Everybody calls him Squid.
This isn't his name. Of course it isn't. What parent in his or her right mind would name their child after a cephalopod, even the most impressive one? He has a real name, most assuredly, and it is a decent name, too – nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. But his peers had been incredibly insistent and, despite some initial arguing on his part, they began to persuade him. By the end of his first year, he had accepted the moniker. By the end of his second, he actually enjoyed it. And, as time passed and he grew into himself, Squid started to realize that the nickname suited him better than his given name.
So, he stuck with it.
And now, everybody calls him Squid.
Fortunately, saying that the name suited him did not just backhandedly describe his enjoyment of seafood, his lanky, too-long appendages, or his large, eerily glassy eyes. It also described the quality of his movement – fast and darting, never in one place for too long – and his knack for hiding in plain sight. Squid were adept at camouflage of all sorts. As perfectly adapted to living in colorful, teeming reefs as the darkest, loneliest recesses of the ocean, squid could change not only the color, but also the texture of their bodies in less than a second. If that didn't work, they could escape with a blast of ink.
It therefore seemed natural for Squid to adopt camouflage as his specialty. It took years of training, but he finally mastered the art. He excels at physical transfigurations, the construction and maintenance of illusions, and the sight-altering charms he could cast upon others. And he is probably the single biggest buyer of Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder the Weasleys have ever had. But his favorite method of disguise is the Polyjuice Potion. The ability to take on an entirely new form is addictively freeing. He bathes in the anonymity of it, aches for the stinging, ripping, breaking, and rearranging of his body. Of his life.
He does not bother with a concealment tonight, however. The rain comes down in buckets, scattering the usual throng of Diagon Alley patrons like cockroaches exposed to sunlight. His brisk pace, dark robe, and deep hood shield him from general notice, but he cannot help but feel paranoid. His eyes flit from stranger to stranger, ever watchful, ever wary, but they take no notice. Their eyes slide over him as if he is underwater and they are caught in the sun's glare, seeing nothing more than their own reflection. He smirks, happy to have achieved anonymity without magic's aid. That is true mastery, and Squid feels proud of it.
After a few more minutes of fast-paced travel, he casts surreptitious glances to the left and right, then makes a sharp right into Trapsina Row – a corridor about as wide as two of him abreast, or one average person. Near the end of the alleyway, distinguished with a sign so miniscule it barely counts as a sign at all, is Afflicshun's Apothecary.
He hesitates for a moment before opening the rotting door. Afflicshun's isn't a new establishment by any stretch of the imagination, but it is new to him. The decision to make the change is not one he has made lightly, but it was one he deems necessary. He had attained an uncomfortably high level of recognition at his old apothecary – Harronbum's, in Knockturn Alley.
It was a series of what Squid now realizes were unacceptably sloppy mistakes that led to this undesirable familiarity with Walther Harronbum, the wizened owner of the store that shared his name. He was fresh from Hogwarts when he first sought Harronbum's services, and, though he recognized the need for disguise, he did not know how best to do it. Polyjuice Potion was easiest, so that was what he used. Acquiring Muggle hair was simple enough, and he would use the same Muggle only two to four times in a row before tossing out his stash and procuring more.
Because Harronbum's is a rather dodgy establishment, it is not uncommon to see someone once or twice and then never again. But a steady flow of 'strangers' who visited at semi-regular intervals and required rare, sub-legal materials was bound to attract attention. He should have known: Knockturn Alley may house unsavory figures, but it was a mistake to equate seedy with foolish. In fact, one could argue that Harronbum and his associates are sharper than most. Observation is key in a world where illicit trade makes more than a small blip on the Ministry's radar.
Squid's behavior was subtle enough that it took nearly two years before Harronbum pieced together that the 'strangers' who came in asking for Boomslang skin and Valerian root were actually just one person. Or, it took him two years before he made the connection known to Squid, addressing him as 'Mr Miatta' when he was disguised as 'Madam Therone.' This was accompanied by a deeply significant glance. Squid read it clearly under Harronbum's substantial, salt-and-pepper eyebrows.
Harronbum would never speak to anyone else about what he knew, or what he suspected he knew. Such chatter would be a flagrant breach of the unspoken accord among the patrons of Knockturn. Neither would he ever bring it up again. But he would never forget that information and, if a deal ever went sour, Harronbum would not hesitate to spill if it would save his own hide, customer loyalty be damned.
Hell, Squid would do the same thing.
Still, he wishes that he did not have to change. Harronbum's had served him well for a very long time. He was punctual, efficient, and – though he price-gouged mercilessly whenever Squid came in with a special, often illegal request – discreet. He could not ask for anything more from his apothecary and can only hope Afflicshun's will provide service that is half as satisfactory.
