Chapter 1: A Beginning Song
He cannot remember what his name is.
The darkness chafes, burns, itches; whispers along his skin like wire wool over exposed nerves. There is no up, no down, no day or night; time is meaningless. He doesn’t know how long he’s been in this place; days, weeks, hours even. Stuck in a void of nothingness so heavy he might suffocate. They say the surest form of torture, the quickest way to turn a person mad is to isolate them, deprive them of their senses. This fresh hell does it in abundance.
He doesn’t know where he is.
He knows it is cold, so cold- bitter and numbing until it isn’t. Sometimes it’s so hot the sweat sits slick on overheated skin, salt burning in cuts he doesn’t remember getting. He has no clothes, did he wear them once? He scarcely knows what he’d do with them if he had, rags of filth to adorn his flesh prison. To touch is to hurt. He feels inhuman, unreal, he is nothing more than a writhing ball of pain in a mass of blinding darkness.
He cannot remember how old he is.
There has to be another life outside of this candyfloss madness, the sticky mist-like nothing of his existence. There has to be a solid world, a world away from this.
Sometimes he tries to remember, as he scratches the walls, remember if there ever really was another place. If he ever really was another person. Scratch scratch scratch. Are the walls even there? Some days they’re not, some days even the rough stone is gone, fallen away to nothingness. He cannot see what it is he touches, cannot know what is in there with him, waiting and watching in the dark.
He is alone but someone watches.
He sucks bloodied fingertips and tries to remember what he knows. There is a swirling black mass where his life used to be. Nothing has ever existed outside of this place. Torn fingernails split what skin is left on dry, chapped lips. Warm blood slick on a chin matted with untamed hair. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t; sometimes it disappears at random- hair one minute, gone the next.
He never seems to eat in this place, never drinks though his throat grows parched and sore. He must, he cannot be alive without and yet and yet and yet.
Some days there is water, the cold dry stone grows wet, odourless liquid pooling around his body. So cold it hurts, aches in his bones until they feel so brittle they could snap. The worst days are the ones when he is immobilized, a sensation not unlike floating, unmoored from everything yet stuck in his own body in the freezing water. He hopes its water. The drip drip drip that he cannot escape. Bores burning holes in his head, flaying him alive, stabbing sharp and deep into his insides. Ice-picks of pain peeling away his sanity.
A man visits sometimes. The man with the smile that looks like madness. The man who calls himself a friend, who says he can be trusted. He asks about the other life, about the things that grow further away all the time.
He has strange eyes; not kind. They don’t fit, nothing fits, the smile and the eyes and the voice that laughs harsh truths. And the talking. The stranger makes him talk even though he doesn’t want to, even though he spent so long screaming he can taste nothing but blood and bile. The words bubble out slick and red, fall apologetically from raw bitten lips in terrible bouts.
There is pain too. If the man is displeased- or if he is jovial- he brings pain. Relentless, unending pain. It starts from nowhere, from his soul maybe, runs razors down his nerves, sticks pins into every millimetre of his body. Aftershocks wrack him long after.
He cannot remember what his face looks like.
Sometimes he touches the peaks and valleys of his body to check if it’s even real. It doesn’t feel real. Papery skin stretched taut; too thin, too delicate, too ready to tear straight from his bones. He runs ragged fingertips over his face, maps out eyes and nose and mouth, knows they have an order but cannot picture them in his mind.
There is no sleep in this nowhere place. No rest. The darkness is too bright, the silence too loud. If he tries hard enough to reach the brink, he is awoken though he knows not how. Maybe it’s the writhing shadows that follow him, crowd the corners of his eyes and perch on his shoulders. They speak to him in whispers, tell him everything he’s done to deserve this nonexistence.
A smell like burning, rotting flesh. It comes and goes and comes and goes, assaults his senses and leaves its cloying presence for hours, days. A heaviness that sits on the tongue, clings to the back of the throat, the smell of decay and death. And something else, underlying it all, something dark and terrible, something that makes the shadow faces weep with joy and cower in fear.
They jibber to him about a boy, as he paces the cell, round and round and round though his feet bleed winding trails in his wake. Did someone from before know this a boy? Does he know people other than the man? He supposes he had a family once, a long time ago wherever his name went. He thinks maybe he loved them in his own way. He might have had friends, he doesn’t remember.
Sometimes he sees death in the bloodstains on the wall. So much pain and death and fighting, a war perhaps. A war, a great war, a war to end all wars. So much death.
Is that what this place is? Is he dead and gone and buried? Purgatory would suit him well he thinks, endless nothingness waiting for the fire and brimstone punishment that surely awaits him. He doesn’t think he has died, though, that would be too easy. His sense of what is real and what is not shifts so very often, turns on a dime.
He cannot remember.
He beats himself bloody against the walls, yells and cries and hit hit hits the unforgiving rock-wood-metal until his voice is gone and his hands and feet are a mangled, bloodied, mess. Sometimes the man fixes them. Sometimes he doesn’t.
He’s been there so long, with the silence that screams too harsh in his ears and the unrelenting darkness so dazzling he cannot see. If this is all there is to the world then so be it. If there is more out there, if there are friends and family and people who sit so far away in the broken synapses of his brain then he rejects them, rejects it all.
Nothing exists outside of the here and now. He is but a few misfiring synapses in their last spasm before death. He is dead. There is nothing else. There is nothing else. There is nothing.
He cannot remember what his name is.
They tell him his name is Graves. Percival Graves. It fits him, he thinks, in much the same way as second hand shoes.
Magical hospitals are strange places- empty in a way that is neither cold nor sterile, nothing like the wards he half remembers in the echoes of that far off place. They are places so deeply entrenched in magic that it practically shimmers in the air, warm currents of healing. Graves is a bum note in the symphony, a black hole sucking in all the warmth and light, and spitting back nothing but darkness.
No one will tell him anything about the Incident, not directly, though he has overheard enough whilst drifting in and out of his welcoming fugue state to piece a story together. It took a team of Aurors little over a week after the “incident in the underground” to find him, a week since they arrested the Wizard that imprisoned him and stole his life.
The finer details elude him, things carefully not let slip even in front of a vegetable. They found him- that much is obvious- locked away in an ancient wardrobe, already bathed in the reek of dark magic from days of yore. Locked by key and magic alike, it was further transfigured by a harmless extension charm to make the otherwise small space unfathomable. It would be a further half week before they discover the clever little charm they’d previously overlooked, the one which bent and compressed time in the bubble universe it created.
It was a young Auror he heard it all from, still wet behind the ears and eager to gossip. They found him crouched in the corner of a cell, bloody and bruised and scratching idly at deep gouges in the walls. Naked, though it didn’t seem to bother him, chest and legs streaked with grime, hands caked in blood.
He doesn’t remember their approach, mind distant, gone, hands still idly scratching, although his fingers were little more than bloodied lumps of flesh, fingernails long torn away. The pain haunts him now, stiff joints and taut skin pulling at him, aches from deep within twinging even when he lies carefully still. He’s been in hospital for two weeks, though they say it’ll take twice that again before they let him go, and even then the recovery could take years.
He was never the type of man to take idleness well, that much he knows about himself. The idea of spending the next however long conscious but as good as not is an unfathomable cruelty that he’s not sure his mind can take. He’s not sure it can take much these days, still shaky as he is on the finer points of his identity. Still, his skin will begin to crawl before long, a restless itch to join the ache pulling and twisting and tugging at his bones, too heavy by far.
It is almost two months before they let him go. Time left to trudge by relentlessly, a gruelling carousel of doctors, nurses, orderlies passing by outside, or bringing forth their medicines, their diagnoses, their ceaseless chatter. The tediousness helps at little, though the hours are long, they are also marked. By the end of the first week he has come to expect food, though it is still a relief every time a tray is presented, every time he is able to eat. By the second he has started to trust that the clocks tell time correctly, they aren’t trying to trick him. By the third he allows himself to see faces, though that is when the blow of what he’d lost hit him most; when he realised he barely knew what their varying tumultuous expressions meant.
By the time he is discharged he is almost ready to face the world again, though he still aches down to his bones, and his skin- once a soft, fawn-white, now so pale it nears translucency- feels too raw, clothes harsh and abrasive like his shirt is made of wire wool. He had had painfully few visitors during his hospitalisation, scarcely more than the Aurors saddled with his case. They ask him questions, so many questions, the same things over and over and over again, each word scrutinised until every last scrap of meaning has been wrung out. They interrogate him as if is the one who has done something wrong, he knows it is protocol but it feels like persecution. He doesn’t quite remember, but he thought he had friends before all this, perhaps not close ones, but surely somebody missed him? Surely somebody believes he’s not to blame for his own suffering?
A quivering ache of loneliness sits hard and cold in his gut. It follows him from the hospital to the front door of a house that used to belong to him. Madam President had assured him it had been investigated thoroughly, picked over with a fine tooth comb until the air was so thick with magic he could choke. She told him he would be able to move back in as soon as he was discharged. They were friends once, or so he gathers, but even she hadn’t been able to meet his eyes either; face a mask of false joviality over crippling pity.
