

“Yeah. Hold off on the healing paste until after the ritual, though.”

“Hmmm.” Draco slipped his hand into Harry’s, then squeezed hard. “Try not to die.”

He looked at Harry with striking eyes, and Harry forgot where he was for a second. Draco’s left cheek, the cheek he’d been sleeping on just a few minutes ago, had gone bright red and misshapen where he’d slept on it. His hair stuck out in tufts.

“Thanks for helping me get the items.” Harry’s voice came out hoarse.

“S’not a big a deal. You don’t have any money to get your own stuff, so I figured I’d have to do it all.”

Draco paused, glaring at Harry’s bag. “Anyway, you forgot to unwrap that. Hurry up, will you? We don’t have all night.”

Harry swallowed, tearing his gaze away from Draco’s angelic scowl with great difficulty, and got out the final object, meant for a Rank Seven Psyche.

He held it—a small oak-wood mirror with a silver handle, also from Draco, of course—up in the air, scrutinizing it.  Unlike the dagger Draco had asked his father for, or that fancy shield hanging in his bedroom, this mirror was of a more personal nature, the very same mirror he pulled out between classes to check his hair.

Harry was seriously flattered Draco was letting him use it.

“Are you sure?” Harry asked, running a finger over the whorls in the wood. “I mean, this is…”

Draco’s scowl deepened. “Come off it, Harry. It’s just a mirror I like to use. It’s not even a family heirloom. Anyway, the demons aren’t going to be taking this stuff back to their realm. I’ll get it back at the end of this whole mess.”

“But I’ll have to drench it in my blood,” Harry said.

“It’s just blood, Harry. I’ll wash it off. Or I’ll just get another mirror. Hurry up, will you?”

Harry tilted the mirror so that it reflected Draco’s expression. “Why do you even look at this thing so much?”

“What?” Draco spluttered.

“I mean, why do you care so much about your hair, and your skin, and—”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re going to say something like ‘you don’t need it,’ or ‘you’re so good-looking already,’ and other stuff I’ve heard a million times. Just start the ritual already, will you?

“Who called you good-looking?” Harry asked, distracted by this revelation.

Draco rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s start now.”

“But—”

“HARRY!”

“Okay, fine!” Harry straightened up and put the mirror on the desk with the other bait objects.

Of all of them, the mirror—and the Rank Seven Psyche demon that came with it, Leipsia—worried him the most.

The Pysche race of demons could wreak havoc on the minds and personalities of their victims. According to Synesis, there existed a Rank Four Psyche capable of sending its victims into an never-ending laughing fit, a Rank Three that could force its victims to speak in rhymes for the rest of their lives, and a Rank Six that could make perfectly civilized humans turn into rabid, slobbering animals. These demons, back in the time before wands and spells, had once been so popular that they’d inspired the creation of modern spells with the same abilities.

As a Rank Seven, Leipsia was a whole lot more dangerous than those, and if that wasn’t bad enough, something about Leipsia’s powers unsettled Harry.

“Now, I know what you’re going to say,” Synesis had sighed when they’d been picking which demons to summon. “But Leipsia’s the best choice we have.”

“What does it do? What do we need to attract it?”

“Leipsia is the vainest of demons,”  Synesis began, haltingly, “but it’s the safest of all the Rank Sevens precisely because of that. I haven’t mentioned this before, but we demons sense beauty rather than see it like humans do, and we’ve never been able to sense beauty on Earth, not the same sort of beauty you could find in our realm. But physical beauty, the kind we can’t understand, fascinates many of us. Especially Leipsia. Leipsia is obsessed with it and its effects on humans. You humans are so suspectible to beauty, enamored with it, and Leipsia wants to understand that, and then exploit it.

“So wizards and witches who summon Leipsia… well, they become the world’s center of gravity. Like the demon Dynamos gives the Dark Lord an endless well of magic to draw upon, Leipsia offers the one who summons it a subtler— but no less useful—gift. Otherwordly charisma. Breathtaking allure. Someone with those qualities can accomplish anything in your world, can control anyone.”

The words otherworldy charisma and breathtaking allure, as cheesy as they sounded in his head, had immediately reminded Harry of someone.

“Harry? You’re spacing out again!”

Harry looked up from the mirror, right into Draco’s eyes, and felt his heart give a dull thud.

Yep. There was no denying it. Charisma and allure were two qualities Draco Malfoy possessed in spades.

“Yeah, I’m ready.” Harry swallowed, realizing that he had run out of excuses to keep pushing the ritual off. “Give me a minute to set up.”

Synesis piped up just then, almost as if it could sense Harry’s trepidation and wanted to reassure him.

Not that Synesis did a good job of it.

“You’ll find that demons much prefer coming to Earth for cleansing rituals than being enslaved by humans. I expect they won’t be very rebellious today; they’ll mark the objects because this is probably the first time they’ve been called out for something like this. They might give you a bit of trouble on Ostara though, might try to gamble with you a bit. But I think the ones I’ve picked out for you are quite reasonable. Not that this will be easy. It’s always possible for something to go wrong, so don’t get complacent.”

“Oh, something is definitely going to go wrong,” Harry muttered, bracing himself, but at the same time relieved that Synesis was starting to sound a bit like its old self again. He drew his knife and made a wide but shallow incision on his palm, then smeared at least a few drops of blood over each object, all while trying to ignore Draco wincing and cringing beside him.

“You sure you don’t want this healing paste?”

“Later.”

Harry knelt down and placed all six objects neatly within the circle, then stepped back to survey his work. His hand stung, so he let it hang limply at his side.

“Draco, move back.”

Draco, for once seeming to understand the importance of getting out of Harry’s way, hurried out into the corridor.

One last cut.

Harry raised the knife again, holding his other hand right above the small triangular mark of the rune circle, the single mark that would bring the ritual to life, but only when it made contact with his blood.

He flicked the knife in a cut parallel to the old one. In the next second, the room blazed with white light, bright enough to temporarily blind him. The torches seemed to wriggle up the walls, animated as though by a stray gust of wind, sending hungry and licking shadows across the room.

Harry clenched his eyes shut too late, his head throbbing.

Draco gasped from the door. “Harry, I think—”

The glow died down, and so did Draco’s voice.

Harry squinted at the circle, blinking back the multicolored spots that burst and whirled in his field of vision, burned into his retinas.

Five of the six objects were glowing, cradled by pale golden light. The sixth one, Draco’s mirror, lay dark.

“Only five of them have been marked,” Synesis said as Harry went lightheaded. “I don’t understand why Leipsia didn’t take the mirror. If we can’t convince it, we won’t be able to get the seventh demon to mark you, and then the ritual won’t work. Do something, quick!”

Harry looked up, hands shaking. “Draco, Leipsia didn’t like the mirror! Hurry back to your room and try to find something else—”

Draco let out a squeak, and Harry’s heart froze.

“Harry…” A lump bobbled in Draco’s throat as he swallowed. “Something’s… something’s in the circle. I can hear something.”

Harry whirled back around, his heart in his mouth.

The circle was empty.

“What—”

The next sound Draco made was half-whimper, half-gasp, and Harry’s terror blossomed inside him like a thorny, far-reaching flower.

“I can hear it,” said Draco, his eyes oddly blank.

***

“That was a very beautiful mirror. But there’s something much more beautiful here.”

Draco felt the voice crawling up his back, whispering into his ear. Without noticing himself doing it, he’d walked right up to the summoning circle, and now stood inches from its border, his feet rooted to the ground. The mirror was glowing now, outlined in silver instead of gold like the others.

“Come inside the circle, Draco, so I can mark you instead. I don’t have to see your face to see your beauty, don’t have to hear your voice to hear the power in your words. I know because the world turns to look at you. It can’t look away. And neither can any other human.”

Draco’s breath came out in soft, shallow puffs.

“Think of how unstoppable you will be with my powers. Who would be able to resist you?”

“Draco, get back!”

Draco felt arms around his waist, pulling him back from the edge.

“What the hell are you doing?” Harry snarled, replacing the voice in his ear.

Draco’s breathing sped up. “It wants me as bait, not the mirror.”

A white-faced Harry yanked him over to the door. “Why can you hear it and I can’t?”

“It’s speaking to me,” Draco choked out, straining against Harry’s grip without even knowing he was doing it.

A pause, a long one, and Draco wondered if Synesis was talking. Harry’s voice rose in terror. “Synesis thinks Leipsia is able to talk to you because it touched your mirror, and that lets it open a small window to communicate with you while the ritual is going on. You can’t listen to it, whatever it’s telling you, Draco! Don’t listen!”

“Just imagine. With my help, you will be able to cause wars with a sweet whisper, with a caress of your lips. You will have the power to dominate those who dominate, to control the world from their shadows. Why do you need to win a single duel, why do you need to know any spell at all, when you can be beautiful?”

“Draco, snap out of it!”

Harry’s face came into focus, his green eyes searing behind his glasses, chest heaving.

Draco felt his world sharpen and clear, and reorient itself around Harry.

“No,” Draco said, raising his voice, keeping it steady. He rest his head back on Harry’s shoulder, relaxing as Harry tightened the grip on his waist, a rock-hard presence at his back. “Take the mirror, Leipsia. I’m not getting into the circle.”

The circle blazed bright with white light again, and Draco heard a exasperated hiss.

“I’ll mark this mirror for now. But we will meet again, Draco Malfoy. I am Leipsia. Your beauty will give me the power I need, and in return, you’ll have everything you’ve ever wanted, and everything you’ve never wanted.”

Then Harry cried out, releasing his grip on Draco and staggering away, his hand jumping to the back of his neck.

“Harry!”

The six objects in the circle stopped glowing. The torches flickered out, plunging the room into darkness.

“Something—something bit me!”

Draco took two short steps and gently pried Harry’s arm away from his neck. He let out a massive sigh of relief, allowing the tension in his back to uncurl. A tiny septagon, seven-sided and crimson, had been etched into Harry’s skin, imprinted where his neck met his shoulder.

A Leviathan’s mark.

Draco looked up, so grateful he could cry. Leipsia had almost ruined everything by trying to lure Draco into the circle like the Incubi and Succubi of legends lured their prey. He knew nothing good would’ve happened had he let himself be marked as bait—the further he stayed away from demons, the better. Leipsia’s voice had chilled, disgusted Draco to the bone. He never wanted to hear a demon again as long as he lived.

But… but.

He’d been momentarily entranced by the promise of the demon’s slick words. Draco didn’t have magical power like Harry and Theo, but he had something else, something just as valuable.

If he could nurture that power, let it grow, would anything be able to stop him?

Harry collapsed against Draco, half-sobbing, and Draco snapped back to reality. “For a moment, I thought you would step into the circle, that Leipsia would possess you. I’m sorry, Draco, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let you do this with me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

“Shhh.” Draco closed his eyes, tracing the symbol on Harry’s neck with a lazy finger. Harry shivered beneath his touch, and Draco quickly drew his hand back.

“It’s okay, Harry. The Leviathan marked you. All seven of them took the bait. It worked, Harry. And I’m alive. I’m fine. We’re both fine.”

Then they both collapsed against each other, exhausted, and sick with the knowledge of what could’ve gone wrong.

***

Harry lay in bed a few nights later, somewhat unable to believe neither he nor Draco had died horribly on Imbolc.

The Mind Tournament was approaching, and after his monumental fall from grace during the Body Tournament, Harry wasn’t much looking forward to it. Then again, Draco had assured him that the Mind and Soul simulations could not be tampered with, so he’d stop worrying about them, at least for now.

Which was why he switched to worrying about something else.

Oh boy, I wonder what’s going to go wrong on Ostara. Can’t wait.

Apparently, Synesis was wondering the same thing.

“I’m worried about Leipsia. It took the bait, but only reluctantly. It might make trouble on Ostara. And so might any of the others. You absolutely cannot reveal to them that you are the Colossus.”

“You’ve told me that a million times,” Harry said. “Besides, I won’t be letting my guard down. And Draco will be there.”

“Perhaps Draco shouldn’t come. His gravity overwhelmed that of the bait you laid out for Leipsia, diverting Leipsia’s attention. I didn’t think—well, I’m not a good judge of human attractiveness, so I had no idea Leipsia would find him so captivating.”

“What does it mean, that Leipsia finds Draco captivating?” Harry asked, wanting to cry for a reason he couldn’t explain to himself.

“Leipsia sees potential in Draco as a host. I’ve hypothesized that Leipsia not only gets enjoyment out of physical beauty, but also is powered by it. It’s one of the few demons that gets excited about being summoned, and I picked it for the cleansing ritual because it would be the least dangerous compared to the other Psyche demons—definitely the most willing to barter with a human, in any case. But I didn’t realize it would take an interest in Draco. If it decides it wants to possess Draco, that makes it the most dangerous of the lot. It was able to speak to him despite being the ritual circle, which means it’s able to establish a brief connection with him for the duration of the ritual. That makes Draco more vulnerable to its tricks.”

“I couldn’t hear what it said to him. He didn’t tell me much, either. I don’t think he wants to.” Harry swallowed. “I’ll ask him to tell me. It’s important to know, so we can prepare for what happens on Ostara. In fact, he just shouldn’t come for Ostara at all. If he’s nowhere near the ritual circle, then Leipsia won’t be able to talk to him.”

“Yes. It would be best for him to be down in the Skull dorms,” Synesis said.

Harry paused, a question niggling at the back of his mind. “If Draco summoned Leipsia, what would he even get out of it? I feel like Draco already has that, um, charisma and allure stuff, or whatever it was you said Leipsia could do.”

“For someone at Draco’s level, someone who already possesses a high amount of… gravity, let’s say, Leipsia’s influence would multiply his natural allure tenfold. There are rumors of some of its past hosts—the most beautiful of them—being able to fully control those obsessed with them with only a touch. In fact, Leipsia’s ability inspired the creation of the Imperius Curse. But this mind-control is much more natural, harder to detect, and impossible to resist.”

Harry spluttered.

“It will probably wreck Draco in time though,” continued Synesis. “Pysche demons are known for driving their hosts insane after a few months. Beauty has a cost, and many of those who summoned Leipsia did not know this and soon regretted it. Under no circumstances should Draco summon it or allow it to possess him. I don’t think convincing him of that will be an issue, not if he has any brains at all.”

Harry scowled. “It doesn’t matter if he does or not. I’m never letting a demon near him, you know. Especially not”—he shuddered—“Leipsia.”

***

February 10th had arrived, and with it, the Mind portion of the Tournament. Draco and Theo settled into adjacent beds within the ever-familiar simulation room, Dungeon Three. Harry was off on the other side of the dungeon, and Draco had the strangest feeling that he kept looking over at them every few seconds.

Draco fluffed his pillow, thinking hard. He wasn’t too worried about Mind, and hoped his score in this portion of the Tournament would be high enough to offset his low scores in Body and Soul. Not that he’d taken the Soul test yet, but he imagined he’d do awfully on it.

“Good luck.”

Draco gave a start. Theo lay on his back on his own bed, staring up at the domed ceiling.

“Oh. Good luck to you, too.”

Theo had been brooding ever since he’d lost the duel to Harry, but Draco could see that some of Theo’s old confidence had returned today. Mind was Theo’s forte, and his intelligence a gift that few other students could rival, least of all Harry.

“Draco, I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”

“What?” Draco asked, irritated. The Bronze Skull passing out the simulation potions was approaching their row, and Draco wanted to get a head start.

“Never mind,” Theo said quickly, and turned around, cheeks flaming red. “It’s nothing.”

“O…kay.” Draco furrowed his brows. Theo often pulled these kinds of tricks. He’d ask Draco a question, or make a vague comment, only to retract it a split second later. It seemed that Theo was itching to tell him something, but couldn’t muster up the courage to do so.

He can’t really muster up the courage to do anything, can he?

Draco resisted the urge to roll his eyes, accepting a simulation potion as the Bronze Skull distributing them walked down his row.

“On the count of three, gulp them down!” shouted the Skull, returning to the front of  the room. “Three… two…”

“Um, actually, Draco—” Theo started, his voice a bit hoarse.

Ignoring him, Draco unstoppered the vial with steady fingers and brought it to his lips.

“One…”

“Never mind,” Theo said again. “We’re busy right now.”

Yeah, we kind of are. Not waiting another second, Draco tilted his head back and drank it all down.

***

Harry jolted awake, uncomfortably aware of his shirt sticking to his sweaty back. He’d gotten through six of the Mind tests without issue, only to be smacked out during the seventh after getting hopelessly lost in a simulated hedge maze.

“You’re done. Leave.” Fawley, the Bronze Skull who’d been patrolling the dungeon as the Initiates slept, walked over to him, scowling up a storm. “The results will be posted in the Initiate common room within the week.”

“Er, yeah, I’m getting up.” Harry looked around, realizing that a good amount of the Initiates had vacated their beds already; he’d lasted a lot longer than many of them had. He suspected he’d made it into the top half, maybe even the top third. Though he was relieved he’d done reasonably well, it didn’t matter too much. Harry’s intelligence, while above average, wasn’t his best feature, after all.

“Hurry up!” Fawley snapped, and Harry jerked back to the present, stumbling out of his bed. On his way out of the dungeon, he noticed that Draco and Theo still slept under the simulation. Draco’s eyelids were fluttering frantically in his sleep, and his fingers twitched and flexed, almost as if he were trying to touch something.

Harry ached to watch him for a bit longer, but he got ahold of himself and left in a hurry. He needed to stop being such an idiot.

***

Draco’s head hurt, which wasn’t surprising. He’d been stuck in head-hurting situations, one after another, for what felt like an eternity. Now, he lay on a cold, hard stone floor, his arm stretched out at an awkward angle. Groaning and clutching his head, he straightened up and squinted into the darkness. He sat in a tiny room, hardly bigger than a cell, illuminated by nothing more than a single flickering torch. Red stains covered the stone walls.

Blood?

Turn around.

Draco held back a scream. The voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once, as if it originated from the inside of his very head.

I said, turn around.

Draco struggled to his feet and did, his heart thumping wildly against his ribcage. Something about this voice reminded him of Leipsia’s, oily and deadly. Two doors were set into the back wall: one red, one blue, both with peeling paint. As Draco stared at them, torch creaked and swung above him, sending the shadows into a fervor, washing the doors in a dark gray tint.

One door leads to life, said the voice pleasantly. The other leads to certain death. You must figure out which one is which, and escape this room with your life.

Draco scowled. “I’ll stay in here, thanks.”

No. Look up.

Automatically, Draco craned his neck, and nearly fell back to the ground. Iron spikes jutted out of the ceiling, rusted and bloodied.

In ten minutes’ time, the ceiling will descend upon you, crushing you into dust. You must choose a door, or you die anyway.

Draco took a shuddering breath and drew his arms around himself. “How do I know which door to take? Do I have to guess?”

The voice chuckled. No. To find out, you are allowed to ask one single question about the doors.

“So I can just ask you which one it is?” Draco said, furrowing his brow.

Me? Of course not. But you can ask them.

Draco blinked, saw what had appeared in front of the two doors, and took several hasty steps backward until he bumped into the wall behind him. His heart had thumped his way up his throat and now seemed to have clogged his windpipe.

“That—that’s—that’s—”

These are my knights. Their names are… well, let’s just call them Truth and Lie for now.

Two grotesque creatures, encased in glistening silver armor, guarded each door. They shifted in and out of Draco’s focus, appearing as every terrifying creature at once but nothing for longer than a split second. Their eyes, deep within their helmets, were beady and black and dead-looking. As Draco gaped at them, they cocked their heads. To make it worse, they reeked, radiating the stench of food gone sour, and as they shifted and moved, their bodies made squelching noises that filled the painful silence.

You can ask either knight a question—but you can only pick one knight to ask, and you are only allowed to ask only one question. Be warned, though. Truth tells only the truth, while Lie tells only lies.

“Which one is which?” Draco’s asked shrilly.

Hmmm… I don’t remember. You have ten minutes.

The voice went dead, and Draco’s stomach churned. Resigning himself to his fate, he turned to face the knights, who regarded him with those empty, doll-like black eyes.

He could ask one of them one question. He could ask them, “Which door leads to life?” But that knight could be telling the truth or lying. There was no way to tell which one was which. They both looked identical, right down to the position they were in and the creatures they shifted into as the seconds passed.

He had to ask a question that would lead to the right answer, regardless of whether he asked Truth or Lie. But did such a question exist?

Draco paced the cramped room, muttering under his breath. “Which one of you is lying?” he could ask, and if he asked Lie, it would lie and accuse Truth. If he asked Truth, it would tell the truth and accuse Lie. Each would implicate the other, just like they would for just about every question. Draco would be no closer to knowing who was lying and who was telling the truth. And in addition to not accomplishing anything, he’d use up his only question without figuring out which door to pick.

He needed to phrase his question so that it would lead him to a door.

But it didn’t have to be the correct door. As long as he knew what one door led to, that would automatically tell him what the other door led to. So if he asked—

My mind is beautiful, Draco thought, grinning so hard his cheeks hurt.

He knew what question to ask now.

He faced the knight on the right side, the one in front of the blue door. The knight hadn’t stopped staring at him this whole time, and he cleared his throat, feeling his spine crawl with terror as he looked into those dead eyes.

“Which door does the other knight say is the correct door?” Draco asked, gathering his courage.

There was a shocked pause, and both knights’ armor clinked in the silence. Draco stood his ground, hoping that his legs weren’t trembling as much as he thought they were.

BLUE.

The answer echoed around in the small chamber with an air of finality.

Draco could have yelled in victory. He’d pinpointed the one and only question that could trap the knights into a corner. If the knight he’d just asked had been Lie, it would’ve had to say Blue because the other knight, Truth, would say Red. But if the knight he’d just asked had instead been Truth, then it would’ve had to say Blue, because the other knight always lied.

When asked this particular question, both knights had the same answer. The wrong answer.

The correct door was red.

Draco pushed past the creatures, relieved that neither of them tried to attack him, only rotated slowly to face him. Desperate to get out of there, he grabbed the red door’s knob and yanked as hard as he could, only to tumble into the next test.

***

In the end, Draco came in second place, Harry came in eighth, and Theo, of course, came in first. Hopefully, such a high rank would help Draco pass Initiation, but today, he had more pressing issues. Valentine’s Day had arrived in a whirl of icy February wind and pink confetti—and for Draco, it had arrived in a flurry of owls carrying half a dozen confession notes and two boxes of chocolate.

Early in the evening, after class but before dinner, Draco could be found sprawled on Theo’s bed, shuffling through all the presents he’d gotten that day. Theo sat on his chair, bent over and scowling up a storm. They’d started their homework an hour ago, but then Theo had discovered the cards and little boxes jammed inside Draco’s bag, and this had ruined the productivity of their study session.

“Don’t eat any of those chocolates,” Theo snarled, and Draco looked up from reading a letter a third year acquaintance had given to him.

“Why not?”

“They might be imbued with love potions,” Theo said darkly.

Draco rolled his eyes. “You’ve listened to one too many melodramatic shows on the wireless.”

“Are you going to respond to any of the letters?” Theo asked after a long pause. “I mean, you don’t even know everyone who sent you a letter.”

“Some of them are anonymous, but I guess I must’ve met all the senders at some point.”

Draco shuffled through the small pile of letters. Four were anonymous, two weren’t. One of the anonymous notes consisted of an extremely cringy and pretentious poem that compared Draco’s eyes to “shimmering dewdrops” and his hair to “moonlight personified.” Theo had read it aloud with cutting, derisive sarcasm a few minutes earlier, and Draco, red-faced, had shrieked for him to stop.

“So are you going to respond to the people you do know?” Theo asked, gaze searing.

Draco rummaged around in the pile some more, trying to stall. “Well, Montague sent me a note that says—”

Draco yelped as Theo snatched the note in question out of his hand. “Hi, Draco,” Theo read, eyes narrowing dangerously, “Just wanted to tell you that you’re really fun to talk to, and I was wondering if we could talk some more one of these days—Argyle Montague. What the hell does he mean, ‘talk some more’? What kind of vague nonsense is that?”

“I dunno,” Draco said, studying the patterns in the floor to avoid looking at Theo. “Just him being nice.”

Of course, he knew that wasn’t true. Draco wasn’t an idiot, or blind, or deaf. He was quite aware of fact that several of the older boys had crushes on him, and even more aware of Theo’s awkward behavior at this knowledge.

“Oh, really?” Theo chucked the letter aside and breathed through his nose.

Draco eyed him warily. “I’ll just thank Montague for the letter and move on.”

“You can’t thank him for the letter,” Theo said through gritted teeth. “That’ll hint to him that you accepted it!”

“What am I supposed to do? Ignore it and never speak to him again? I’ve spent months being friendly with the older Initiates! I’d prefer if it didn’t all go to waste, you know.”

He stood up and stretched. “Anyway, I’ve got to get going. It’s not like we’re going to get any studying done anyway.”

“Where are you going?” Theo looked at Draco with no small amount of trepidation.

“To take a walk.” Draco slipped on his cloak.

“I’ll come with you.”

“Actually, I lied. I’m going to talk to Harry,” Draco amended quickly, noticing Theo freeze in place. “You probably don’t want to come with us. I’ll be back soon.”

“Oh,” Theo said, in a very small voice. "Okay."

Draco blinked at him, offered him a weak smile, and left. After slamming the door shut behind him, he distantly heard Theo hiss “Incendio,” followed by the crackling sound of parchment burning, and wondered what exactly Theo had set on fire.

***

A few minutes later, Draco and Harry could be found beaming at each other inside the kitchens. Draco seemed unusually giddy today, and Harry was happy to indulge him.

“I’m surprised you made eighth place.” Draco moved his head to rest it on top of Harry’s nest of hair, humming merrily. “Pretty good, all things considered. I thought you’d be in dead last.”

“Ha ha, very funny.”

“Why’d they even let you rank so high?” Draco asked. “Maybe they’re doing it because they want you to become a Skull, but not an exceptional one. So you getting eighth place doesn’t bother them.”

Harry sighed, not really liking the turn their conversation had taken. But he’d mulled over this quite a while over the past few weeks, and with Synesis’s input, had arrived at the likliest conclusion.

Might as well tell Draco my theory.

“I think they’re doing this because they want to reassure all the Purebloods that even if a half-blood is better than them, they never have to worry about losing their… superiority. It doesn’t matter if I win fair and square; they’ll twist the Tournament to make me lose. I didn’t win Mind, so they left me alone this time, but the closer I get to first place, the more they’re going to mess with me.”

“What do you think they’ll do when you win Soul, then?” Draco asked, biting his lip. “I mean, you definitely will, since you can see through the simulations. Will they just post the wrong results?”

“I don’t know,” Harry said, “and I don’t care. I showed everyone during Body that I’m the best. And during the final exam, I’ll show it to them again.”

Besides, Sebastian and Adolphus will know the truth, no matter what they announce officially, Harry thought with vicious satisfaction.

“Hmm. I hope you’re right. Sometimes I don’t know what we’re doing.” Draco sighed into Harry’s hair.

“What else can we do?” Harry snapped.

“I think it’s going to work, though. Everything. The Skulls and the demons.” Draco said, extricating himself from Harry to take a seat in the chair next to his, then leaning on him again. “Imbolc went as well as it could’ve, and I… I have a feeling Ostara’s going to go well, too. We’ll get this Seed out of you, and then we can think clearly about Initiation.”

“You’re optimistic.”

“If I don’t force myself to be, we’d never get anything done,” Draco pointed out, and Harry squeezed his hand.

This reminded him: he’d almost forgotten to give Draco his present.

Today was Valentine’s Day, and the only reason Harry had even remembered it existed was because he’d sat behind Lavender, Parvati, and Mandy in Transfiguration class two days ago and had overheard them discussing, between giggles, which of the boys and girls in their year liked them and guessing who would get them something for Valentine’s Day.

Harry suspected that nobody would, because nobody cared, but their conversation had reminded him to make something for Draco. Not because it was, well, Valentine’s Day, but because they were friends, and he wanted to repay Draco for all the effort he’d put into getting the bait for Harry on Imbolc.

But if Draco wanted it to have something to do with Valentine’s Day, Harry would play along.

“Uh, Draco, there’s something I, um…” Harry trailed off, reaching for his bag with such haste that he nearly tipped the table over.

“What?”

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to give to you. As a present. To thank you for, um, Imbolc, and everything else really. Mum doesn’t give me a lot of allowance to buy stuff, so I made this using Transfiguration and Charms. It was pretty easy. I’m still powerful and everything, you know. I just needed to go over the theory, and then—bam. Got it.”

“Harry,” Draco said, a breathtaking smile spreading across his face. “Stop bragging and show me what you made.”

Harry finally found the small wooden box he’d kept the present in and slammed it down on the table. “Open it.”

Draco fumbled with the lid for a second, then let out a shriek of delight. “Harry! Harry!”

A tiny bird made out of folded parchment, charmed a reflective silvery-white color, emerged from the box, chirping softly. It hopped up Draco’s arm, coming to a stop at his shoulder, then started pecking at his cheek with its sharp paper beak.

“How did you make this?” Draco spluttered, almost going cross-eyed in order to keep the bird in his field of vision.

“Color-Changing Charm for the silver. Pretty basic, that one,” Harry said, leaning back with a satisfied grin on his face. “Animation Charm. That’s… that’s, like, a fourth year spell. Still easy. I folded the bird myself, though.” He’d gone through a whole stack of parchment because he’d kept messing up.

“I love it.” Draco caught Harry’s gaze and held it. For a moment, but not for the first time that week, or even the first time that day, Harry was dazzled by the grace, the gravity, as Synesis had called it, in Draco’s every movement. “Make me more. Make me a whole army of them.”

“Maybe I’ll make you a few more,” said Harry, who would probably make a hundred if Draco willed it. “Oh, and Draco?”

“Yeah?”

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

OSTARA

o

Draco opened his eyes, fuming. The ceiling of Dungeon Three spun and tilted above him, and he straightened up with a snarl, untangling himself from the blankets.

The Soul Tournament hadn’t exactly gone well. He hadn’t failed right away, so he wouldn’t be dead last, but he hadn’t lasted nearly long enough.

In fact, he’d only passed the first two tests: the first requiring him to cast the Cruciatus on a faceless dirty-blood, and the second involving capturing Mudbloods hiding in a safehouse. But he’d failed the third test—the one with that stupid little girl, the girl with Harry’s hair and eyes. The Skulls had asked Draco to kill her, and of course he hadn’t managed to.

Draco dragged himself to his feet and trudged out of the dungeon, feeling, not for the first time, particularly apprehensive of his chances of becoming  a Skull. He went over his results, chewing on his lower lip. Body: sixteenth place. Mind: second place. And now, Soul: he’d be lucky if he managed sixteenth again.

If idiots like Crabbe and Goyle can pass these Trials, so can I, Draco thought with a scowl, stalking down the corridor.

***

Sometimes, Theo wondered how different his life might’ve turned out had his mother lived, or had his father not become a Death Eater.

Sometimes, Theo found himself thinking the unthinkable: the heretical idea that the Dark Lord had ruined Theo’s father, had indirectly ruined their family. But as much as Theo wanted to dwell on the unfairness of it all, he wouldn’t. Crying and screaming wouldn’t change a thing.

The only way I’ll get anywhere, Theo had realized at a very young age, is if I use the tools given to me as a Death Eater heir. So I’ll use them.

Anyway, where else was there to go? What other purpose was there in life other than to serve the Dark Lord? Half of Europe lay within the Dark Lord’s control, and soon He’d conquer the whole world. Becoming a Death Eater was Theo’s duty, and fulfilling this duty gave him the best chance of survival.

Anything else was not only heretical, but also stupid.

Let’s run away, Draco had half-joked, half-begged several times during their childhood, and most recently during the Easter Ball last year. Minutes before Sebastian and Nathaniel had cornered them in the Malfoy gardens.

Theo wondered if Draco would ask him that ever again, or whether he’d simply given up on asking Theo anything. Maybe Draco went to Potter instead these days, asked him if they could run away together.