When Squid sees the man behind the counter, that hope immediately dies. The man behind the counter is far too familiar and, if Squid's memory can be counted on (and it can) had never had a reputation for subtlety. Squid instantly wants nothing to do with him. He pivots, planning to flee, but he is paralyzed by a memory.
He ran once before. Has he forgotten the consequences of that particular flight? He saved his own skin and lost something irreplaceable because of it. Has he forgotten his vow? The promise he made to never run again?
He has not, and he will not be reneging on it now, especially considering from whom he would be running.
The icy fear flooding his veins is obliterated by scorching anger. Squid breaks out in chills. Why should he run? Squid deserves to be here more than he does. And this is a place of business – the only shop Squid had researched thoroughly enough to feel confident in patronizing. He needs those ingredients today. There is not time to find another apothecary.
Cool determination soothes his skin, and Squid pivots again. Slowly, he lifts his hands and lowers his hood. The man behind the counter stills completely as their eyes meet. They stare at each other for a long minute while the rain pounds outside. After an eternity, the man behind the counter tears his eyes away, in shame or embarrassment or because he finally recognizes him. Squid does not know which; he is not good at reading emotions. He takes a steadying breath and begins his task.
He moves through the shop quickly and, in no less than two minutes, sets his purchases onto the counter. The man behind the counter rings him up slowly, but not because he doesn't know how. His movements are controlled, precise, as if he doesn't want to damage the delicate phials of harpy spit or rip the delicate package of powdered griffon claw.
Squid appreciates his care. It would take no effort at all for the man behind the counter to destroy not only all of his purchases, but Squid himself. His limbs are too big for his body, too bulky and muscled. Squid absently wonders what he was doing in a cramped apothecary, and then he glances the man's hands.
Calling them "battered" would understate the severity of the visible damage. Each knuckle is bruised, the skin stretched over them mottled purple to blue to green to sickly yellow. More than a few are split open. Most are thickly scabbed, but one is bandaged, and Squid can see maroon blood staining the white-grey cotton.
The sight comforts him. Here is evidence that even the strongest could bleed. The man behind the counter can break Squid's body into two without breaking a sweat, but he can be hurt, too.
Squid can hurt him.
In that moment, the man ceases to be a threat. Squid even smirks as he places his gold into those battered hands. The man behind the counter is human.
The illusion is broken.
The entire transaction takes five minutes, and Squid leaves without saying a word. The trip is a small sort of victory, but he doubts he will ever go back. No matter how fulfilling it felt to stand before that man and prove his strength by mere existence, it is against his nature to associate with the familiar. The man behind the counter is not an enemy, not a threat, but is a complication.
Squid has not survived for so long by ignoring complications.
Only one month passes before Squid needs to darken Afflicshun's doorstep once again. Squid scowls into his cauldron, but that is the nature of experimental potions: he rarely knows what he needs nor how much of it until he is halfway through. Buy too much and he has not only wasted gold, but space and effort. Buy too little – like this time – and he has to run back before doing the due diligence on another apothecary.
He dons his cloak, tucks his wand into his sleeve, and hesitates, his hand resting on the doorknob.
The weather is overcast today, but there is no hint of rain. More people will be out. He should disguise himself.
It is his habit, his protection, but today it feels wrong. It feels like running. Like hiding. Like fear. And Squid isn't afraid. Even if the man behind the counter will not recognize him while Polyjuiced, it feels unfair to face him as someone else, especially considering their history.
He knows pride or resolve or some other stupid emotion is clouding his judgment. He knows it is a mistake. He knows he will eventually regret it.
He does it anyway.
Squid takes a twisting, turning route to Afflicshun's to help assuage his paranoia and, by the time he arrives in the dark alley, he feels surprisingly better. He opens the door without hesitation and meets the shopkeeper's eyes. They stare at each other for a moment that is not as intense or prolonged as last time. It is a stare of recognition and mutual acceptance.
Squid is content to leave all of their communication nonverbal, but the man behind the counter apparently does not feel the same.
"You're that kid."
Squid looks up, meeting the man's eyes once more. Squinty eyes, he realizes now. Dark, with heavy eyebrows.
"You're that kid," the man repeats. "The one with the br –"
Squid hisses – literally hisses – his displeasure. The man's eyes open wide in surprise.
"You're that guy," Squid growls in return. "The one with the de –"
The man slams his hand onto the counter, cutting off the rest of his sentence. He draws his hand away, revealing Squid's change. Squid takes it and leaves with a scowl, but knows he will return. He and the man behind the counter have an understanding now.
Afflicshun's has just become his new apothecary. No disguise required.
Two months pass. Months that see little success for Squid. The potion he is attempting to create –a variant of Polyjuice that could provide disguise for an entire day without needing to be refreshed – keeps failing his animal trials. Lucky for him, his filthy domicile is never short on vermin, but he has to go thieving to restock his gold and, thusly, his ingredients.