Left on the doorstep with a name too large, clothes too small, and a crutch he would be reliant on for the rest of his days, Graves, it seems, is to reacquaint himself with his life alone. The house looks like a tornado had torn through it, destruction draped over every surface like doilies in an old widow’s bungalow. The air thick with the pungent stench of dark magic, bitter black treacle and a copper tang at the back of the throat, throttling the life out of anything still living. Everything had been infected, the madman had rubbed his grubby little hands all over Graves’ life and left nothing behind but ghosts.
The first time he catches sight of himself in the bathroom mirror, he throws up the thin porridge he had choked down at breakfast. That man stares back at him from glass thick with dust; though the face is haggard and the eyes lacked that cold, hard gleam, it is still undeniably him. President Picquery had told him about the assumed identity, a brief brushing over, but not this, not how Grindlewald- because the man had a name and a face of his own, and he was too old to be scared of the bogeyman- had stolen more than just his life. He had tortured him with his own face. He sits shaking on the cold tile, hands fisted just a little too tight in hair which- if he’d looked close enough- was growing out at the sides. Fingernails bite deep into the skin, as if he could tear the thing straight off if he tried hard enough, remove the foul face which mocked him from the mirror. He would have too, would have sat there as long as it took to remove every trace of him, if his torn fingers hadn’t caught on firm bristles, a testament to how quickly he had wanted to leave the hospital. The stubble calmed him, the prickle of it against his fingers proof that he was neither the clean faced spectre of his nightmares, nor the bearded madman he had become inside that place. It softened the curve of his jaw, made him think that one day he’d be able to face his reflection once again. One day maybe he would be able to look himself in the eye and not feel the surge of revulsion that hung hollow in his belly. One thing’s for sure, he cannot stay in this house, this museum of misery airing his shame to all and sundry. He would keep his stubble because what use is propriety when the scratch of cloth against his flesh is so painful some days he wants to cry, wants to make it go away- sit naked as a babe because that is what has become of him. That is what that man has made him into.
He needs a change of scenery- not just the house, everything. He needs to leave the wizarding world behind and discover himself anew, figure out who is has become. Baby steps toward normalcy.
He left the house that very afternoon, with nothing but a reclaimed wand- unused thank Merlin, merely left to gather dust- and someone else’s shirt on his back. The house and all that lay within may have meant something to him once, he probably overpaid for the clothes and sought nothing but the finest finery; and he was sure they would all be there if, when, if he returned, but they would not be coming with him.
Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and- so they say- a descendant of one of MACUSA’s original twelve, was dead. He died in that infernal place, all that is left is dust, bones and the echo of what once was.
The flat he chooses is a nice one, though nothing when compared to the life he had disowned. The top floor of a squat, brick building; the kitchen stretches into the living area, the bathroom scarcely disconnected from the bedroom, but it is clean, and the dust of its previous settlers is pure in its ordinariness. In due time he would begin to sell off extraneous furnishings from the past, maybe use the money to buy himself better lodgings, but for the moment it is all he needs. Even the neighbourhood he chose is nothing alike, for one there are no grandiose houses filled to the brim with the most ridiculous opulence scattered up and down the street, and of course it is almost entirely non-magical.
It’s not that he wants to turn his back on the wizarding world forever, though if anything it seemed to have already turned its back on him. The visitors during his hospital stay were few and far between at the best of times. In a sickening moment three and a half weeks into his stay he realised they hadn’t even been looking for him. His discovery was no more or less than an accident- he had been written off as dead from the start. He might as well have been, after all what good was an old reputation when he had been so thoroughly bested. To make matters worse, his magic remains conspicuously silent. He tries and tries to re-connect, to reach into that beautiful current that once blazed so bright in his core and coax the embers back to life; but alas there is nothing but whispers. Performing a simple lumos takes an entire afternoon, and when achieved leaves him hopelessly drained and in need of a lie down- and that was with his wand. Old, crippled and all but useless, that’s what a lifetime in MACUSA has left him. He had always hoped to die in battle, taken out in the line of duty not left to wither and rot.
He’s mentally weighing up whether attempting to force himself to eat is worth the energy it takes to make food these days, when a knock at the door interrupts the ringing silence which permeates his flat. He struggles to his feet, disgust swirling in the pit of his stomach at the crutch leant against the arm of the ragged sofa, waiting patiently for him to use. Another knock comes as he hobbles less-than-gracefully to answer, accompanied by a soft voice telling someone to “behave and be patient now”. Hopelessly intrigued, Graves leans his battered body against the wall- forgoing the crutch when he can perfectly well use the doorframe to lean on- and cautiously cracks the door open.
It is almost the last thing in the world he expected to have a bright young women on his doorstep, a baby on her hip and four children at her side ranging in age from the cusp of puberty to barely out of their nappy. She turns as she hears the hinges whine their protest, a bright smile playing around wide brown eyes.
“Hello there” her voice has a lilting Irish brogue, as dancing and bright as the rest of her. “We’re your neighbours, or… well we’re the closest flat to ya”
He offers the name Percival Graves, though it still feels an awkward fit in his mouth. She doesn’t seem to notice, or if she does it isn’t mentioned; just hands off the baby to a young girl beside her- the eldest of the children- and proffers a hand.
“Aideen O’Hannigan at your service. These here are my little rabble, Siobhan”. She smiles fondly at the children, and coaxes forward her youngest daughter with a ruffle to her hair- not quite the flyaway curls of her mothers, but not without life.
“Bran” she continues, gently touching the shoulder of a small boy maybe a few years older, but buzzing with energy, and holding tight to a plate of cookies, still steaming. Kieran is small and ginger-blonde, with big doe eyes as large and dark as his mothers. Róisín is almost the spitting image of her mother, the same soft curls- though her hair is left to coil into long ringlets, not cut into the same youthful bob- and her skin an identical soft tawny-beige. The “wee babby Aiden” is all pudgy fists and drooling smile, with the ruddy cheeks of an infant- a constant raw pink under the tawny-white skin he shares with his brothers and sister. Graves supposes they take after their father, whoever he may be. They are a beautiful family.
With all the gravitas he can muster- not as much as perhaps he’d like, but maybe he looks as weak and emaciated as he feels because he sure gets away with it- he greets every one of the children with an overly formal handshake. Though shy, he gets at least a smile out of each child, if not an outright laugh, which warms something deep inside of him. He thinks maybe he wasn’t like this before, he cannot recall being around kids often but then again he cannot recall much these days.
“We’re going to feed the monster” Bran tells him in a loud whisper, almost sending the cookies tumbling to the floor in his excitement.
“Now little one, don’t go harassing the poor man.” Aideen chides gently as she empties his hands, and whirls to proffer the plate him instead.
“We thought we’d bring these by for you Mr Graves, a little “welcome to your new house” gift, though the good Lord knows this are hardly the sort of place you’d call a home. It looks like I came in time too, look at you you’re all bones.” She hands over the plate with grin, mirth biting deep lines around her mouth.
“I… yes I suppose I am.” Graves laughs, oddly touched, “It’s been a rough few months. Thank you.”
“That’s no problem, you look like you need a good feeding.” There is a softness to Aideen’s eyes, though not pity- a deep sadness for him. It feels strangely refreshing. She looks for a moment as if she wants to say something more, but decides against it, offering instead “Our door will be open to you whenever you need it Mr Graves.”
“We’re just being neighbourly, but you’re welcome.” The way she smiles makes him feel distinctly as if he has become someone she can mother, not pity but warmer than compassion. “Now it’s time we got you home before your pa comes back.”
“But ma!” Bran whines, eyeing the plate of cookies with an air of distress, like one who has just discovered his coveted goodies were meant for something else after all.
“You can go monster hunting with your pa after dinner now off we go, come on.” And with that Aideen takes back the baby, and attempts valiantly to coral the children down one flight and into the rooms just at the bottom of the stairs.
“Good night Mr Graves” she calls from her front door, accompanied by a children’s chorus of “goodnights”.
“Good night yourself Mrs Hannigan” he replies with as close to a smile as he can muster, slipping back into the relative peace of his flat before anything more can be said. It isn’t that he doesn’t appreciate the company, in fact her hospitality has left him touched so deeply it renders the trepidation of breaking the very laws he spent so many years working to uphold into something of an elicit thrill. Why shouldn’t he make friends with a one or two non-magical neighbours when he is left barely more than a squib himself?
When he bites into one, he finds the cookies are freshly baked and soft and leave an unidentified warmth burning in the pit of his stomach. It’s a dangerous thought, but maybe he could start to feel at home in this place.
Chapter 2: Everything Is Awful
At first it seems like just an absence, a void-like space where life should be. A darkness that has too much depth and a quiet with too much noise. An everywhere-place teeming with life- everything and nothing, life and death writhing together and laced through with the shimmering flame of magic. No up, no down, no day or night. Time is naught but a distant illusion, it cannot touch them here.
Nothing can touch them here.