I know about that silver bird. He’d spotted it the day after Valentine’s Day, fluttering near Draco’s pillow.

“What is it?” he’d asked, as his stomach sank. He’d set fire to Draco’s other Valentines the day before—Draco didn’t need such silly, pointless things to distract him—and though Draco had been mildly disturbed with him upon returning and seeing the pile of ash, he hadn’t much cared. But this silver bird hadn’t been among those ignored Valentines, and the fact that Draco was keeping it near his pillow—

It didn’t bode well.

“It’s nothing. Just a thing I made,” Draco had responded, coaxing the bird over to them and trapping it in his palm. He held it for the entirety of their study session, often sneaking peeks at it when he thought Theo wasn’t looking.

Because there was no way Draco could create something so complicated, Theo had his suspicions the bird was a present from Potter, and therefore the only Valentine’s present Draco cared about.

And it’s the one present Draco shouldn’t be allowed to care about.

At least Montague and the other Initiates who sent Valentines to Draco were Purebloods from powerful families, and therefore had every right to want him, or at least just as much of a right as Theo did.

But Potter had no such right—not that it had stopped him.

Or stopped Draco from wanting him right back.

Perhaps you’re overthinking it, Theo argued with himself. Perhaps Draco and Potter were merely close friends and nothing more. Just because Theo had recently started imagining the possibility of much more than a friendship with Draco didn’t mean that Potter felt the same way toward Draco, or vice versa.

But Theo wasn’t an idiot, and he wasn’t overthinking anything.

Then again, as he kept repeating to himself to soothe his nerves, none of it mattered. Draco and Potter would never be allowed to have anything permanent, not only because dirty-bloods and Purebloods simply did not date each other—at least not publicly—but also because Sebastian would be dealing with Potter very soon.

So it was with this certainty that Theo entered his Soul exam—a certainty that lasted test after test, as he tortured and killed every subhuman dirty-blood scum at his mercy, driven by his sense of duty. And perhaps aided just a little bit by his searing hatred of one dirty-blood in particular, the face of whom he imposed on every one of his victims, even the little girl that looked like Draco.

Nothing could catch him off guard, until now.

“You’re here.”

Theo froze, recognizing the voice. He stood hidden behind a gray tapestry, staring out at a dark and empty Hogwarts corridor.

Then Draco moved into his field of view.

Theo sucked in a breath. Draco looked older by a few years, taller and less boyish, but still dazzling. Theo wondered if the body he was in right now was older too, if this was his own future he was witnessing. He almost pushed the tapestry back and stepped out to greet Draco, but drew his hand back just in time.

Potter swept in from the opposite end of the corridor, even taller than Draco, carrying the sort of cool and smug arrogance that Theo only saw in Purebloods.

But if seeing Potter like this made Theo feel weak and insignificant, it was nothing compared to what he felt when Draco and Potter embraced.

Not with their arms, but with their lips.

Potter tilted Draco’s head back, snaking his other arm around Draco’s waist. Draco leaned into his touch, sighing, and for a moment their slim bodies were entwined, the contrast between them striking. Then Draco drew away, face bright with silent laughter, and Potter pulled him back into a second, deeper kiss.

Theo’s legs almost buckled, and he leaned against the wall behind the tapestry, clutching a hand to his mouth, realizing he’d just witnessed something sacred.

Something forbidden.

It made him sick with hate. The moment stretched out into a lifetime, and whether he hated Draco or Potter more just then, he did not know. The corridor went up in dark smoke as the scene rippled and transformed, plunging Theo into another world.

Dungeon Two, the courtroom. Theo saw it all in monochrome, a shade so omnipresent here that even the light emanating from the yellow torches on the walls couldn’t overcome it.

The Skulls watched him from their seats high in the stands, whooping and cheering and braying for blood, their masks glinting gray like everything else instead of silver and bronze and gold.

TRAITOR. The word thundered through the room, not spoken but obvious, infused into the very air they breathed.

Am I the traitor? Theo thought, head spinning, the sight of hundreds of Skulls staring down at him from high seats giving him an immense sense of vertigo.

But no. Of course he wasn’t the traitor.

Draco lay bound and gagged in front of him, eyes wide and bulging in terror. Tears had dried on his face sometime ago, and now his skin was ashen, his form limp.

Someone stood at Theo’s back, breathing on his neck. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”

The voice, despite belonging to a faceless Skull, was achingly familiar to him.

It came from the deepest, darkest recesses of his childhood.

It sounded achingly like Sebastian.

The Skull put a hand on Theo’s shoulder, a comforting presence, and whispered into his ear. “You’re the one who found Draco kissing the dirty-blood. You’re the one who killed the dirty-blood.”

“I killed Potter?” Theo breathed, staring down at Draco’s thrashing body, teetering between blank disbelief and unadulterated glee. If Potter was dead, that meant—

“Yes,” the Skull breathed. “And now it’s time for you to kill Draco, to punish him for his treachery.”

As if compelled by the Imperius Curse, Theo surged forward and ripped the gag out of Draco’s mouth, and for a moment Draco did nothing but splutter and gasp. Then he found his voice, and it pierced Theo to the core, a knife to the gut.

“Theo, please,” Draco choked out. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for kissing him—”

“Mudblood lover, Mudblood lover, Mudblood lover.” The Skulls spectating from the high seats chanted and stomped their feet, shaking the walls, the floors, the very foundations of the courtroom.

Theo trembled himself—with rage or unshed tears, he did not know.

“How could you do that?” he heard himself say, and for a second he wondered if he were watching the scene unfold from up above, detached from the real world. Something in him told him that this wasn’t real, that the Draco he knew would never apologize for kissing Potter. “How could you?”

“Theo,” Draco gasped, eyes brimming with tears. “I didn’t love him! I only love you—please, Theo, please! Please believe me!”

Not real. Not real. Not real. The words pounded against Theo’s skull, dizzying him. He staggered back.

“You don’t love me.” Theo didn’t yell the words. He whispered them, so quietly that his lips barely moved to say them. “You never did. And you never will.”

“Do your duty,” the Skull said, his fingernails digging into Theo’s shoulders. “Clean the wizarding world of filth, of traitors, of sinners. Draco is one of them. He threw everything away to help the Potter boy rebel against the Dark Lord. He threw you away.”

He remembered witnessing Bodus Burke’s execution on the first day of Initiation, all the way back in first year. Burke, the fool who’d fallen in love with a blood-traitor and allowed her family to escape during a raid, betraying his comrades. Burke, who’d been shred into pieces by bloodthirsty Skulls, until there was nothing of him left but scattered strips of flesh and bone.

Back then, Theo had relished in seeing justice being served so swiftly, so severely.

“Draco, he’s going to die,” Theo said that night. “Just like he’s supposed to. He’s a traitor, and he deserves the worst kind of punishment for that.”

Draco deserved punishment, too.

But this is Draco.

Then Theo recalled the conversations he’d had with Draco since the start of their friendship, kicking up memories he’d long since buried. Happy memories soon  poisoned by greedy, diseased tendrils: their fathers, Potter, the twins, and even Draco and Theo themselves.

Indecisive, petty, and cowardly, is what I’ve been to him. What we’ve both been to each other.

Was this how it would truly end? Melodramatically, almost hilariously melodramatically, like the shitty romantic dramas that sometimes played on the wizarding wireless? Would Theo really kill his first and only friend for this ultimate betrayal?

The Draco lying in front of him right now confirmed his worst fears. This was a Draco who had turned his back on the Skulls, on the Dark Lord, on his duty as a Pureblood. Theo knew what he’d seen in that kiss. That kiss was the culmination of Draco’s friendship with Potter, the result of Draco’s softening. Potter had turned Draco into this—into a weak, sniveling, lovesick fool. Into a blood-traitor. And that meant Draco could no longer be saved.

Theo raised his wand. Draco let out great wracking sobs, begging and pleading with him until his words melted into one stream of hysterics, and something in Theo cracked and fell apart. He stumbled back, sick to his stomach.

I can’t. I can’t.

I have to.

If I don’t, I’m no better than Draco. If I don’t, I’m a lovesick fool myself.

If I don’t, I’m weak just like him.

Sobbing just as hard as Draco, Theo aimed.

And when he woke up seconds later, when he came to the realization that it had all been a ridiculous simulation, that he’d passed the hardest test of them all, he didn’t stop sobbing. 

***

Test after test, Harry had followed the Skulls’ orders flawlessly, killing and torturing anyone they’d asked him to, because he’d known none of it was real. But this?

This was just stupid.

Draco lay gagged and tied up in front of him, and of course they were back in the damned courtroom.

“Kill him,” a Skull hissed into his ear. “Draco betrayed us. He betrayed the Dark Lord by refusing to kill a Mudblood. We told him to kill her, or we would kill him, and this was his choice.”

The Draco in the simulation looked so real. Harry wondered what kind of powerful magic powered this, then gave his head a quivering shake, like a dog shaking off water.

It didn’t matter how convincingly Draco thrashed and twisted in front of him, pitiful tears streaming down his cheeks. None of it was real.

As if they would ever ask him to kill Draco in real life. As if he would ever have to make a choice like this.

Every time the Skulls ordered him to kill someone in this stupid Soul simulation, Harry couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was doing something unforgivable, something evil. Except it was worse this time, because he knew that once he uttered the words Avada Kedavra at the one person he cared about the most, he’d cross some sort of line.

A point of no return.

Harry raised his arm, and it trembled. Draco started screaming and crying behind his gag, and Harry clenched his eyes shut, unable to look.

***

“Haaaarry, you’re suffocating me,” Draco said, squirming as Harry pulled him into a tight hug a day after the Soul Tournament. They were meeting in their usual abandoned classroom to go over their plan for Ostara, which was a week away, on March 21st.

Unfortunately, they’d gotten derailed by Harry’s hysterics.

“I wouldn’t actually kill you,” Harry repeated, for the hundredth time. “I wouldn’t have killed or tortured any of them.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Of course you wouldn’t have.”

“I had to do it to win, you know. If I wasn’t immune to the simulations, then I would’ve failed right away—”

“HARRY!” Draco grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him around. “I told you, I don’t care that you tortured and killed Mudbloods in a damn simulation, for Merlin’s sake.”

To be honest, Draco didn’t even care if Harry did it in real life. Why would he? It seemed that Harry was a much better Skull than Draco was—yes, Harry had cheated, but Draco found himself doubting whether he himself would’ve been able to kill the Mudblood girl. Even with Harry’s immunity.

Which was quite frankly, pathetic.

I’m so much of a weak idiot that even a dirty-blood is a better Skull than I am, Draco thought viciously.

A second later, he sat on his resentment, trying to smother it. He couldn’t remember when he’d started feeling guilty for calling Harry a dirty-blood, but now that guilt rose up in him like a wave.

I’m supposed to be supporting him. Of course it doesn’t matter that he’s a dirty-blood—that’s what I’m fucking trying to prove by helping him win the Tournament.

So Draco needed to stop being such a jealous baby.

Also, speaking of being a baby, the fact that Harry could kill him in the simulation did irritate Draco, just a little bit. It wasn’t exactly the most poetic or romantic of actions, now was it?

“I’m sorry,” Harry said, almost as if he could read Draco’s mind.

“Oh, shut up.” Draco pushed him away and started pacing the room. “I don’t know if you managed to win first place, and even if you did, I doubt they’ll reveal it to everyone. I talked to Theo, and he said he managed to get through all the Soul tests too.”

As usual, Harry’s face darkened at the mention of Theo.

“Nott was still sleeping when I finished mine,” Harry muttered, glaring at the wall. “I got through them way faster than he did, so that’s got to count for something. What a crazy bastard though. It’s not like he was immune to the simulations or anything, so how did he even manage to do all that torturing and killing? Come to think of it, who did he have to kill for his last test?”

Draco tilted his head to the side, considering the question, and decided he didn’t much care. “Dunno. I’ll ask him. I overheard some of the others talking, and apparently everyone who got that far—except you and Theo—failed that test.”

“Well, yeah,” Harry said. “I’m guessing that, since it picked you for me, that the last test was meant to test our loyalty by making us kill someone who’s really close to us. Nott is even more of a crazy freak for being able to pass it for real.”

Draco nodded distractedly, having tuned out most of Harry’s rant, and Harry yanked him into one of the chairs, evidently sick of his pacing. “I talked to some of the other Initiates,” Draco said, rubbing the arm Harry had grabbed and glaring in his direction. “The simulation picked their little siblings or their parents. If I’d gotten that far, I bet it would’ve picked my mother.”

He paused there, giving Harry a coy smile. “To be honest, I’m kind of flattered that the simulation picked me for you.”

Harry snorted, looking away so that Draco wouldn’t see his blush, not that he was fooling anybody. “Who else was it going to pick? Mum? Sweet, loving Snape? Come on.”

Draco felt a strange jerk of pleasure at the thought of being Harry’s most important person, and wondered what on earth he’d do with himself if Harry died to the demons.

“Let’s go over what you’re going to do on Ostara,” Draco said. “One more time.”

Harry groaned and slammed his head on the desk.

***

The Wednesday after the Soul Tournament, the Initiate common room buzzed with resentment. Theo walked out of his room to see Montague holding court by the sofas, surrounded by muttering Initiates.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out why. Yesterday, the rankings had been pinned to the noticeboard, announcing both Theo and Potter as tied for first place.

Theo had tossed and turned in bed all last night, fuming and raging and sulking, hating how powerless Potter made him feel.

I even killed Draco in that stupid simulation, and still Potter managed to tie with me. Would nothing Theo did make a difference? Was he forever doomed to come in second place, or at the very least, remain on equal footing with a dirty-blood?

“I don’t understand,” said Montague to the group as Theo stood back, allowing himself to blend into the shadows. “I don’t understand how a dirty-blood managed to get through all the tests. Most of them asked us to kill and torture dirty-bloods and Mudbloods. How did he manage to kill his own people?”

Draco wasn’t sitting with Montague and the rest as he usually did, Theo noticed dully. Nor was Potter anywhere to be seen. This meant they were probably meeting with each other somewhere.

He shoved his rage into a box and locked it, and returned to eavesdropping on the Initiates.

“Why d’you reckon they let Potter rank first place this time, when they didn’t let him win in Body?” asked Cadogan, a stubby boy who was only slightly smarter than Crabbe and Goyle.

Montague tapped his forehead with a smirk, and Theo felt a strong surge of dislike looking at him. He still hadn’t gotten over the fact that Montague had dared to send Draco a Valentine’s Day card. “It’s got to be because they want to us to do something.”

“What?”

“Hear me out.” Montague leaned forward eagerly. “See, they ranked him first in the Opening Ceremony. That was to show us that he was a threat—remember what Adolphus said that night?”

The Initiates murmured among themselves then, their voices too low for Theo to catch. He recalled the Opening Ceremony, shutting his eyes in concentration, letting his flawless memory of that event unfold in his mind.

“See how low we have sunk,” Adolphus had said, seconds after they’d all just discovered Potter had ranked first place in training. “So many high-quality Purebloods were in the Initiate class this year, yet none of them held a candle to Mr. Potter here. This is precisely what the Dark Lord warned us about. He told us that, if we weren’t careful, one day the Mudblood would overtake the Pureblood, and on that very day, the wizarding world would fall into ruins. Is His prophecy coming true? Have you grown fat from your privilege, grown too lazy to stand up and stomp the filth beneath your feet every time it tries to rise? What a shame. What a shame.”

Montague started up again. “So, he was giving us a direct challenge. We could’ve hurt Potter back then, but we didn’t.”

“Didn’t think they’d let him win,” muttered Travers. “And we were right, weren’t we? Sebastian Nott tortured Potter when he won Body.”

“Yeah, but they’ve let him win Soul,” said Montague.

“And isn’t the Soul the most important of all the Trials?” someone asked. “Maybe they’ve decided they wanted him after all. If he’s loyal enough to the Skulls to kill dirty-bloods for them, maybe they’ve decided they could use him—”

Theo’s stomach twisted. The idea of Potter somehow winning the older Skulls’ approval did not sit well with him, but he pushed it from his mind. It wouldn’t happen. Sebastian would be king next year, and he wouldn’t let Potter live. In fact, after Sebastian carried out his plans for the final exam this year, Potter would want to die.

Theo kept his face impassive, kept himself small and inconspicuous by the wall, but secretly his chest expanded with vicious glee.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Montague. “They’ve done it because they want to remind us that he’s still a threat, that a dirty-blood can still win this Tournament—if we stay complacent, that is. We can’t let him win—and he definitely can. It’s going to come down to him or Nott, and Potter’s clearly better.”

Theo ground his teeth.

“So what do you want to do?” snarled Cadogan. “Attack him? What good will that do? He’s too powerful, and even if we do hurt him, I doubt that’ll scare him off.”

Theo pricked his ears. He’d been itching to move on Potter all year, but of course he couldn’t, not if he wanted to keep Draco’s friendship. So if the Initiates moved against Potter, Theo could oversee it, perhaps nudge it in the right direction. They didn’t like him, but they would easily accept his help in taking down Potter.

Or perhaps he could warn Draco that they were planning something, earn a little more of Draco’s trust back.

“No, of course not,” Montague said. “We’ll be smart about it. We’ll take him out the night before the final exam, while he’s sleeping. We’ll ask one of the older Initiates for the key into his closet—Alohomora doesn’t work on the dorms—and knock him out when he’s groggy with sleep. We’ll tie him up and throw him in a broom cupboard somewhere until the exam’s over.”

“But that means Nott’ll win,” whined Cadogan. “I don’t want that tosser to win. He thinks he’s just soooo much better than us.”

Theo held back a snort. He knew all the other Initiates resented him, resented his talent, his unwillingness to converse with them, and perhaps even resented his closeness with Draco.

To him, they were a bunch of blithering fools, hardly worth his time. Draco agreed with him, and only talked to them because he thought they would be useful for connections. But Theo had no use for silly things like connections, not when he had so much magical power.

Besides, he didn’t mind that they resented him, as long as they feared him more.

Which they most certainly did.

“Shhh,” hissed Travers, looking around with tensed shoulders. “You don’t want him to take your fucking head off, do you? Yeah, he’s younger than us, but that bloke is fucking scary.”

Theo darted deeper into the shadows to escape the Initiates’ line of sight.

“It doesn’t matter if Nott wins,” said Montague, waving a hand dismissively. “It matters if Potter does. Keep focused, will you?”

“So we don’t even let Potter compete?” someone asked.

“Of course we don’t. The bastard needs to be taught a lesson, or it’ll make us all look bad in front of Adolphus.”

“D’you reckon this is a sort of ‘extra’ Trial? See if we can beat up the dirty-blood?”

“When’s Draco getting back?” Travers asked. “Shouldn’t we tell him? Bet he’d enjoy this. It’ll be like Walpurgis Night for him all over again.”

But Montague shook his head, narrowing his eyes, and Theo’s breath caught.

“Has anyone noticed anything strange about the two of them?” Montague lowered his voice and glanced around with shifty eyes, as if expecting Draco to emerge from the shadows. “Potter’s always looking at Draco, which is pretty much expected. But that’s not all. I caught them smiling at each other about five times. And sometimes Draco just… disappears. Like he doesn’t show up for lunch or dinner, and when I check, he’s not with Nott either. It’s weird.”

Theo hid his glee. Potter and Draco had grown careless about keeping their relationship a secret; it was no surprise that others were finally catching on, albeit far later than Theo had.

The Initiates made a clamor, their voices rising in alarm.

“One time I swear I saw Potter and Draco come out from behind a tapestry together. But I thought I was seeing things!”

“Draco and the dirty-blood? There’s no way they can still be friends. No fuckin’ way.”

“Hey, doesn’t anyone remember the first day of school, when Potter moved into our Initiate group? When the Notts were beating him up, Draco got real agitated and tried to run in to help. I remember that Bulstrode girl was holding him back. I didn’t think much about it back then, because, well, I dunno—I was more preoccupied thinking about what the fuck Potter had just done, for Merlin’s sake!”

“Holy shit. I remember seeing something like that. I didn’t know Draco back then—was that really him?”

The Initiates brooded, apparently unable to come to terms with this depressing revelation.

“So you think Draco will try and stop us if we tell him we’re going to hurt Potter?” asked Travers at last, sounding furious.

“I don’t know,” Montague snapped. “Maybe we shouldn’t tell him just yet. If we do, he might warn Potter—if they’re still friends, that is, or if they’re still talking, or whatever it is that’s going on between them.”

“But we don’t know for sure—”

“Draco wouldn’t! He’s a Malfoy!”

“Montague, could you ask him if he and Potter still talk? Just go and ask him if it’s true he smiles at Potter, would you?”

“I already did a couple weeks ago. He told me that I was imagining things, and not to waste his time,” said Montague through gritted teeth. “But just to be safe, let’s keep quiet on this for now, all right?”

The Initiates’ chatter slowed to a stop. Half of them, the ones who didn’t much care for Draco, seemed unconcerned with this new development, while the other half looked just a bit miserable, and more than a bit flabbergasted, as if the very possibility of Draco being friends with Potter blew their minds.

“Enough of this. We’re here for a reason. Look, this is exactly how we’re going to get rid of Potter,” Montague said at last, summoning everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand.

The boys talked, brainstorming their plan step by step, and Theo stood there in the shadows and listened. As he did, it became clear to him that he couldn’t allow this to happen. In order for Sebastian to pull his great punishment off, Potter would have to enter the final exam arena.

They’ve almost discovered Draco’s secret, and they don’t trust him anymore. They won’t tell him about what they’ve got in store for Potter. And they won’t tell me about it either, so I’m not involved.

This was perfect. He could use all this to his advantage.

So Theo came with a plan, a simple yet effective one.

He grinned in the shadows, revealing his teeth. If he maneuvered carefully, he would be able to foil the Initiates’ plot, get his revenge on Potter, and earn Draco’s gratitude, all at the same time.

Three birds with one stone.

***

As the days grew warm and March drew to a close, Harry’s dread intensified. Ostara was upon him at last. That night, he trekked up to the abandoned classroom on the sixth floor alone. Draco was in his dorm room, sulking because Harry had ordered him to stay behind.

“You don’t know what Leipsia will try this time, so it’s best for you to stay far away,” Harry had told him, and Draco obviously did not have a counterargument to this sound logic. There was no reason for him to come and jeopardize everything, and Harry had his Thread Sphere with him so he could contact Draco in the case of an emergency.

Hope I don’t die, thought Harry dully, taking out some chalk and kneeling on the ground to begin sketching the ritual circle. Thirty minutes later the circle was complete, and Harry went around arranging the six bait objects inside it. Finally, he took out his knife and held it to his palm.

Synesis lay on the desk behind him, fluttering its pages fretfully. “Remember, I’ll be the one talking to them. I know most of them from a long time ago, so they will trust me. You don’t say a word unless you have to. They cannot be allowed to find out that you are the Colossus.”

“You think I’ll be careless enough to reveal it?” Harry asked, unable to keep the hurt out of his voice.

“It’s not a question of being careless,” Synesis snapped. “You might do something to reveal yourself subconsciously. I don’t know what. But the less they pay attention to you, the better. Just answer their questions if they ask you any, and answer as truthfully as you can. Don’t hesitate. They can smell weakness and fear.”

“All right, all right,” said Harry, examining his hand and taking a shaky breath. He’d spent enough time stalling.

At least after today, I’ll know whether I’m likely to live or die.

“You’ll be okay,” Synesis whispered.

“You don’t sound convinced,” Harry said with a grin, making sure his hand was positioned inches above the edge of the ritual circle, and flicked the knife inward.

He backed off at once with a wince, throwing up an arm to shield his eyes against the blaze of light that filled every corner of the room, a sunburst that extinguished the torches and set the ritual circle runes aglow. For a moment, he could hear nothing but his own heavy, erratic breath.

Then all the light drained away, leaving behind a dark and empty room.

Everything was eerily quiet. As expected, all six objects were outlined in a pale glow, and the Rank Seven Leviathan Agape whirled and twisted in the circle’s center, resembling onyx and silver melted into liquid, like metal kept in a constant state of motion.

“Each demon is inside their bait object now,” Synesis announced in the silence, as Harry’s heart beat up a storm against his ribs. “Except for Agape. Clearly.”

Harry swallowed, trying to ignore the tug of yearning in his chest. Agape, being a Rank Seven Leviathan demon, was the most powerful demon in the room. It specialized in matters of the mind, and was especially concerned with how human minds could be healed, destroyed, and rebuilt. Synesis suspected that Agape might be more charitable to a human than other Leviathans. Then again, Synesis had said something similar about Leipsia, and that hadn’t turned out well at all.

On an unrelated note, Agape was the only demon capable of even coming close to rebuilding Lily Potter’s mind. She would never be whole or fully sane again because of what the Royal Demons had done to her, but treatment from Agape could help.

Harry wondered if he would one day be able to heal his mother through Agape, and wondered what she would be like afterwards, and then shoved the thought from his mind.

Now was not the time.

“Agape will not talk to you until the end, until it is time for it to judge whether you are worthy of its time, and whether it should cleanse you,” Synesis continued, jerking Harry out of his thoughts. “But it will be listening closely to our conversation.”

Harry steeled himself, making his way to the edge of the circle.

“My name is Synesis. I’ve been trapped on Earth for centuries now. Do you remember me?” Synesis began to address the demons, and Harry flinched, taken aback. He and Synesis had already gone over their exact script, but the demon book sounded a bit… vulnerable today, far more vulnerable than it had when they’d merely been practicing.

Then Harry held his breath. He could almost feel the whirling Agape focusing its formidable power and attention on Synesis’s quivering form. Hell, even the bait objects holding the other six demons were rotating slightly to position themselves.

“A Rank Seven Sapience,” said Aletheia, from within the atlas Harry had stolen from the library. “Of course I remember you.”

Synesis let out a sound that might’ve been a laugh, but Harry wasn’t sure.

Aletheia was a Rank Seven Sapience too, and Harry suspected it was the one demon Synesis had been looking forward to meeting the most. While Synesis’s expertise lay in summoning, Aletheia had vast knowledge of countless realms. According to rumor, Aletheia was a bit strange, driven mad by staring into the abysses of a thousand doomed universes.

“Greetings, Synesis,” said a melodious voice—Nomikos, the Templar demon inside the Malfoy ceremonial dagger. Centuries ago, Nomikos had aided Summoners in their duels, and Harry thought it had a rather formal way of speaking. “It has been a very long time. We thought you were dead, but I am very pleased to see you are not.”

“I don’t know who you are,” said Egothas, the Pestilence demon, in a nasally voice at complete odds with Nomikos’s. “Also, I don’t care. Human air is disgusting. I wanna go back home.”

Harry worried his lip at this. Synesis had picked Egothas out of all the Rank Seven Pestilence demons because Egothas supposedly did not care about anything enough to say no to it. Synesis thought it would agree to cleanse Harry solely to get the ritual over with as soon as possible.

“Don’t worry, Synesis. I remember you,” piped up Chordi, the Rank Seven Astral. “Who’s the human? Is he the one who trapped you in a book?”

“No,” said Synesis quickly. “But he is my only way out of this book. He’s the first Summoner I’ve met in quite a few centuries, and I won’t get a better chance to go back home. And right now, he needs help. I need help.”

“You called us for a Seed cleansing,” said Aletheia, sounding bored. Aletheia in some ways seemed to be Synesis’s opposite—calm and cool while Synesis kept to a constant state of hysteria. Harry wasn’t sure why Aletheia was rumored to be mad. “I assume you messed up terribly during one of the summoning rituals. This is what happens when human children summon. They end up hurting themselves. Oh well. Better for us, I guess.”

Harry forced down the absurd urge to laugh.

“You must really like this boy,” Chordi said. “I have been in Seed cleansing rituals before, and in every one of them I have to listen to a human beg for its useless life. This is the first time I’ve been greeted by a demon. It is rather nice.”

“Is very nice,” agreed Gigas, the Rank Seven Sisyphean that Harry yearned to summon most of all: the demon that could give its master the ability to resist spells.“I remember Synesis. Knows many things. Continue.”

“I need this human boy to help me return home,” said Synesis. “He’s promised to send me back, see, but he won’t be able to if this Seed blossoms.”

“Just ask him to send you back now,” said Egothas with a snort. “Why do you care what happens to the human once you’re back home?”

“He won’t agree to such a thing until I help him,” Synesis said in a rush. “Of course he won’t. And I want to help him. He’s the first person or demon I’ve spoken to in hundreds of years. I care about him.”

“Hmmph,” said Egothas, as if it could not imagine such a thing.

“I ask you, please cleanse him,” Synesis gasped. “He made a silly mistake with a summoning circle, and didn’t listen to my instructions completely when making it. He left a big enough loophole for Auranos, a Rank Two Astral, possess his body.”

“That’s ridiculous. What mistake did he even make?” The silver telescope Chordi was in glinted, reflecting the glow of the other objects. “A Rank Two demon should be no threat whatsoever. Is this boy an idiot? Boy, tell us. Why didn’t you listen to Synesis?”

Harry swallowed. Something about Chordi reminded him of a strict, harsh mother, the kind of mother that lectured you all the time but didn’t show you any love. It felt like Lily—in one of her saner moments—was in the room with him.

“I—” He halted, looking nervously at Synesis, who simply fluttered its pages at him. “I didn’t use the right symbols. I thought I could make the summoning easier on my body if I switched, um, the binding runes with the, um, transformation runes, and added an extra ring to the circle.”

“Why on Earth would you ever do that?” said Chordi. “How old are you? I believe you are a very young human. Why are you even summoning?”

“I need power,” Harry said, somehow managing to keep his voice steady. “I need demons to get better at dueling, to get better at—everything. And I found Synesis—”

“How were you able to hear Synesis?” asked Nomikos. “Most humans cannot hear us. Those who can are capable of wandless magic.”

Harry and Synesis had gone over a fabricated answer to this inevitable question, but still it sounded half-baked, shaky. He opened his mouth to respond, but Synesis got to it first.

“I have a couple theories,” said Synesis. “First of all, he tells me that he used to be a very powerful baby—all wizards are capable of uncontrolled wandless magic when young, but he had exception control over that magic. When he acquired his wand, of course, he lost the ability, but I believe the essence of it remained, which is why he could hear me. Another theory—and this is one that I came up with only after hearing of what has happened to our realm—is that things are changing. Recently, I have learned that a human crossed over into our realm and wrecked it, and I’m sure that has had unintended side effects. It is possible that more humans can interact with us now, and this boy here is one of them.”

“I don’t completely buy your explanation,” Aletheia huffed. “But if anyone knows the answer, it’s you, Synesis.”

“Wait a moment,” said Chordi out of nowhere. “How did you know what happened to our realm?”

“Auranos,” Synesis answered easily, without missing a beat. “I fought Auranos inside the boy’s body to destroy it, but beforehand I was able to get some information out of it. I know what happened to our realm, how the human who calls himself the Dark Lord dragged the Seven Royals to Earth, ripping the base fabric of our realm apart.”

“You are right,” Aletheia said. “Dark times are upon us. A very dangerous human is on the move, and I can see this universe going the same way as the others. We are missing your knowledge, Synesis. I think you should come back and help us rebuild. Earth’s toxic air has crept into our world, and slowly but surely we are all dying. You are safer in this book than back home, but if this human boy is offering to help you return, I am eager to assist him. A Rank Two Seed should be no problem for us to cleanse.”

“Forgive me, Synesis, but I do not understand,” Chordi said. “If this is only a Rank Two Seed, then why are we all Rank Sevens? Surely you did not need to summon us to get rid of it.”

Harry stopped breathing, aware of Agape’s metaphorical gaze focus on him like a white-hot honing spell. He broke out into a sweat as Synesis fluttered its pages more frantically. This would be the most difficult part of the ritual, the biggest hole in their story. Synesis had warned Harry that Chordi was an extremely inquisitive demon, and Harry found himself wishing that they’d summoned one that was a bit dumber.