He is bizarrely excited for his visit to Afflicshun's, but keeps his face impassive as he passes through the threshold. The man's eyebrows shoot up when he walks through the door and lowers his hood, as per their routine. When Squid lays his purchases on the counter, the man speaks.
"Didn't think I'd see you again. Thought I scared you off."
"I do not run away," Squid replies slowly, emphasizing each syllable.
The man nods. As if he understands. As if he comprehends. As if such a thing is possible.
"Squid," he interjects sharply. "If you really must know."
The man thinks for a minute. "Ape."
Squid meets Ape's eyes and really looks. They are hard, glittering, and reflect a damage that Squid feels. He nods once, takes his change and his bag, and leaves, feeling for the first time in years that he may not be entirely alone on this planet.
Two weeks later, it is Squid who initiates the conversation.
"Do you take special requests?"
Ape lifts both heavy eyebrows. Squid already knows the answer. He would not be at Afflicshun's if they did not. Ape does not know Squid knows that. This is a true test of their understanding.
Ape nods after a moment's consideration. Squid feels like he has won. "Manager does. He's out for the day. Come back tomorrow."
"No." Another eyebrow lift. "I need the order in today, and I need it placed discreetly."
"I do not care about the bloody manager." His sharp tone edges the already tinny silence. He breathes deeply, attempting to stay calm. He did not expect to meet this kind of resistance from Ape, though he has prepared for it, just as he prepares for everything else.
"Take my order, Ape. You will not be sorry." He slides a Sickle across the counter.
Ape's eyes widen. He palms the coin and withdraws a ledger. Despite his initial reluctance, it seems like Ape has done this before. Squid smirks, pleased at the maneuver. Ape is not an idiot; he waits until the moment of maximum benefit before acting. It is an admirable trait.
He pushes a scrap of parchment across the counter next and studies Ape's expression intently as he unfolds it.
"Class Five Untradeable, that is," he grunts.
Squid's smirk widens. It is another test. "By Thursday. No later." It is Monday. Ape shoots him a quick, appraising glance, then nods. Squid is once again pleased: Ape has passed.
"Shouldn't be a problem. Fifty Galleons, give or take a few Sickles. I trust you'll come prepared."
Squid nods. "Thursday?"
"Two a.m., Thursday morning. Whisper your name to the broken brick two feet to the left of the door."
Squid smiles at this, his first genuine smile in a long time. This is discreet. He likes discreet.
Two days feels like an eternity.
Heavily cloaked and shrouded in darkness, Squid makes his way through the deserted streets like a rat, darting from shadow to shadow. He finds the broken brick and whispers, "Squid." He is afraid for a moment that Ape meant his real name and feels a rush of relief as a narrow corridor reveals itself. He squeezes through to what must be the back of the shop. He turns around to look for Ape and nearly pisses himself when he feels a tap on his shoulder.
He does not flinch, though, and even manages to remain impassive when he turns around to face his dealer. How a man Ape's size can look so small behind a counter is a mystery Squid feels confident he will never solve. He is massive. Barrel-chested and broad, positively hulking. Squid feels vulnerable: he is almost six feet tall, but scrawny and weak. His only comfort is that, if Ape does choose to attack, Squid has a vial or two of poison that will knock the big man out for at least an hour. That is more than enough time to escape.
There is no need for self-defense tonight, however. Ape holds out his hand.
Squid swallows his annoyance. The price hike is a sign of good faith – a test for Squid – and he cannot begrudge his coworker a small bonus for his troubles. Squid sets the bag of gold into Ape's waiting palm and waits for him to inspect it. He pockets it, finding its weight satisfactory, and passes Squid's package over. Squid holds the tiny vial to what little light the moon affords them. The venom glimmers like oil in water, thick and dangerous. Perfect.
He smiles at Ape and nods. "Until next time."
Next time is a season away, but not much has changed about the shop or the alley except for the weather. When once it was soaked with rain, it is now packed with snow. An altogether more inconvenient circumstance, as Squid has to turn every few feet to erase his tracks. By the time he reaches the shop, it is late. Ape is closing up.
"Squid," he says by way of greeting.
"Ape. Just need a few things. Won't take more than a minute." The large man hesitates, then nods.
Squid is true to his word. Two minutes later, both he and Ape stand on the doorstep of Afflicshun's.
"Join me at the pub?"
Squid pauses and considers the large man for a long moment. The pub… He has not been to a pub in ages, preferring to drink and wallow alone at home. He is nothing but a disgrace to himself there, vomiting or pissing all over himself before passing out face-down in a puddle of whatever sick had escaped him, only to wake up crusty and nauseated all over again. Tears always threaten soon after, but the physical pain of the night before always staves off the emotional hurt. It is not a ritual he relishes, but it is one that works.