No one can touch them here.
It’s safe, this outside place- safe and comfortable. A step apart from a universe too obstinate, too arrogant. They don’t know how long it’s been since they were there; could be a day, or weeks or months or years. They sort of hope it’s been years.
It is neither warm nor cold, here in the bright darkness, it just is. They just exist. They think they're still wearing those horrible scratchy clothes he was wearing before, but maybe they aren't. They can’t quite feel their body any more.
They can’t quite feel anything anymore.
They feel untethered. Inhuman. Like they're holding on by the faintest of threads that they can’t quite bring themselves to let go.
The world outside of the sticky marshmallow madness is too cold, too harsh and brutal. It doesn’t care for them. Nobody cares for them. They are alone again, just like they deserve.
But they aren't alone. Things move in the dark, whisper words they do not know, caress along where their skin should be soft as feathers. It soothes them.
They can still feel the pain- distant, elsewhere. Like it happened to someone else. Body and mind are no longer friends, and they can’t quite bring themselves to reunite them. Sometimes they run fingertips that aren’t fingertips along the points and troughs of his body, to see if it’s still real. If they are still the man they know themselves to be. Maps out a face too gaunt to be anything other than belonging the corpse they haunt.
They don’t want to leave, don’t want the pain to return. The ripping, burning, searing pain as they are torn apart over and over again. But the pull has been getting stronger, and they have been getting weaker.
They cannot hold on for much longer, if they do then he’ll be lost forever. If they do then it will have won. They will have won. He will have won.
The flat becomes home. More of a home than Graves remembers having in a long time. Not that he doesn't love the Wizarding world with every fibre of his being, he knows he did once, hell he gave a good deal of his life and personal health over to MACUSA, it's just that it doesn't feel like home any more. Being a wizard is an ill-fitting robe, something he'll climb into when the need arises, but would just as rather throw into a chest and forget about for a while. He can’t keep the wizarding world out forever, he knows that, no matter how much he might long for it some days. Days when he can scarcely walk for the throbbing, burning ache in his muscles. Days when the thought of what he has lost sits so heavy in his veins it is as if his blood is made of lead. Some days- though he spent months unable to move from that scratchy cot as he healed- he still cannot bring himself to slip out from between his sheets. Some days his body is too heavy, will too weak. It disgusts him. He sickens himself, but he cannot find another cure for when life becomes altogether too much. The world gets so loud sometimes, chafes him raw, and the energy to deal with it all just isn’t there.
Deep in his heart he knew that the fragile bubble of freedom he had built wouldn’t remain untouched for long, no matter how fervently he hopes. There is too much he has left behind crowding up on him, pushing and fighting to be seen like the shadow-men of that other-place. It all comes crashing brutally back on him with a simple innocuous tap on the window. He knows that tap, not the confused tap of a belligerent pigeon, nor the accidental thump of a bird on flight, no this is specific, deliberate. An owl sits on the other side, staring in as if daring him to ignore it. His hands shake so badly he can barely undo the latch, and the burst of movement as it pushes its way inside has him ducking for cover. But there it is, the neat, uniform owl of a Healer. The note hits like a punch in the gut. He barely notices the nip he gets for not having treats to give it, too preoccupied with his own spiralling thoughts.
“Routine” it had said.
“Nothing to worry about” it had said.
He should have guessed that Seraphina Picquery would be there in the flesh. Her figure is unmistakable, standing tall and proud in all her finery; always so put together, so respectable. It makes him almost ashamed that he’s let himself go the way he has. Judging by the charmed wardrobe full of starched collars and sharp seams he’d abandoned alongside the manor, his woollen suit and knitted waistcoat is two portkeys, a train ride, and a short walk away from normal. He can tell she isn’t impressed, a subtle shift in the air as if he has failed a test he hadn’t realised he was taking. She makes him want to stride up on two good legs and resume his job as her right hand. She makes him want to curl up in shame.
“Graves” she greets him with a careful smile, holding a hand out as he approaches. Testing the waters, seeing how he'll take her presence. Seeing if he's still broken no doubt.
“Madam President” he replies, carefully not accepting her handshake. To do so would mean swapping which side he was supporting himself on his crutch, and through countless hours of trial and error he knew that this was the less painful way to stand. It satisfies a little part of him to see her realise her mistake, the slow withdrawal of manicured fingers, maybe even the faintest suggestion of a blush high up on porcelain perfect golden-brown cheeks.
His expression he is sure held more meaning than she was expecting, a wordless way of communicating to her that yes, Madam President he did get injured in the line of duty. It isn’t his fault she didn’t notice the deception, and quite frankly he’s sick and tired of the implication, veiled though it may be.
The appointment itself yields little; he’s still a significantly underweight, his wound is improving but only marginally- he won’t lose the limp, not this time, the most he can hope for is to become less reliant on walking aides. He isn’t to worry about the memory loss, everything will return in time. It is all just more of the same spiel he was spoon-fed during his discharge, a fat lot of nothing but speculation and hope. The only real hiccup he has to endure is some throwaway comment Healer Carlisle makes as she rounds up their appointment.
“So Mr Graves” she says in her disarmingly gentle voice- a knife wrapped in silk “I know you are a powerful wizard and I trust your magic is responding well now it can be let lose again, but I would still recommend wand use only for the time being.”
She says it so easily, so trustingly, like she has every faith in his abilities. He can feel his muscles tensing, all at once until he feels locked tight in his apprehension. His turmoil must be blasting out a beacon because Carlisle asks “Mr Graves, is there something you’d like to discuss?” in that carefully emotionless voice she uses for a certain kind of patient.
For a hot second a flush of shame blooms in his chest and rushes outward, but then it is over and he feels nothing but emptiness. Picquery might as well know too, it isn’t as if she would give him his job back any faster if he kept it from her. In truth, he isn’t sure he’ll get it back at all, and he’s not quite mad about it.
“I haven’t been able to access my magic to any great amount” he grinds out through a wave of disgust centered entirely at himself, “I’ve managed attempts at a few rudimentary spells, but it’s more of a struggle than it should be.”
Carlisle stares hard at him for a few minutes, calculatingly perhaps. She has the overall aura of one who has seen far worse, and knows far more then she is given credit for. He can feel Picquery burning holes into the side of his head with her eyes, but he refuses to look. She barged herself into his consultation, made herself comfortable like she had any right to be there, like he should be grateful for her presence. She can bloody well wait.
“You’ve been through a traumatic experience none of us could even begin to fathom” she says eventually, and he so has to admire the way her eyes don’t stray to their guest even once. The very model of a consummate professional.
“Quite frankly I would be astounded were everything perfectly okay, a little worried even. I should like to keep an eye on your development, but I shouldn’t worry, your body needs to readjust to safety. When it has, your magic should follow soon enough.”
As far as empty assurances go, she is exceptionally good. It’s actually quite a shame that the slight hesitation to her words gives her away, the split second it takes for her to run through what she means to say. The important thing is that he knows she’s bluffing, and most likely she knows he knows, but they play this game anyway because what else is there to do? So he thanks her for her time, schedules another appointment and is spilled back out onto the street in no time at all.
Seraphina Picquery stops him before he can leave like he guessed she would, a hand on his arm and a request that isn’t a request for lunch.
The hospital was one thing, easily ignorable when absorbed in oneself and one’s shame, but a magical restaurant is something else entirely. He finds it embarrassingly jarring. He can’t be faulted, not really, he hasn’t been back into society yet and living in a building devoid of magic has let him forget if only for a little while. Thrust out like this he can’t help but feel the centre of attention, and none of it good. He isn’t stupid, he knows what people say about him; that there is no way he got overpowered, that he let it happen. It hurts in a way he isn’t used to, like an embarrassingly tender bruise deep in his chest.
Picquery waits until their food has been delivered before she breaks the suffocating silence that has settled between them.
“You’re not at the manor any more” it isn’t a question, and he doesn’t belittle her by treating it as one.
“I can’t, not yet. There’s too much darkness there, too much of him. I still own it of course, I just don’t live in it” he replies, forcing himself to loosen the death grip he has on his cutlery. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“There are any number of places you could have gone to in the city Percival. You of all people should know how dangerous it can be”
He swallows around the name that flows so pleasantly from her lips, but sits so badly under his tongue. “I can’t live around people who think I would do something like that. And you know what, I wasn’t safe in my own home, why should I be any less safe in a non-magical apartment?” he says with as much honestly as he can bare. The truth is more personal than he feels like he can reveal to her- that it hurts to think that no one noticed, probably no one cared enough to.
“Rappaport's Law, Percival. You're bordering on a criminal offence, and there's only so much I can cover for you before people- important people- start to talk” she insists, and the irony of her words jars him.
“People are already talking! Merlin, I doubt they ever stopped! You all already think I was in bed with my torturer, what difference is this really going to make?” He hisses, an incredulous laugh biting sharp into his words. He knows instantly he shouldn't have said that, even if he couldn't read the pinching of her face, an expression he's sure means more than he can fathom. He can’t quite bring himself to regret the outburst.