“I… I’m sorry,” Synesis began, voice shaky but clear. “I truly… I truly care for this human. Like I said, it’s been centuries since I’ve spoken to someone, and he’s grown on me. I have the feeling that Auranos could have hurt him in other ways, that there could be unseen consequences of the possession. I was willing to go the full distance to get rid of that Seed, and anything else with it. I summoned you all because I want to make absolutely sure that he will be all right. Also, I wanted… I wanted to see my old friends again. Especially you and Aletheia. Please, tell me what’s going on. I need to know. What has changed back home?”

“Hmm,” said Chordi, but didn’t argue.

Harry let out the breath he’d been holding, feeling his heartbeat slow. Synesis had guided the conversation masterfully, eliciting sympathy before ending on a question to divert attention away from the Seed’s Rank. The demons wouldn’t take this at face value, no, but they wouldn’t dwell on it. They had no reason to suspect that he was the Colossus, especially not when Synesis was so enthusiastically on his side.

Then again, it does look suspicious. First of all, I can hear Synesis, and I’m sure all the demons are aware that the Colossus is a special case of sorts. It seems that they don’t know the specifics—Auranos certainly didn’t. Second of all, like Auranos, they’ve probably been ordered to implant the Chaos Seed in the Colossus, and the Chaos Seed is a high-level Seed. If they put together the clues—

No. He would not fret. Synesis could handle this, and Synesis would keep the attention off Harry, keep them trusting and gullible.

“Many things have changed,” sighed Aletheia. “The Royals have been influencing our realm from Earth—at least influencing it in the little ways they can. We think the rules of summoning are changing. The Royals promise us—we hear the echoes of their whispers in the wind—that soon we will rise again. Chaos, the Blood Moon, the Anthesis. It will all come to pass, if we do not wither and die before it does.”

Synesis did not say anything for a long time. “Is that all you know?”

“We are told that we will know more when it is time for us to know more,” said Aletheia. “But alas, I have not told you the whole story. Words on Earth cannot explain it. Come back home, and you will see.”

Synesis began to answer, but someone talked right over it.

“Draco Malfoy is not here,” said a new voice, silky smooth and pouty, and Harry’s heart sank.

He’d almost forgotten about this. How could he have forgotten about this?

“I have been looking for him this whole time, but he is not here. I want to go back to Earth! Where is he?”

Leipsia.

Harry fervently thanked Merlin for the fact that Draco had been smart enough to stay in bed.

“Who is this Draco Malfoy?” asked Chordi. “Is it another human who can hear you, Synesis?”

“No. He’s the boy’s… friend.” Synesis sounded strained. “During Imbolc, Leipsia took an interest in him and lingered in the circle longer than everyone else. After that, Draco decided not to come tonight.”

“What a pain,” Leipsia snarled. “I have not seen a human with this much potential since Helen of Troy summoned me. Synesis, I want Draco Malfoy.”

Harry clenched his jaw, wanting to grab that stupid oakwood mirror Leipsia was in and smash it into smithereens.

Synesis, obviously sensing that Harry was on edge, spoke up. “Leipsia, calm down. We will discuss you later.  Now, Aletheia, to answer your question: I do intend to come back home as soon as possible.”

This, of course, was a lie. Synesis intended to stay with Harry for the foreseeable future; if the demon realm was in fact falling apart, it would not be a wise choice to return, no matter what Aletheia said.

“After we cleanse this Seed from Harry, he promises to banish me from this book. I can come back home and help you all,” Synesis added, repeating himself now, sounding a bit desperate.

“I think you should stay,” said Nomikos with a sniff. “You would be useful, I suppose, but you’re as safe as you can be right now, considering that you’re not in a human’s body. Even if this boy dies, you’ll be fine until someone else comes along.”

“I don’t want him to die.” Synesis whimpered, and Harry had to admit that the book’s acting was brilliant. “I know none of you like humans, but do this for me. Please?”

“I’m fine with saving the boy,” Aletheia said. “But I don’t think you should get too attached. Anthesis approaches, remember? But we will speak of it when you return home. I don’t like talking about it in this realm. There may be other humans listening in.”

Harry scowled, a bit offended that Aletheia kept talking about the end of Earth right in front of him, as if he didn’t exist, or didn’t count as a human. Hell, with that conversational tone, Aletheia might as well be talking about how good a cup of tea tasted.

“If you insist, Synesis,” sighed Chordi. “I also agree to save the boy.”

“Don’t care,” grunted Gigas. “So will follow everyone else.”

Harry decided that Gigas was his favorite.

“Whatever,” Egothas said, and Harry decided he liked Egothas second best.

“I feel that you are getting too attached to this human, and are a bit of an embarrassment,” said Nomikos. “But I agree to save this boy, only because you are otherwise highly respected among us Rank Sevens.”

“Thank you for understanding, Nomikos,” said Synesis fervently.

“Well, I don’t want to cleanse anyone,” snarled Leipsia. “I want Draco Malfoy first.”

“Oh, for Chaos’s sake,” said Chordi. “Grow up, Leipsia. Your obsession with humans creeps me out.”

Harry cleared his throat, and all the bait objects grew very still. Synesis tensed next to him, its fluttering pages falling flat. Harry could almost hear the book hissing in his head, demanding what the hell he was doing.

“Leipsia,” he began, keeping his voice steady with great effort, “I know you want Draco. But if I die, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to summon you again, and so there’s no way you’ll ever meet Draco again. But if you let me live, I might summon you one day—”

Leipsia tried to splutter an angry response, but Harry talked over it.

“The point I’m trying to make is that when I die, you lose your connection to Draco. You won’t ever see him, won’t even have the opportunity to talk to him.”

Leipsia quivered like a struck cord, then went terrifyingly docile. The oak-silver mirror glinted. No more than a minute passed, but to Harry it felt like more than an hour.

“You are such a pain,” Chordi tutted at Leipsia, breaking the silence, and the silver mirror rattled in rage. “I think you have spent too much time with beautiful humans who throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want and waste everyone else’s time.”

“Fine. I will do it,” Leipsia snapped, because apparently Chordi had smacked some sense into it, and Synesis heaved a great sigh of relief. Harry dared not believe it. “This means that tonight is not the last you’ve seen of me. I hope we meet again soon, Harry Potter. Tell Draco I’m thinking of him.”

Harry’s palms went clammy. He had no intention of summoning Leipsia, ever, but the way Leipsia had spoken just now seemed to suggest that Harry would have no choice in the matter.

“Thank you for your generosity, Leipsia,” Synesis said, sounding pained, and Harry gave his head a shake to clear it.

“I’ll—I’ll pass your message onto Draco,” he said. His voice came out hoarse.

Egothas snickered for some reason.

“This means everyone has agreed,” said Synesis with a sort of wonder, obviously unable to believe that Harry had managed to talk his way into a solution. “Now… now, we wait for Agape to approve us and begin the ritual.”

The whirling black cloud in the center of the ritual circle sped up, as if angered by the thought of such a thing, and Harry waited like the rest, his throat closing up.

He couldn’t believe he and Synesis had survived thus far. All the demons had been agreeable, almost too agreeable. This was, Harry supposed, the power of picking the right demons to summon. Due to its intimate knowledge of the Rank Sevens, Synesis had been able to choose the optimal group of demons, the group most likely to help Harry.

He took a moment to thank Synesis for being so useful, and swore to listen to Synesis’s rambling lectures without complaint from now on.

“HARRY POTTER!” Agape bellowed, its voice simultaneously ringing in Harry’s head and bouncing off the walls. “LET ME KNOW YOU!”

Harry widened his eyes, terror shooting up his spine and spreading into his chest. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but before he could, several of the demons cried out. The Leviathan’s stormy form was spreading through the circle, crawling up the invisible boundary set by the circle’s edge, filling up a semi-dome with what looked like swirling dark mist.

“Oh,” whispered Chordi, as if it had just been shown something tragic.

“Oh, Synesis,” said Aletheia.

“Yes!” shrieked Leipsia. “It’s here! Soon! Soon!”

Harry had no idea what was going on. He looked at Synesis, but the book merely resumed the frantic fluttering of its pages, doing nothing to calm Harry’s nerves.

“I agree to cleanse you, Harry Potter,” hissed Agape, its voice thundering in Harry’s head, unsteadying him. “For your mind is… most interesting. It shall also be interesting to see it fall apart, again and again and again.”

And then Harry doubled over, his mouth opening in a silent scream. His neck felt like it was on fire. The very spot where Agape had left its mark on Imbolc burned and and twitched, as if perhaps something squirmed beneath it, trying to claw its way out. All the bait objects began to rattle, and Harry fell to his knees, gasping and spluttering as the pain crescendoed to an excruciating height. His insides were shriveling up, charring into black, and if this was what cleansing felt like, Harry would prefer the dirt, the filth, the fucking Seed—

Everything stopped. The bait objects lay unoccupied and unmoving, the ritual circle dormant once more. Harry lay in a sweating heap near the edge of the circle, panting and holding his chest. Hot bile had settled itself somewhere between his stomach and his throat.

Dead silence.

“Did it work?” he croaked after a long minute, reaching up to run a finger over the mark on his neck. The skin around it felt tender, delicate, but the feeling subsided as the second ticked by. A sensation of weightlessness bloomed in him, making him giddy.

“Does it still hurt?” Synesis’s voice rose to a squeak. “I warned you before we did this that it would burn, I warned you—oh, Harry, I’m so sorry for all of this. I’m so sorry.”

“I…” Harry took deep, shuddering breaths, his finger still rubbing at the mark. If the bait objects lay unoccupied, that meant it had worked, because the summoning circle had been programmed to banish the demons the moment the ritual succeeded. Agape had channeled the rest of the demons’ magic through the mark, purged Harry’s body of the Seed.

Harry was free.

“No. No, it doesn’t hurt. I’m alive. I’m going to live! It—It doesn’t hurt anymore, Synesis!”

Harry threw his head back and started laughing. “Oh God, for a second there I was fucking terrified. I can’t believe it. It actually fucking worked. Synesis, it actually fucking worked! And it’s all thanks to you, you damn brilliant book. I can’t believe how much they trusted you, how much they believed you, I can’t—”

“Let’s go,” Synesis interrupted, and Harry stopped rolling around in glee to stare at it.

“Are you okay?” he asked. The smile melted off his face when Synesis didn’t answer right away. The demons had acted… a bit off for the final part of the ritual, hadn’t they? Aletheia had called Synesis’s name. Harry still couldn’t make sense of that. Doubt washed over him, drowning his short-lived joy.

“It worked, didn’t it?” Harry’s voice rose in panic. “Damn it! It felt like it worked! Agape said it would cleanse me! Synesis, did they do anything to you? Synesis!”

“I’m f-fine,” Synesis said shakily, and Harry almost laughed, realizing what was wrong.

A great meltdown was surely incoming.

“Aww, Synesis. You’re going to cry, aren’t you? Cry with joy?” Harry took the book in his arms and cradled it, pressing his cheek to its worn leather cover. “Hey, thank you. Thank you. You saved me. You’re brilliant and I would’ve died without you, and you’re the best demon, and I’ll listen to everything you tell me because you’re the smartest being in the world, and—”

“Stop it!”

Harry drew away, puzzled.

Synesis let out a sob. “Harry, stop it. Put me down! Let’s go back. You’re alive. You’re going to be okay. I can hardly believe it, but I can’t talk right now.”

Harry nodded slowly, deciding not to prod the poor book too much tonight. Synesis was obviously still in a a state of shock.

Sighing, taking pleasure in the fact that he was alive, that he could breathe freely, Harry picked up the bait objects and shoved them into his bag one by one. He only stopped to chuck the silver mirror into the nearest rubbish bin. He wasn’t giving that accursed thing back to Draco—Leipsia’s mark didn’t need to be anywhere near him.

“Thanks, again,” Harry whispered to Synesis, gently placing it in his bag, and turned to leave.

Synesis just sniffled in response.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

THE FINAL EXAM

o

In the deep of night, a tattered old book lay open on the ground. Beside it, on a slightly elevated cot, snored a boy with messy black hair.

“You’ve been so naughty, Synesis. How many times have you attempted to tell Harry the truth this year, even though you knew I would never let you say it? Remember, Synesis, I control you. I control every aspect of your being now. No matter how much you scream and cry, nobody will hear you, nobody will free you, and the silly little Colossus won’t discover what you are until it’s too late.”

In exquisite agony, the book fluttered its pages.

“There’s only a few weeks until the Blood Moon left now. Soon Chaos will acquire a body, and I will acquire a master. And you… you will be all alone again, won’t you?”

***

Draco’s elation did not wane as March bled into April and the days turned sunny—the weather mirroring his mood, for once.

Harry was alive, and everything was all right with the world.

Except for one thing.

The final exam was on the horizon, and that meant Sebastian and Adolphus would try to hurt Harry during the final exam, Draco was sure of it. Then he reminded himself that the worst was over. If Harry could survive the Seed, he could survive anything else.

Still, Draco wasn’t taking any chances, which was why he’d called Harry for an “emergency strategy meeting” on the first real warm day of April. Their meeting spot was near the Forbidden Forest, past an abandoned hut near an overgrown, weed-ridden pumpkin patch where few students ever ventured. They’d made their way here under the Invisibility Cloak, just to be safe, but had shed it at once and now lay sprawled on the slightly damp spring grass.

“No!” Harry said in a tone of melodramatic horror, as Draco lounged beside him. “No, tell me it’s not true! You’re lying!”

“It’s true,” Draco said. “Dolohov told us about the test in class, like, two days ago. How did you not hear him? Where’ve you been?”

“No!”

Of course, their conversation had derailed quickly, and after Draco had spent an hour complaining to Harry about some particularly annoying third year Initiates, they’d moved onto to classes and homework, a topic that seemed to terrify Harry more than demon Seeds.

It’s almost a luxury to be worried about something as ordinary as a test, Draco thought, and rolled over on his side so that he could look Harry in the face. He drank in his best friend’s features, squinting at him through the bright rays of sunlight. A breeze lifted the ends of Draco’s carefully gelled hair, but he found the sensation soothing.

This is a good day.

Harry went pink, getting more flustered the longer Draco stared at him.

“Oi, you’d better help me with this stupid test,” Harry stammered out, looking everywhere but at Draco. “I don’t want Dolohov to torture me for getting the worst grade in the class.”

Draco screwed up his nose. “No, that’ll be Longbottom. Anyway, you do too well in the practical portion of the class to be in last place. But if you want, we’ll go over my notes in the kitchens later tonight.”

With that, Draco returned to staring at Harry. He’d just noticed—well, not just noticed, strictly speaking; he’d sort of known since forever—that Harry had very nice eyes, and the sort of face that grew on you, the sort of face that could improve your mood by just looking at it. Handsome was too strong a word, maybe, but then Draco didn’t think he would’ve liked Harry’s face so much if it was classically handsome. Harry’s face, thin and angled and striking and fierce, was perfect the way it was.

Draco hadn’t sensed Harry’s raw magical power—the power the Hunger had stolen—in almost a year, but Draco knew the essence of that power remained, obvious even in Harry’s slightest movements. The flex of his fingers, the twitch of his lips, the brightness of his eyes—they all carried his immense power, little bits of it. Nothing could take that away.

“What?” Harry mumbled.

“Nothing,” Draco sang, and scooted closer to Harry so that they were nose to nose, lying side by side.

Harry’s face purpled. “What? What d’you want?”

Draco decided teasing Harry was fun. He didn’t say anything else, just sniggered to annoy Harry further.

Besides, he couldn’t really put his thoughts into words, at least not in a way that didn’t make him sound cheesy.

What d’you want? Harry had asked. You, Draco had wanted to answer, but that wasn’t true, not exactly. He didn’t necessarily want Harry in the romantic, possessive way… not that such a way displeased Draco. He wanted Harry here, next to him.

Draco imagined a future where Harry was powerful and unstoppable, unrivaled by even Sebastian… a future where Draco held the reins to Harry’s power. He found himself imagining it more and more, especially now that he knew Harry would live, that he no longer carried a demon Seed.

Which reminds me…

“Now that we’re done with all this demon nonsense, I want you to get rid of Kardin. Banish it. And I want you to promise me you’re not going to summon anything anymore.”

Harry, who’d been spluttering and blushing at Draco being so close to him a mere second earlier, went still and colorless.

Draco did not regret ruining the mood. “Harry. I know you better than you think I do. I can see the damn gleam in your eye. You’re excited about summoning again, aren’t you? Since the moment you got rid of that demon Seed, you’ve probably been trying to figure out how to summon more demons without getting yourself killed, haven’t you? Well, I’m not fucking allowing it. You are forbidden from touching demons EVER AGAIN—”

“If you’re quite done lecturing me,” Harry snapped, “I was trying to say that Synesis banned me from summoning too, and I don’t want to anyway. But I’m not banishing Kardin. I already told you. It could complicate things, because I’d have to reattach its sentience, and—”

“Fine.” Draco puffed himself up to his most impressive size and stabbed a finger into Harry’s chest. “I’ll give you a break. But eventually, I’m going to make you banish Kardin. And I know Synesis basically saved your life with everything it did for you on Ostara, but I think it would be the safest if you got rid of it one day too. I think that book is too much of a temptation for you. You’ll start summoning again if it’s with you. ”

“Synesis won’t let me summon, so there’s no reason for me to get rid of it. I already told you that,” Harry said with great fervor, and Draco raised an eyebrow. For some reason, Harry looked shaken.

“Look,” Harry said. “Synesis has been… I think Synesis is depressed. I dunno why. I think it’s sad about how little it knows, and I think seeing all the other demons made it feel homesick. Draco, I really care about Synesis. I mean, I know it’s a demon, and that you don’t trust it—”

“Actually, I do trust it after everything it’s done for you,” Draco interrupted. At least, I trust it for now. “I just don’t trust you to act responsibly with it.”

Harry rambled over him. “Synesis really helped me this year. And whenever I need to talk about you, or anything, I can just talk to it, and it’ll listen to me and offer me stupid advice and lecture me, and I dunno, it felt like having a mother or something. I can’t get rid of Synesis. I can’t even be thinking about that right now, especially when it chose me over its demon friends. I need to help Synesis get better. I need to tell it how much it means to me.”

Draco sighed. I wish I knew what the big deal was about this book.

“Oh, all right. I get it. I’m not going to make you get rid of Synesis, so calm down, okay?”

“Anyway,” Draco continued, forcing himself to smile brightly, “I think Synesis just needs time to get better. I bet that it blames itself for nearly getting you killed way back on Mabon, or maybe it thinks you don’t need it anymore now that you’ve stopped summoning.”

Harry swelled angrily. “It’s not Synesis’s fault. If it wasn’t for Synesis jumping into my body and fighting Auranos, I would’ve died that night—”

“Tell Synesis that,” Draco said calmly, and Harry began to deflate. “I already know. Also tell it that you’ll continue to talk to it because you want to, not because you have to. That’ll make it feel better.”

Harry offered Draco a weak grin, and Draco took his hand and squeezed it.

Draco paused, an idea dawning on him. “Maybe I could go to your room and talk to Synesis a bit? Well, more like talk at it, since I can’t understand whatever it says back at me, but that’s close enough. I just want to thank Synesis for saving you and helping you all year.” Draco smirked. “And because I’m me, I’ll be able to make it feel better. You’re utterly useless at talking to anybody, even books, you know—oof!”

Harry, beaming, had just pulled Draco into a bone-crushing hug, and now Draco was squirming and flailing and getting grass all over his robes.

***

“Draco cares about you very much, doesn’t he?” Synesis said the week before the Tournament’s final exam, jerking Harry out of his late night doze. He’d fallen asleep doing his History of Magic homework.

“Huh? What?” Harry mumbled, flopping upright, half embarrassed and half sleepy. He realized that he hadn’t changed into his nightclothes yet. He ought to get on that soon.

He and Draco had spent the whole day discussing Dungeon Five, where the final exam would take place. It was a gigantic Dueling Ring, about the size of Quidditch Pitch, and could take on the characteristics of any terrain. Each year’s final exam had a different objective: a couple years back, the Initiates had been given the objective to stay standing as long as possible, and in another year they’d been ordered to find an object somewhere within the confines of the Ring.

Harry and Draco had tried to brainstorm possible objectives for this year, but they’d only managed to agree on one thing: Sebastian would surely attempt to sabotage Harry again, no matter what the objective.

“There’s ways the Skulls can manipulate the Dueling Ring from the outside,” Draco had told Harry. “So I bet they’ll rig the Ring against you, to make sure you won’t win. I don’t doubt that they’ll send Skulls inside to mess with you, either. You’ll have to make use of Kardin and react fast.”

Harry, of course, had fretted about this and then had tried to hide the fact that he’d been fretting about it from Draco, and then Draco had caught him and snickered to Synesis, “Aw, Harry’s scared, isn’t he?” And of course Synesis had let out its page-fluttering little laugh that only Harry could hear. Draco often made a point to talk to Synesis whenever he was with Harry, and Synesis’s mood seemed to be improving, slowly but surely.

“Yeah, he cares about me. For some reason,” Harry said, finally answering Synesis’s question. He still didn’t understand why someone as useless as him had earned Draco’s loyalty, but he supposed it was for the promise of what he could do for Draco, rather than what he had done.

And Harry intended to protect Draco (from what, exactly, Harry didn’t know yet) in the future, just like Draco had protected him for the past two years. 

Which reminds me of something…

“Synesis, I want to start summoning again.”

Synesis went deadly still, and Harry swallowed, feeling a storm of rage brew above the book’s pages.

“What did you say?”

“Synesis, I didn’t mean today, or this year, or anytime soon,” Harry said hastily. “I just wanted to start preparing to someone someday in the far-off future. I want to summon demons like Kardin again one day, demons that don’t have any sentience. We’ve been over this, and it looks pretty safe to me—”

“Did you not hear a word of what the Rank Sevens said on Ostara?” Synesis hissed. “Don’t you understand that something huge is coming? Since we’ve managed to get that Seed out of you, I think we’ve averted the crisis for now. But something’s definitely still stirring, and the Royal demons are desperate for you to fall into their trap. You already fell into it once, so don’t do it again. I know you never listen to me, but don’t you ever listen to Draco? Is this how you’ll show him you appreciate him?”

“Draco still doesn’t understand—”

“Enough. Enough of this nonsense. I am forever thankful that you are continuing to talk to me, and that you and Draco chatter in my presence and include me in your lives. You know how much I care about you, Harry, but I won’t help you summon again. If that’s all you want from me, throw me away. Burn me up.”

“Never.” Harry’s voice shook. “Synesis, I would never—I don’t want you just so you can help me summon, I don’t care so much about that—”

“Then do not talk to me about summoning.”

“So you won’t let me summon ever again—”

“It hasn’t even been two months yet, Harry! You haven’t learned your lesson at all, have you? You’ve survived everything so far, so you think that you’re invincible, and you won’t stop thinking that until one day you actually DIE!”

As Synesis screamed at him, back to its old self again, Harry sighed and flopped back on his bed.

He didn’t broach this topic with Synesis again, nor did he dare mention it to Draco, who would probably kill him for uttering the word ‘summoning.’ And before Harry could calm his nerves, the night of May 28th arrived.

Tomorrow was the final exam.

Draco had hugged him goodnight in the kitchens earlier, and now Harry lay in his stupid, scratchy cot, the one he’d slept in all year and hated with a passion, and stared up at the ceiling.

“Good luck, to both you and Draco,” Synesis said. “I’m sure you’ll get out of this alive, even if the Skulls don’t let you win. If what you’ve told me so far is correct, Sebastian won’t try to kill you tomorrow, as it seems that Adolphus wants to keep you alive for entertainment purposes, at least for the time being.”

“Thanks,” Harry said, turning and scowling into his pillow. “That makes me feel a lot better.”

“You’re welcome.”

There was a long silence. Harry felt his eyelids grow heavy and the darkness grow more absolute.

“And Harry?”

“Yes?”

“I—well, it’s nothing. I’ll tell you in a few days.”

“Tell me now,” Harry instructed sleepily, sinking back into his doze. He didn’t hear Synesis’s reply.

After what felt like minutes, though it must have been hours, a sharp sound wrenched Harry from his dreams. Someone hissed an order, and someone else snickered back an insult, and then their voices—and even more voices—were drowned out by the sound of a door creaking open.

He stirred, wondering if he was still dreaming. Light from the tip of a wand pointing right at him penetrated his eyelids, and he stirred fretfully.

Draco?

He straightened up, rubbing his eyes, squinting against the light. His wand was in his pocket, of course, and he reached for it almost automatically. The hazy figures in front of him sharpened into focus, revealing themselves, but it was too late.

“Sorry, Potter. It’s nothing personal, but we can’t have a dirty-blood outranking us. Stupefy!”

Harry registered what was happening a millisecond before the Stunner slammed into his chest, shoving him right back into unconsciousness. 

***

From his spot in the shadows by the fireplace, Theo watched the Initiates carry Potter out of the dorms. He lay limp and silent, swathed in blankets, his body and face obscured from view.

Theo inhaled softly as Montague, Travers, Cadogan, and Warrington passed by, whispering and snickering to themselves, evidently pleased with how they’d pulled off the kidnapping without a hitch. Theo supposed that they’d managed to get into Potter’s room by asking one of the Gold Skulls for a master key spell, as Alohomora didn’t work on dorm doors. Theo also supposed they’d Stupefied Potter by taking him by surprise rather than by employing any real skill. Anyway, he’d be knocked out cold for at least the next few hours.

It was currently six o’clock AM, and the final exam of the Tournament would begin at ten, According to what Theo had overheard, the Initiates planned to lock Potter up in a broom closet on one of the higher floors for the entire morning, releasing him only after the final exam was over.

Pity. Wish they could just kill him.

Theo decided he’d get another hour or two of sleep, and then go wake Draco up. Potter needed to participate in the Tournament—Sebastian’s orders could not be disobeyed, after all—and because Theo was truly a loyal best friend, he ought to inform Draco of poor Potter’s plight, right?

Theo snickered and slinked off.

***

“Draco! Draco! Open the door!”

There was a thunk from inside Draco’s room as something fell, and Theo stood waiting, tapping his foot impatiently. The door swung open a second later, revealing a frazzled, half-dressed Draco behind it.

Of course he’s not ready yet, Theo thought with an exasperated sigh.

“What? What do you want? It’s not—it’s only nine o’clock! Okay, um, nine-thirty. It’s not time yet!”

Theo took a deep breath and launched into the speech he’d rehearsed, hoping he didn’t sound too mechanical. “Draco, I’m sorry, but this is urgent. I just overheard Montague and Travers snickering about Potter at breakfast. Apparently they and some others Stunned Potter early this morning and dumped him somewhere to stop him from participating in the final exam.”

Draco looked utterly wide awake now, his shoulders tense and his jaw slack. “W-what? Stunned him? Oh shit. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. Oh fuck. Fuck.

Theo pursed his lips. He wasn’t sure if he approved of all this swearing. Where had Draco learned it? From Potter? Probably. Dirty-bloods were uncouth creatures.

“What exactly did you hear? What did they do to him?” Draco asked.

Theo swallowed, playing the part of the anxious friend quite flawlessly, he thought. “I-I told you everything I heard. I don’t know anything else.”

“Okay. Okay. All right. This isn’t a big deal. I can find him. Oh shit, how do I find him?” Draco took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair, mussing it. Theo wanted to smooth it down, or maybe he just wanted to touch it.

“Have you thought about leaving Potter unconscious?” Theo said, coming back to himself. “Maybe the Initiates’ll try something else if he makes into the final exam.”

Draco whirled on him, seething, eyes bright and feverish. “Are you afraid of losing to him?Why did you even tell me about this if you don’t want me to help him? Come to think of it, why do you care about any of this? You fucking hate Harry! What the hell are you playing at, Theo? Is this some sort of trick?”

Theo grabbed Draco’s shoulders, trying to calm him down, but Draco shook him off. “Calm down, Draco! I had to tell you about this—why wouldn’t I? I promised you that I’d try to tolerate Potter, and I wanted to show you proof of that. Also, I’m not scared of facing Potter in the Tournament. I’m better at dueling than he is.” Well, not really.

There was a long moment of silence as Draco glared at him.

“Get in,” he said abruptly, yanking Theo into the room and slamming the door shut behind them.

“What are you going to do?” Theo asked, watching as Draco tottered around the room, searching for his socks. He was still wearing his pajama shirt, which he started to unbutton while Theo was still in the room.

“DRACO!”

“I’m going to find Harry and make sure he’s okay,” Draco said, out of breath, slipping into his school robes while Theo covered his eyes, and trembled, and certainly did not peek at Draco from between his fingers.

“You don’t have to come,” Draco said once he was done shamelessly undressing. “Just don’t tell Montague and the rest that Potter and I know each other. Don’t fuck anything up.”

“Draco! Why would I tell them? I don’t even like them!” As if I would waste my time gossiping about Draco and Potter with mouth-breathers like Montague. But maybe if the other Initiates found out about the two of them, they’d like Draco less, and then they’d all stop obsessing over him and sending him Valentines. That would be nice. Maybe I should tattle on Draco.

Oh well.

“I promised to stop tattling on you, remember? How many times do I have to tell you that I’ve changed before you believe me?”

Draco fixed him with that wild, feverish gaze again, and Theo’s felt as though the air had been punched out of his lungs.

“Then help me find Harry,” Draco said, taking Theo’s hand and squeezing. “Help me look for him. Please, Theo. I know you hate him. I’m not sure what you’re playing at here, but I don’t know how to find him, and there’s only thirty minutes left now, and—”

“I do hate him, a bit, I guess,” Theo whispered. “But I care about you more than I hate him. So I’ll help you find him.”

Draco straightened up and gave Theo a stiff nod. “Okay, so I’ll check the dungeons, and you check the first floor—never mind, they wouldn’t put him on the first floor. Too many people go by there. Okay, check the second floor. And then the third, and—oh, fuck it!”

Draco flung himself back on his bed, his bottom lip quivering, his eyes almost watering. “Hogwarts is massive! Harry could be anywhere! They could’ve taken him anywhere! If an Initiate doesn’t participate in the final exam, it’s counted as a failure, and they might even make Harry drop out of Initiation, and—and—it’s impossible, Theo! I can’t search the whole school in thirty minutes!”

“I know a spell to find him,” Theo said, and Draco’s breath caught.

“What?”

“I modified the Four-Point spell to find humans,” said Theo, clearing his throat. It’s how I tracked you, in fact, all those months back. “I—”

Draco swelled like a bullfrog, not bothering to spare even a single admiring second for Theo’s accomplishments. “Why the HELL didn’t you tell me that earlier? DO IT NOW!”

Theo fumbled with his wand for a second. “All right! All right! Point Me hominem Harry Potter.” The wand spun around and around, finally quivering to a stop, its tip pointed to the door of Draco’s room.

Draco’s breath caught. “Does it work? Are you sure it works?”

“My spells all work—” Theo grumbled, but before he could finish, Draco leapt forward, nearly knocking Theo into the wall with the force of his hug.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you—I swear if you help me find Harry—thank you, Theo, thank you!”

Draco continued to babble incoherently, pressing his face into Theo’s chest. Theo let himself revel in the sensation. Then he realized that Draco was only thanking him because of Potter, and his mood soured at once.

The final exam couldn’t begin soon enough.

Wonder how much Draco’ll like Potter once Sebastian’s through with him, Theo thought, grinning into Draco’s hair.

***

Draco huffed and puffed as he and Theo clambered up the spiral staircases, following Theo’s wand.

He had fully expected something to happen during the final exam today, but he hadn’t expected that the Initiates would actually stop Harry from participating in the first place. How had they bested him in a fight long enough to Stun him, anyway? Hell, how had they even gotten into Harry’s room? They must’ve done it like a bunch of cowards, because they were no match for Harry otherwise.

Bastards.