Maybe this can work, too. Squid recognizes a brokenness in Ape that mirrors his own. He sees, too, evidence of Ape's own self-destructive patterns. His bloodied and bruised knuckles have not disappeared and there is a shadow of a scrape on his chin. He feels a kinship with Ape that he never thought could exist. Why not try?
They walk in silence through knee-high drifts toward the Bloodied Maiden, one of Knockturn's seedier establishments, where the glasses are dirty and the women are worse. They sit at an ill-lit corner table and drink.
They drink until closing. Squid sways when he stands, wrestling himself into his cloak. Ape handles his booze better. He is (thankfully) steady on his feet. Squid cannot imagine having to support the man if he fell or stumbled. Something shifts in his eyes, however, and Squid wonders if they have more in common than just being broken. He is drunk enough to find out.
"Want to go back to my place?"
Ape hesitates for good reason. Blokes like them do not just invite each other over for a nightcap without an ulterior motive. Then again, blokes like them do not typically invite each other to pubs late at night without a motive of their own.
Squid has the motive. He has never had an interest in sex for the emotional benefit, but he is a man. There is no denying the physical pleasure of it. Squid denies himself rigorously in most aspects of his life, but he refuses to deny his lust. Usually he has to pay for it, but if he can indulge tonight for free, all the better.
He does not mind the disconnect – the sex without the attachment. He has never felt connected to anyone in that way, not since his loss, and not before that either, he recalls. He has tried to fake it, tried to replicate infatuation with both sexes, but the masquerade is excruciating and exhausting. Dismissal, rejection, abuse, humiliation… These are the emotional tolls of love, and they are too high for Squid to pay.
He considers explaining all this to Ape. Maybe he would say yes if he understands what Squid wants, or rather, does not want. But either Ape is keyed to nuances, or Squid is better at expressing himself than he thought.
"My place," is Ape's reply. They exit the bar together.
Squid does not know how it happened. It begins as Side-Along Apparation and ends with Ape's body colliding with his. And then he is bent over the arm of a couch, and his pants are around his ankles, and there is intense pain and exquisite fulfillment. No emotion, no connection. Only movement. Intimate contact. Instinctual rutting.
And it works.
The numbness lasts until he gets home. Once ensconced in his room, however, the trembling begins. It lasts through the night, punctuated occasionally by fits of joyful sobbing.
It works. There is something better. There is someone else.
There is Ape.
They develop a routine. It is unlike him to do so. Routines are dangerous. If he is predictable, someone can recognize him, connect him to things that he ought not to be connected to. But denying himself is dangerous too, and in this case, the benefits of a liaison far outweigh the risk.
Whenever he needs potion ingredients, and soon, whenever he needs something more, Squid arrives at Afflicshun's just before closing. The manager is never in, preferring to handle black-market trade from the comfort of his sitting room in a small flat in a nicer part of Diagon Alley. Ape is responsible for the daily happenings in the apothecary.
Daily happenings like Ape fucking Squid on the till with the curtains still open. Or experimenting with the more innocuous ingredients whose effects caused body parts to swell, or burn, or tingle. Or forgoing the pub in favor of climbing the rickety, narrows stairs to Ape's three-room apartment above the shop and fucking there.
They never kiss. They never murmur sweet nothings. Never even touch one another more than is necessary to achieve mutual satisfaction. It is impersonal, almost professional, and Squid is determined to keep it that way.
Then, one late night, their dalliance is more violent than usual. Ape's blow to his head knocks him out, and Squid wakes several hours later in Ape's bed, with Ape himself sitting nearby, simply watching with his dark, calm eyes. The feeling of invasion is at once so exhilarating and horrifying that Squid momentarily entertains the idea of pretending again, and instead of sounding ludicrous, the idea is compelling.
It is months before Ape asks Squid to stay the night. Neither of them sleep. They lay in the small bed, not touching, and talk about their pasts. They compare experiences, agonize over mistakes, make useless excuses, and do not bother with apologies.
They talk at great length about their brokenness. They talk about the root of it, the hatred they feel, the all-consuming desire for revenge and justice. They discover their common cause and, for the first time in long, long while, Squid feels like he has an ally. An ally with the resources he lacks and whose reason matches his own in form, if not in passion.
He has imagined what he would do if the pieces were somehow able to fall into place. Despite this constant planning, it takes more than a month to assemble his ideas into something sensible. It takes another week to work up the courage to bring Ape into his plan and an enthusiastic fellatio to convince him to agree to it.
At Ape's silent nod, Squid feels an arousal that has nothing to do with the man before him. He smiles and, with a sudden show of strength, flips Ape over and drives into him. The control is new and intoxicating, and it is not long before he loses himself in it, finishing far too quickly. But this is not the last time. No, this is just the beginning.
It is May 4.