His temper just about puts an end to their conversation, to their luncheon really- yet another thing to feel guilt pool in his gut over. She tries to pick something back up, but the resentment is too new, too raw for him to really bite. Their small talk does nothing to erase the pity in her eyes- she handles him with such kid gloves, afraid that he’ll break at any minute like fine spun glass. He aches for Aideen and her children, and the boisterous luncheon they had spent together three days earlier. Rappaport's Law be damned.
At last- after hours that stretched like days- they make their hasty goodbyes. He can tell she isn’t happy, that he hasn’t heard the end of it all, but he’ll be damned if he cares. She doesn’t understand what he has been through and she never would. No one would. From what he can gather, the only other living soul who would have even an inkling of his pain she had killed.
It’s a long walk back to his block, he hadn’t noticed it before- too hyper focused on what this medical assessment would bring. Now though- with his hip screaming at him, telling him his leg is going to give out at any given moment, and the weight of a truly spectacular fight marking his re-emergence into a world that used to be his pressing down on him- it seems an impossible distance. The punch of loss in his gut is so great it shocks him to a standstill. He has missed his magic- bitterly so- but never more than this moment, when at once the ability to apparate is all he longs for. It’s high-level magic, yes, and maybe he’s getting ahead of himself- especially in his condition, where the likelihood of splinching only gets higher the further he walks- but if they can’t fix him, give him back what he has lost, then what else has he got left?
The answer comes in the form of a taxicab rolling down the street. He has a little non-wizarding money on him, not much but more- insofar as he can gather- than strictly necessary, a ride home would be an extravagance, but the weight of the day and Picquery’s distrustful disappointment negates the frivolity.
The taxicab itself is an unassuming vehicle driven by a man not much younger than himself, who laughs when Graves gives him the address.
“I’m sorry, I’m not laughing at you” he smiles, running a hand through a thick wave of dark brown hair, “Only I live there too. Raphael Flores, I’m on the first floor.”
“Percival Graves, top floor” he replies, relaxing the tension he had scarcely even realised had crept over him.
“Well then no wonder we haven’t met yet, I don’t tend visit upstairs much. Though I suppose you know the O’Hannigans?” There is a grin playing about his eyes as he asks, like he knows the answer already and it is endlessly amusing to him.
“Yes actually, Aideen and the children at least” Graves replies, hesitation colouring his words. He hadn’t realised how many social cues he was still rusty on; guilt, it seems, made his fellow wizards lenient towards him.
“Ah so you haven’t met Cillian yet? He’s a nice guy, works in that canning factory across town.”
“I haven’t yet, I’m sure it won’t be long though” he says with something close to a laugh.
The journey is short, almost embarrassingly so. Graves feels almost ashamed that he had to be driven at all, though his pride is not so great that he cannot recognise his inability to have made it alone. The morning exhausted him, and he wants nothing more than to return to the emptiness of his flat, to be left alone and never bothered again. He wants nothing more than for someone to notice that’s not what he wants at all.
Raphael seems to understand to some degree. He doesn’t push for conversation through the rest of their ride, just fills the space with chatter. It’s refreshing, filled with things he only half understands, and worries that can’t touch him.
As they pull up outside their building, though, Raphael’s mood darkens.
“You be careful Mr Graves” he warns, a strange gravity to his words, “there’s something happening around here, something strange.” And with that he’s gone.
The aching pain hits Graves as soon as he makes the step from road to curb, a deep pull at his hip so brutal his leg almost buckles beneath him. His crutch is the only thing keeping him vertical. He is so singularly focused on keeping on his feet that it takes him far longer than it should have to recognise that there are footsteps behind him; hurrying, fast, heading in the same direction. Heading for him. His body freezes. Tense, ready for a battle he is in no way equipped to win. His instincts kick into gear and he knows what he has to do. He tries to reach for a wand that isn’t there. An obsolete comfort blanket, a touchstone. He needs to fight but he can’t move. He will not be taken again. It’s all his mind screams at him. He will not be taken again. He needs to do something, anything, and he can’t move.
An arm snakes past his shoulder, and with a soft “You must be Mr Graves” the door to the building is opened for him.
Braced between doorframe and crutch, his body unsticks, and he whirls around to face who can only be the elusive Cillian O’Hannigan. It’s obvious, from the long, swept-back hair- a stark contrast against fawn-white skin- to the dark eyes, to the large, creased smile; there is no one else he can be but Aideen’s husband, the children’s father. It’s obvious, but it doesn’t stop the trembling in his fingers or the pounding of his heart.
“Cillian I presume” Graves says with something that could perhaps be taken for a shaky smile.
“The very same, and a pleasure it is to meet you. The children, I hear, are half in love of their new friend Mr Graves”
His manner is so deceptively nice as he lets them into the building that Graves almost misses the slight hovering, like he knows he should just let enough alone, but he can't help but be braced just in case- a fathers intuition. It doesn't chafe half as much as it should.
“I hope I'm not being an imposition, I can stop-”
“Now you hold it there Mr Graves, you're one of my Aideen's now, which means you're family. You'll always be welcome in our home just as often as you want to visit.” His manner is so affable, so unguardedly gentle that it comes as a welcome surprise to a tired old wizard who bows under the weight of every death that haunts him- who can barely tell the difference between kindness and pity, but feels undeserving of either.
“Thank you, it's been... I appreciate it, really” he chokes out through a throat thick with a strange sort of sadness, a melancholy longing for what their family has so obviously built here.
“I hafta warn you though, the kiddies are gonna want you to do everything. And don't think that doesn't include the trek to the basement to feed the monster” he grins, the wrinkles around his eyes soft, fond.
“I've heard about Bran's monster”
“Would you believe it was actually Kieren's first?” Cillian barks out in a laugh, head tipped back with the weight of his mirth.
“Now that's a story, see he was exploring one day- we let them run around inside the flat you see, just as long as they come back when their mother calls and they promise never to go outside, not now. So one night about a month ago I come home, the house is in uproar, which I admit is hardly new. Well would you believe it turns out Kieren says he saw something in the basement, and our wee Bran, well he's convinced that it was a monster he saw, one who needs feeding or it'll eat us all.”
Graves can't help but join Cillian's mirth, laughter bubbling up inside him the likes of which he hasn't felt in what seems like forever. Has he ever have the chance to laugh like that? He can feel the phantom warmth of their kitchen, hear the children’s shrieks, taste the ever-present smell of her baking. It feels just a little too much like home.
Cillian must know it too, the way he elbows Graves companionably like they've known each other for years, not the length of a staircase.
He's welcome for the companionship in truth, if he were to get too stuck in his head he may never have made this walk, not with the way his body screams for him to just stop, just for a second. Just for forever. He'd feel embarrassed that he cannot help but pant through the pain, but he's just too tired to care. Image means nothing to a dead man after all, and the O'Hannigans remain blissfully unaware of who he is, what he's responsible for.
When Cillain breaks off for his own home with a smile and a “You take care of yourself Mr Graves” it comes as almost a relief. Their conversation made the walk bearable, but his threshold was drawing distressingly near, and not for the first time he wished desperately for his magic to comfort him.
The wand had recently moved to a drawer in his bedside table, close enough by that it comforts him, but out of sight out of mind.
His hands shake almost too much to get the key in the lock, but he does, and the shocking chill spurs him inside. A blessing and a curse. Slowly, slowly he stumbles through the flat, turning on every light he passes until every shadowed corner is bathed in light. The dark hides too many horrors, whispers of a place he cannot think about.
He collapses onto the beat-up sofa, stretching out sore limbs and letting loose a breath from the soles of his feet. He hates that he can't stomach any more- not for a while, not until he's rested. Between the loss of magic and the loss of energy he feels like half a person, like maybe he left something in that void-place; more than just his memories, something vital.
It's late that evening that he manages to finally, fully pry himself out of his own head, a place all too easy to get stuck running laps of. There are still so many rooms left eerily empty, echoes of memory brushing soft in the shadows, faded and far too delicate to be seen in the light. Some doors remain firmly shut to him now, hidden rooms he wishes to fling open but which he knows deep down lead nowhere.
He had taken it upon himself to spend the evening cooking a thick vegetable soup, rich and warm and entirely too much for his fragile system. He eats pitifully little these days, and the awkward lunch he spent with Seraphina Picquery had weighed too heavy in his gut to choke down more than a few spoonfuls.
Which is why he finds himself stood at the stove in the dead of night, warming through a smallish helping in one of Aideen’s borrowed pots. It would seem ridiculous to his rational mind, but his late-night mind- which is like his rational mind if it took a cocktail of hallucinogens and woke up the next morning with two left shoes and an unfortunate lack of eyebrows- can't help but feel like he needs to do something for this creature. He knows what it's like to feel untethered in a world that isn't your own. Maybe if he can reach out to it, even if it's just to give it something to eat that isn't cookies and whatever it can scavenge, maybe then he could find something- or someone- to confide in. Maybe then he'd be a little less adrift. A little less alone.