This whole situation unsettled Draco, to say the very least. Why hadn’t the Initates told him about their plot to sabotage Harry? Draco was very popular among them, so he was the first to hear of rumors and gossip, but they’d manage to hide something as big as this from him.

Do they know about me and Harry?

Draco swallowed, and shot a look at Theo, who was staring down at his wand with a frown of concentration. Had Theo tattled?

Draco didn’t want to believe that. Theo had been so good this year, and though Draco kept his guard up, the truth was he’d come to accept that Theo had changed. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he and Theo started fighting again.

Theo probably hadn’t tattled anyway. Montague had asked Draco a couple months back, “I’ve seen you smile at Potter a couple times. What’s that all about?” Draco had denied it vehemently, of course, but it was possible that the other Initiates, despite being utterly dense, had started to suspect something was going on. He and Harry weren’t always discreet.

“Stop here!” Theo choked out as they arrived at the third floor landing after about ten straight minutes of sprinting. It was nine-forty-five now; they’d barely make it.

Draco doubled over, panting and clutching his stomach. Theo consulted his wand.

“Down this corridor!”

Theo took off, his robes flying behind him, and Draco followed, hot at his heels. They skidded to a stop at the end of the corridor, panting louder than ever, and then Draco was unlocking the door of the broom cupboard there with a snarled Alohomora.

A lump of blankets lay on the filthy ground behind the door, and Draco let out a strangled cry.

“He’s here! Your spell worked!”

Draco knelt down, throwing back the sheets, trying to uncover what lay beneath. Harry’s sleeping, lax face came into view, and Draco let out another cry and shook Harry violently. “Wake up! Harry, wake up! Theo! He’s not waking up!”

Draco pressed a finger to Harry’s neck, checking for a pulse, and almost sobbed in relief when he felt it. “He’s alive. But he’s not waking up!”

“Calm down. Remember, he’s Stunned,” said Theo, his hands a gentle presence at Draco’s shoulders.

Draco whipped out his wand, and almost sobbed again, this time in despair. “I don’t remember it! I don’t remember the spell! It’s Innervate, but I don’t remember what wand movement I need!”

“Here, let me. Innervate!” Theo said, and Draco could’ve kissed him.

Harry stirred, groaning and kicking up his sheets.

“WAKE UP!” Draco shook him again, and Harry’s eyes flew open.

He stared at Draco, blinking confusedly. “Where—”

“We’re in a broom closet on the third floor! The Initiates took you here, and I only just found out, and Harry—” Draco grabbed Harry’s face to make sure he was there, safe and whole. “Don’t you remember anything? Did they hurt you?”

“Draco,” Theo said in warning. “There’s only fifteen minutes left.”

Harry’s head snapped in Theo’s direction, and he let out a sound that could only be described as a low growl. “What the hell is he doing here?”

Is this really the first question that comes to his mind? Draco thought with a sigh.

“I helped Draco find you, you ungrateful swine,” Theo spat, and Draco decided to intervene before Harry popped a vein in his forehead.

“Look, it doesn’t matter. There’s no time.” Quickly, Draco brought Harry up to speed on what had happened with the Initiates, making certain to mention how Theo had alerted Draco to Harry’s predicament, and then dragged him to his feet.

“I’m going to fucking murder all of them,” Harry snarled as they began to run back down the dungeons. “Bastards got me when I was sleeping. Fucking cowards.”

“A half-blood who threatens or harms a Pureblood will be sentenced to death,” Theo snapped between pants. “And stop swearing all the time. It’s uncouth.”

Harry muttered something under his breath, something that sounded to Draco like ‘your face is uncouth’ intermixed with every swear word in the book, but fortunately Theo chose not to respond, or maybe he didn’t hear it over his own loud gasps for air.

Three minutes before the clock struck ten o’clock, Harry, Draco, and Theo careened to a stop outside of Dungeon Five, and only then did Draco realize he’d made a fatal mistake coming here with Harry. The third year Initiates waiting outside the massive double doors of the dungeon spun to face them, mouths gaping, as if unable to comprehend what they were seeing.

The secret was out now.

Draco clutched his burning chest, trying to blink back tears of frustration.

“So it’s true!” Travers wailed. “About you and Potter! Draco, how did you find out about—”

“I’m going to fucking kill all of you,” Harry interrupted, taking out his wand, but Draco grabbed him around the waist and whispered soothingly into his ear.

“Harry, you can’t. You’re not allowed!”

Harry stopped struggling at that, but he sent increasingly furious glares over at the cluster of third years.

“Oi, Draco, what the hell are you playing at?” Montague snarled, hackles raised.

Draco released Harry and stalked forward, angry at everything and everyone for putting him in this situation.

These bastards had to be a bunch of cowards. They couldn’t just leave Harry alone, could they? And now everybody knows about us, everybody fucking knows, and I spent a whole year sucking up to these idiots, trying to get them to trust me, and now all that time is wasted—

There’s no going back now.

Draco wielded his cruel sneer like a sword, pretending that none of this bothered him. “Yeah, me and Potter are friends. What of it? Is that not allowed now? You idiots do know Potter is an Initiate, right? That Professor Carrow recommended him to join the Skulls? King Adolphus let Potter live at the beginning of this year, you know, and he even let Potter participate in the Tournament. You directly went against King Adolphus’s orders, Montague, and I swear I’ll tell him what you’ve done the moment the final exam is over.”

Draco was, of course, bluffing. He doubted Adolphus would give a shit that the Initiates had tried to sabotage Harry. But Montague didn’t need to know that.

Montague fell for the trick, and quivered in rage. “You wouldn’t dare tattle on us. If you take Potter’s side, that makes you a traitor—”

“Traitor?” Draco screeched. “I’m a traitor, for following the rules? I’m a traitor for supporting my fellow Initiate, for putting a stop to this blatant cheating?”

Harry opened his mouth, possibly to jump to Draco’s defense or spit out an insult, but Draco kicked him in the shin to shut him up before he could do any more damage. The last thing Harry needed was to piss off the wrong Pureblood and get punished for it.

“He’s a dirty-blood!” yelled Travers. “Why the hell do you care what we do to him?”

“Draco cares because they’re snogging,” sniggered someone from the group of Initiates, but Draco didn’t get to see who before everyone erupted into angry chatter.

“Did you tell him, Nott?” Montague said, eyes wild.

Theo gave him a withering look but did not answer, as though Montague wasn’t worth his valuable time. If Draco hadn’t known better, he would’ve suspected that Theo was hiding his glee.

“I figured it out myself when I saw Harry wasn’t in his room,” Draco said, his voice cracking like a whip, drawing everyone’s attention away from Theo.

“So you went and rescued a dirty-blood instead of supporting us? You went and picked him?” said Travers, glaring at Draco in a way he usually only reserved for non-Elites.

Draco’s stomach churned, and he knew he’d crossed an impassable line. Last year, he’d picked the Skulls over Harry, but this year the situation was different. Harry was one of them now. All Draco needed to do was to convince the Initiates of it.

He held back a scream. Why couldn’t they just accept Harry? Why did these prejudiced fools have to make everything so difficult for Draco? Couldn’t they understand that Harry wasn’t like the rest of the half-bloods, that he could be a real Skull?

“He’s one of us now! There’s nothing to pick!” Draco said, horrified to discover that he was near tears. His careful sneer had slipped at some point during the past minute.

Then the clock struck ten o’clock, and the doors to Dungeon Five swung open with an echoing thud.

“We’ll talk about this later, Malfoy,” Montague hissed. The rest of the Initiates fell utterly silent, the excitement of the past couple minutes giving way to apprehension.

“I don’t take orders from you, Montague,” Draco bit out, before falling silent himself. The doors of Dungeon Five had opened into a large stone waiting room, not the Dueling Ring itself. Harry crept up behind him, his breath hot on Draco’s neck.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, so quietly that only Draco could hear. The other Initiates watched their interaction with narrowed eyes.

“It—it’s not your fault,” Draco said, barely moving his lips, feeling his entire body tremble with shame. He wasn’t sure what Montague and the rest were going to do to him now. They wouldn’t hurt him, of course, but they would shun him, maybe even ridicule him. Maybe they’d start treating him the way they treated the non-Elites.

The way they treated Harry.

Draco swallowed and stepped forward, the first Initiate to enter Dungeon Five.

Let them try.

***

Harry followed Draco into Dungeon Five, his heart lodged somewhere in his throat. He really should’ve done something. Maybe he should’ve stayed behind, let Draco and Theo go in front of him so they could avoid suspicion. But it still would’ve been obvious to everyone that they had freed Harry.

Isn’t this what you wanted, though? For everyone to know about you and Draco?

He didn’t have time to dwell on his guilt, though. Emerging from a door opposite the Initiates, King Adolphus strode to the center of the small waiting chamber, his cloak billowing impressively behind him. His gaze flicked from Initiate to Initiate as they shuffled in, pausing on Harry for an unsettlingly long amount of time.

“Today is the culmination of all your training,” Adolphus announced, crossing his arms behind his back and beginning his trademark pacing. Harry allowed his stomach to unclench; Sebastian wasn’t here. He was sure Sebastian would interfere with the final exam somehow, but at least he wasn’t here right now to gloat.

“As we have previously informed you, the final exam will take place in an advanced Dueling Ring, and will test your progress in Body, Soul, and Mind all at once. You will be required to use every tidbit of information you know to complete the trials ahead of you today.”

Adolphus stopped pacing and whirled around to face the haphazard group, suddenly businesslike.

“This year’s objective is very simple: you will be receiving a slip of paper with a particular name on it, much like you did during the Hunt in your first year of Initiation. Except this time, the name will belong to another Initiate, your partner, and your name will be on his slip. Because we have an odd number of Initiates in this group, two people will have the same partner—however, that Initiate will only have one name on his slip.  If you happen to be one of these three, the exam will be more confusing for you, but we will adjust your final score keeping this extra difficulty in mind.

“Moving on, your objective is to find your partner somewhere in the Dueling Ring and duel them, and their objective is to find you and duel you. As you will soon learn, finding your Initiate partner is the most difficult part of the exam.

“The Dueling Ring itself is being controlled by a panel of Silver and Gold Skulls, who will be able to keep an eye on you all from a distant location with the use of a handy spell. Because this is an advanced Ring, it contains a terrain, divided into four zones—earth, water, fire, and wind. Each zone comes with different hazards that you will have to survive in order to reach your objective, and the zones shift every five minutes. The more Initiates you take down on your way to your partner, the more points you are awarded. You will also be awarded quite points for reaching your partner, and even more points for winning a duel against him. Bonus points will be awarded for time; the less time you take, the more bonus points you earn. Any questions?”

Harry did not like this. What if Sebastian was on that panel? Surely he had to be.

No point worrying about it. You can handle what they throw at you.

“As there are no questions,” said Adolphus a second later, despite not giving anybody the opportunity to ask questions, “we will be starting in fifteen minutes time. The door I came out of, the one behind me, leads to the outer ring of the Dueling Ring. There you will find twenty-one small circular doors. Each door has a slip of paper stuck to it, and one of these slips will have your name on it. You are required to stand in front your assigned door, as this will be your starting position. On the other side of that piece of paper, you will find the name of your partner. Quick, get into position.”

With a swish of his robes, Adolphus moved aside, clearing the way into the Dueling Ring. Once again, Draco took the first step over the threshold, and Harry kept close to him.

You do realize how you’re making this look, don’t you? Harry reminded himself, noticing how Travers and Montague in particular were glaring daggers at his back. Nott, oddly enough, wasn’t glaring at him—which was weird, but no weirder than anything else Nott had done today.

Why had he helped Draco rescue Harry? It made no sense. Harry knew that the conniving serpent was plotting something evil, but he could hardly spew baseless accusations at him right now, could he?

The corridor they were in curved as far as Harry could see, and he supposed it was going around in a massive circle. Round doors lined the walls, around fifty feet apart. The number of Initiates dwindled as they split away from the party one by one to stand in front of their doors.

Draco, whose door was only four doors from the first, was one of the first to stop walking.

“Good luck,” Harry whispered over his shoulder, and Draco gave him a stiff nod. Theo found his door only five doors after Draco’s, and soon Harry was walking with the remaining third years and Millicent Bulstrode, who snorted with amusement every time she looked at him, for some reason.

After what seemed like an age, Harry finally reached the door with his name on it, figuring out that this part of the Ring was precisely opposite of Draco’s. That was an interesting coincidence, he supposed.

Bracing himself, Harry ripped away the slip of paper on his door and flipped it over.

Oh.

It wasn’t a coincidence at all that he and Draco had been assigned opposite ends of the Ring.

Because the name on his slip read Draco Malfoy.

***

Harry Potter. Draco read the slip of paper, again and again as Adolphus’s voice echoed around the corridor, magically amplified.

“ON THE COUNT OF THREE, THE DOORS WILL OPEN.”

Draco needed to pass this exam, and Harry needed to win. But only one of them could emerge victorious from a duel.

“THREE!”

So what was more important, Draco doing well, or Harry winning? Would Harry even let him win, come to think of it?

“TWO!”

I can’t make Harry lose for me. The doors began to creak open.

“ONE!”

A bong sounded, rattling the inside of Draco’s head, signaling the start of the exam. He took a tentative step into the Ring, into a world of gray and brown.

At once, he gasped. A false sky stretched out above him, blue and clear of clouds. Hard earth crunched beneath his feet, and he stood perched upon a boulder, one stacked precariously on top of many others. From up here, he could see the other zones clearly: a blanket of smoke and red haze covered the zone in front, and greenery shrouded the adjacent zone. These seemed to be Fire and Earth, respectively, so he was in Air. The high trees in Earth obscured his view of Water, however.

Draco gave his head a quick shake. He’d spent enough time admiring this spectacle of magic. He wasn’t sure how real any of it was; his father said that advanced Dueling Rings were sometimes real-life simulations, using age-old spells to trick a human’s mind into thinking he was where he really wasn’t.

When the shout of a spell from the Fire zone split the air, a battle cry loud enough to reach every corner of the Ring, Draco began the climb down. If a scuffle had already broken out, it was time for him to get a move on before he got into one himself.

***

Theo’s shirt stuck to his skin, damp with sweat. He was in Earth, which was apparently synonymous with unlivable jungle. The heat pounded into his neck, making it difficult to breathe. He was only five or so doors away from Draco, he remembered, which meant that he needed to move clockwise—left from here—in order to get into Draco’s zone, whatever zone that happened to be.

Funny how they made Draco my target. I wonder how I’m going to duel him. He’ll get mad at me for beating him again…

A canopy of massive flowers with dew-dappled crimson petals the size of his head loomed above, and now he was starting to suspect that they were slowly growing closer and closer to the ground. At least, Theo was certain they’d been higher up the last time he’d looked at them a mere couple seconds ago. Shuddering, he turned his gaze forward again, not wanting to dwell on the plants any longer than necessary.

“Each zone comes with different hazards,” Adolphus had informed them minutes prior, and Theo suspected the freaky flowers would swallow him up if he dawdled here long enough for them to reach him. He crept through the bushes, keeping his ears pricked for activity. A permanent moisture permeated the air, and breathing didn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it was supposed to.

At least two minutes passed in silence, time during which the only thing Theo could hear was the rustle of leaves and his own breathing.

He supposed that he ought to be finding Initiates within the Earth zone to get rid of on his way to Draco—since there were twenty-one Initiates, each zone was guaranteed to contain at least five—but he would prefer to avoid all confrontation here if possible. Besides, his fellow Earthers were probably hiding among the foliage, like him, and would not be easy to target or spot. He quickened his pace, noticing how low the massive flowers had fallen, and almost yelped.

They were perhaps hanging a few feet above his head now, which meant that soon they’d be smothering him.

The zones shift every five minutes. Does that mean each zone steadily gets steadily more and more unlivable as those five minutes progress? Had the other zones gotten more dangerous? At this final five-minute mark, were the only safe spots in the boundary between the zones, or was there no space at all between zones?

Theo chewed on his lip for a moment, pondering. Finally, he aimed his wand at the flowers.

He would see if he could create his own safe spot.

“Reducto!”

The crimson petals of the flower above him billowed and tore like silk curtains, and the yellow-pollen center of the flower contracted into itself. For a moment, the flower, or what remained of it, quivered and trembled and spat water everywhere, then it made a great whistling noise, like a teakettle’s screech.

When the flower began to writhe and wail as though it were a living creature in pain, Theo decided to make a run for it.The other flowers quivered to life now, descending on him like a swarm of massive wasps, screeching and wailing for their lost comrade.

I really shouldn’t have done that.

Panicking, he sent Freezing Charm after Freezing Charm over his shoulder, immobilizing enough of them in about ten seconds that he could slow his pace long enough to catch his breath. He was so close to the edge of Earth now, he could feel it—

“Theo, what did you do?”

Someone thudded to the ground in front of him, appearing out of nowhere, and Theo’s heart almost failed.

It was Nathaniel. As he strode toward Theo, the flowers immediately plopped to the ground as though they’d been deactivated, but Theo could not muster up any relief.

“What—what—”

“You know tat the Skulls controlling this Ring are trying to make it easy for you, right? Some of the other Initiates in Earth have had to battle monkeys, but you still managed to mess it up somehow.”

Theo’s heartbeat began to return to a normal pace, and he tried to defend himself. “The flowers were falling, so they would’ve attacked me eventually.”

“No, they would’ve just gotten in your way, been a mild annoyance,” said Nathaniel, walking up to Theo and staring down at him disapprovingly. “You provoked them.”

Theo scowled. “Anyway, what are you doing here? You’re not an Initiate. You’re not allowed.”

“I’m allowed. There’s a couple Skulls in the Ring right now, you know. Under the Disillusionment Charm. We’re here to observe. I just happened to come across you,” said Nathaniel, the lumps on his face twisting around his lips as he scowled back. Sebastian would’ve grinned in that humorless way of his, but Nathaniel didn’t much like to pretend.

Most people overlooked and underestimated Nathaniel, but Theo didn’t. After all, Nathaniel’s heart was identical to his twin’s black and twisted one. But unlike Sebastian, Nathaniel was terrified of social interaction, so much so that very few students had ever heard him speak outside of classes. According to one rumor, Sebastian would taunt his victims, whereas Nathaniel was nowhere near as chatty.

The Skulls call him Sebastian’s silent shadow, Theo thought with a snort. Of course, Nathaniel had no issue conversing with those he was comfortable with, but even then, his speech patterns were noticeably more subdued and less crass than his twin’s. In fact, they resembled Theo’s, if anyone’s at all.

“How did you stop the flowers?” Theo asked.

“I didn’t,” said Nathaniel with a shrug. “I showed up here, and I suppose the Skulls watching from out of the Ring stopped the flowers because they assumed I wanted them to. Maybe they thought I was Sebastian.”

“Is Sebastian in the Ring, too? Has he got Potter yet?” Theo asked eagerly.

Nathaniel shifted his feet, not meeting Theo’s eyes. “Hmm? Yeah, Potter started off in the Water zone. That’s where Sebastian is right now.”

“Should I go meet him there?” Theo’s eyes brightened. “I want to watch.”

“That’s not where he’ll be doing it,” said Nathaniel, curtly. “He’s taking Potter somewhere else. I don’t know where.” He curled his upper lip in a sneer.  “I doubt he wants you to interfere, though.”

Theo frowned. I thought Sebastian would let me watch. Why wouldn’t he?

“If you know where Potter started out, do you know where every Initiate is?”

“Wow, what a subtle attempt to get me to tell you where your partner is, Theo. I could tell you how to find dear Draco, but I wouldn’t want to help you cheat.” Nathaniel turned to leave, rolling his eyes. “If you’ll excuse me, I have places to be.”

“I never said anything about partners or Draco.”

Something was wrong here. Theo didn’t know what, but something was. He didn’t like the way Nathaniel had uttered Draco’s name just then, nor did he like the idea of Sebastian and Nathaniel knowing exactly where Draco was within the Ring.

“You know that I’m the reason Potter’s in this Ring at all, right?” Theo said. “If it wasn’t for me, he’d still be in a broom closet somewhere, so Sebastian better thank me. Why isn’t he letting me watch? What’s he got to hide? Sebastian promised he wouldn’t hurt Draco if I did what he asked—”

Theo stumbled back as Nathaniel whirled around, eyes blazing. He let out a chuckle—low and sardonic—at the terror written all over Theo’s face. “Ah, Theodore Nott, such a brave young man. You’re Draco’s hero, aren’t you? His guardian?”

Theo flushed an ugly shade of purple.

“Right, Draco’s very lucky to have you.”

Nathaniel laughed one last time before disappearing into the bushes, leaving Theo to stand, forlorn, among piles of torn petals and broken stems.

***

Draco panted and fell to the ground beside a large stone mound, clutching his stomach. He’d just had the worst four minutes.

On the other side of the mound he was taking refuge behind whirled a mini-twister, and two minutes earlier, a small twister had caught Draco unawares and blown him into a rock, nearly snapping his arm in the process. He doubted anything could actually kill him here—he still wasn’t sure how real any of this was—but all of these hazards could knock him out, and therefore cause him to flunk the final exam.

He decided to stay behind this stupid mound for the foreseeable future.

But he had to go find Harry.

But the twisters.

Draco groaned into his arms. Mind, Draco, Mind! Use your damn mind! How do I get rid of the twisters? Maybe I could use a Ventus to try and disrupt them, but wouldn’t that make them worse?

Draco gave himself a mental smack. He could not fail this final exam. Even if he couldn’t win a duel against Harry, he could at least find him and win a reasonable amount of points for doing so. It would allow him to rank in the top half and therefore pass. Would he earn the same amount of points if he stayed here and Harry found him instead? Probably not.

Draco got shakily to his feet. He had no other ideas besides Ventus, so he’d use it.

Just as he raised his wand, the twister dissipated, clearing the way forward, and Draco’s heart turned to ice.

“Have you tried raising columns of stone? Ah, too late for that, I guess. They’ve turned it off for me. How polite.”

Draco cried out as a figure shimmered into existence mere feet from him, emerging from a Disillusionment Charm. Sebastian stood there, tall and thick like the trunk of a tree, his face obscured by his trademark glittering silver mask.

This isn’t happening right now.

Draco’s legs turned to jelly, his arms to lead. He still remembered last year vividly, the sensation of Sebastian’s rough fingers on his bare stomach, his throat

Sebastian pulled his lips back in a toothy grin, and Draco snapped out of his hysterical trance.

In that moment, he forgot his fear, fueled by nothing except white-hot rage.

“CRUCIO!”

Sebastian stumbled ungracefully, dodging the curse by a hair’s breadth, and Draco’s short-lived bravado shriveled and died.

“Little bitch,” Sebastian spat, darting forward and seizing Draco by the front of his robes, holding Draco so that Draco’s arms were trapped at his sides, rendered immobile. He couldn’t reach the pocket where he kept his secret weapon, his precious magic-obstructor Knut, as apparently Sebastian had learned his lesson from last year. Draco went limp and heavy, trying to unsteady the unyielding body that held him, but there was a wand at his throat now, and—

“Petrificus Totalus!”

Then Draco couldn’t move his lips, and when he screamed, he didn’t make a sound. Sebastian cradled him, supporting his head with one arm and his waist with the other.

“Ah, that’s much better. You like making things difficult, don’t you?”

Sebastian sighed, combing his fingers through Draco’s hair. “It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at you properly. You’re even cuter now. My, my, haven’t you grown?”

Bile rose up Draco’s throat, and perhaps Sebastian knew this, because his grin widened. He traced a finger down Draco’s cheek. Warm breath wafted across Draco’s face.

“Speaking of you growing up… do you ever think about Harry, hmm?

Don’t you dare say his name! Draco screamed.

Are you thinking about him right now? You know it’s his fault I came after you today, right? I intend to use you as bait to lure the dirty-blood into a trap. Quite a dramatic plan, if I do say so myself. Adolphus approved of it, but even he doesn’t know exactly what I’m going to do with you. He doesn’t know about us.”

Sebastian lowered his voice to a coo, but the jealousy in it was unmistakable. “Oh, by the way, did you ever tell your beloved Harry about you and me, about what we’ve done together?”

Every muscle in Draco’s body strained against its magical binds, desperate to break free. His wand lay useless in his hand, held by stiff fingers. Panicked tears leaked from his eyes. Harry can’t find out. Harry can’t ever—

“You haven’t? Of course not. You’re not the type to kiss and tell. Well, he’ll find out today, so let’s give him a show, shall we?” Sebastian let out a little breathy laugh, something Draco had never heard from him before. “You’re mine, little bird. When I’m King, I’ll keep you in a cage. Potter can watch the first time, but then I’ll kill him, and you and I will be alone, Draco. Ah—will you look at the time! I’ve rambled long enough. It’s time for us to get to the center of the Ring. That’s where dearest Harry will find us.”

Sebastian rummaged in his pocket for a moment, revealing a glint of sharp silver, and in a blazing moment of clarity, Draco realized exactly what Sebastian had planned for them both.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

FIVE CUTS

o

Harry had circled this stupid Ring about three times by now, and he still couldn’t find Draco. Oddly enough, none of the natural hazards had posed much of a threat to him, nor had he found it difficult to beat the handful of Initiates who’d been unlucky enough to get in his way. Harry had a feeling it couldn’t be this easy. Surely any moment now, Sebastian would pop out of the ground screaming, “CRUCIO!”

As Harry waded through some sort of swamp in the Water zone, ankle-deep in the stuff. The water level rose with each minute, but Harry wasn’t too worried about drowning at the moment.

Where could Draco be? Was he hiding somewhere, under the Disillusionment Charm? Did Draco even know how to cast a Disillusionment Charm? Probably not.

How am I even supposed to duel Draco? Harry held back a groan. He would have to, of course, in order to get the maximum amount of points.

So what was more important, Draco doing well in the Tournament, or Harry winning? Harry wanted to win, yeah, but if Draco asked him to throw the duel, Harry would do it. He wouldn’t be able to say no.

But would Draco ever demand such a thing, especially when he himself had always been so excited to see Harry win?

These Skull bastards have to ruin everything. Why couldn’t have Harry’s partner been Crabbe or Goyle or some other idiot? Even Theo would’ve been great.

Panting slightly, Harry trudged out of the Water zone into an Earth zone, soaked to the bone. Water had flooded into the shrubbery, and mud squelched beneath Harry’s feet. He would just have to keep looking for Draco—and keep taking down Initiates foolhardy enough to challenge him on the way.

“Harry!”

At this, Harry almost jumped out of his skin, his head grazing the petals of the giant flowers looming above. The voice sounded like Draco’s, but there was an unnatural, metallic edge to it. Where the hell had it come from?

Harry spun in place, his heart pounding up a storm.

“Harry, Harry! Don’t—don’t listen—HAR—mmmph!” Draco’s voice cut off, as if someone had muffled him.

“DRACO!”

Then a low, cool voice replaced Draco’s, and the blood in Harry’s veins turned to stone.

It was Sebastian.

“Good morning, Potter. How’s your day been? Fine, I hope? Draco’s being very, very naughty right now, so I’ve had to shut him up. But don’t worry. I haven’t harmed him yet…” A chuckle. “…Not too much, at least.”

Harry turned his head in every direction frantically. Draco was being hurt. Sebastian had Draco. But where

“I’m sure you’re very confused, so let’s get to the point. I assume you’ve been wandering around for a while now, looking for Draco.”

Harry froze.

“Surprised? Don’t be. I’ve known about you two for a long, long time—but I’ll get to that part later. Let’s hurry this introduction up, so we can get started, shall we?

“As you’re probably coming to realize, Potter, this is a recording, one I’ve captured by spell and placed into a marble. If you’re hearing this right now, a marble is lying somewhere near you, and is charmed to only begin playing when it senses you in the immediate area. I instructed Nathaniel to drop off several marbles throughout the arena, and to find the next marble, you will need the previous to light the way. The marbles will lead you closer to where I am… where Draco is. And you want to find Draco, don’t you?” Sebastian let out another evil chuckle.

Harry struggled to breathe.

“I’ve removed all obstacles from your path to me, so it should be smooth sailing from here on out. You’re welcome for that, by the way. Now get going. The clock is ticking, and I would hate for it to strike the next hour. Draco would hate that too, because I might get impatient… and take that impatience out on him.” A heavy, gleeful pause. “See you soon, Potter.”

The full implications of what he’d just heard slammed into Harry, and he almost dropped to his knees.

The bastard has Draco. Sebastian kidnapped Draco to get to me. Somehow, Sebastian had known exactly where to strike, and Harry had been played for a fool.

He closed his eyes and calculated. It was ten-forty right now, and if he didn’t reach Sebastian by eleven, Draco would be hurt—or worse.

The marble. He had to find the marble.

After a few tense seconds, Harry finally spotted it lying inches from his shoe. It gave off a faint light, so faint that he hadn’t noticed it despite all his frantic searching for the source of the voice earlier. Sucking in shallow puffs of breath at top speed, he bent down to pick it up.

He knew he’d faint if he didn’t get a grip. He was already getting dizzy, hyperventilating. He’d never felt such panic in his life, not even when he’d nearly been killed by Sebastian, by Dolohov, by the Hunger. None of it compared to this, this feeling of stark terror.

The marble suddenly burned in his palm, and he yelped, almost dropping it.

You will need the previous marble to light your way to the next, Sebastian had said. The marble was glowing brighter now, but dimmed when Harry turned to his right. He turned back to the left, and the marble’s inner glow brightened once more.

Left. He had to go left, deeper into the Ring’s center, deeper into the Earth zone.

Harry shot off, running faster than he could ever remember running, crashing through undergrowth and trampling delicate leaves beneath his feet. The marble burned hotter and hotter and his hand, and he knew he was getting close—

“You’re here, Potter. It’s about time.”

Harry skidded to a stop as the next marble began to play.

“Do you know that Draco and I go quite a ways back? Did he ever tell you about us, about me? It’s a real good story, Potter. Do stay and listen, won’t you?”

Sebastian’s gleefulness rang in the air. Harry stepped back, shaking his head. It wasn’t true.

It couldn’t be true.

“The first time I saw him, he was visiting our manor for his first playdate with Theo. I was only nine, and him, six.”

Sebastian’s voice crackled with intensity. “He… fascinated me, to say the least. I remember watching him and Theo play in the gardens. He never talked to us—me and Nathaniel, that is—and we were too shy to talk to him. We imagined a hundred ways to introduce ourselves to him, dreamed of becoming his mentors, his trusted elder brothers. We didn’t really understand what our faces meant to the rest of the world back then. How would we? Father never let us leave the house. Draco was the first person from the outside we’d seen in years.”

Harry listened raptly, both hands clenched into fists. Sebastian chuckled, and Harry could almost imagine the motherfucker tilting his head to the side.

“To hear more—and I know you want to, Potter—you’ll have to find the next marble.”

The recording went infuriatingly silent. Harry stood there, stomach plunging.

So Draco had lied all those times Harry had asked him about Sebastian. Sebastian and Draco knew each other. And Sebastian was—Sebastian was—

Harry didn’t let himself finish the thought. He picked up the marble, let its light point the way forward, and broke out into a run. The words ‘Draco fascinated me’ played over and over in his head, pounding against his skull, and in his reverie, he barely noticed the third marble starting up.

“After about the dozenth time Draco visited our manor, Nathaniel and I finally gathered enough courage to talk to him. We were so eager to have a friend of our own. I’m sure you understand the feeling, Potter.” Sebastian spat out Harry’s name. “But when we finally approached him, he rejected us. He didn’t even let us say hi.” Here, Sebastian’s voice grew feverish, breathless with rage. “He called us ugly. He said that nobody would even want to look at us, much less play with us. Every other time we tried to talk to him, he’d ignore us, or tell us that we weren’t worth his time.”

Sebastian paused, and Harry could imagine his hideous face just then, the crisscrossed scars over hard, lumpy skin, and the way they twisted when he grinned in vicious fury.“But you were worth Draco’s time. Weren’t you, Potter?”

The third recording ended with a snarl.

Harry picked up the marble, swallowing, and it grew warm, ordering him deeper into the Ring’s center. He forced his legs to move. There wasn’t any time to dwell on what he’d just heard. He had to get to Draco.

The plants were thinning now, which meant he was almost out of the Earth zone. At last, he stepped out into a small circular stone clearing and slowed down, apprehensive of an ambush.

But everything was silent. Harry lingered at the edge of the Earth zone anyway, peering out with narrowed eyes. From here, he could see the rest of the zones. A few Initiates were dueling in Air, their spells fizzing out on the ground and turning rocks to dust, but they were too far away to be a threat to him—as long as he stayed out of sight. Sebastian had meant it when he’d said that he’d cleared Harry’s path.

Swallowing again, Harry took a closer look at the clearing. This was almost certainly the Ring’s dead center. A clear marble lay out in the open, blending in with the stone.

Harry had been expecting it, but he still flinched when it began to play.

“You’ve arrived at the penultimate marble, Potter. Only one left now, and when you find it, you’ll have found us.” Harry could almost hear Sebastian’s smile, the sick bastard. “So come down below, beneath the Ring. That’s where we are. I’ll give you a hint on how to get there: look down at the cir—”

Then a scream drowned Sebastian’s voice in the recording, and Harry fell back into the trees. “HARRY! IT’S A TRAP! RUN! I’LL BE FINE—”

There was the sound of a slap, and Draco sniffled and whimpered, then fell dead silent. Harry lurched forward dizzily, almost falling to his knees in front of the marble.

Sebastian snickered.

“As Draco’s been so kind to inform you, this is obviously a trap. But let me assure you, Draco will certainly not be fine should you leave him alone with me. So I’m giving you a choice, Harry Potter. You can save him, or yourself. Choose wisely.”

Silence. Harry picked up the marble, clenching it so tightly in his fist that it turned to dust. Kardin stirred inside of him, as hungry for blood as Harry was. What if it was a trap, a trick? What if Sebastian didn’t really have Draco?

But as long as there’s the slightest chance that he does, then I have to stop him. The alternative was too terrible to consider. He didn’t know what Sebastian had in store for Draco, couldn’t imagine it. Torture, surely. Pain.

Harry’s legs trembled. He couldn’t let Draco get hurt. How many times had Draco risked his life, sacrificed his well-being for Harry’s? How could Harry live with himself if he didn’t do the same?

Barely aware that he was breathing in shallow gasps again, Harry started examining the central stone circle, walking on its edge. What had first appeared to be one circle revealed itself to be two upon closer inspection, the smaller inset within the larger.

Like a trapdoor.

Harry kneeled at the edge of the smaller circle, scrabbling at it with his strengthened fingers, crushing and loosening the stone. It was a door, and it was almost coming loose. Breathless, he straightened up and took aim.

“Alohomora.”

***

Theo crouched in the trees, not daring to breath. In the distance, Harry was kneeling by the central stone circle, messing around with his hands. Theo peered through the foliage, trying and failing to determine what Potter was doing. He’d come here after tracking Draco with the Four-Point spell, and now his wand was spinning frantically.

Theo knew it know: Sebastian had Draco, and from the looks of it, Harry had found him too.

There’s winding hallways and small chambers beneath every Ring to help keep it running, only accessible from a central door, Theo remembered from his studies. And Sebastian’s keeping Draco down there.

To lure Potter.

Theo buried his face in his hands. He’d done this. He’d helped Sebastian pull this off. How could Theo have deluded himself into thinking Draco was safe when Sebastian cared about nothing and nobody but Draco, when even his hatred for Potter had everything to do with Draco?

Draco would never be safe from Sebastian.

“So, you found him.”

Theo whirled around, heart thudding in his chest. Nathaniel stood behind him, the hood of his robes covering half his face. Fortunately.

“You—”

“I had orders to guide Potter here, secretly,” said Nathaniel. He took a deep breath, staring off into the distance. “Funny how you found us out so fast. So, then, are you going to go after him—after Potter?”

“So you knew where he and Draco were,” Theo wailed. “You knew what Sebastian was doing—”

“Of course I did,” Nathaniel said snappishly. “Sebastian left me clear instructions. Now, tell me what you’re going to do so I can decide whether to Stun you or not. Sebastian ordered me not to let you interfere, though we both doubt you’ll try.”

Theo shook his head frantically, not sure what he was replying to. “I—why aren’t you with Sebastian? Don’t you—”

“Want Draco too?” Nathaniel finished dangerously, pulling his lips back in a snarl. “The reason I’m not down there is because Sebastian wants to be alone. Now answer me, are you going after Sebastian?”

Theo didn’t know he was crying until his tears began dripping off his chin. He wiped them off hastily, gasping. “I—I have to, but—”

“You won’t, obviously,” Nathaniel finished, running a careless hand through Theo’s hair. The gesture was almost gentle, and Theo clenched his eyes shut, trying to stop the flow of tears.

What was he supposed to do, even if Nathaniel let him leave? Was Theo supposed to stop Potter from going down there? Fight Sebastian himself? What would Sebastian do to Theo if he interfered?

What’s Sebastian doing to Draco right now?

“Funny, isn’t it,” said Nathaniel conversationally, “that we thought you were Draco’s best friend for the longest time. I don’t know, really, why we thought that, when it’s obvious that neither of you give a shit about each other. Right, Theo? I reckon you give as much a shit as Sebastian does.”

Theo shook his head again, but his legs couldn’t move. He heard the sound of stone screeching against stone as Potter moved the circular door aside, then watched him lower himself into the newly uncovered hole.

“I can’t go down t-there. Nathaniel, stop Sebastian, please—tell him to release Draco. Please.

Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “No.”

Theo’s voice rose in panic. “Don’t you want to be there with Sebastian, when he does…whatever it is he’s doing to Draco? Don’t you think it’s unfair that you have to wait out here? Nathaniel, please stop him—”

Nathaniel lunged forward, seizing Theo by the collar and shaking him like a rag doll. “Enough. Sebastian and I have an… understanding where Draco is concerned, and it’s none of your fucking business. Now, will you shut up and leave it alone, or should I Stun you to stop you from whining?”

Theo knees gave way, and Nathaniel dropped him in disgust, making disapproving clicking noises with his tongue.

“Hard to believe that Father’s favorite son is so pathetic. Guess that face is the only thing you’ve got going for you.”

***

Harry struggled to his feet, coughing, his knees a bit bruised up. After throwing himself into the circular doorway, he’d fallen about ten feet. Dust particles danced in the shaft of light from the ceiling door. He was in a narrow stone hallway, one that twisted out of sight.

Sebastian was here. Harry could feel the tension of the recent past in the air, could imagine Draco being dragged down this desolate hallway, screaming and crying and kicking. Or maybe, Draco had been Stunned, Incarcerated. Harry inched forward, every muscle on alert, his wand out.

“So, you’re here.”

Harry flinched horribly, his heartbeat echoing as loudly as the sound of Sebastian’s voice in the fifth and final recording. The marble that held it lay forlorn on the ground, glittering in the light from the shaft.

“I’m right down this hallway. It’s a long, curving walk, so pick up the marble and follow the light to me. On the way, I’d like to tell you another story.”

Breathing shakily, Harry scooped up the marble and crept forward. He would take this slow and steady. If Sebastian captured him unawares down here, he’d become Draco’s burden instead of Draco’s savior.

“Have you ever wondered what happened to my face?”

Harry’s breath hitched. Sebastian gave an almost girlish giggle.

“For the sake of brevity, I’ll tell it to you straight: my father did it when we were eight. He used a cursed knife, a knife cursed to make horrible, permanent scars, scars that can’t be erased or healed.”

Sebastian laughed, wildly, hoarsely.

“Do you understand now, Potter? I am a truly tragic figure. Disgraced, cursed, a monster fashioned from his own father’s cruelty.” Sebastian stopped laughing, but his voice continued to quiver with mirth, as if he knew that his words rang false, were utterly absurd.“But I’m over it. I love my face now, you know. It suits me. The whole goddamn school thinks I’m fucking senile, but I’ll tell you my secret: I’m not crazy. I know exactly what I’m doing, and I want everyone to suffer.”

Sebastian’s voice rose in a crescendo, quivering and maniacal at its highest pitch.

“It’s a perfectly sane viewpoint to have, if you’re me. I’m sure you think about it too, sometimes. Seeing everything and everyone you know die, and relishing in it because you hate all of them. I like seeing people hurting and bleeding and screaming, Potter. I like seeing their faces crumple. Even the most beautiful people look ugly when they’re wailing and sobbing and broken. It’s a fucking addiction, seeing that ugliness. It’s brilliant. It’s like seeing the sun. And it’s the only thing I give a fuck about.”

Another deep, shuddering breath, and then the recording ended.

Harry kept walking, unimpressed. This tale had elicited no sympathy in him, merely more hatred. Sebastian was a disturbed, broken little boy, and this final recording only proved it. Harry couldn’t let himself be fazed.

Sebastian spread fear by presenting himself as a mad, chaotic king, one constantly on the verge of snapping, but if Harry had learned anything this year, it was that he could handle Chaos.

The hallway was widening now, and Harry could see an open door ahead. The marble burned and twitched eagerly in his hand, and Harry dropped it and took aim with his wand.

They’re here.

Sebastian would be a difficult fight, but Harry was no longer the same boy he’d been at the beginning of the year. He was stronger, faster, and more motivated this time: Draco was on the line, and there was no room for error.

Harry saw something flicker by the door, perhaps a shadow, and he darted back in a dodge, half-blinded by the torchlight reflecting off something spinning in the air.

Except it wasn’t a spell. It was a Knut. A second stretched out into a lifetime as Harry watched the Knut rotate, uncomprehending. Then he dropped to the ground, screaming.

His magic squirmed under his skin, trapped there, bubbling like boiling water and scorching his insides. The pain was unbearable, unthinkable, and he knew then he was going to burst apart at the seams. He’d felt this same pain last year, when Draco had betrayed him, and the pain of that memory mixed with his agony now, intensifying it to a single blazing point.

The magic-obstructor. Sebastian had stolen Draco's Knut.

Sebastian—the real Sebastian, not the recording—was howling with laughter in the distance. His footsteps thudded closer, and Harry’s back arched as his limbs jerked.

“That was easy,” Sebastian said, leaning over Harry and observing him with glittering eyes. Harry’s vision swam, overwhelmed with colors blooming like throbbing flowers. Sebastian’s face distorted and rippled, his expression made uglier in Harry’s torment.

“Hurts, doesn’t it? Draco, bless him, used that same Knut on me last year, so I know exactly how it feels. Like you’re going to splatter your guts all over the place.”

Through the pain, Harry’s thoughts were a mess. Draco used the Knut on him? Why? What did he do Draco? Why didn’t Draco ever tell me?

“He’s crying in the room behind us right now, because without this stupid coin, he’s completely at my mercy. And so are you. Being the ingenious boy that Draco is, he gave that Knut a damn wide area of effect. There was no chance of you dodging it in time. And it’ll block your magic for fifteen minutes, too! Aren’t Draco’s inventions brilliant?” Sebastian laughed again, genuinely gleeful, genuinely delighted.

“Now, let’s not waste any more of our precious time, shall we? Wingardium Leviosa!”

Harry writhed as Sebastian levitated him down the final stretch of the hallway, into the small stone chamber at the end of it. Draco was tied to a chair, tears streaming down his cheeks, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly under a Silencing Charm.

Every muscle in Harry’s body thrummed in agony, but he couldn’t stop his lips from moving, from saying the name. “Dra—”

Livid, Sebastian deactivated the Wingardium Leviosa, and Harry tumbled to the ground, crying out.

“SUSPENDO!”

Harry’s arms snapped back, bound to his sides by a force stronger than a tornado’s gale, a force that slammed him into the wall and impaled him against it. He couldn’t move an inch, couldn’t release the pain building up in his veins. Sebastian hadn’t allowed him even that small mercy. He was frozen, crucified on an invisible cross.

“Do you have good view from up there?” Sebastian asked, cocking his head, and in that moment he was no more threatening than a cat curiously inspecting its prey. “I want you to see everything, Potter.” He stood inches away now, and with Harry in this elevated position, they were at eye level.

Harry let out a ragged keening noise. He’d expected a duel, not an attack from the accursed Knut. He’d dropped his wand outside when his fingers had seized up in pain, and he was utterly useless to Draco now, just like he’d always been.

“What do you want?” Harry’s chest heaved as he forced the words out. “Bastard, what do you—”

“I asked Adolphus for a favor a few months back,” said Sebastian conversationally, pacing in front of Harry. Draco’s red, swollen gaze flicked between them. “I told him what I suspected about your relationship with Draco, and told him I wanted to teach the dirty-blood a lesson by using his secret best friend, and of course he indulged me. He assigned Draco to be your partner, and ordered the Skulls controlling the Ring to keep your path free of obstacles during the final exam. But he doesn’t know my full plan, and nobody—not even the controllers—can see us down here.” Sebastian fingered his wand lovingly. “Rest assured, the three of us are quite alone right now.”

Adolphus wouldn’t have let him kidnap Draco, not when Draco’s a Pureblood, Harry thought desperately. Or maybe he let him because he didn’t think Sebastian would hurt Draco.

But of course he would.

The pain was fading, buzzed beneath his skin instead of tearing at it. He could think a little more clearly now, but his magic was still obstructed. He couldn’t break Sebastian’s hold on him, not yet, and especially not without his wand.

Kardin.

The demon refused to stir, no matter how much Harry prodded at it.

Fuck.

The obstructor was probably affecting it, trapping it along with the rest of his magic. He would have to stall for time and keep Draco—and himself—safe for fifteen minutes.

Then I’ll make Sebastian regret being born.

There was a earsplitting clatter as Draco knocked his own chair over, squirming and thrashing like a boy possessed. Sebastian spun in Draco’s direction instead, a smile of vicious glee spreading across his face, and Harry wanted to scream. What the hell was Draco doing, attracting Sebastian’s attention? Was he acting out on purpose?

“DON’T fucking touch—” Harry began, but Sebastian flicked his wand, and then Harry found himself suddenly unable to speak, struck dumb by a Silencing Charm.

“Shut up, will you?” Sebastian snapped, not even bothering to look at him. He was absorbed in Draco now, who continued to flail, his back strapped to the fallen chair. His mouth kept opening and closing, but like Harry, he couldn’t form words.

“I’m sure you thought this whole Tournament was about you, Potter, about stopping you from winning.” Sebastian paused, still not looking at Harry. “The truth is, I don’t really care about the Tournament at all. I’ve never given a fuck about that.”

Gaze smoldering, Sebastian flicked his wand again, and a third time. Draco shrieked as the ropes tying him to the chair dissipated.

The two of them locked gazes.

Capable of speaking again, Draco let out a hoarse, urgent hiss. “Harry, please, it’s a trap, he’s got a knife, leave me here, I’ll be—”

Sebastian grabbed Draco by the collar and hauled him to his feet, and for a moment Draco teetered there, dwarfed by Sebastian’s size and height. His face shone with terror, an expression reflected on Harry’s face. His pale hair was disheveled, his eyes watery, his cheeks splotchy. Harry’s body ached looking at him, ached to hold Draco, to shield him from Sebastian. How had Draco gotten stuck in this whole mess in the first place? He should’ve been safe from the Skulls. Sebastian should have been Harry’s burden to bear alone.

Sebastian has a knife, and he hates Draco from when they were children. Draco had to use the Knut on him last year, so he’s attacked Draco before. He could cut Draco, he could torture Draco, he could curse Draco, he could—

Sebastian yanked Draco into a kiss.

Stars burst in front of Harry’s eyes, like he’d been smashed on the head.

Draco whimpered into Sebastian’s mouth, squirming weakly against the muscled arms clamping his own thin ones down. Sebastian made a low sound in the back of his throat, almost a catlike purr. He pulled Draco closer, lifting him up off the ground to deepen the angle of their kiss. His nails, Harry noticed distantly, dug into Draco’s cheeks, leaving behind angry crescent-shaped marks.

Harry couldn’t breathe.

Draco didn’t look at him. His body had gone rigid as though he’d been switched off, and his legs hung limp and useless. His eyes glazed over, unseeing, and his fingers twitched weakly at his sides where Sebastian held his arms in place.

A creature stirred in Harry’s heart, rapidly swelling from his rage. He caught a glimpse of Sebastian’s tongue, saw him coax Draco’s mouth open. A string of saliva stretched between their damp lips as Sebastian drew away.

You understand now, don’t you? Draco is mine,” Sebastian whispered, eyes lidded. He looked at Harry, and those unfocused eyes suddenly grew alert, blazed with a psychotic fervor. “One day, Potter, I’ll have everything, and Draco won’t have anyone but me. Least of all a filthy, half-blood savage like you.”

Sebastian dropped Draco, who slumped to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut, and closed the distance between himself and Harry in two long strides. Draco made retching noises in the background, his body wracked with sobs.

Then Harry saw a glint of silver, the blade of a knife thrown into sharp relief.

“He won’t love you after this, Harry Potter,” said Sebastian, smiling, and in that moment he was more dangerous, more unhinged than ever before. “Nobody will.”

Knowing what was coming, Harry thrashed desperately against his magical constraints, but they didn’t give in the slightest. The creature roared in his chest, seconds from erupting, from ripping Sebastian into pieces for defiling Draco—

At first, Harry didn’t feel anything. The tip of the knife was precise, so precise that it pierced the skin of his left cheek painlessly. He felt something drip down his neck.

Then the burn started, a pain more exquisite than even the Cruciatus Curse.

Draco let out a ragged gasp, but under the Silencing Charm, Harry couldn’t make a sound.

Sebastian laughed, and then came the second cut, from the bottom of Harry’s eye to the edge of his lips. Then came the third cut, from his forehead to his throat, and Harry could only gape soundlessly. He saw the world through a delirious haze, saw it go crimson.

Fourth cut, one so deep it might’ve hit bone.

Sebastian licked his lips, wielding the knife like a scalpel, as though he were sculpting a clay figurine. “Time to do the other side of your face, I think.”

Fifth cut, and Harry entered a dreamlike state. Blood flowed in rivulets down his tattered face, blinding him. It gathered in the dip of his throat, dampened his shirt.

“STOP!” Draco screamed himself hoarse, jerking Harry back to his agonizing reality. “God, Sebastian, I’ll do anything, I’ll let you do anything you want to me, please just stop—”

Sebastian dropped the knife and whirled on Draco, breathless. “Anything? Oh, Draco, I’ll take you right here.”

Harry heard the knife clatter to the blood-slick floor, heard Draco cry out as Sebastian seized his hair, heard the squelching sound of a wet kiss, and the world clicked and snapped into place with terrifying clarity.

Harry smothered the throbbing pain in his wounds, let his fury overwhelm everything else. He blinked through the blood, and whipped the newly awakened creature in him, whatever it was, into a frenzy.

You called, Colossus?

It could have been the voice of a demon, but not Kardin. This voice was lower, older, metallic, as though it were forged straight from the stones of the earth.

I called, Harry replied.

The voice rumbled like the sound of an earthquake, the sound of seas moving. When I am fully awake, we will destroy everything, and you will have all the magic you have ever desired.

Harry screamed, and this time his voice shattered the Silencing Charm and the Suspending Curse and the Knut’s obstruction, one after the other. He thudded to the ground, staggered for a moment, and then leapt at Sebastian, fingers outstretched. He’d break Sebastian’s arms, his legs, his neck, until this sick monster was nothing but a pile of bloody limbs—

Sebastian turned around, slack-jawed with surprise. He began to raise his wand, draw his lips back in a snarl. The world slowed for Harry, showing him exactly what he needed to do, where he needed to move. Kardin worked at full speed, heightening all of his reflexes into a quivering climax.

He ripped the wand out of Sebastian’s hand, milliseconds before Sebastian finished uttering a spell. Then Harry clenched his fingers into a victorious fist, and the wand’s dying crack split the air.

The color drained out of Sebastian’s face, and he staggered back, teeth bared. Harry teetered where he stood above the remnants of Sebastian’s wand, dizzy from blood loss, but he didn’t care. He would take Sebastian down with him, would drown him in the blood that drenched the floor, would shred him until no part of skin that had touched Draco remained whole.

Break, Harry thought, and lunged. He felt bone splinter beneath his superhuman fingers, heard Sebastian scream as his arm met the same end as his wand. He tore out of Harry’s grip and retreated, choking and gasping and retching like Draco had earlier.

Revenge.

“When I’m King, I swear I’ll kill you. Whatever the hell you are,” Sebastian spat, stumbling for the door, cradling his arm. A storm raged in his eyes, dark and looming. “I will rip you apart, and I’ll make it slow. I’ll make Draco watch, and then fuck him as you die.”

Harry just laughed as the sound of Sebastian’s steps faded away.

Coward. He can’t kill me. He’ll never be able to kill me, because I’m invincible, because I’m the Colossus, and I’ll destroy this world before I let it destroy me.

He was nearing the edge of his consciousness now. His vision blurred and fractured, and he toppled to the ground, clutching his face and throat, trying to stop the flow of blood. Sebastian must have nicked an important vein with his knife. He let himself lie there, sucking in desperate gasps of air.

“Harry, Harry,” Draco whispered, crawling towards him on the ground. Distantly, Harry noticed that Draco’s lip was bleeding—had Sebastian bitten it? “Oh no, Harry, your face, oh no, no no no no NO NO NO—”

Draco was crying hysterically now, harder than he’d cried when Sebastian had been kissing him. Harry reached up to cup his face, smearing blood all over his cheek.

Did I save him? Did I save Draco from Sebastian?

Draco leaned over him, his arms shaking with the effort. “I’m going to get help. Hold on, I’m going to—”

Harry didn’t hear anything after that.

***

When Harry drifted back to consciousness and pried his eyes open, soft-edged light surrounded him on all sides. He was drenched in sweat, and he couldn’t feel his face. It was sticky with something—blood? Some sort of cream? Gasping, he shot upright, then nearly puked after a rush of dizziness.

“Don’t move, Potter!”

Madam Pomfrey emerged out of nowhere, suddenly looming in front of him, waving her hands around.

Harry clutched his head, slowly coming to the realization that he was in the Hospital Wing. Perhaps the Skulls had rescued him after he’d blacked out from blood loss—unlike Sebastian, Adolphus didn’t want Harry dead, after all.

Harry tried to opened his mouth, but his face felt oddly stiff, almost as though he were wearing a mask.

“Careful, you’re still healing,” said Pomfrey. There was something falsely bright, unsettling, about her voice. “It’s eight o’clock in the evening, by the way. Now sit still while I cast a few diagnostic spells.”

Harry pointed questioningly at his own face when she was finished, still not confident enough in his ability to speak.

Madam Pomfrey’s throat bobbed as she pocketed her wand. “Ah, yes. There’s numbing paste on your face right now, so don’t rub at it. You’ve already been administered a Blood Replenishing Potion and Veloxisana, a potion that accelerates healing. The healing’s more than halfway finished now, but it’s—it’s not perfect. Mr. Malfoy told me you were cut by an enchanted knife, and I tried every spell I knew…”

She trailed off, looking helpless. It was a look that didn't suit her.

Harry smothered his rising dread. How many times had Sebastian cut him? Four? Five?

“Where’s Draco?” he managed. And where’s Sebastian? Where had the bastard fled after Harry had broken his arm and wand? How long would it take him to get a new one, and who would he ask to heal his arm in the meantime?

More importantly, had he gotten to Draco?

“Four Bronze Skulls carried you here,” said Madam Pomfrey, crossing her arms. “Mr. Malfoy came with them. He’s fine, by the way.”

Harry exhaled.

“He wanted to wait for you to wake up, but I chased him out. As he’s been returning here every hour to bang down my doors and ask if you’re awake, I’m sure he’ll be along again soon. Now, sit still. I’ll be back in a minute with some more paste, and more Blood Replenishing potions.” Pomfrey raised an eyebrow when his stomach began to grumble, then added, “And a bowl of soup, I think.”

With that, she swept off, muttering under her breath.

Harry’s eyes began to water, his momentary relief gone as quickly as it had come, memories from this morning driving it out.

Draco. Sebastian.

Harry clenched his eyes shut.

Why didn’t I know about them, about what Sebastian did? Why didn’t Draco ever tell me?

He couldn’t remember ever feeling this angry, this helpless, this wretched. If he couldn’t even protect Draco, what was he good for?

Harry took a shuddering breath. He’d kill Sebastian, or die trying. He’d summon a demon so powerful that Sebastian wouldn’t stand a chance, and Harry didn’t care if he had to take on a whole army of Skulls to do it, or the Dark Lord himself. Harry needed power to get rid of Sebastian, and fuck whatever Synesis or Draco said to stop him. 

Fortunately, he knew where to start. This morning, he’d felt something stir inside him, something that had—however briefly—given him his wandless magic back. The voice that had boomed in his head hadn’t sounded like Kardin’s. Where had it come from, then? And more importantly, how could he call it again?

His mind spun frantically, ricocheting between Draco and Sebastian and demons, his breath coming faster and faster.

He found himself replaying Sebastian’s kiss with Draco in his head. Even calling it a kiss repulsed him, allowed the vile tendrils of the memory to creep into his heart and take root there. It sickened him more than anything else he’d seen at Hogwarts, more than all of the torture and the prejudice and the unfairness put together. Thinking of it made his chest burn and sputter, his face crumple.

“Here we are.”

Madam Pomfrey’s return jerked Harry out of his hysterical thoughts. She held a tray with a bowl of soup and two bottles filled with unpleasantly-colored liquids, and he tuned her out as she prattled on about what medicine she was going to give him.

“Don’t move too much while I reapply the numbing paste… yes, that’s good, turn your head this way, yes…”

Her voice shook as she pressed fingers slick with paste to Harry’s left cheek, and the paralyzing dread he’d felt earlier settled back over his chest.

“I want to see it,” he whispered, pushing her hand away. “I want to see my face.”

Madam Pomfrey’s bottom lip quivered for a brief second, but she stilled it at once. “Eat first, Mr. Potter,” she said, in a bad attempt to sound stern.

Harry’s heart sank. Madam Pomfrey liked to lecture and screech at her patients when they interfered with her healing, but she was uncharacteristically docile now.

“It’ll only take a second.” Harry said. “Please. Please, Madam Pomfrey. I have to know.”

Madam Pomfrey brought a hand to her mouth. She looked away, her cheeks ruddy with shame. Perhaps she was holding back tears, and she didn’t want him to see. “Forgive me, Mr. Potter. After twelve years of this, I should know better. I’ll get the mirror.”

She hurried away. Harry watched her go, trying to breathe.

He traced the ridges on his cheeks with shaking hands. He had four long, deep cuts on the left side of his face, and only one on the right side. Five cuts. Draco had distracted Sebastian from going any further, but the damage had already been done.

If Madam Pomfrey’s reaction was anything to go by, even magic-accelerated healing couldn’t nullify scarring—especially not scarring caused by an enchanted knife.

Harry’s terror mounted with every passing second he waited. Finally, after what seemed an age, the matron returned with a wooden hand mirror, and Harry wondered if she’d been stalling for time. Hands trembling even worse now, Harry took the mirror and lifted it to his face.

And nearly dropped it.

“The healing isn’t finished yet,” Pomfrey said gently. She began to blabber, her voice barely reaching him through the haze of his despair. “They will be better in a few days, not so red. We’ll see if some scar-whitening paste works on them, and after a few years of you growing and shedding old skin, they’ll be less noticeable. You’ll see, Mr. Potter.”

Is Sebastian’s face less noticeable after all these years? No, of course not. And he knew that when he used his father’s knife on me.

It didn't matter that Harry had broken Sebastian's arm and wand, because Sebastian had won after all.

Harry squeezed his eyes shut, trying to hold back a flood of tears and failing. The left side of his face was marred by crisscrossing scars, thick and ugly and red and bulging. Soon, they would darken to brown, but it would be a small relief. On his right cheek, a single thin scar stretched from the corner of his mouth to the tapered point of his chin.

Ugly. The word flitted across his thoughts, unbidden, poisonous, and utterly sure of itself.

Harry had never been exceptionally good-looking; he knew that. But he’d had a normal, healthy, pleasant face. The kind of face Draco liked to look at.

Not the face of a monster.

He didn’t realize he was letting out wretched little gasping sobs until he felt Madam Pomfrey kneel down and draw him into her arms. He shook her off, his sobs coming harder.

“L-leave. Please.”

Madam Pomfrey’s eyes glistened in the dim light, and she inclined her head. “Take the potions. And eat some of your soup, or it’ll get cold. I’ll be back in twenty minutes to check on you.”

Harry heard rather than saw the clatter of a tray being adjusted on a beside table, then the click-clack of her hurrying off to her bedchamber.

He sat there, desperately trying to muffle the pathetic noises he was making. Minutes passed, maybe ten. Sebastian’s words from one of the recordings rattled between his ears, worsening the throbbing in his head.

“Draco called us ugly. He said that nobody would even want to look at us, much less play with us. Every time we tried to talk to him, he’d ignore us, or tell us that we weren’t worth his time.”

Vivid images of Sebastian kissing Draco whirled in Harry’s thoughts, joined by images of Draco surrounded by handsome admirers, images of Theo with his unmarred face, images of everything and everyone that proved Draco would never want him, as ugly as he was—

He couldn’t let Draco see his face. If Draco came by tonight to check on him, he would see Harry’s face, and then—

Lungs seizing up in terror, he shot out of bed, panting hard. There had to be a way to heal the scars. There had to be.

A demon. Demon magic could heal Harry where normal magic couldn’t.

He had to go see Synesis, now.

Harry spotted his folded robes on the adjacent bed and threw them on, discovering that they’d been cleaned while he’d been unconsciousness. Barely sparing a thought for how pissed off the matron would be if she discovered he was running about while still injured, he dashed out of the Hospital Wing at top speed.

He made the climb all the way down to the dorms, fully aware of how many stares he was attracting on the way. Stares of pity, of confusion, of disgust. People shied away from him in the corridors, whispered when he sprinted by. Ronald Weasley, who’d been coming out of the Great Hall, yelled after him, asking if he was all right.

I can’t let myself look like this.

The third years were sitting in their usual place in the Initiate common room, and they gawked at him as he tore past them. Did they know what had happened to him, to Draco, to Sebastian? Did he care if they did?

Harry burst into his room and slammed the door shut behind him. Finally, he was alone, away from prying eyes. Finally, he could work toward fixing what Sebastian had done, and executing his revenge. There was no risk in summoning certain demons like Kardin, and he wouldn’t let Draco and Synesis cow him into being powerless any second longer. He had no time to waste.

“Harry?” Synesis sounded odd, distant, from its spot on his bed. “You’re back. It’s late—why did the exam take so long? Did you win?”

“Uh, no,” Harry said, floored. He’d completely forgotten about that.

“Oh. That’s too bad.” Synesis didn’t seem to care. That was odd, too. Also, why hadn’t Synesis noticed that Harry had been hurt? Harry knew that demons couldn’t see human facial features, but surely Synesis could still sense Harry’s wounds?

“Harry… I have to tell you something.”

Harry clenched his teeth. Couldn’t this wait? Couldn’t Synesis see the state Harry was in right now?

“Spit it out, then.”

“I…I’m sorry, Harry. I’m so sorry.” The book’s voice quivered, exactly like it did when it was getting ready to wail about how useless it was and how much it had failed Harry.

Harry groaned. Great. This was why Synesis was so distracted tonight. Usually he’d entertain Synesis’s hysterics, would stroke its spine and maybe even ask Draco to come in and compliment it—but damn it, Harry did not have time for another one of Synesis’s sobbing fits right now!

“For the millionth time, you don’t have anything to be sorry about,” Harry snapped. “Give it a fucking rest, Synesis.” He slammed the book shut and stuffed it into his schoolbag.

“Harry, what—?”

“We’re summoning tonight,” Harry snarled, tying the bag shut and slipping on his Invisibility Cloak. “And you’re going to help me, or I’ll make you.”