The building is eerily quiet at this time of night, the unnoticed undercurrent of noise absent now that any of the occupants with an inch of sense were long abed. The shadows writhe and taunt him, and he wishes fervently for more light, but of course there is nothing for it but to white-knuckle his way down the vast flights of stairs. It never gets easier.
The basement is a strange place. In truth, it is too kind a description; the basement flat had flooded years ago, and rather than have to pay for repairs upon repairs, the space had been gutted and left to rot, until little remained but gaping, empty rooms.
It’s with a fair sense of trepidation that he steps into the area, wreathed in shadow as it is. He can feel the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. Either the room is empty, or whatever Kieren saw is hiding out in the thick mass of shadows that grow denser the further they are from the doors meagre light.
Graves swallows thickly, and takes a hesitant step into the room.
“I don’t know who you are, or if you’re even here, but I thought you might want to eat a proper meal.”
Unsurprisingly he is met with silence.
Slowly, painfully, he puts the crock on the floor, just outside of the circle of light. He has no idea whether whatever is there can understand him, or if it even eats human food, but he had to do something. He couldn’t leave a living being thinking itself alone in a sea of darkness.
The return journey is more painful than he thought possible. He barely makes it back- propped between his crutch and the bannister, arms taking much of his weight. He can’t bring himself to regret it though, no matter how idiotic he may feel in the light of day.
Deep in the back of the room, the shadows move.
When he returns the next day the bowl is empty
Chapter 3: The Harrowed and The Haunted
He- because he is a he, he thinks; he has a real, corporeal body now and that body is male so that has to count for something. He is not they anymore, he needs things, things he didn’t when he was a step out, hovering above. He sleeps again, longer than he ever has, he feels the chill air dampen against his skin, the solid ground beneath his feet and the air so heavy around him. He feels the need to eat. He is so hungry. Ravenous. A hollow ache burrowing deep inside him. The weightlessness he had felt when he was they and they were infinite, has long gone, and with it his freedom. His body is too much, too heavy. Cumbersome. He wore it before, he knows he did, but has it always been this ill-fitting?
But the hunger, that is something else. All-consuming. A creature crouched in his belly, growling and clawing at him, demanding recompense for his carelessness. He doesn't know how to feed it. The place, the real, physical place in which he exists is empty. There is nothing. Nowhere to dig scraps from like he remembers doing in the harsh winters when food was scarce and kindness scarcer.
He exists and he doesn't, half there, half not, but present enough to feel the weakening, the brittleness as the itch of irritability skitters along his bones, prickles his muscles. A low-level thrum of energy, a lift in listlessness, a buzz of hyperactivity. Starvation begins its slow squeeze.
He scares the boy.
He scares the boy but another comes, younger, and another so much older. Brother. Father. Family.
They bring gifts, offerings to the monster that dwells beneath their feet. Cookies and cakes, a little stale but still good. Still, the most delicious thing he has ever tasted.
The first time they appeared he ate them all at once and almost cried- could he still cry? - The cramping in his stomach like knives under his skin. The sickness. How could eating hurt him so much when he was so hungry? Why did this body, this ugly, useless sack of flesh purge what it most craved in sour acid clawing from his throat?
And then nothing.
And then another.
He was smarter then, knew to keep them. Eat slowly, stretch them out for the days there were none.
It was fine.
Everything was fine.
Then the man came.
Then the man came and spoke to him.
As painful as the journey is- and it is blindingly painful; rakes claws into his muscles and clenches painful- somewhere in this very apartment block lives another creature who finds comfort in anonymity. It is the closest he's felt to truly being not alone since they found him, naked and half-mad in the darkness. The joy he feels as he returns to the basement to collect the crockery- a steaming, cooling bowl of scrambled eggs white-knuckle held in trembling hands just in case- almost overcomes the gnawing at his muscles. He knows it is ridiculous to hope, hope for what? That he isn't alone in his misery? That is a singularly sickening thought; is he really the type of man to wish ill will on another just so he can know, can have real, visceral proof that he is not the only person alive to feel this much anguish? Still, the tremor of excitement is impossible to quash, a small, trembling thing which crescendos at the sight of an empty pot licked clean and waiting for him in the watery pool of daylight. Like whoever, whatever, whoever it is knows how much he hates the dark, how it makes his skin crawl, an itchy, twitchy tightness like his body is too small.
“Thank you” he breathes, quiet and all too loud in the silence. And he is thankful, more than they will ever know. Grateful for something to take his mind out of himself, calmed on some animal level that he isn't alone, that he may be hopelessly broken but he can still help. He might still be worth something.
There is no answer, but he didn't expect there to be. He knows what it is to want to hide away and let the world go on turning without him. It’s all he’s wanted for himself for what feels like forever.
He wants to linger- oh but he wants to, craves it- but he can’t, he can’t. Can’t be alone together. He flashes a tired smile to the room and leaves, leaning heavily on his crutch like it’s all that’s keeping him upright.
It is all that is keeping him upright.
He desperately wants the eggs to still be hot for his new companion; something warm and light to ease the hunger the way he would have wanted, not the rubbery mush they had fed him. It’s a stupid thing to hinge his happiness on, but that is the truth of it. He cares for the poor soul because they did nothing to soothe him when they could have, should have.
The door shuts and he hesitates. Just for a moment. And he hears a scuffle, the tell-tale tinkle of cutlery. The thrill of excitement at knowing for sure there is something in the room- something sentient enough to use cutlery- wars with the creeping realisation that he was being watched, leaving him with a confused mess of emotions that serve to highlight to him his own exhaustion. Look, Graves, you’re too tired to even process base emotions. And lower, a smaller voice like daggers in his head do you really think they’ll let you back when this is what you’ve become?
Mostly, he feels bad for eavesdropping.
He doesn’t mean to, isn’t trying to spy or listen in or catch them out. He just cannot face the stairs. A sudden desire to cry punches through his chest. He is just so tired. Achingly so. He had woken up that morning too early, barely an hour after he succumbed to sleep, the stench of that place in his nose. He still can’t shake it. A cloying, rotten stink; the sweetness of decay, the sour note of sickness. It follows him. Chases him through every brightly lit room, lingers in the corners where the shadows whisper. He would never have thought it before the incident, but the darkness has an odour and it smells like death.
It follows him up the stairs, wrapping around him as each step all but takes his breath away. It’s too much, it’s all too much. He shouldn’t have pushed it, shouldn’t have walked so far, so very far. Shouldn’t have pushed himself so hard. Each stair aches, pinches, claws, burns, hurts. Hurts in a way he never knew he could feel, not just physical; something deep inside of him, something infinitely tender wails, beats and batters at the walls of his broken psyche.
“They didn’t know” it cries, so late at night that it’s early morning, “They know you, but they didn’t know.”
It’s a haunting thought, insidious in how easily takes over his mind until he wants to weep, wants to scream and cry and rage at the world. But what use would that be? It wouldn’t erase the past few months, wouldn’t bring back his reputation or change a single wizard’s mind about him. There is no catharsis for him, not even snapping at Seraphina bloody Picquery helped. Nothing can help him. He is alone and that’s just how it has to be.
His flat is bone-chillingly cold when he finally crawls back through the door, and really isn’t that just the icing on the cake.
Three days. Five trips.
That’s all it takes before things start to change.
The pain never gets any easier, and really he knows better than to push himself this way, but he wants, needs to keep doing this. For his conscience. For the creature in the basement, and he knows there’s something- someone- down there now, knows with more certainty than he feels for anything else in his life. He does it because no one did it for him.
The O’Hannigan’s are great, a kind, charming family who are always happy to see him, but spend too long with them and a cold, clenching ball of shame inevitably curls in his gut. Shame for the law he is breaking, ignorant though it is. Shame because they are so open with him and he can tell them nothing of his life. The most important thing about him, the thing which has defined him for as long as he thinks he can remember, and he has to keep it under wraps for their own safety. He couldn’t stand to see them obliviated. It would probably kill him.
He can be so unbearably selfish sometimes.
He likes to kid himself he’s taking food to the basement as some sort of selfless task. Make believe that he does it to help and nothing more, to make sure that whoever it is down there, they don’t die like he could have. Let them know they aren’t alone, there is an entire world waiting for them outside of the shadows if they so choose. Most days he can almost convince himself.
He has begun to detest his own footsteps, the shuffle-clunk-step throws harsh light onto the reality that he is not getting any better. Thanks to Aideen and Cillian his weight has been wavering towards a rise- one or other of them have an uncanny ability to foretell the days he hasn’t the energy to cook, and instead drop their own food parcels on his doorstep when he inevitably finds himself unable to answer- but he has yet to predict how often he can bear to eat or to keep anything down, so even that is an achingly slow process.
That is in part the reason that, even though everything below his navel is submerged in breath-taking pain, he still pushes himself down, down, down to the basement twice a day. He detests idleness with every fibre of his being, has refused convalescence since he joined MACUSA and refuses to lend himself over to it now. A better Wizard would call it a form of self-harm; the slow creeping torment to his own body forcing him to push himself until there is nothing more to give. If they said it to his face, though, he would probably hex them.
His hands are trembling by the time he reaches the door, the pot he carries with him threatening to slip from nerveless fingers. The day has been especially cruel, from the lingering sparks shooting razors down his nerves, to the heaviness of limbs made leaden, to the inability to grasp even the finest tendrils of sleep. They combine in a melting pot of madness, form the shape of a man more trauma than flesh. The room feels colder than usual, the light dimmer, the smooth concrete racing too fast towards him.
He almost isn’t expecting the impact as his knees collide too hard with the ground below, his crutch skittering off into the thick darkness. At least he managed to save the crockery. The wet of the stew seeps into the fabric his trousers, easily fixable if only he could only cast a damn scourgify. He bites back a curse, though tears spring unbidden into his eyes, thick, blurring his sight in that way that means they’re going to fall and there is nothing he can do about it. Embarrassment bursts hot and bright inside him, scalding him, burning what little dignity he had managed to scrape together into a husk. He clenches his teeth against a sob, one, hangs his head for two beats, three, then begins the slow, agonising process of finding his footing. Panic flares for a minute as he realises his crutch isn’t beside him but rather lost to the never-ending gloom. He can’t get to his feet without it, can’t walk, can’t turn tail and run from whoever lurks in the depths.
But there it is, the blunt end hovering a few inches off the ground not far from his head, near enough that he can tentatively reach out trembling fingers, slide them around the smooth wood. He looks then. He cannot help himself. Slowly, inch by inch, up, up, past the rubber tip, the leg, the Y bend, to the padded support. Moon-white fingers, long and slender, a delicate wrist, though not unblemished, the beginnings of a cuff two inches up, then shadows. It is the most he has seen of the person in the basement, and he is truly enthralled.
“Thank you,” his voice is more strained than he was expecting, choked with the threat of tears.
A beat. Then;
It is a soft voice, though Graves has the distinct impression that is by nurture rather than nature. A timidity that belies a core strength greater, probably, than his own.
For a beat they are connected, a handshake through the length of his crutch, then the fingers slip away, though he can still make out the vague shape of a body. Whoever they are, they do not offer to help as he rights himself- a slow process, made all the more precarious without a support, only his crutch to lean on whilst he gets his good leg under him- and for that, he his pathetically, painfully grateful. He’s there to help, not to be pitied.
“I’m sorry about you dinner,” he says as he scuffs a foot through the mess he had left. Stupid, stupid, stupid. “I’ll bring you some more” a promise, though his heart clenches at the thought. He doesn’t even know if his hip will let him reach his door, let alone make a return journey. Merlin but he’s never felt so damn guilty.
He braces himself to retrieve the fallen bowl, but before he can attempt movement, the pale hand is there again, swiping the bowl from the ground and cradling it close to a shadowed chest. He thinks he should feel some sort of indignation, some perceived insult. Mostly he feels tired. He wants to bristle at the apparent charity, but it would, after all, save him a needless journey, one he isn’t even sure he can make at all given the way his knee throbs fresh agony along his nerves. This is not a Picquery with her lies that reek of pity, this is like the O’Hannigan family, all bright smiles and soft kindness.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the company,” he says, carefully- the last thing he wants is to spook them, whoever they are, “but wouldn’t you be more comfortable staying here?”
A movement, a shake of the head, and the bowl is clutched tighter against the mass of their body. He shuffles back a step, further into the room, past the point they know Graves cannot go. The almost-muteness is vague and a little unsettling, but damn if it doesn’t stir something in the tender bruise of Grave’s heart. It feels too damn similar to the days early on in his recovery, fresh from the void and aching like a raw nerve. It feels like the reason why he left Wizarding Society altogether, rather than carve out a new life or bury himself alive under the debris of who they say he once was. He has nowhere, has nothing that isn’t tied into a life he can barely scrape together more than a handful of memories from.
At long last, he sighs out a small “Very well.” If this strange creature wants to follow him, then why not let them. He feels little in the way of a threat, and if this means he’ll get attacked in his sleep, well he hasn’t been sleeping much anyway. No one would notice for weeks if he just up and died.
As they reach the door, Graves turns almost absentmindedly to check that this is really something they want to do, that this stranger is really ready to leave the sanctity of this place. His breath stutters somewhere in his chest. Merlin’s beard but he’s so young. Not a child, older even than adolescence, a young man maybe half his age at best- though he feels so very old these days even that much is hard to gage- yet an aura of innocent vulnerability enshrouds him, shines a light on the careful hunch of slim shoulders, a head ducked in subservience. He has seen next to nothing of the world, save perhaps the underbelly of the beast.
He swallows down the tears that threaten to well for this boy, this waif as lost and abandoned as he is; flashes instead something he hopes can be considered a smile. The door is almost unfathomably heavy as if the very room itself is trying desperately to cling on to its only companion. As if his guilt for inevitably, eventually ruining this young man’s life is forcing him back. Then they are through, out in the dreary daylight that filters in from somewhere he doesn’t care to question.
The boy blinks, blinks again, and then smiles. Small, barely there save for tremulous upturn playing in the corners of his mouth. He hugs the bowl to his stomach with one hand, whilst the other reaches out to brush tentative fingers against the bannister, grasp the wood as if he half expects to move right through it. Graves felt much the same when he was first released, like this life was just one long hallucination and he had been cruelly thrust into the epicentre without warning. Like everything can and would be snatched back from him in an instant if he put a foot wrong. Most days he still feels like that.
He doesn’t say a word as they make their way slowly up the flights, and flights, and flights of stairs; not when Graves has to stop for a second or two when the pain leaves him breathless. Not when the crutch slips and threatens to spill him back down, down, down. Not even when he fumbles for the right key with numb fingers. The boy just follows along calmly - though the anxiety buzzing off of him is almost palpable. He remembers that too, the low thrum of panic that filled his nights, underlined his days.
They shuffle into the apartment with little fanfare, save Graves’ muttered curses, a string under his breath like a mantra to keep himself grounded. His companion doesn't seem to mind if the amusement playing about his face is anything to go by.
Though he wants nothing more than to sit down and never stand up again, he dutifully leads the way through the cluttered living space, to the area half-walled off, dedicated to the kitchen.
“It probably needs warming through by now, but it should still be good” he throws over his shoulder, his single-minded focus on doing whatever it takes to get off of his feet in the shortest amount of time.
“People call me Graves” he adds when the silence stretches on almost too comfortably. It isn’t a lie per se, he is working on getting Aideen to drop the honorific, though it is a frustratingly long process.
A pause that stretches seconds, hours, years.
His voice is soft, not in tone but in volume as if he is afraid to disturb the air around him. There’s something distant tickling at the back of Graves’ mind, was the name significant? Was he forgetting something else from that hazy minefield of memory? No matter, in all honesty, he is too tired, too in pain and cares far, far too little to dedicate too much thought to it. If it is important, it will come to him.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Credence,” he says instead, as he busies himself with lighting the stove again, absently taking stock of his dwindling number of matches. He’d need to go shopping again soon. Sooner if his companion was going to stick around longer than just the night.
“Thank you, Mr Graves”
“It’s just Graves,” then in a brief moment of levity, “the other name they gave me just didn’t fit” as if this poor young man would have any insight into the various meanings of the mad ramblings his half-delirious mind throws up.
He merely smiles, polite if not a little unsettled, and places the bowl gently on the counter. Now that his hands are empty, his nerves are, of course, on full display in the way he wrings his fingers together.
“Have a seat if you want, this will be a few minutes yet,” he says after their renewed silence has stretched a little too far, and the hovering at his elbow has started to make his skin itch. These days he cannot stand to be watched, Cillian learned that the hard way when he tried to fathom just where Graves was going wrong in trying to change a lightbulb. They’re still finding glass in the cracks between floorboards.
The boy Credence is nothing if not obedient. Eerily so. The sort of obedience that has to be beaten into a person. There is defiance there too, just under the surface, He can sense it. It’s a special skill, something discovered at Ilvermorny and honed through too many years working for MACUSA. He might not remember much, but what he can- when he tries so hard to recall his work that a migraine beats him to subservience- is peopled with brilliant witches and wizards unafraid to defy authority if they think it is the right thing to do. Hell, his life right now is in direct defiance to Seraphina Picquery, MACUSA, Rappaport and whoever-the-fuck else wants to throw their two cents in.
Instead of sitting, as Graves would dearly love to be doing, he is staring intently at the bookshelf and all its meagre contents- a stack of age-softened books, some bought himself, others gifted to him; a cookbook from Aideen who painstakingly rewrote her family’s recipes for him, a few mechanical texts courtesy of Cillian, who wants nothing more than to one day have enough money to leave the factory and own a garage of his own, something the children can inherit. There are a few second-hand novels from Raphael, who had made the effort to seek him out after their run in, and always has something new to recommend. The rest were books he already owned, classics, novels, plays, poetry, whatever beautiful words he could get his hands on- a great deal of them first editions too expensive to be slumming it in his tiny little flat, but a small slice of himself that he couldn’t bear to leave behind lest he forget what little he can recall. Lest Percival Graves be lost once again to shadow and pain and fear.