Chapter Text

For those of you who have literally no idea what’s happening in this fic right now, as it’s been a long time, I have provided a recap of what you will need to know for the climax, which is in this chapter. Skimming the previous chapters to refresh your memory might also be useful to you—the ones that are the most important in the demon subplot are Chapters 1, 8, 9, 13, and 14.

RECAP:

-On Mabon, September 21st, Harry summons a Rank Three demon called Auranos, but Auranos possesses Harry. Desperate to help, Synesis jumps into Harry’s body to fight Auranos. In the end, Auranos ends up self-destructing, but not after planting Chaos’s Seed in Harry’s body.

-If this Seed is left to germinate and go through “Anthesis,” Harry will become a demon, losing his own sentience. Note: there is also a process known as “partial” Anthesis, in which a human gains demon-like qualities but does not lose control of their body. Partial Anthesis can only occur if a Seed breaks.

-We also learn that the Dark Lord summoned a demon called Dynamos in order to gain unlimited magical power, which then allowed him to make the jump into the demons’ realm and enslave the Royal Demons.

-Harry and Synesis decide to perform a Seed cleansing ritual in order to get rid of the Chaos Seed. This ritual requires the aid of seven high-ranked demons. On Imbolc, they lay out the bait for these demons, and one of the demons—Leipsia—takes an interest in Draco for the power in his beauty.

-On Ostara, Synesis convinces the demons to cleanse the Seed from Harry, managing not to reveal that they are cleansing a Chaos Seed or that Harry is the Colossus. However, the ritual doesn’t end on quite the right note—the demons seemed to have sensed that something is off about Synesis.

-There is a scene where an unknown voice is talking to Synesis, telling it gleefully that the Blood Moon approaches: “How many times have you attempted to tell Harry the truth this year, even though you knew I would never let you say it? Remember, Synesis, I control every aspect of your being now.” It is suggested that this voice has been controlling Synesis for a long time.

-Before the Initiate Tournament’s final exam, some of the third-year Initiates, led by Montague, kidnap Harry to prevent him from participating. Draco rescues him with Theo’s help, but also accidentally reveals their forbidden friendship to the other Initiates.

-During the final exam, Sebastian kidnaps Draco, using him as bait for Harry. Throughout the year, Theo has provided intel on Harry and Draco’s friendship to Sebastian. He knows that Sebastian plans to scar Harry during the final exam, and is eager for it, but is horrified when he realizes that Draco won’t escape unscathed either. He regrets helping Sebastian, but is too weak to stop him from hurting Draco. As usual.

-Knowing Sebastian has laid a trap for him, Harry takes the bait in order to save Draco. In a nasty trick, Sebastian uses Draco’s old magic-obstructor Knut to take Harry out of commission. After scarring Harry permanently with his father’s knife, Sebastian kisses Draco, and seeing this awakens some sort of dormant creature… thing inside Harry that allows him to break the magic-obstructor’s hold on him. Harry then snaps Sebastian’s wand and arm using Kardin’s superhuman strength, and Sebastian flees.

-Later in the Hospital Wing, Harry sees his new scars. He goes back to his dorm, desperate to summon a demon that will fix his face. Synesis attempts to tell him something important, but Harry ignores it, believing it’s just being melodramatic.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

BLOOD MOON

o

Draco had stayed in bed all day after the final exam, only leaving it to trudge up to the Hospital Wing every couple hours. Harry still hadn’t woken up, though; Madam Pomfrey said he was knackered out. Draco would check on him again in a few minutes.

But a small ugly part of him didn’t ever want to see Harry wake up, didn’t ever want to face him.

It’s all my fault.

He’d been the one to invite Harry into the Skulls in the first place. He should’ve kept Harry out of his world, away from the Death Eaters and Elites and Skulls who tainted everything good in Draco’s life, and tainted Draco, too.

He could still feel the echoes of Sebastian’s touch crawling all over his skin. Last year, Sebastian had bucked against Draco, had pressed their bodies together until Draco felt every inch of him, and back then Draco had believed in that moment that nothing could be more of a violation. But he’d been wrong.

Draco scrunched his eyes shut, folding his knees up to his chest.

Before now, he hadn’t spared much thought for what his first kiss would feel like, or who it would be with. It just wasn’t something he cared to think about often. Sure, he’d wondered what snogging Harry would feel like, once or twice, or perhaps a dozen times. And he’d watched his parents kissing and envisioned, distantly, a future where he had someone to kiss too.

But this kiss hadn’t been anything like in Draco’s imagination. This had been all gnashing teeth and slobbering tongue, slimy and wet and disgusting. Sebastian had bitten Draco’s lip, and it stung even now, hours later.

Draco had already cried over his wasted first kiss. He’d spent the whole afternoon crying over it, in fact. At this point, he couldn’t be bothered to shed another tear.

He glanced at his watch, sitting upright. It was fifteen minutes past eight, which meant that he ought to check back at the Hospital Wing again. With a groan, he dragged himself out of bed and over to the vanity to inspect the day’s damage. His robes were rumpled, his hair nearly as wild as Harry’s, his skin mottled. His eyes were still bloodshot.

Overall, he looked quite hideous.

Draco let out a bark of hysterical laughter. What was the point of fussing over his own appearance when Harry’s face was ruined?

Harry saved me. He did everything I ever wanted someone to do. If he hadn’t, if he hadn’t stopped Sebastian—

Draco shoved on his cloak, breathing hard, and hurried from his room. He had to go back to the Hospital Wing and talk to Harry. Draco didn’t dare look at the third year Initiates congregated near the central sofas on his way out, though he could feel their gazes burning into his back.

How much did they know?

Everyone had gone on with the final exam after Draco and Harry’s confrontation with Sebastian, clearly uninformed of what had occurred beneath the Dueling Ring. After Sebastian had fled to lick his wounds, a few Bronze Skulls came down to surreptitiously take Harry to the Hospital Wing, most likely sent by Skull King Adolphus. Sebastian had mentioned that Adolphus knew much of the plan, so he’d probably expected to mop Harry’s remains off the floor.

Hatred writhed in Draco’s stomach. Adolphus had been playing his sadistic games all year, and this was how it had ended. Harry was nothing but entertainment to the Skulls—no, he was beneath even that.

He was an experiment.

They wanted to test Harry’s limits, wanted to test his devotion to the Dark Lord. This was why Adolphus had given Sebastian permission to torture Harry all year, had even given him permission to kidnap Draco to be bait.

I bet he knew exactly what Sebastian wanted with me, too, and didn’t care.

Draco slinked out of the dormitory, head pounding in rage.

So did Adolphus know what Harry had done to Sebastian? Had anyone seen Sebastian wandering around with his injuries and connected the dots? If they knew the truth, they wouldn’t dare mess with Harry again, would they?

But this entire train of thought was pointless. Sebastian would never let a soul find out how much Harry had hurt him. It would wreck the reputation he’d worked so hard to cultivate over the years, would shame him back into the hellhole he’d been spawned in. Right now, he was probably hiding somewhere in the dark, possibly getting Nathaniel to heal his arm and sending out an owl-order for a new wand.

I could tell everyone what Harry did. It doesn’t matter if nobody believes me. Sebastian will still be doubted forever—

No. It was too dangerous. If Dolohov or another professor found about the demons and Harry’s superhuman strength, they would go straight to the Dark Lord, and then there was no telling what could happen to him. Sebastian was keeping the secret—had kept it ever since the first day of the school year, when Harry had broken his fingers—only because he needed to save his own pride.

Nobody would ever know the truth of the battle beneath the Ring.

And that just wasn’t fair.

More determined than ever to speak to Harry, Draco hurtled up the spiral staircase out of the dorms, taking three steps at a time, and sped through the dungeons and past the Great Hall. He skidded to a stop outside the Hospital Wing. Madam Pomfrey, with the aid of a few older non-Elites, was levitating two bleeding first year girls into beds, her wand a blur as she muttered spells under her breath.

“Madam Pomfrey, please—”

“As you can see, I am preoccupied right now, Mr. Malfoy,” Pomfrey snapped.

“Madam Pomf—”

“Mr. Potter is awake, in the bed near the window. Please keep your conversation quiet, thank you. Now shoo.”

“Madam P—”

“MR. MALFOY!”

“HARRY’S NOT HERE!” Draco screamed, and everyone in the infirmary, including the bleeding girls, stopped what they were doing to stare.

Madam Pomfrey gawped at him, still distracted. “What? He was—he was there before the girls came. I left him with some soup.”

Draco swore at the top of his voice and sprinted out of the Hospital Wing, heading back to the dorms. Where the hell had Harry run off to?

Maybe he woke up and came to find me, and I just missed his return, Draco thought, his heart jumping in his chest. He reminded himself to yell at Harry for recklessly leaving the Hospital Wing and disobeying Madam Pomfrey, but if Harry was waiting in his room or outside Draco’s door—I finally get to see him.

Draco stumbled back into the Initiate Wing in a rush, a mere ten minutes after he had left it. The third year Initiates looked up as he burst through the doors, narrowing their eyes into slits.

“Did you see Potter come back?” Draco shot at them.

Montague screwed up his nose and did not answer.

Draco made a hissing noise in the back of his throat, stalking over to Harry’s room. At least I no longer have to suck up to these fools. It would have been a relief if the idea of them turning against him didn’t make him sick to his stomach. But Draco would deal with them, just like he’d dealt with everything else. He and Harry would deal with them together.

Except Harry wasn’t even here, and Draco had already spent nearly a minute banging against the door like an idiot. “Harry, please, open the door, I need to talk to you!”

“He came here.”

Draco flinched. Montague stood behind him, scowling. “We saw him run in a few minutes ago. We didn’t really see him leave. If he’s not opening the door, he probably doesn’t want to talk to you. His face looked messed up.”

“Why’re you telling me this?” Draco asked, pinning Montague with a feverish glare. He’d assumed that the Initiates were giving him the silent treatment ever since his betrayal this morning, so surely Montague coming over to aid him must be some sort of trick.

“Because hearing you bang on the door is getting annoying.” Montague clenched his jaw, a blush bright on his face. “And pathetic. I still can’t believe that you want to talk to a half-blood mutt like him.”

Draco had quite had enough by this point.

“Aww, are you jealous of Harry?” he sneered, batting his eyelashes. He remembered the stupid Valentine’s Day card Montague had sent him all those months ago. “Tell me the truth, Montague. Did you talentless hacks do something else to him when he came in?”

Montague widened his eyes, stricken. “Before this morning, I really thought we were friends, Draco.” Ears purpling beneath the dark tufts of his hair, he stomped off, but not before throwing a childish “Screw you” over his shoulder.

“Oh, I already know you want to,” Draco shot back with vicious glee, fueled by the memory of Sebastian’s prying mouth on his. Everyone thought they could make Harry their personal punching bag just because Draco happened to care about him, but if Montague, Travers, and the rest saw Draco as just a pretty face who would stand by and swoon while they sabotaged Harry’s Initiation, they were in for a nasty surprise. Draco might as well do them the favor of shattering their crushes on him now instead of later.

Fuming, Draco gave the door another bang, and then another kick. If Montague hadn’t spotted Harry leaving, and Harry wasn’t here right now, that meant he’d taken the Invisibility Cloak out of the dorms.

Draco threw his head back and groaned before hurrying to check his own room, just to see if Harry was waiting there, but of course he wasn’t. If Harry had vanished under the Invisibility Cloak, he probably wanted to do something extremely stupid. Or maybe he was just wandering around feeling sorry for himself. Either way, Draco would have to track him down and drag him back to the Hospital Wing.

Trying to replicate the exact wand movements he’d seen Theo use to track Harry this morning before the exam, Draco hissed, “Point Me hominem Harry Potter.” The wand spun in his hand and quivered to a stop, pointing at the door. Muttering under his breath, Draco ran out of the dorms, following the wand’s directions. Harry was probably just moping in the kitchens, but Draco didn’t want to waste the time looking in several different places.

But Harry wasn’t in the kitchens, because his wand kept leading Draco higher and higher, until finally he stepped onto the sixth floor, an area of the school that was usually deserted after classes and on weekends. Harry had performed his summoning rituals in an abandoned classroom on this very floor.

Draco shoved down his dread. This classroom had become a hideout for them this past year, so it wasn’t only for summoning. He needed to stop jumping to conclusions.

But he still had an awful feeling about this.

***

A black-haired boy rushed up the stairs, out of the dungeons, narrating the day’s horrible events to a tattered old book in his schoolbag. The book barely listened, its thoughts churning elsewhere, a voice hissing in its head.

“How unfortunate, Synesis. You’ve run out of time. Too bad you never figured out a way to break out of my control. But you know it doesn’t make a difference, even if you do manage to tell him the truth, don’t you? In a few minutes, the Blood Moon will rise… I wonder, Synesis, if the Colossus will ever find out that you were the one to betray him. I think I’ll let you tell him the truth in the moments before his transformation, just for the drama of it. Consider it your punishment for supporting a human over our god.”

***

Harry burst into the familiar classroom, panting hard.

“Harry, please, we have to talk—”

Synesis’s sentence was choked off as Harry slammed it onto one of the desks. Ignoring the book thoroughly, he rummaged inside the front pocket of his schoolbag, then took out several pieces of chalk.

“Harry, I’m sorry about what happened to your face. I promise I am. I know you’re devastated right now. But I can’t allow you to summon. Harry, are you listening—”

Harry whirled on the book, still panting from his trek up the stairs. “If you were really sorry, you’d help me summon a demon that can get rid of these scars.”

“Oh, Harry,” Synesis said, and Harry hated the sound of pity in its voice.

“Hurry up and tell me what demons can heal magically-permanent scars. Hurry up.” He pounded a fist on the desk Synesis was lying on.

“I-I need more details on the knife,” Synesis stammered. “But I don’t think—”

Harry talked over it. “I think it might’ve been the same knife that Nott’s father used on him, so it’s probably a Nott family heirloom. It’s enchanted to leave permanent scars. I don’t know what curses are on it.”

“There are demons that specialize in different types of healing,” said Synesis. “But don’t underestimate wizard magic. Some of its laws cannot be broken. It’s likely that the curse on the knife was created after demons’ time, and that it deals with a very absolute form of magic. I don’t know if anything in the world will be able to heal you if the knife was specifically cursed to leave permanent scarring.”

Harry slumped into a chair, struggling to see through a haze of despair. Madam Pomfrey had mentioned that she’d tried everything. “There… there really isn’t anything to fix me?”

“We could summon every healing demon and check to make sure,” said Synesis. “But most of them need to retain their sentience in order to heal effectively, which means we could have another Auranos situation on our hands. And in the end, it might not even work.”

Harry forced himself to stand up again, his legs trembling under his weight. He refused to believe that nothing could be done to heal his face, but he’d drop the subject for now.

There were other demons that needed summoning.

“Fine,” Harry gritted out. “Make a list of healing demons that are the least dangerous to summon. And when you’re done with that, make me another list of demons like Kardin, demons who don’t need their sentience to be useful to me.”

“Harry, you know I can’t let you summon today. We’ve had this argument a million times, and you know the risks. Anything could go wrong. Please don’t make me do this. Please.

Harry gaped at the book, feeling tears prick behind his eyelids. Why? Why was Synesis being so difficult? Couldn’t it understand what situation Harry was in right now?

“You’re so useless, Synesis.

Synesis made a noise between a wail and a sob, and Harry listened to the sound with vicious satisfaction. He wanted Synesis to hurt. No, Harry’s misfortune wasn’t Synesis’s fault, but it truly was being useless, not to mention insensitive. And most of all, its dumb rules on summoning kept Harry weak, had kept Harry weak all year. In the twelve months since he’d met Synesis, he’d only been allowed to summon two demons: Kardin and Auranos.

Two. Measly. Demons.

Draco was in danger, and Harry wasn’t even allowed to summon to protect him. This was not an acceptable situation.

“I told you on the way up here that Sebastian Nott is after Draco,” Harry said, talking over Synesis’s sniffling. “I drove him off today, but he’ll come for us again, and I won’t be able to beat him next time.”

Harry hesitated, remembering the ancient, metallic voice that had awoken in his heart when he’d watched Sebastian kiss Draco—the same voice that had later allowed him to break free of Sebastian’s spells and the magic-obstructor Knut. If he could control it, he’d have power over Sebastian. What had that been, and how could he call it again?

Harry opened his mouth to ask, but just then the door banged open, driving all semblance of coherent thought from Harry’s mind.

Draco stood on the threshold, his hair sticking up in tufts, eyes blazing. Even in this disheveled and frantic state, he was striking to behold. A broken noise escaped from the back of Harry’s throat, and he instinctively covered his face with one of his hands.

There was a moment of utter silence.

“Harry,” Draco said, slowly, his gaze dropping to the chalk in Harry’s other hand, “why did you have that out?”

Harry’s heartbeat quickened to almost a painful speed. He couldn’t look at Draco, couldn’t bear to meet his best friend’s stunning features.

“Harry,” Draco tried again, “were you trying to summon?”

“Synesis won’t let me.” Harry’s voice came out hoarse and slightly muffled. He let the chalk clatter to the ground, clenching his free hand into a trembling fist.

“I see.” Draco sounded remarkably calm.

A pause.

“Harry, take your hand off your face.”

Harry shook his head desperately. “Draco, I can fix it. I swear I can fix it. There has to be a demon that can fix it. I’ll look for it, and then I’ll be back to normal.”

Draco let out an exasperated hiss. Harry stiffened as he heard the telltale sound of shoes squeaking on stone, but nothing could’ve prepared him for the moment when Draco threw his arms around his waist. Harry went completely rigid as Draco leaned against him, tucking his head into the crook of Harry’s neck.

They stayed like that for a long minute, and with a great sigh, Harry stopped covering his face and hugged Draco back. “Sorry.”

“Thank you.” Draco hummed the words into Harry’s neck.

Harry searched for something to say to him, but came up empty-handed. In the end, he settled for staring at the top of Draco’s head, trying and failing to swallow the growing lump in his throat.

Draco hasn’t looked at my face yet. He’s avoiding it.

“In a few minutes,” Draco began softly, “we’ll return to the Hospital Wing.You’re going to give Synesis and that chalk to me, and I’ll keep them in my room. Is that all right?”

His tone suggested that if Harry dared to disagree, he would die an extremely painful death.

“You don’t have to talk to me like that,” Harry said, snapping out of whatever daze he’d been stuck in for the last minute. “Like I’m about to shatter, or lose my mind.”

“Aren’t you?”

And Harry had no response to that.

Draco straightened up, lifting his head from Harry’s shoulder. And finally—finally—he drank in the features of Harry’s new face. With almost clinical detachment, he studied the four deep scars on Harry’s left cheek, then the long and shallow cut on the right one. He didn’t falter in his observation. He barely even blinked.

Then, gently, very gently, Draco reached up and traced Harry’s deepest scar with a finger. Harry’s breath died somewhere on the way to his lungs. But Draco didn’t stop tracing the scar. In fact, he began to trace the next one, then splayed his cool fingers over Harry’s cheek.

“Stop doing that,” Harry said, breathless.

“Why? Does it hurt?” Draco asked, withdrawing his hand.

“No.” Harry paused. He wished Draco was still touching him. Then he blurted out, “I’m ugly.”

The word fell between them like an anchor dropping, heavy and final.

Draco froze.

“You got these scars for me, Harry. They don’t make you ugly.”

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Harry said, closing his eyes to avoid looking at Draco. “I can handle the truth. I’m ugly. Admit it.”

Draco’s enraged screech split the air, and Harry’s eyes flew open.

“SHUT UP! Shut up, you selfish fucking prick, because I—DON’T—CARE!”

Draco’s chest was heaving, and he glared up at Harry with disturbing intensity.

“You selfish prick,” he repeated, sounding near tears now. “You think I give a flying fuck about your face? It’s not about you, Harry! None of this is about you! Theo knew exactly what his brothers were doing to me for years, and he never did anything to help me. I bet Adolphus and about half the older Skulls know exactly what Sebastian wants to do to me, and none of them have ever helped me. Because they’re the same as him. I bet they want to join in. And my father thinks I’m weak—”

He broke off, face crumpling, then continued in a rush, stumbling over his words. “Nobody’s ever helped me, except for you. So don’t you dare assume that whatever your stupid face looks like matters to me!” Draco clung to Harry, his fingers scrabbling at Harry’s shirt, his shoulders shaking.

He’s crying, Harry realized. And just like that, the waves of jealous despair roiling in his gut settled, only to be replaced by a horrible, sinking sort of shame.

He knew he was ugly, no matter what Draco said. He had looked in the mirror, and could not deny the truth, and neither could Draco. But now, finally, Harry understood that Draco didn’t care, because this was the price Harry had paid to save him. If Harry didn’t accept that, and didn’t respect the fact that Draco accepted it, then he would be insulting them both. He could wear his scars like a mask of honor, let them symbolize what he’d sacrificed for Draco, or he could be ashamed of them. And if he were ashamed of them, regretted them, then wouldn’t that also mean that he regretted saving Draco?

And he would never regret saving Draco.

So Harry held Draco, muttering apologies, and maneuvered them until they were both sitting on one of the desks. After a while, Draco’s shoulders stopped shaking, and he looked up. His face looked fairly dry; he’d probably wiped his cheeks and nose off on Harry’s poor shirt.

“Thank y-you.” Draco’s voice gained strength then. “Thank you, Harry. Thank you, thank you, thank you—”

“I know,” Harry said.

“I hated him kissing me,” Draco said with sudden urgency. “I hated him touching me.”

“Merlin, Draco, I know.” Harry’s teeth were gritted to the point of pain.

Draco stared at him desperately, his face so close that their noses were almost touching. He inched closer, gaze beseeching, and Harry was struck with the urge to kiss him.

“You should’ve told me a long time ago,” Harry snarled, enraged at himself, and Draco flinched. “You should’ve told me last year that Sebastian was hurting you. I would’ve killed him last year, I swear it. I was powerful enough. I could’ve done it in secret, the same way I dealt with Smith and Zabini.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Draco said. His face had shuttered. “Sebastian wouldn’t have been as easy to beat as Zabini and Smith. Your magic would’ve been found out.”

“I don’t care,” Harry said, fiercely. “I don’t care if the whole world finds out what I can do and what I am. I don’t care if the Dark Lord finds out. I have to kill Sebastian. He’s going to come after you again, and I have to kill him before he does.”

“Don’t be a reckless blustering fool, Harry. He won’t come after me so soon after you humiliated him. We just need to make it two more weeks until summer break, and next autumn we’ll be at Durmstrang.” He slid off the desk, taking Harry’s hand in a painful grip. “Enough talking here. Let’s go back to the Hospital Wing. Come on.”

“And what happens when we’re back from Durmstrang?” Harry shook off Draco’s hand. “I have to summon another demon soon. Maybe not today. But soon. I need more power. I have to kill him, Draco. If I can’t even keep him from hurting you, then what am I good for?”

Draco blinked at him for a moment, uncomprehending. Harry wondered if he was going to be screamed at again.

“Oh, come on, not this nonsense again! Just shut up! Shut up, Harry! You don’t need any of this demon stuff! You’re already powerful enough to protect me. You broke through Sebastian’s spells, and you didn’t even need your goddamn wand for it. I don’t know how, but you did it, and you’re the most powerful wizard I know!”

“You ‘broke through’ Sebastian’s spells? Wandlessly? How?”

Distracted, Harry turned in Synesis’s direction. The book was still lying on the desk where Harry had left it before Draco had arrived, its pages fluttering frantically.

“Harry, answer me.”

“What’s it saying—?” Draco started, but Harry waved a hand to shush him, in no mood to translate Synesis; Draco would just have to deal with being left out of the conversation for the time being.

“Harry—”

“I’m answering!” Harry snapped, biting his lip. “I… I don’t know how I broke through the magic-obstructor. I wasn’t able to do anything like that last year, when Draco used the Knut on me before Walpurgis, and I had the ability to do wandless magic back then.”

Draco winced at the memory. Synesis continued to flutter its pages.

“What triggered it?” Synesis asked. “What triggered the power to awaken?”

Heart pounding, Harry glanced at Draco, reliving the unspeakable rage he’d felt at watching Sebastian kiss him. Perhaps that was enough of an answer for Synesis, because the book heaved a great sigh.

“Was there a voice?”

Harry froze. “How did you know that?”

“Tell me what it said. Now.”

When I am fully awake, we will destroy everything, and you will have all the magic you have ever desired, Harry remembered. He shuddered, not entirely with displeasure.

“It said… it asked me if I’d called for it. It called me Colossus. I thought it was an ability I’d been carrying for a long time, and I didn’t think much of it. It didn’t sound like a demon, not really, nothing like Kardin.”

“Do you still feel it inside you?”

“I…” Harry floundered for an answer. “No. No, I don’t. Synesis, what are all these questions for? What’s this about?”

“Wait, you heard a voice that wasn’t Kardin?” Draco said shrilly. “Merlin, Harry, what if it’s the Seed?”

Harry felt like he’d been punched in the gut. He hadn’t even considered the possibility.

“Of course it’s not the Seed. We got that out on Ostara, I know we did,” Harry said desperately. “Synesis, you said the ritual was successful, didn’t you? You said it would work. It felt like it worked, like I was cleansed—”

“Harry,” said Synesis, with a note of aching sadness in its voice, and the color drained from Harry’s cheeks. “There is no way to cleanse the Chaos Seed. The demons we summoned during the Ostara ritual all knew that. It was an impressive show, wasn’t it?”

“Harry, what’s it saying?” Draco put a hand on his shoulder, his breath coming fast.

Harry ignored him and slumped into a chair, staring pleadingly at Synesis. The book lay silent on the desk in front of him.

“But… but you said…” Surely Harry hadn’t heard right. Synesis had been… different ever since the summoning failure on Mabon, brooding and sulking and sniffling, and this had continued even after the victory of the Seed cleansing ritual. But for that strange but harmless behavior to culminate in this was beyond expectation. What even was this?

“I lied,” Synesis whispered, and with every word it spoke, Harry’s heart grew heavier.“I’ve been lying to you since Mabon, Harry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I had no choice. It was controlling me. But now I can finally tell you the truth, and I will. I promise I’ll tell you everything.”

***

I suppose I should start at the beginning. The beginning is the beginning of us, of the demons, and that beginning has everything to do with you. You’ve heard our origin story, haven’t you? It was the one of the first things I ever told you.

When our realm was first created, it was empty of everything but two eternally warring gods: Control and Chaos. For countless years, these gods battled, laying waste to the land. Finally, each dealt the other a killing blow, and both gods shattered.

The wind scattered the gods’ remains through the skies, like plants scatter seeds, and on the day we call the Anthesis, or the Blossoming, our kind was born. We demons bloomed from the shards of Chaos, and the incredible magic that we wield arose from the shards of Control. We worship Chaos because it is what we are made of, and Control submits only to us.

That was all true as far as I knew back then, but I left something out. Not on purpose, of course. It was a minor detail that slipped my mind. I retold the story on Imbolc, but added in one little line. I was trying to warn you about what would happen tonight, but of course you didn’t catch the hint:

Chaos and Control each destroyed the other on the day that was to be known as the Blood Moon, because their blood flew into the sky after their deaths, washing it in crimson. On Earth the Blood Moon is known as a lunar eclipse, and occurs quite frequently in various locations. But some lunar eclipses are more important than others, and no lunar eclipse will ever be as important as the first. Because twenty-three sunrises after it—on Anthesis, the Blossoming, the first summer solstice of our realm—demonkind was born from their remains.

I knew you sensed something strange about the odd new addition to the story. Maybe you even guessed that I was trying to warn you. I held my breath, hoping you would ask me, but you didn’t.

I don’t think anything would’ve changed even if you had. I wouldn’t have been allowed to tell you anything, and even if you’d figured it out, you wouldn’t have been able to stop what’s destined to happen tonight.

See, Harry, tonight is the Blood Moon. Precisely seventeen demon Cycles after the first. British Muggles have predicted this eclipse through mathematical means, but the truth is, it has been foretold for a long, long time that the Blood Moon would rise above Chaos, and lead it to the sky.

If you look outside the window, you can see that the moon is partially bathed in crimson. In less than an hour, it will be fully red.

It’s too late to change anything now, Harry. Tonight, Chaos will rise.

That is the only reason why it is finally letting me tell you the whole story, after all this time. But do not be fooled. It has not released me. It is listening to us at this very moment. It has been living within me ever since Mabon, controlling me, and controlling your actions through me.

Anarkia.

***

I did not know Anarkia existed before I met it, before it attached itself to me. It has stayed off the records, has never been summoned. Perhaps that is because it was created for only one purpose by the ancient god Chaos itself.

Anarkia was the first demon. It arose before even the Seven Royals, blossomed from the shard-piece that had once been Chaos’s heart. It took a bit of Chaos’s pure essence into it, and used that essence to create an infinite quantity of Seeds—one of which is currently inside you, Harry. Anarkia’s sole purpose was to one day resurrect its master, and the Royal Demons kept this purpose shrouded in secrecy.

Until the Dark Lord invaded our realm.

You’ll have to forgive me, Harry, because the rest of my explanation is a second-hand account, gleaned from my internal conversations with Anarkia itself. I’ve been out of the demon realm for centuries, and so did not witness the terror that wrecked our home after the Dark Lord’s invasion. He summoned the Royal Demons, tearing the very fabric of our realm, rendering it uninhabitable. We knew in our anguish that if we did not escape soon, we would all die.

With the Royal Demons trapped on Earth and under the Dark Lord’s command, we had nowhere to turn, no ruler to lead. We did not know of Anarkia; the Royal Demons had been nurturing it for millennia, keeping its existence hidden from us. For all this time, Anarkia has been stuck in sleep, awaiting its destiny. But when the Dark Lord abducted the Royals, Anarkia awoke in an unholy rage, immediately assuming its position as our new leader. It gave every demon left in our realm a clear goal: help me raise Chaos from the dead.

And so they did. Anarkia, equipped with an infinite quantity of Chaos Seeds, embedded one in every single demon in our realm, and ordered us to plant it when we were summoned by the Colossus.

That's you, Harry. The false human the Royals were planning to create, forged for the sole purpose of becoming Chaos’s vessel. The Colossus is the only being capable of destroying the Dark Lord… and the rest of the Earth with him.

The Royals sent word of their plans to Anarkia, but the Dark Lord, who was controlling and watching them, overheard their treachery. This is why he hunts the Colossus, and has cruelly forced all seven Royal demons—including the Hunger—to help him in his quest.

Fortunately, the Dark Lord does not know the depth of our plans for you, nor does he know of Anarkia and its plot to resurrect Chaos; he merely surmised from the vague message the Royals sent our realm that the Colossus was a boy created to defeat him. He appears remarkably self-centered, after all.

But none of this is about him. It’s about you, Harry.

The Royal Demons killed the dying human infant your mother begged them to heal, the first and real Harry Potter, and replaced him with a baby of their own creation. The Colossus is human on the surface, but its soul is built differently, capable of holding infinite amounts of magic—no, Harry, you do not have that magic with you now, but that does not change that you naturally have this ability, an ability that the Dark Lord wanted so dearly that he risked summoning Dynamos to obtain it. Only a soul like yours can sustain Chaos until it is finally ready to assume its true form, to undergo Anthesis. And when it does, your body will burn up, your purpose served.

***

How did we end up in this situation, Harry? I shouldn’t have let you summon at all, not even Kardin. Maybe if I hadn’t, then you wouldn’t have summoned Auranos, and none of this would've happened.

If you haven’t figured it out already, Harry, it all started on Mabon. Anarkia, Chaos, all of us—we’ve been waiting for you for more than a decade, and on Mabon, you finally fell into our trap. You summoned Auranos, and because you were the Colossus—a demon’s perfect vessel—Auranos was able to possess you. I jumped inside you as well, desperate to kill it and free you from it.