Credence, it seems, has taste. Though his fingers dance delicately from cover to cover, he lingers a little longer over a copy of Homer’s Iliad, an epic tale Graves has been in awe of for much of his life. To love another so fiercely you would drag the body of his murderer thrice around their tomb has always struck a chord, a long-buried wish that one day he too could share such a battle-hardened connection. That dream died alone in the dark. It is a good fit for the boy, he thinks, there is a little of the tragedy about him, about them both if he wants to be brutally honest with himself. He doesn’t pick the tome up though, doesn’t disturb any of them, just looks and look and looks until Graves calls to him to eat. He feels almost sorry to startle the boy back from wherever his mind had taken him, but the food is ready, and his aching body is done in.
Credence eats with a ravenous timidity. Seated at the scuffed dining table, picking over a bowl of his own thanks to the boy’s earnest insistence- who wouldn’t take I made it for you as an answer despite the embarrassment burning bright just under his skin- Graves cannot help but watch. He eats like he hasn’t eaten in weeks, and judging by the gauntness of his face he would believe just that. Old pastries are not enough for a boy to live on alone, and with how infrequently little Bran is allowed down there- only on nights when Cillian is home with enough energy to take him down- he must have been close to starvation. He looks almost embarrassed when he finishes the bowl, like he wasn’t supposed to eat so much so fast like Graves will think less of him for it. It is a ridiculous thought. If anything it ignites a burning pride in his chest, to see first-hand what he could only assume, to know that he is appreciated.
“There’s more in the pot,” he says, an amused smile just twitching on his lips, “but I’d advise waiting a while before you eat again.”
Credence is obviously torn between heeding his advice and acquiescing to the hunger pulling knots in his belly.
Graves takes pity on him;
“I’m not saying you can’t eat more if you want it, but too much too soon will make you sick. Your body needs time to readjust.” Although judging by the vigour with which he put that serving away, he would be feeling the effects of a stable diet long before Graves does, if he even wants to stay of course - or at least keep the arrangement they had going. Though if he’s being honest with himself - and he’s just taken a strange boy who has been living in the basement into his home, so what is a little honesty going to change at this point - it was not a sustainable operation in the first place. He cannot keep going on the way he has been, too much too soon and his leg will never be the same.
Credence’s indecision clears, and he puts away another half-serving before he is done, which, he shouldn’t be surprised at how sensible the boy can be, he knows nothing about him, yet he still is. He himself it's little more than a few mouthfuls before his stomach revolts and he knows with sickening clarity that anything more that goes down is bound to come straight back up. He hovers as Graves clears their plates away- washing them by hand, a chore which has him once again aching for his magic- and stores the remaining leftovers in the icebox. When he hobbles over to finally, finally take a seat in the armchair by the fire, the boy hesitates only slightly before he ambles over to perch on the sofa. It’s rude of him, but he does not have the energy to play host. He is so damn tired these days.
When he waves a hand vaguely towards the bookshelf with a muted “help yourself” he is up like a shot, settling into the cushions with the epic tome laid out over bony knees. They read in an almost comfortable silence until Credence can barely keep his eyes open. He offers his bed up, the only one in the apartment, but the boy had most likely been sleeping on a solid floor; and though the sofa would probably seem infinitely comfortable to him, he is long and skeletal and would not fit very well, and it isn’t like Graves could transfigure something up for him no matter how many hours he could waste trying. Hell, it’s not as if he does much in the way of sleeping anymore anyway.
Better to let the boy rest, than subject him to the horrors of his nightmares.
Chapter 4: When the War Came
She should never have gone.
It was just some dumb rub, just a bunch of stupid teenagers getting together and having fun. But James had promised he would be there, he promised . She should have listened to her mama, boys like that are just no good .
Tears blur her vision as she stumbles back home, shame humming a symphony in her blood. They said she was nothing but a bluenose, said she was too much of a good girl to be one of them. No one ever takes her seriously. But he had. He’d said she was pretty. He asked her to go with him.
Well screw him, and screw Mandy Jeffords for telling her it was a good idea when she knew , she had to. She knew he didn’t really like her. He was just playing. She knew and she didn’t say anything .
Well she’d show them. She won’t let it bother her, not after tonight. She’ll cry all her tears and then she’ll never let them wound her again. She’ll let them know they can’t touch her, can’t hurt her. She may not be a loose girl, but she sure as hell ain’t no cancelled stamp neither.
She shouldn’t be walking home by herself.
Mama always said be careful, don’t go off alone, it’s better to stick together. She said this was a cruel world for women, that one day, one day maybe things would be better, but right now she has to look after herself. Only, she didn’t want to walk home with any of the other girls, hell she barely knew anyone there. They just wanted to sneak around, but she was raised better than that. She sniffles, wipes her eyes again , and hopes the tears will stop coming soon.
This time of night, even the drugstore cowboys have either found a girl by now, or given up and gone away. There’s no one about, and she’s so close to home there isn’t any reason why she shouldn’t walk back.
Only there’s a man following her. It has to be a man, she caught a look at him in a shop window and he’s far too tall to be a dame. Tall and broad, easily strong enough to overpower her. She speeds up her steps, but he can’t be following her. That’s stupid. She’s getting nervous cause mama said never to find yourself alone at night. It’s just guilt and shame- so much shame - making her think the world is out to get her.
She looks again, he’s gone. See, just paranoia, just her feeling bad because she’s breaking the rules. She hurries on a little faster.
The tears have dried on her face, her fear like a dam keeping them back. Just a little further. Just a little faster. A glance back as she rounds the corner. Nothing. Still nothing, he’s gone. A sigh full of relief, of fear and sadness and hurt. Not far to go now and then she can strip off these stupid shoes, curl up in bed, and forget this night ever happened. Not far to go and she’ll be safe.
She doesn’t see the figure step out in front of her until it’s too late.
She should have listened to her mama.
Night crawls into day at some indeterminable time. Darkness greying to light as Graves stares at the book open on his lap, mind lost to wherever it wanders to these days. Keeping track of his thoughts takes far more effort than he can muster. He is going to have to untangle himself from the blanket and start the day, he knows this, but he is so very loathe to wake the boy.
The boy .
There’s something about him. He should have noticed it last night, should have seen something, felt something. But he was too tired, too embarrassed; same old Graves, too damn useless to do his job properly. Because it would have been part of his training, ingrained in him deeper than his own name. He should have noticed- the signs are there, clear as day. The boy is magical. It’s obvious in the energy that hums about him like the stillness before thunder, metallic almost, just shy of oppressive. And why else had he been so sure the basement held more than just a cat, trapped and hungry? Or a stray dog, all ribs and matted hair like the ones scavenging the dumpsters down the street? Something kept drawing him back, though his body burned its protestations through his nerves. Something was telling him all was not as it should be, it’s been broadcasting as much all along, he was just too blind to see it. Too blind or too stubborn.
He can’t help but find some sort of gallows humour in it. He had been trying for weeks to distance himself from the very thing he just invited back to his apartment. Though, there is something different about him, something a little off. He doesn’t possess the arrogance most young wizards his age exude, has a personality buried under all that trauma which is more than just how good at duelling he is. If anything, he seems almost unaware of his magic; possible if he were a squib, but there is too much power there, too much raw magical ability to let that be so. So he remains an anomaly the size of which pounds out the most astonishingly painful headache behind Graves’ left eye.
Nausea churns in his gut. He can’t do this, he isn’t ready to face it all again. What if this is all just a part of some elaborate plan, just something Seraphina bloody Picquery devised to draw him back in? His lungs feel tight. What if he’s never actually managed even this tiny window of freedom? Heavy, difficult to breath. For all he knows, every other apartment in this building could be peopled with witches and wizards. Like a troll sitting on his chest. Maybe they still don’t trust him, don’t trust that he is who he says he is, not just another trick. Oh God he can’t breathe. Is he who he thinks he is? Is he really free? How does he know he’s not still locked up in that place, not still a prisoner to his own damn face? And why the hell can he not breathe ?
Panic chokes him, gripping his chest, spurring on his thundering heart. That can’t be all a lie, it can’t. He is awake, he knows he is, can’t be in this much pain if you’re dreaming. But the doubt is there, niggling, churning, crushing; trailing its icy burn down his spine, through his insides. His heart is leaden, his lungs ice. A knot in his chest so tight he can barely think. He can’t remember how to breathe, his lungs clumsy and uncooperative. His head swims, consciousness fading. He might die here in this dingy flat, alone but not alone.
He grips his hair so hard it hurts, muscles cramped and fingers straining. Tugs until the white hot pain is the only thing that burns through his senses. Grounding, centring. Slowly, slowly, the panic ebbs away, receding back into the well of his mind, gone but never gone. Leaves in its wake a jittery restlessness, though the tiredness is an ache down to his soul. He is worn out, done in. He cannot go on like this.