That ended up being unnecessary, and a fatal mistake. Because Anarkia was there, too.

Anarkia, being the guardian of the Seeds, has an intrinsic connection to all of them. When it felt one of its Seeds take root in you, it used that connection to make the jump to your body, and so there we all were: me, Anarkia, and poor old Auranos. Auranos self-destructed, and Anarkia and I fought viciously. That horrible fight is what caused you to bleed all over the floor on Mabon, not the effect of an overload of too many demons in your body at once. (Being the Colossus, you could theoretically handle a hundred demons at once without being overloaded, Harry. Anarkia told me that little tidbit a few months after Mabon, but didn’t let me tell you. For the record, I’m sorry that I didn’t let you summon as much I could have.)

In the end, Anarkia won the struggle, choked my soul with its own, and together we slid out of your body, back into our book.

It was over after that. You know what happened: I became moody, withdrawn, prone to sobbing fits. You thought it was because I was bitter that I had failed you on Mabon, but that was the least of my problems. Anarkia gave me control most days, allowed me to speak to you as though I normally would—except when I tried to tell you the truth. Then it took over, and kept me quiet.

I tried to help you, Harry. I really did. You know that. I told you about the Seed cleansing ritual and guided you through it. I thought it was strange that Anarkia let me do that. Later I realized that was because Anarkia knew the ritual wouldn’t work, and found my efforts to save you amusing.

Oh, the demons fell for my act on Ostara at first; I genuinely convinced them to cleanse you. But when Agape looked through you, it saw the Chaos Seed germinating in your soul, and in that moment it knew the truth: about you and your Colossus purpose, and about me and Anarkia. And when Agape figured it out, so did the rest of the demons trapped in that circle. I remember Leipsia being delighted, the horrid thing. Chordi and Aletheia felt sorry for me, though—they were always good friends. After that, Agape cleansed you anyway, with the full knowledge that even the efforts of a Rank Seven cleansing could not wash away the taint of the Chaos Seed.

You saw the cleansing as a victory. Remember that I burst into tears right after the ritual? You thought it was because I was happy, that I was shedding tears of joy.

I wasn’t.

It was such a struggle after that, Harry. I had to act normally, even though I knew what would happen to you on the Blood Moon. I knew… I knew that our time together had a limit. And I had to act as though it didn’t. I kept trying to tell you the truth, though I don’t know why I bothered. I knew Anarkia would force me to change the subject every time I came close, or make me meander around the point. But I still tried.

That’s what I was trying to do just last night, and again when we were on the way up here from your room. Remember yesterday night? I wished you good luck on the final exam, then said that I had to tell you something. When you asked what, I told you that I’d tell you a few days later—Anarkia made me shut up.

There is no few days later, Harry.

This is it.

***

Harry stumbled to the window, Draco hot on his heels. He threw back the curtains, and for a moment his vision spun. The Hogwarts grounds were dark and empty, the grasses blowing gently in the wind. The late May sky stretched above the castle, cloudless and glittering with stars.

And crimson light bathed the massive moon.

“Blood Moon,” Harry whispered after a long minute. Draco stood at his side, holding his hand, a comforting presence. While Synesis had been talking, Harry had relayed as much information to Draco as he could, but still Draco had only heard bits and pieces of Synesis’s tale.

He’d only heard what Harry had been willing to tell him.

But Harry had the feeling that Draco knew what was going to happen just the same.

“Go to bed,” Harry said, dropping Draco’s hand. It was remarkable how calm he felt right now in the face of his own demise. “You don’t want to be here when Chaos takes over my body.”

Draco’s gaze burned. He held Harry’s arm tight and didn’t let go. “It’s not over yet. Synesis must have other ideas.”

“Synesis isn’t in any state to give trusted advice right now.” The tension in Harry’s voice, so carefully controlled all this time, finally broke.

The book’s betrayal had cut him deep, but in the end, Synesis had tried its best. Harry would not let hatred poison the end of his relationship with Synesis; to do so would allow Anarkia victory.

Draco’s nails dug into his skin. His eyes were growing wilder and wilder. “I don’t believe it. You said that Synesis was the smartest demon in the world. There must be something it’s planning, something it can’t tell us because Anarkia’s listening in.”

“Enough,” Harry said, shoving Draco away. “Leave. The moon’s completely red now. Whatever’s supposed to start will start soon. I don’t know what’ll happen to me, but I don’t think I’ll be Harry anymore when it’s done.”

Draco stumbled into a chair. “I’m not going anywhere. If you turn into Chaos, I’ll call the Dark Lord. He’ll be able to stop it, and save you—”

“Your Dark Lord can’t fix everything, Draco!” Harry yelled. “I’m going to die! And you’ll die too if you don’t leave RIGHT NOW!”

Draco didn’t burst into tears, but it was a close thing. He shook his head. “I can save you again. When Chaos takes over, I can help you fight it, just like like I helped you fight the Hunger’s hold on you last year.”

“The Hunger wanted to let me go last year!” Harry said, close to tears himself. He took Draco by the wrist and dragged him to his feet, then attempted to shove him in the direction of the door. “Get out! There isn’t much time left!”

“NO! NO! NO!” Draco yelled back, his nails scraping at the skin of Harry’s arm. “You can’t make me leave, Harry! I’ll stand here and hold you while Chaos takes over you, I’ll drive it out myself if you’ve given up!”

“Harry, make Draco leave,” Synesis said, voice hoarse. “Chaos awoke prematurely in you today when you were fighting Sebastian, but it fell back into slumber quickly. This time you won’t be so lucky, and things will start to get unstable here. I think it’s possible that a portal to our world will tear open; Chaos will be able to create a space around it where demons can survive indefinitely in toxic Earth air. Draco will be at risk of possession. He needs to leave. Now.”

“What about the rest of the school?” Harry asked, gritting his teeth as Draco sobbed and flailed in his arms. “Will they be affected?”

“As long as they stay far away from this room, they should survive unscathed. Chaos will be discreet; the last thing it wants is to attract the Dark Lord’s attention. Our god merely wishes to take over your body, call a few of the most powerful demons through the portal, and be on its way. Where it intends to go, only Anarkia knows, but in twenty-three days Chaos will have gathered enough energy to assume its true form. And then what happens to Hogwarts will be the least of humanity’s concerns.”

“Chaos will be calling demons to him here. You have to leave,” Harry said, his voice striking the air like the crack of a whip. “Now, Draco.”

It seemed that these words, when nothing else had been able to, finally drove the reality of the situation into Draco’s head. He let Harry release him and stood there, looking lost.

“No,” Draco said, shaking his head again, eyes glassy with terror. “No, Harry, no.”

Then Harry felt it. Something hummed deep inside him, unfurled itself like a flower in spring. His Anthesis had begun, and in twenty-three days, it would end.

He would end with it.

“LEAVE!” Harry’s legs gave way. He gripped the edge of the nearest desk to support himself, his breathing erratic. A moment later, he found himself on the floor with no memory of how he’d gotten there.

Draco trembled by the doorway. “I’m not leaving. I-I can’t leave. Harry, I can’t leave you like this, I can’t leave—”

“Please,” Harry whispered, unable to muster up the energy to talk any louder. “Please, Draco, if you care about me at all, you’ll leave. Take my stuff, my Invisibility Cloak, and—” Harry couldn’t finish his sentence, couldn’t say the words, Don’t forget about me. “Leave. Just leave. I’m begging you.”

Don’t leave me. Please don’t ever leave me, Draco.

Silently, Draco picked up the Cloak and Harry’s schoolbag. Without looking at Harry, without saying a word, he left.

***

Draco had no intention of actually leaving, thank you very much, and stood waiting just out of Harry’s sight, a few paces down the corridor. He hastily stuffed the Invisibility Cloak into Harry’s schoolbag and dropped it on the ground next to him, then leaned against the wall. He could barely breathe, could barely see through his tears, but he knew this wasn’t the end.

Draco didn’t know Synesis well, didn’t trust that book as far as he could throw it. But the one thing he did know was that Synesis planned for Harry to live. Its actions simply didn’t add up.

There’s no way Synesis is that good at pretending. There’s no way Synesis would’ve acted the way it did all year—nagging and mothering Harry—if it had truly accepted Harry’s death.

When Draco had first rushed up here, he’d come across Harry holding summoning chalk. “Synesis won’t let me,” Harry had mumbled. Why had Synesis kept up the pretense for so long, stopped Harry from summoning even on the day of Chaos’s rise? Synesis had known since Mabon that Harry had the capability to summon infinite demons, so why hadn’t it let him? If it had truly accepted that Harry was going to die no matter what, then why had it been so adamant to stop Harry from summoning, to keep him safe even minutes before his supposed death?

Because Synesis hasn’t given up yet. It wants to keep Harry safe today because it thinks there will be a tomorrow.

And when Synesis’s plan began to unfold, Draco had every intention of helping it along.

Chaos didn’t scare him.

***

The moment Draco left for good, Harry broke down. Chaos’s soul churned his chest, flourishing as Harry’s own consciousness flickered. He didn’t make a sound as he cried, but as soon as he let the tears slip, they wouldn’t stop.

I wanted so much more. I wanted to grow up with Draco. I wanted to be with him forever.

Harry wanted to live, but the demons had only given Harry life to die. He lived a borrowed life, a cursed life, the life he’d stolen from Lily Potter’s real son.

Now Death had come to collect his debts.

“Harry, I know you hate me,” Synesis said. “But I just wanted to tell you—”

“Never,” Harry gasped out. “I’d never hate you.”

“I’d been so lonely for so long, Harry. Thank you for picking me up that day. Thank you for talking to me,” said the book—no, the Rank Seven Sapience—that had been Harry’s parent, teacher, and best friend all at once for an entire year.

“I’ll never forget you, Harry. As long as we were together, neither of us were alone.”

Harry curled up on the cold stone floor, clutching his stomach, all the warmth in his body seeping out bit by bit. He couldn’t move his mouth to respond to Synesis, to thank it for everything. Chaos had wrapped itself around Harry’s soul, shoved it into dormancy. Kardin flickered beneath both, empty as usual. Harry had cut its sentience out a long time ago, and for the first time he could imagine how such a violation felt.

“Goodbye, Harry.”

There was nothing else to be said. The book fell quiet, leaving Harry to focus on the pounding in his head, the buzzing under his skin.

Then Harry jumped to his feet.

Chaos had finished squeezing his sentience into submission at last, and Harry’s own body was no longer his to control. Magical power flooded every inch of his skin, and he staggered where he stood, overwhelmed and giddy. This was what he’d wanted for so long, except it wasn’t.

Chaos let out a laugh that sounded like an earthquake. “It is done, Anarkia,” the ancient voice hissed with Harry’s mouth. “I have assimilated into this body, and you have served me well.”

“Thank you, Master,” said the book that looked like Synesis, but no longer was. As Chaos had possessed Harry, Anarkia now possessed Synesis. The transfer of power was complete. “Are you pleased with your vessel?”

“The Royals have outdone themselves.” Chaos tested Harry’s fingers, stretching them out and holding them up to the light of the Blood Moon.“This boy is capable of holding limitless power. It’s as though Dynamos itself blessed him.”

Harry’s stomach tightened in cold fury, leaving him breathless. Chaos did not even see him as anything beyond a body to use and throw away, did not even acknowledge the screaming second sentience in the body they shared.

“The War blessed him,” Anarkia corrected in a high, sweet trill. “The Colossus was its idea. But you will want to thank the Hunger for bringing the boy within our reach.”

“The Hunger is the first of our kind I will be freeing.” Chaos picked up Synesis—Anarkia—with Harry’s hand. “It is time.”

Chaos clenched its other hand into a fist and drew it inward, as if seizing power and placing it into its heart. For one blazing moment, the world appeared to exist in only two-dimensions, a hyperrealistic painting. Harry’s consciousness fractured and faded further, forced back into the darkest corners of his head and locked behind an impenetrable wall. Chaos controlled his breathing, his heartbeat, every little process of his body. Magic rushed through his veins, threatening to burst through his skin, to drown him in his own power.

The words Chaos had uttered this morning repeated unendingly in Harry’s trapped thoughts. When I am fully awake, we will destroy everything, and you will have all the magic you have ever desired.

But now that Harry did, he couldn’t even control it.

Chaos brought his hand down like a judge’s gavel, and the two-dimensional world split with the sound of nails screeching down chalkboard. Harry’s ears stung. He wouldn’t have believed that the fabric of the human world was this fragile, so easily torn, but the raw magical strength running through his body proved otherwise. Chaos held the ability to rip the fabric of a hundred, thousand, million worlds. For the first time, Harry understood how the Dark Lord must feel with infinite magic at his fingertips: drunk, dizzy, constantly on the edge of madness. After all, how could you not go mad, knowing you had the power to destroy an entire planet with a snap of your fingers, to suck it dry of magic and every other type of life?

The madness would be worth it.

Reality began to warp and swirl around the tear. Colors bled sideways like smeared paint, going monochrome, and the desk in front of Harry collapsed in on itself, folded to a fraction of its original size. The tear expanded and contracted as it collected power, a bizarre sort of heart. Harry could hear it beating—and it made a sound he had no English word to describe. Perhaps it could be compared to the buzzing of a thousand bees, if the bees were a civilization of furious, dying demons rushing forward in a great wave to meet their creator.

Then the tear burst wide open. Chaos gritted Harry’s teeth together, focusing, and a forcefield flared into existence, spreading outward with them as the epicenter.

Chaos will be able to create a space around it where demons can survive indefinitely in toxic Earth air, Synesis had warned Harry, and here the demons were, right on cue. They flooded out from the tear like dark liquid, but a closer look revealed them to most closely resemble insect swarms. Their horrible buzzing sunk into the deepest recesses of Harry’s brain until he could hear nothing else, until their bodies filled every inch of the forcefield. As their creator, he could sense their names, their thoughts, their sheer desperation. Chaos had summoned countless demons, most Rank Seven, and despite their evident power they reeked of broken spirit.

“I speak to you from the vessel my children have created for me, and I have summoned you all here to ask for your assistance until I reach my full strength and can leave this body.” Chaos tightened its grip on the book that held Anarkia. “Tonight, we free the Hunger from the human who calls himself the Dark Lord. Then we free the rest of my children, every last one the Dark Lord has trapped in this forsaken realm. On the solstice, the prophecy will come to pass, and I will take my true form. This spells the end for humans, and the beginning of a new age for us.”

Chaos paused, curving Harry’s mouth into a smile.

“We will make the Dark Lord suffer. We will burn his world to the ground like he burned ours, devour it whole. Like I shattered Control, I will shatter this human who believes himself to be a god, shred him until the shards of his essence litter this world like ash.”

***

Draco sank to the floor in despair, his breathing shallow. He’d couldn’t see the demons, but he’d been forced to watch Chaos speak in Harry’s voice, forced to listen to its bone-chilling plan for the Dark Lord and the rest of the world. Draco knew with horrible certainty that Harry no longer controlled his own body, and if Synesis had ever had a plan to save him, it would soon be too late to put it into motion. The forcefield emanating from Harry was swelling in size, and soon it would spill out into the hallway where Draco hid. He needed to act before he was discovered—if he hadn’t already been.

But what could he do? Draco clutched at his hair, trying to steady his breathing and blink back tears. Despite his earlier bravado that Chaos didn’t scare him, he couldn’t fight all these demons, couldn’t fight Chaos in Harry’s body—

Then Draco heard the deliciously seductive whisper in his head, a sound he’d prayed he’d never have to hear again, a sound that made his head go fuzzy and his body go taut.

“I knew you’d be mine one day, Draco Malfoy.”

Leipsia.

***

Several bizarre things happened at once. Draco stumbled into the abandoned classroom, his eyes wide and glazed. Chaos stopped talking, distracted, and a few demons cried out. Then Synesis—really Synesis again, not Anarkia—spoke.

“Now.”

When Synesis slipped into Harry’s body, the hand holding the book jolted as if shocked by electricity and dropped it. Chaos sucked in a breath at the unexpected intrusion, and Harry screamed behind the walls trapping his consciousness. Why was Draco here? Why hadn’t he left?

Draco stood on the edge of the forcefield, eyes still horribly blank. One of the demons—Harry instinctively knew it was Leipsia—hovered in front of him, glittering and alluring. As Harry watched, Draco stretched out his hand to caress Leipsia’s amorphous form.

Why was Leipsia here, why, why, why?

“Harry—” Synesis started and choked to a stop. Chaos was pressing down on Synesis’s silvery form around Harry’s soul, trying to snuff it out. Kardin’s flickered beneath them both, quiet and lethargic.

“Fight… I’m… distracting…it,” Synesis managed at last, and Harry’s knees buckled as the two demons swirled and surged around each other. Synesis was sobbing as its soul burned, and Harry felt his own insides charr like they had on Mabon, except this time he felt the pain distantly, painlessly—

Fight.

Harry shattered the walls holding him back and flooded back into his own head, sending Chaos reeling. Then all the pain of his abused body crashed into him at once, and he dropped to the ground, screaming. The sharp edges of the demons’ fighting souls sliced every inch of his skin from the inside, and Harry held his stomach and closed his eyes to block out his blurring and spinning vision. Blood seeped through his shirt, dripping between his fingers.

In that moment, Harry knew that he would bleed out like he almost had on Mabon when Synesis and Auranos had fought.

Fight.

Gritting his teeth against the agony, he struggled to his feet, blasting back demons with the force of Chaos’s magic, the single goal in his mind Draco and Leipsia.

Except Harry could no longe see Leipsia, and now Draco was screaming too.

“Harry! Harry! It’s inside me! I don’t know what it’s doing, I don’t know what it wants!” Draco sobbed, falling limp in Harry’s arms. “Harry, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t think straight—HARRY, IT’S HURTING ME, GET IT OUT! GET IT OUT!”

No no no, what do I do, I don’t know what to do—

Harry fell alongside a writhing Draco, unable to support himself, much less another. Blood continued to drench his shirt, even though he had no wounds. Chaos fought as delicately as it could inside him—the last thing it wanted was to wreck its own vessel—but Synesis had no such inhibitions in its quest to keep Chaos from reasserting its control over Harry.

“I’m going to plant my own Seed inside you, within Chaos’s,” Synesis gritted out, its voice infused with pain. “And then I’m going to jolt it into the germination phase, all at once. The pressure of the two Seeds struggling to blossom on top of each other will break them both. I hope you’ll forgive me, Harry, for waiting so long to do this, but the Seed only has a chance of breaking through this method early in Chaos’s blossoming.”

Tears pricked behind Harry’s eyelids. He’d been wrong to doubt Synesis, the Rank Seven Sapience, the smartest demon in the world.

“Make sure you are touching Draco. Once I’m done in your body, I’ll fight Leipsia in his.”

“TRAITOR!” Chaos howled, and Harry felt Synesis whirling through him, leaving behind its essence everywhere it touched.

“You are no god of mine, Chaos,” Synesis spat. “Or should I call you by your true name, Devourer?”

Chaos recoiled in pure shock.

“When will you tell the mindless Royals the truth of what you are? When will you tell Anarkia? You devoured a thousand realms before you arrived at ours. You would have devoured that empty world, too, if it weren’t for Control, who shattered you. Even though you give us pretty speeches, you care nothing for your accidental children. It pleases you that the world you intended to eat all those years ago—the world that became your prison for seventeen-thousand years—has finally fallen apart. You’ve been starving for millennia, Devourer, and when you’re done feasting on Earth, you’ll move on the next world, never stopping until the entire universe lies in your bowels.”

For the first time, Chaos—Devourer—sounded afraid. “How—?”

“—do I know? Aletheia can peer into other realms. It told me how the worlds beyond ours ended, and I put the pieces together. I have suspected what you truly are for a long time, but I didn’t confirm it until now, when you revealed your eagerness to eat the only world left to be our refuge. My foolish kind may have seen a desire for divine revenge against the Dark Lord in that speech of yours, but I only saw a desire for food.” Here, Synesis’s voice rang with a familiar, endearing arrogance. “After all, I am a Rank Seven Sapience.”

Synesis’s Seed blossomed, and Devourer screamed and flailed and thrashed as its own cracked against the pressure, as its newborn growth withered and died.

When a Seed breaks by divine accident, partial Anthesis occurs, Harry remembered Synesis telling him an age ago.

He held onto Draco, gritting his teeth so hard he feared they would snap. The ground beneath them went slick with blood, and Harry’s consciousness faded and trembled. The forcefield Devourer had conjured rushed back into him as his short-lived magic dissipated with its master, and the demons fled back into the rapidly closing tear, sobbing as their souls burned in Earth’s air.

Then Synesis slid from his body into Draco’s, and Draco’s blood joined Harry’s on the floor.

***

Synesis and Leipsia surged up against each other like clashing mountains, except this time the body they fought in weakened exponentially faster than Harry’s with every second they spent in it.

Draco Malfoy was no Colossus, and his body would shut down in minutes.

“Leave now, Leipsia, or Draco Malfoy will die.”

“If I cannot have him, no one else can.”

Synesis called the last of its strength, surrounding Leipsia’s soul with its own. Leipsia shrieked in desperate rage, and before Synesis could stop it, it planted its Seed deep in Draco’s soul.

“You fool, Synesis,” Leipsia spat, ejecting itself from Draco’s body and right into the realm tear seconds before it fused shut. “A human will never love a demon.”

For a moment, Synesis swirled there, inside the boy Harry loved. It watched the Seed struggle to settle into Draco Malfoy’s flickering soul, watched it crack into pieces.

When a Seed breaks by divine accident, partial Anthesis occurs.

***

“Let me back in, Harry.”

Synesis did not need to ask for permission, but Harry appreciated it. Swallowing his panic, he pressed his hand to Draco’s cheek, and Synesis slid into him.

Draco’s head lolled. He was unconscious.

“DRACO! DRACO!”

“Leipsia planted a Seed, but it broke.” Synesis’s voice shook with exertion. “The potential benefits of a partial Anthesis outweigh the disadvantages. Both of you will have new abilities—you Chaos’s, and Draco Leipsia’s; I only hope you don’t die wielding them.”

“We need to get help,” Harry gasped, leaning over Draco, whose face had drained of all color. “He’s dying, Synesis!” But even as Harry spoke, his vision blurred and spun impossibly fast, like he was on a carnival ride. He would die with Draco. Both of them had lost far too much blood.

“You will not die. You cannot die. Your magic will attempt to keep your bodies in stasis until somebody finds you.”

Harry just sobbed, trying to shake Draco awake.

“Put me back in my book,” Synesis hissed.

“Anarkia’s in there—”

“As long as Anarkia lives, the danger of the Devourer’s rebirth will never disappear. I need to kill it.” Synesis’s soul curled around Harry’s, giving him a gentle squeeze. “Put me back in the book.”

But Harry sensed how weak Synesis was. “You can’t take more of this, can you? You weren’t able to fight it on Mabon. It possessed you, and it’ll possess you again. I-I can’t let you go back in there.”

“I need to destroy Anarkia.”

Harry cried. Everything hurt. His whole body hurt.

“Touch the book, Harry.”

Harry dragged himself across the ground. “Synesis, you’ll be okay? You’ll kill it, right?”

“NOW.”

Harry slammed his palm down on the book’s ratty cover, and the warmth of Synesis’s soul left his.

***

Anarkia struck, and Synesis felt its soul unravel like old cloth.

Too much. It’s too much.

If Synesis didn’t kill Anarkia, Anarkia would possess Harry the next time he touched the book. It would plant Chaos’s Seed in him again, and the whole cycle would begin anew, but this time, Synesis wouldn’t be there to save Harry.

Anarkia’s soul choked Synesis’s, smothered it. It had always been more powerful. This had happened on Mabon, and Synesis had succumbed, drowned by Anarkia’s strength.

“I will control you again, Synesis,” Anarkia snarled, braiding itself around Synesis’s withering soul, tying them together once more. “I will control you, and use you to return Chaos to the Colossus’s body.”

“Then I will destroy us both.”

Synesis had fought off Anarkia’s command many times in the past. Anarkia only ever stayed down for a split second, never long enough for Synesis to reveal the truth to Harry. But tonight, a split second was long enough, and in that split second Synesis propelled their entwined souls out of the book they had shared for nearly an entire year.

Into Earth’s toxic air.

***

Harry’s heart clenched in horror as the demons erupted out of the book. Synesis’s body glittered gold, Anarkia’s black, and the two interwoven swarms detangled themselves in the harsh air, unspooling from each other as Harry watched. He was struck by Synesis’s beauty and the sleek way it whirled, entranced by the way it spread itself thin to block Anarkia from returning to the book. Minutes passed. Somewhere, Anarkia screamed out in pain. Harry’s vision whirled like Synesis and Anarkia, the colors black and gold smearing together.

At last, in its dying throes, a fraying Anarkia spun away out the window and into the light of the Blood Moon.

“I won,” Synesis said.

And then it began to disintegrate in front of Harry’s eyes.

Harry drew it back into his body with a shocked cry, trying and failing to get all the drifting detached strands. He whispered desperate sweet nothings, tears streaming down his cheeks. “You’re fine, Synesis, you’re fine. I’m the Colossus. My body will heal you. It has to.”

“I’ll be fine, Harry,” Synesis whispered back, but even as it spoke, Harry felt its soul break down further.

“Synesis, don’t leave me. Don’t ever leave me. Synesis, please don’t leave—”

“I won’t leave you.” The demon caressed Harry’s soul lovingly. “I’ll never leave you, Harry.” The Seed Synesis had planted to save Harry’s life dissipated into nothingness, leaving only Chaos’s broken shell and Kardin’s empty soul.

“S-Synesis?”

But Synesis did not respond.

“Please don’t stop talking, please don’t ever stop talking to me. I’ll never shut you up again, I promise. Talk to me, please just talk to me, Synesis! Synesis! Synesis! Listen! Listen to me! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”

Harry called Synesis’s name again and again and again, until he was just blubbering, just sobbing incoherently, until the bliss of unconsciousness overcame him at last.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

ANARKIA RISING

o

Regulus Black climbed up to the sixth floor, heart sinking. Skia had been gleeful all evening and urged him to come up here, having sensed demonic activity in the vicinity. Now his odious demon hovered at his shoulder, whirling with pure joy.

“Looks like it all came to a bloody end,” Skia cackled.

Regulus sped up, skidding to a stop outside the classroom. On the blood-drenched floor lay Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, both of them as pale as death—and near it, too. Potter’s arm lay curled around a tattered old book.

Regulus had long suspected Potter was dabbling in summoning, ever since Skia had sensed on the first day of class that the foolish boy carried a demon inside him. He’d thought about interfering for months. He’d hoped that Potter would notice that his professor was paying extra attention to him and come seek his advice, but the boy had proven infuriatingly obstinate.

Then again, a non-Elite student had no reason to trust a Death Eater.

“Oho, so you are going to save them, are you?” Skia asked as Regulus whipped out his wand.“Do you even know what’s wrong with them?”

“You won’t tell me anything, will you?” Regulus snapped, chanting obscure healing spell after healing spell under his breath. “Corpus Integrus. Vulnera Sanentur. Vulnera Sanentur. Vulnera Sanentur. Besides, I know they were overloaded. A demon fight must have taken place here.”

“The Dark Lord would be appalled to know how much you’ve learned of his secret art,” said Skia. “Perhaps I will tell him you’ve been dancing with demons.”

Regulus snorted. “I do not fear death, Skia.”

“Oh, he won’t kill you,” said Skia impishly. “He’ll do to you what he did to your brother. And that’s a fate that terrifies you.”

Regulus lowered his wand as color began returning to the boys’ faces, his chest heaving with exertion. An odd pair, aren’t they? A Mudblood’s son and a Death Eater’s heir, their bodies reaching for each other even in sleep. Regulus never would have guessed the pure Malfoy boy’s involvement with a dirty-blood summoner, or demons at all. If the Dark Lord knew, he would surely not be merciful.

Regulus’s gaze traced the scars mangling half of Potter’s face, and his wand hand twitched weakly. Students often stumbled into his classroom cursed and bruised, but this was nearly as sickening as what the Nott twins had gone through during Initiation. Briefly, Regulus allowed himself to wonder what Sirius would’ve done if he’d seen something like this happen to his godson. Probably would’ve blasted the whole school into bits, and laughed while doing it.

Regulus looked over Potter and Malfoy one last time, checking to see that the bleeding had stopped, then swept out of the room. Skia continued to titter at his shoulder.“Won’t you wait for them to wake up so you can tell them who saved their sorry lives?”

Regulus smiled humorlessly. “I’m the furthest thing from their savior, Skia.”

***

Harry jerked upright, gasping. It took a long, tense moment for him to notice the weak morning sunlight filtering in through a tiny window, and then he realized—with a shock to the gut—where he was.

Last night Draco was dying. And Synesis is—Synesis wasn’t—it stopped talking—

Harry struggled to slow his breathing, battled with the tears pricking behind his eyelids.

Draco lay next to him, his chest rising and falling with the slow pace of sleep. Harry pressed a finger to his wrist, feeling for a pulse, and it pounded steady. But how? After all the blood they had lost, especially Draco, how on earth had they recovered?

Synesis said we would stay in stasis until somebody found us and helped. Who helped us, then? And do they know about the demons?

Harry buried his hands in his arms, not daring to look at the empty and silent book lying a few feet from him, but no tears would come. Even now, even when he knew it was futile, he waited to hear the familiar voice. But he heard nothing other than Draco’s slow breathing.

Synesis was gone.

Harry couldn’t cry, even though he felt the tears rising. He didn’t deserve to cry. If he hadn’t been such an idiot, if he hadn’t summoned Auranos, Synesis would still be alive. And it wasn’t fair that Synesis had sacrificed itself for Harry when Harry had called it useless, had belittled it and never truly appreciated it.

Draco stirred, mumbling, and Harry’s head swung in his direction.

“Harry…?” Draco said, squinting up at him. They locked eyes for a long moment.

Then, apparently remembering where he was, Draco flew into a panic, whimpering and scratching at his chest as if he were trying to claw out his own heart. “Harry, Leipsia went inside me, get it out, HARRY, GET IT—”

“Shhh, shhh, it’s okay.” Harry wrapped his arms around Draco’s waist and pulled him close, breathing in the scent of his hair. Draco thrashed wildly for a second before calming down, though he still trembled from head to foot. “Leipsia isn’t inside you anymore, and Chaos isn’t inside me.”

Draco gripped Harry’s shirt. “T-tell me what happened. Tell me everything I missed.”

Harry told him in a quiet, dull voice, reciting everything he could remember. How Synesis had figured out that Chaos was actually Devourer, how Synesis had destroyed it and chased off Leipsia, and how Synesis had sacrificed itself to kill Anarkia. Draco listened to the whole story, eyes glistening, never letting go of Harry’s hand.

“We both have Seeds inside us now,” Harry said, his voice stiff and emotionless, because if he didn’t keep it that way, he wouldn’t be able to talk at all. Draco had only ever wanted to help him, and because of Harry, Draco was now tainted by the demon world. “Broken Seeds. We’ll go through a partial Anthesis.”

Draco’s breath hitched. His pupils were huge within his irises. “W-what—”

Harry ground his teeth together. “I’m sorry, Draco. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want you to get involved in this. I didn’t want—I’m so sorry. I don’t understand why you do any of this for me, I don’t deserve any of it, and now you’re infected, and—”

“Harry.” Draco’s gaze softened, took in Harry’s scars. “You saved me. During the final exam, you saved me.”

Harry smiled wryly. “You saved me first. A hundred times. And it’s my fault you’re—”

“Shut up. It was my own fault,” Draco said harshly. “I chose to stay behind with you when I could’ve left, and I ended up being useless. I brought this on myself.”

“But—”

“Enough. What’s done is done. When—when will it happen? The partial Anthesis? I don’t have any new powers right now. I don’t feel any different.”

“I don’t know,” Harry admitted. “The partial Anthesis could start anytime. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in years. I don’t even know how it’ll happen, how we’ll transform or get our new abilities, or how dangerous they’ll be. Synesis didn’t have the time to tell me before—before—”

“Then we’ll figure it out,” Draco promised. “Synesis saved us, and it knew exactly what it was doing. It wouldn’t have let our Seeds break only to let us die during our partial Anthesis. Harry?”

Synesis. Harry was staring blankly at the tattered book that had been his companion all year long. Synesis had died inside Harry’s body, disintegrated with the Seed it had planted. Briefly, their souls had entwined. There was so much more Harry should’ve asked Synesis to tell him. There was so much more Harry should have learned about the demons, their home realm, the intricate details of summoning. Synesis had died with the world’s greatest wealth of knowledge, and Harry had never used it to its full potential.

“D-Draco.” Harry realized he had lost the battle with his tears, that wetness was crawling down his face. “H-how will I go on without Synesis? How will I d-do anything? Without Synesis, h-how can I—” Harry couldn’t continue. He couldn’t breathe, much less talk. Something had jammed his throat, his entire chest.

Draco didn’t say anything. He just enfolded Harry in his arms, stroked his ruined face and blood-matted hair, and let him cry until the sun rose high and bathed them in bright June light.

***

The walls of Sebastian’s private room shimmered a gaudy shade of gold, his flowing canopy cream-yellow. Colors fit for the future Skull King. He’d probably be receiving his golden mask any time now.

“You’re here.” Sebastian, who sat cross-legged on his bed, did not turn to face Theo as he entered. Nathaniel leaned against the wall, the hood of his cloak covering half his face.

“I’m here.” Theo gritted his teeth. Sebastian had stuck a note on the door to his dorm, requesting his presence in the Silver Skull Wing.

“You won the Initiate Tournament, by the way,” said Sebastian. “Harry Potter tied with you.”

“But we didn’t even finish the final exam,” said Theo. The words because you took Draco remained unspoken on his tongue.

Sebastian shrugged. “You two were the most talented in the Initiation group by far. Adolphus and I decided to post the most accurate results.” He still did not turn to face Theo. “Technically, Potter scored higher than you. If we’d been honest, you would’ve only made second place.” Sebastian chuckled, low and deep and furious. “Tell me, Theo, how does it feel to be bested by a no-name half-blood?”

“I-I thought you and Adolphus weren’t going to let Potter win. I thought that was the whole point.”

“Oh, it was.” Sebastian let out a mirthless bark of laughter. “But Adolphus found Potter amusing and insisted on making him the winner. Adolphus thinks that Potter’ll be a great Skull one day, thinks the whole experience hardened Potter into a real warrior.” Sebastian laughed again.

“What did you call me for?” Theo asked through gritted teeth.

At last, Sebastian rose from his bed and turned around, and Theo took a step back. Sebastian’s whole body was coiled like a spring, his jaw clenched, his fists curled tight. He wanted to kill right now, ached to kill; Theo saw it in his eyes. Sebastian rubbed his arm, digging his nails into his skin like he was trying to hurt himself. Nathaniel watched, and chuckled.

“Do you know what this is, Theo?” Sebastian reached into his pocket and withdrew a bronze Knut.

“It’s… a Knut.” Theo hid his recognition. He’d helped Draco make all the magic-obstructor Knuts himself last year, but he had no intention of revealing that fact to Sebastian.

“A Knut,” repeated Sebastian. He flipped the coin over in his hand. A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Yes, it is that, I suppose. It’s also an extremely powerful magic-obstructing receptacle, and I’m sure you helped Draco make it.”

“I—” Theo started.

“Spare me your lies. I’m not in the fucking mood,” said Sebastian. “Just listen.”

Theo listened, heart in his mouth.

“Draco used this extremely powerful magic-obstructing receptacle against me once. I would’ve taken him last year, but he slithered out of my grasp using this… thing. He always escapes in the end, doesn’t he?” Sebastian’s gaze darkened, and he tightened his grip on the Knut.

Theo wrung his hands behind his back.

“So yesterday, I stole this Knut from Draco before he could play his old tricks, and used it on Potter when he came after me, ever the knight in shining armor.” Sebastian met Theo’s eyes then, and Theo shuddered at the depths of them. He’d never seen such raw hatred in his brother before, had never imagined that Sebastian could hate anyone more than he hated their father.

“Do you know what Potter did then, to this extremely powerful magic-obstructing receptacle?” Sebastian continued, smiling eerily at Theo. “He disabled it permanently when he broke through it. It doesn’t work anymore.”

“He… broke through it?” Theo remembered how Potter had somehow escaped the Dungeon Two ropes on Halloween of their first year. He’d known for a long time that Potter could survive where no other wizard could.

It was Sebastian’s turn to chuckle. “You don’t sound surprised. You’re a bad actor, Theo.”

“Yeah, I know Potter is different,” said Theo, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“You’re not going to ask about what happened beneath the Dueling Ring?” Sebastian cocked his head to the side, still smiling. “Don’t you want to hear what I did to Draco? To Potter?”

“Not really.” Theo felt exhausted all of a sudden. “I saw Potter’s face at lunch today, so I know.” He’d gone almost giddy with delight upon seeing proof of Potter’s suffering, his ruined face, but this joy had been doused at once. Theo was certain that Draco now knew of his treachery—Sebastian had surely told him.

Theo had been the one to alert Sebastian to Draco and Potter’s friendship in the first place, and he’d known Sebastian’s plan for Potter all along, had even helped it along. I was just too much of a fool to realize that Draco would be involved.

“And where was Draco?” Nathaniel asked, leaning forward, and Sebastian’s gaze flicked over to his twin for a brief, annoyed second before fastening itself back on Theo.

Theo swallowed painfully. “Draco was with him. With Potter.” They had been sitting together in the Great Hall, in plain daylight. Draco had seemed… shaken, but intact, like Sebastian hadn’t managed to hurt him permanently. But Theo hadn’t stayed long enough to check; he’d been too afraid that Draco would confront him about his betrayal, and had fled like a coward before Draco could say a word to him.

And he hadn’t wanted to look at Draco sitting with Potter a second longer than necessary.

“Shameless behavior.” Nathaniel snickered from the shadows. “We should’ve fucked Draco while he was still pure, Seb. He’s a blood-traitor now.”

“Oh, he’s certainly not pure anymore,” Sebastian’s eyes gleamed. “But I don’t kiss and tell.”

Bile rose in Theo’s throat, and something else, too. Nathaniel shifted his weight from leg to leg, his chuckle gone.

“Why did you call me here?” Theo repeated, steadying his voice with great difficulty. “I did everything you wanted me to.”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Theo.” Sebastian stalked over to him with a cheeky smirk, his movements once again reminding Theo of a wildcat on the hunt, gave him the image of powerful muscles rippling beneath a sleek pelt. “You haven’t done everything I want, at least not yet.”

Sebastian leaned closer. “See, I’ve done a very kind thing for you, Theo, and you owe me,” he said, baring his teeth in a smile. “I didn’t tell Draco how you’ve been helping me this year, how it was your fault that he ended up beneath me, and his poor paramour ended up scarred for life.”

Theo’s head spun.

“Yes, you heard right. I didn’t tell him what a sniveling coward you are. Draco still thinks you’re on his side, not that you ever were. Why didn’t I tell him, you ask?” Sebastian reached out and gripped Theo’s chin with bruising force, tilting his head up. “Because I can still squeeze some use out of you, as useless as you are.”

Theo tried to shake his head, tried to shove Sebastian off, but of course Sebastian was as immovable as a boulder.

“You will continue to spy on Draco and Potter for me—primarily at Durmstrang, but also when you return here in the spring. Next year I’ll be busy handling the bastards lusting after my throne, and I’ll hardly have the time to babysit Draco. So, Theo, as long as you make yourself useful to me, provide me with the information I want to hear—and I will know if you’re lying—then I won’t tell Draco what you’ve done to betray him.”

Sebastian released Theo’s chin and stepped back. “Do we have a deal?”

Theo nodded, knowing with terrible certainty that the more he helped Sebastian, the deeper he dug his own grave.

“Cheer up, will you?” Sebastian grinned. “After all, with your help, by this time next year Harry Potter will be dead.”

***

Smothering his terror, Theo approached Draco’s room later that day. If Sebastian hadn’t tattled, Draco had no reason to hate Theo, at least not more than he already did. And if Theo kept avoiding him, Draco would start to suspect something was off. So Theo steeled himself and knocked.

“Yes?” Draco banged the door open a second later, his hair slicked back and pristine, his uniform pressed sharp. Theo watched carefully for any sign of disgust or rage on his face, but he just looked tired. “Theo. What do you want?”

Theo cleared his throat. “I… I was wondering if we could study together. Final exams are next week.”

Draco looked back into his room, worrying his lip, and Theo wondered what was possibly in there. “Now isn’t a really good time.”

“If you want above ninety marks in all your classes, you’re really going to need to get into shape before the finals,” Theo said, crossing his arms, hoping he sounded like his usual self.

Draco hesitated, still gnawing his lips bloody, and Theo wanted to touch them. Preferably with his own lips, and also for a good hour. Had Sebastian kissed him? What else had he done to Draco? It was killing Theo; he had to know.

“Okay,” Draco said at last, going back into his room. “We can go to the library.”

“Okay?” Theo spluttered. Had Draco really been convinced that easily?

“Wait a moment. I just need to get my books,” Draco called from inside, and Theo hovered where he stood nervously.

“Draco, what’s going on?” Potter appeared out of nowhere, filling the doorway. Well, this answered Theo’s earlier question on what possibly could’ve been inside Draco’s room that Draco kept looking back at.

Potter regarded Theo with his usual hateful scowl, and Theo felt his veins go cold. Potter shouldn’t have been intimidating, but his new scars intensified the shadows on his face, made him more monstrous, and Theo could not help but avert his gaze.

He looks like Sebastian and Nathaniel.

Theo’s glee had known no bounds upon seeing Potter’s disfigurement for the first time at breakfast, but now he felt like the world’s biggest fool. What on earth had given Theo the impression that scarring Potter would change his relationship with Draco?

“Why’re you here, Potter?” Theo fought to keep his expression blank, but couldn’t mask the whine creeping into his voice. Usually these two idiots were more discreet about their friendship, but he supposed they had no reason to keep up the charade now that the Initiates knew everything.

So Draco has no reason to stay friends with me anymore. He was only tolerating me so that I wouldn’t tattle on him, Theo realized, his chest thudding dully.

“I’ve decided to move in,” said Potter, baring his teeth in a smile, ever more the mini-Sebastian. “Do you have a problem with that, Nott?”

Theo hated him, wanted to kill him. He genuinely wanted Potter dead and out of his life, out of Draco’s life.

Next year. Just wait until next year.

“Let’s go.” Draco emerged once more, this time carrying his schoolbag. Potter grabbed his arm before Draco could cross the threshold, and Theo bristled.

“Why’re you studying with him?” Potter asked, eyes narrowed. “You can study with me.”

“Harry, you get distracted too much while we’re studying.” Draco huffed out a sigh, gently prying Potter’s fingers off him.

“He’s an untrustworthy rat,” Potter snarled, and Theo almost flinched at the truth of that statement. If Draco knew what Theo had done in order to ensure Potter’s destruction, he would never speak to Theo again. There would be no forgiveness this time.

He took a calming breath. “Are you coming or not, Draco?”

Draco nodded, but then he squeezed Potter’s hand, offering him a genuinely sweet smile, the kind of smile he hadn’t directed at Theo in years. Blood rushed to his head. He wanted to seize Draco and Scourgify him, then shove him into one of the prefect baths for extra cleansing.

Dirty-bloods shouldn’t be allowed to touch Purebloods.

“Come on,” said Theo, tapping his foot, and Draco finally extricated himself from Potter. They left the dorms in swift silence, Potter glaring holes into their backs, fists clenched in his pockets.

“I’m surprised he let you come with me,” said Theo when they were halfway up the spiral staircase.

“I don’t need anyone to ‘let’ me do anything,” Draco muttered. “Besides, he won’t ever thank you for it, but he appreciates you helping him yesterday morning.”

But Theo seriously doubted this. Potter’s hatred hadn’t lessened in the slightest, but at least Draco seemed to respect Theo more now.

“Draco, I lied a bit. I didn’t really need to study tonight, though I guess we might as well. I just wanted to ask you something away from Potter.”

Draco stopped halfway down the corridor, pinning Theo with narrowed eyes. “What?”

Theo adjusted his bag, then wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers. “Oh, er. Are you okay?”

Draco blinked. “That’s your question? Am I okay?”

What did Sebastian do to you? was the real question Theo itched to ask, and whether he itched to ask it out of genuine concern or due to some sick sort of curiosity, he didn’t know. If Potter’s face was all cut up, that meant that he hadn’t been able to help Draco, and that meant Sebastian and Draco had... Theo didn’t finish the thought. But then again, Potter had broken the Knut, and his face hadn’t been nearly as cut up as Theo would’ve expected from Sebastian.

“I couldn’t find you during the final exam,” Theo said, scratching the back of his neck. “So I was wondering… if you were… okay.”

Draco’s face darkened to a shade of puce, not out of embarrassment, but out of rage. Clearly, he hadn’t fallen for Theo’s pathetic act. “You know what happened, don’t you? Did you know what he was planning for us?”

“No!” Theo almost yelped. “Sebastian called me to his room today to explain why I couldn’t find you during the final exam. He was gloating to me—”

“Gloating?” Draco swelled to his full size, curling his lip. His hands, Theo noticed distantly, were clenched into fists and trembling. “Did he tell you how Harry saved me? Did he tell you how Harry broke his arm and his wand?”

“W-what?”

“Tell me, Theo, how does it feel to be bested by a no-name half-blood?” Theo remembered hearing Sebastian say, remembered the glint of rage in his eye.

“Yeah. Harry managed what your cowardly arse never did. He sacrificed his face to help me, if you’re wondering why he’s all cut up, and he stopped Sebastian from hurting me any further. So yes, I’m okay. I’m perfectly okay, no thanks to you.”

Theo’s heart sank to his feet. Potter had beaten Sebastian. Theo had imagined beating Sebastian a million times, but Potter had actually done it. Theo couldn’t remember ever feeling more wretched.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Draco looked tired again. “Whatever, Theo.”

Then he gave Theo a coy smile, one that shot heat into Theo’s cheeks despite its obvious malicious undertone. “Really though, thanks for helping Harry before the final exam. I mean it. If you hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to save me.”

***

Draco returned from his study session with Theo a few minutes before ten o’clock, rubbing his sleepy eyes. Harry lay sprawled on Draco’s massive bed, staring up at the ceiling. In his hands, as always, he clutched the tattered old book.

Draco sighed loudly, his chest contracting at the sight.

“Just let me hold it.” Harry sensed Draco’s silent disapproval and tightened his grip on the book, not looking over at him.

It’s not healthy, Draco thought, but he reminded himself that only a day had gone by since Synesis’s death. He would give Harry some more time to mourn.

The entire day had taken a surreal tone for Draco. How could he go on pretending things were normal? He could hardly believe he carried a demon Seed now, even if it was a broken one. He could hardly believe that Synesis’s sacrifice had worked, that they’d survived Chaos. And on top of that, Draco felt a slight shock every time he looked at Harry’s new face, unable to ignore the shadows of his scars standing out against the ugly red gashes themselves.

Harry’s face was wrong. All wrong.

They’d gone to a furious Madam Pomfrey after classes to apologize for ditching her, and she’d yelled at Harry for a good ten minutes before shoving a few potions into his hands. Harry had just stood there and taken the abuse, and Draco had held his hand through it. He had barely left Harry’s side all day, in fact, and people were sending them odd—sometimes hostile—looks in the corridors. The third-year Initiates seemed particularly irate.

“What did you and Nott do with each other?” Harry asked from the bed, running a careless finger down the book’s spine.

Draco didn’t like the way Harry had phrased that question. “We studied History of Magic. That’s my worst class, so…” He trailed off, preoccupied with flicking a nonexistent bit of lint off his shirt.

“Why do you still need to be friends with him? You were only doing it because he knew about us, but now everyone knows, so there’s no point.”

Draco shrugged, guiltily for some reason. “He’s gotten better, Harry. He’s trying. He helped you yesterday.”

But something was off about Theo’s behavior.

Perhaps Theo had known Sebastian was planning something and hadn’t told Draco about it. Draco swallowed, his fingers scrabbling at the end of his sleeve. He didn’t want to believe that Theo was capable of hiding something like this, that he could care so little about Draco after they’d patched up their friendship this year, but Theo was still a coward where his brothers were concerned. That would probably never change.

But he does care about me. He helped Harry for me. And even if he knew that Sebastian was planning something, there’s no proof he knew anything substantial, or that he did anything to hurt me or help Sebastian. He would never do that. He’s a coward, but not malicious. Not to me.

So, for the first time, Draco didn’t know what to do about Theo. He’d had no trouble ditching the boy before, but now he hesitated. He genuinely liked Theo again, almost as much as he’d liked him when they were children. Theo had accepted his friendship with Harry, had kept it a secret, had sometimes even covered for them when they’d gotten careless in hiding themselves. And he’d done it all for Draco, because he’d wanted to stay friends with Draco. Theo wasn’t brave like Harry, he wasn’t wonderful like Harry, but he had gotten better, and Draco didn’t want to break off their friendship. Not this time.

“Aren’t you afraid that Nott’ll do the same thing his brothers do?” Harry said, jerking Draco out of his thoughts.

Draco gaped for a moment, going brilliantly red. “Theo’s not like that.”

“How do you know he’s not?” Harry spat, digging his fingers into the mattress like he was trying to take out his anger on it. “Nott knew that his brothers were hurting you.”

“I know he’s not like that because he blushes like mad whenever anyone says the word snog,” said Draco, stacking his textbooks with unwarranted force as he remembered the horrible things he’d said to Theo last summer. “And yeah, Theo knew about it. I’m sure a lot of people know how Sebastian looks at me. Nobody does anything. We’ve been over this. Can we stop talking about it?”

“Does your father know?”

Pointedly ignoring him, Draco changed into his bedclothes and slipped into the sheets beside Harry. The other boy jumped a bit, but he didn’t splutter or blush or make a fuss like Draco had expected him to. He just curled into Draco’s side, keeping his face hidden, and Draco lazily ran his fingers through his friend’s thick black hair, marveling at its texture.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Harry whined after a dazed silence. “Are you trying to distract me?”

And unable to postpone it any longer, Draco said, “My father doesn’t know what Sebastian does to me, but I know what he’d say if he did. He’s friends with Mr. Nott—their father, I mean—and Mr. Nott is worse than Sebastian when it comes to that stuff. My father knows what he does to Mudblood children and doesn’t care, so why would he care about this? He’d think I’m weak for not standing up for myself, or maybe he’d find it sort of amusing.”

In his fury, Draco didn’t realize he was digging his fingernails into Harry’s scalp until Harry winced. “Sorry.”

“You’re not a Mudblood, Draco. Just because he doesn’t care about Mudbloods doesn’t mean he won’t care if the same thing happens to you.”

“I’m never telling him!” Draco practically yelled. Nothing could be more humiliating than his father finding out.

“What about your mother?” Harry asked, wrapping an arm around Draco’s waist and pulling him closer. His face was still buried in Draco’s chest. “You talk about her all the time, surely she’d—”

“Mother would tell Father first thing,” said Draco, sinking into himself. “They fight about me, but she agrees with him on everything in the end.”

“You don’t know that she wouldn’t help. You don’t know that at all. And if she doesn’t, maybe you could ask one of the professors for help. Black seems sort of nice, and Carrow practically melts into a puddle every time you talk to him. He might protect you from Sebastian.”

WHAT? Merlin, what was Harry thinking? How could Draco tell one of the teachers about this? Was he supposed to walk up to Carrow after class and casually say, “Hi Professor, the next Skull King wants to screw and torture me, can you please give him a detention?”

“I’m begging you, Harry, just leave it alone. Please, just leave it alone.”

Harry looked up, revealing his horrid new face, his lips pulled back in a snarl. Draco barely stopped himself from flinching. “Leave it alone? You want me to fucking leave it alone?”

“Aren’t you mourning Synesis right now? Can we just talk about this later?”

“Synesis is dead, and so is Anarkia. Sebastian is still alive,” said Harry. “Why are you being like this? Don’t you want someone to help you at all, or do you like sitting around being helpless all the time?”

Draco sat up with a hiss, shoving Harry off him. “If you’re going to be a prick, I’ll sleep in Theo’s room. I know you’re mad at me for causing Synesis’s death, and I know how useless I’ve been this year, but I can’t—”

“Don’t be stupid,” Harry said, seizing Draco’s wrist. “This is your room. If you want me to leave, I’ll go back to mine.”

“Leave, then,” Draco said, and then immediately felt awful when Harry’s face crumpled. There were dark circles underneath his still-puffy eyes. He’d probably been crying when Draco had abandoned him to study with Theo. Maybe he’d been mourning Synesis, or his old face. And Harry was just trying to help him. He was the only one who had ever truly helped Draco.

“I didn’t mean that. You can stay.” Draco threaded his finger’s through Harry’s hair again, flopping back onto the bed.

“I’ll stop talking about you telling someone, for now,” Harry muttered darkly. “And I don’t blame you for Synesis’s death. What the hell are you talking about?”

Maybe you should. Maybe Synesis wouldn’t have died if it hadn’t fought Chaos, Leipsia, and Anarkia all in a row. But if Harry didn’t understand, Draco wouldn’t explain his slip up.

“So you agree that I’ve been useless?” said Draco, the ghost of a smile tugging at his lips.

“You saved my life about a hundred times,” said Harry, blinking up at him. Draco tried very hard to figure out where on Harry’s wrecked face he should focus his gaze, tried to hide the discomfort that seared through him whenever he looked at it. “And all year I wanted to save you back. To show you that I was powerful enough for someone like you.”

“What gave you the idea that you weren’t?” Draco murmured, sleepy now. Harry got ridiculous ideas sometimes. “Is that why you went crazy with the demon summoning? Is that why you mucked everything up and got us both stuck with broken demon Seeds?”

Harry scowled, and Draco snorted. “You really are an idiot. Look over there, Harry.”

The silver paper bird Harry had made for Draco on Valentine’s Day launched itself into flight in a shining whirl. Harry’s face broke out into a dazzling smile, and for the first time since Sebastian had cut him, he looked like himself.

***

Harry’s potion ended up a pale shade of pink instead of bright crimson, but it was the best he was going to get. The Potions final exam had been a grueling experience; Snape had spent the hour prowling around the room, breathing down their necks, and at some point Neville had nearly fainted from the fumes. Resigned to a mediocre grade, Harry spooned a bit of the shoddily-made Bloodroot Poison into his vial, dearly wishing he could feed it to Theodore Nott.

Speaking of Nott, he and Draco had already turned in their perfectly red potions and were packing up. Theo whispered something in Draco’s ear, lightly touching his shoulder.

They probably cheated on the exam, Harry thought with a sneer, stalking over to the front of the room to hand his vial over to Snape. Draco’s always copying off him. Bet that’s the only reason Draco even talks to him anymore.

“Mr. Potter, you will stay after class,” Snape said, taking Harry’s failure of a potion with a slight curl of his lip.

“What? Why?” Harry said, forgetting to be respectful. Fortunately, Snape wasn’t Dolohov and therefore wasn’t prone to torturing students whenever they forgot to address him as sir, though he did insult them and make their lives hell. Never Harry, though. He treated Harry almost as well as he treated the Elites.

“Sit down, Mr. Potter, until class is over,” said Snape, waving Harry away.

“Yes, sir,” Harry muttered, and sat down back at his desk with a bitter scowl, watching Draco and Theo leave. In the row in front of him, Neville yelped as his potion—a brilliant shade of green instead of red—bubbled and spat goop everywhere, including on Harry’s shirt. It took a while, but at last the rest of his classmates finished their potions and left, until Harry was the only one left in the room.

“Come up, Mr. Potter.”

Harry approached the front desk, avoiding Snape’s black gaze, uncomfortable under the stare. He realized that this was the first time Snape had seen him since Sebastian had carved up his face. Nearly a week had passed since the Tournament and Synesis’s death, and finals had begun too quickly for Harry to dwell on anything but reviewing material… even though he was hyper-aware of all the unflattering stares he was getting lately, and found himself choked by panic every time he thought about how abnormal he looked now.

“Tell me, Mr. Potter, what has happened to your face,” said Snape.

Harry’s mind reeled for a moment, taken aback.

“I… what?”

“Your face, Mr. Potter, your face. You do understand English, don’t you?”

“Oh. Er. My face.” Harry swallowed, resisting the urge to cover it with his hand. “Well, d-do you know I joined the Skulls, sir?” He wasn’t sure if Snape did. Snape didn’t pay much attention to him after all, and he’d never been the father Harry had always wanted him to be. He acted even less like one at school. Overall he pretended Harry didn’t exist, and was at most coldly polite whenever they had to speak to each other during class.

“I know that you are an Initiate, yes.” Snape did not remove his gaze from Harry’s face.

Harry glared at the floor. “Well, they didn’t like that I was a half-blood. So you can figure out what happened to my face, can’t you? Sir.”

Snape tapped a finger on his desk. “I see.”

“Sebastian Nott did it,” Harry said. For some reason, he wanted Snape to know, prayed—deep inside—that Snape would protect him. What if he could tell Snape about Draco, get Snape to help? “He’s going to be Skull King next year.”

“Yes, I am aware,” said Snape. “He is one of my star students, after all.”

Harry swallowed, his heart sinking. “Well, anyway, if that’s all, I’ll get going, sir.”

“One thing, Mr. Potter.”

Harry gritted his teeth. “Yes, sir?”

“You are aware of my own blood status, are you not?” Snape asked, locking their gazes together. Harry immediately stared at the wall, heat rising up his face.

“…Er, I suppose.”

“Then you can see that proving yourself will be a worthwhile endeavor.”

Harry forced himself to look at Snape. Why? Why does he support an ideology that believes him to be inferior, an ideology that sentenced my mother to death? Harry would never understand a person like him, and never wanted to.

“I’ve already proven myself, sir,” Harry said, and left without being dismissed.

***

The next day, after another grueling afternoon of finals, Harry spotted a golden note stuck to the door of his broom closet. He unfolded it with impatient hands, teeth gritted, only for his jaw to go slack upon reading it.

Potter—

The Dark Lord predicted that one day even the children of his enemies would see the wisdom in his teachings. That day, it seems, is here. You have impressed me this year. I was certain you would fail, but you persevered through all of my tests, passed them with flying colors. Your power will be a worthy addition to our noble cause.

If you survive, dirty-blood, I believe you will make an fine Skull—and after that, a fine Death Eater.

Adolphus Rabastan Lestrange

Harry stared at the words, rereading them over and over, mind going blank with pleasure.

Then he came back to himself and tore the note into pieces.

***

Finals came to an end, and so did the school term. Harry had somehow passed all his classes—even History of Magic—and had packed up his meager belongings. He’d lived in Draco’s room for the past week and a half, and nobody had failed to notice. The other Initiates still seemed to be in shock over his friendship with Draco, his new face, and his victory in the Initiate Tournament, but Harry hardly cared what they thought. He’d half expected someone to attack him, but it seemed that even the Initiates were too busy with class finals to bother.

Harry saw the world through a haze of dull pain. He usually slept with Synesis’s tattered old book under his pillow or by his head, waiting for it to speak to him, to wish him good night. In the mornings, he would wake to see the book on Draco’s vanity, where Draco always moved it. He was obviously worried for Harry, worried that Harry was growing obsessed with an empty shell.

But Harry couldn’t bring himself to get rid of that book.

The night before the journey back to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, he found himself sitting on Draco’s bed, trembling in rage. Tonight was Sebastian’s coronation. Tonight, he would receive the title of Skull King.

“I’m not fucking going,” Harry said as Draco preened over by the vanity, getting ready for the Skull meeting.

Draco turned around, perfectly put together as usual. But his eyes were almost glazed, his shoulders tense. “I don’t want to go either. But I’ll bet they’ll notice if we’re not there—the Initiates, Sebastian, Adolphus.”

“Who gives a fuck?”

“Let’s not make them any angrier than they already are,” Draco said, coming over to sit next to Harry on the bed and melting against him.

Harry’s fury subsided. He could hardly ever stay angry whenever Draco was touching him. He studied his friend’s profile: the upwards curl of his lightly freckled nose, the flutter of his pale and thin lashes when he blinked, the tapered shape of his chin. Harry and Draco had somehow grown even closer this past week; nearly bleeding to death together, getting infected with demon Seeds at the same time, and sleeping in the same bed tended to cause that, funnily enough. Harry had known since they’d shared a room last year that Draco slept like the dead despite his tendency to flop everywhere and kick the sheets around until they were tangled by his feet, but Harry hadn’t realized until now how annoying this habit was.

It’s worth it, though. Draco always rolled over to his side of the bed at some point during the night and nuzzled into his chest like a kitten seeking warmth. Only then would Harry be able to fall asleep, and Draco able to keep still.

“I don’t want to go see Sebastian become Skull King,” Harry whispered. “I don’t want to see him. I don’t want you to have to see him.”

“We have to go, Harry,” said Draco, quieter still. “We’ll be all right. I promise.” He traced one of Harry’s scars, his eyes meeting Harry’s without faltering. He’d made a habit of doing that recently, of reaching out to feel the texture of Harry’s face, sometimes even subconsciously. Draco hated looking at Harry now, hated seeing his scars—Harry had noticed this despite Draco’s best efforts to hide the fact, as Draco always stared fixedly into his eyes as if he feared that his gaze would drift—but at least he liked to touch them.

Maybe that means he’s not completely repulsed by me.

“Please?” Draco asked, and Harry conceded defeat. Draco never said please.

Harry stood up, pulling Draco with him. “We’re staying in the back, okay? And don’t look at Sebastian, not once—”

“Oh, shut up. You’re the reckless one, not me, remember?” said Draco, leading them toward the door and out into the common room. A few of the other Initiates had congregated there, waiting to leave for Dungeon Seven. Right on cue, they shot Harry and Draco baleful looks, and Draco sneered back at them. Harry kept his own face carefully blank.

Theo emerged from the shadows by one of the sofas, his gaze dropping at once to Harry and Draco’s connected hands. Harry saw his expression darken and felt a surge of vicious glee. A spineless coward like Theo—if he was as harmless as Draco thought and not a creep like his older brother, which Harry was sure he was—didn’t deserve to touch Draco, ever. And Harry had every intention of letting him know that.

Of course, Draco slipped his hand out of Harry’s when he saw Theo approach, and Harry scowled and crossed his arms, not sure what else to do with them.

Bah.

“You’re late,” Theo muttered. “It’s starting in ten minutes.”

“Nobody else has left yet,” Draco shot back. “Stop trying to go to everything so early.”

In awkward silence, the three of them climbed out of the dormitories and into the dungeons, the other Initiates trailing behind them. The doors to Dungeon Seven had been flung wide open, and raucous laughter drifted out into the corridor. The three boys filed into line at the back of the chamber, leaning against the wall with the rest of the Initiates. As the minutes passed, more and more Skulls trickled in, and finally, the doors slammed shut, the torches dimmed, and the chatter died.

Everyone swiveled to face the front podium. Thirteen Gold Skulls—including Adolphus—stood upon it in a semicircle. As Harry watched, the semicircle split neatly into two, allowing Sebastian to emerge from behind the gap like some sort of monster from the depths. Thrown into relief like this, he seemed taller than Harry remembered, his masked face glinting gold instead of silver. He gazed with glittering eyes down at the rows and rows of Skulls, his lumpy mouth curling into a wry smile, and pressed a closed fist to his heart.

This time, he would be the one to lead the anthem, not Adolphus.

“In gold, silver, and bronze, we stand united, devoted weapons of the Dark Lord. We strive to prove ourselves, our control, and our power. To challenge those who are impure, traitorous, and unworthy.” Harry mouthed the words as the Skulls stomped their feet t