But there are footsteps on the floorboards, the low creak of his bedroom door. Credence emerges, all timid footsteps and apologetic shoulders. Graves steadies his breathing, wraps hands around his book to disguise the trembling of his fingers.
“Hello Credence” he croaks, throat drier than he expected.
“Good morning Mr Graves” he all but whispers back.
It makes Graves want to find the people who hurt him and make them hurt for what they have done. Taken a pleasant young man and filled him with so much grief and pain and trauma that he stands little more than a shell of what he could have been. But he is young, there is still time for him too start again, to bury the bad and fill his life with something new, something like happiness.
He fidgets in the doorway, tugging uncomfortably at the remains of an ill-fitting suit. It hits Graves in the solar plexus. He knows that feeling, the discomfort that crawled over his skin when all he had were the borrowed clothes he’d gone home in. He spares a thought for the no doubt ludicrously expensive suits sat mouldering in a house he can barely acknowledge, the sharp rotten smell of dark magic clinging to the stiff fabric. Reminders of a life he’s better off not remembering. Credence, he supposes, has nothing but the rags he wears, and they look to have been on their last legs a good few years ago. As much as leaving the apartment block pains him- and really, what once respectable wizard doesn’t become somewhat agoraphobic in their disgrace, it’s almost something of a tradition- he thinks perhaps a shopping trip might be their first port of call. The ability to clothe himself as he saw fit- not the spectre of Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security and Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement , but the broken pieces of the person he had since become- had settled him in some deep, emotional way that nothing else could. The foundations with which to build the person he will become.
Credence isn’t like him, of that much he is certain. There is a thoughtfulness inherent to the boy, a goodness that leaves Graves stunned at its depth. He had never once, in the time that Graves had been hauling his aching body to and from the basement, been condescending to him. Not even when he fell did the boy try and lend unwanted aide. Part of his reaction is almost certainly based on fear, yes, but even knowing he means no harm, his business has not been encroached upon. So no, Credence and he are fundamentally different. This he knows- in as much as he knows anything about himself these days- but it is not the greatest leap of imagination to think the boy may benefit just as much from a chance to properly dress himself.
“Is there anything you would like for breakfast?” Graves asks on a groan, as he pushes himself slowly, achingly to his feet.
“Oh I can-”
“Credence” he cuts him off, gentle like a baby bird, “I've been cooking for you for weeks.”
“I'm sorry Mr Graves, thank you yes please.” There is a hint of something hidden in his eyes, not just embarrassment or fear, something close to mirth.
“No problem, I'm pretty sure I still remember how to make a decent omelette.” Graves mutters half to himself as he starts his slow meander toward the stove.
Credence laughs, a small, breathless thing; paper thin and oh so fragile. It's a beautiful sound, something the deadened void of his flat has been lacking.
Food preparation is slow, like a muscle kept too long unused, it has taken time relearn how exactly to fend for himself. After a childhood waited on by his parents’ house-elves, and an adolescence catered for at private schools, it was only- if he remembers correctly, and he doubts he does- during early adulthood that he learned how to fend for himself. Somewhere between working himself to the bone rising through the ranks from junior Auror to senior, and the work dinners at restaurants in a time he scarcely remembers, he taught himself the one skill few wizards bother with. After all, why cook by hand when magic exists?
Credence is there with him, handing him what he needs with barely a word uttered between them, an almost comfortable silence settling into the space. When it is time to eat, they do so together, at the little wooden table Graves had neglected to use in all his time haunting the flat.
He waves the boy away as he tries to clear the plates, with a soft “Go get cleaned up”, pausing a moment to bundle him up with spare clothing- doubtless too big, but enough for now- and point him toward the bathroom.
Credence hesitates for a second, gives a shallow nod and disappears behind the perpetually damp wooden door, clothes clutched tight to his chest.
A knock at the door startles him so badly he almost drops the plate he was drying. The hobble to the front door seems to take twice as long as it should, the shuffle-clunk of his steps advertising his presence as humiliation boils in his gut.
Aideen is on the doorstep, the bright flowers on her dress matching the glow to her cheeks as she smiles like she is genuinely glad to see him. She is strangely absent of children, and it makes her seem smaller somehow.
“We’re having a little bit of a celebration tonight, Mr Graves, and we’d like you to join us.” She tucks a stray curl behind her ear as she talks, and Graves feels an almost unbearable fondness for her fill his chest.
“That’s very kind of you” he says, forcing his lips into something as close to a real smile as he can muster, “but-”
“No buts, Mr Graves” she interrupts with a beaming grin as bright and true as a summer’s day, “this is a family dinner, and you are family”
“Thank you Aideen, but really, I have a” he hesitates for barely a beat, but still it feels too long, “friend visiting”
“Well bring them along too, you know you’re always welcome at our door and so is anyone you want to bring”
“We’ll have to talk it over but thank you Aideen, we’ll be there.” In truth he doesn’t know whether they’ll go, whether the energy will be there for him to scrape together, but the blinding smile his acquiescence brings is worth the lie.
“That’s all I wanted to hear Mr Graves, now you take care of yourself and we’ll be seeing you at six o’clock.” And with that, she turns in a twirl of skirts, and takes off down the stairs, curls dancing with her every movement.
He doesn’t shut the door until she has disappeared from sight, clinging to the brightness of her presence. They already feel like family in the most dangerous of ways, he shouldn’t force his presence upon them any more than he already has. And yet.
Credence appears behind him, bare footfalls soft against rough wooden floors, damp hair just starting to curl behind his ears. He looks agonisingly young like this, swimming in clothes entirely too big for him- though the trousers end just shy of his ankles. He has failed to gain weight, despite Aideen’s best efforts, but there is no way to lose the natural broadness of his shoulders, a cut too wide for Credence’s slight frame.
With something close to a smile, Graves excuses himself to get washed up, mind freshly made up. Today he would treat Credence to a new wardrobe all of his own, something he chose, not foisted upon him for whatever reason. Besides, seeing the boy drowning in something of his makes something all too close to tenderness throb in his chest. That way nothing good lay.
Credence has never been shopping for new clothes, not once in his life. Ma said there were more important things to be spending their money on, and she was right. He had grown through far too many clothes as a boy, growing and growing and growing like a weed. His sisters could share dresses, but not he. He had to be found something new every time his trousers crept too far up his leg, or his jackets became so tight in the shoulder he could barely move is arms. His ma would appear with a new scowl to accompany his new suit and that would be that.
Mr Graves wants to buy him a new wardrobe. Mr Graves who has been nothing but kind to him, who kept him fed in the darkness and led him to safety in the light. Mr Graves whose soul cries when he thinks no one is watching. Who has such sadness in his eyes, the weight of it must be crushing him. Lonely, hurt Mr Graves, who makes him feel safe.
There’s a part of his mind that still recoils in fear, so scared of being hurt again. His heart though? His heart recognises that same fear reflected back at him in the worn creases of Mr Graves’ face.
The shop they visit is much grander than anything Credence could have imagined. It’s almost too much at first, the sheer size, not to mention all the people- staring at him he’s sure. They must know he doesn’t belong here, he’s a dreadful, sinful child playing at being something he’s not. But Mr Graves gives him one of those looks, the ones that feel like he’s smiling even if his face doesn’t quite remember how.
He’s prodded and moved and asked questions he doesn’t know how to answer. Shown fabrics he could never hope to afford and grilled about suit cuts and styles. Mr Graves sits nearby in a comfortable chair, stretching his bad leg out in front of him with a well-disguised wince. He helps him where he can, explains that he’s a friend’s son from out of town and he’s never been to a tailors before. Lies that he lost his luggage somewhere on the way over and that is why he has had to borrow clothes that are not his. They come away from the experience with an order which costs more than Credence can bare to think of. He can never hope to pay it back, not that much money. But Mr Graves seems unruffled by the whole thing, or at least, he doesn’t seem to have minded the money. It’s being out in public, surrounded by all the strangers who whisper and gawk and stop to watch as they walk by, that’s what makes his knuckles whiten on the crutch he leans heavy on.
They go to another store, this one bigger than the last, filled with racks and racks and racks of things, rails of clothes and shelves filled with more colours than he can believe. Everything here is already made, no one tries to touch him for which he is beyond grateful. He doesn’t like it, the branding of another person’s touch, like a badge of ownership. It makes his blood freeze like ice in his veins, and his skin crawl like he is made of ants.
“This is where I can’t help you, Credence” Mr Graves says as he leads them slowly into another aisle.
Credence flushes as he realises exactly what they are shopping for. He had no idea there even were this many types of undergarments, let alone where to start in choosing his own. Mortification clenches in his gut. He can’t ask Mr Graves for help, not after everything he’s done, everything he’s doing.
He wanders back and forth amongst the clothes when Mr Graves has gone, fingers brushing over the stacks of brightly coloured fabrics. A man approaches him, tall and mean looking, not like Mr Graves with his hard face and kind eyes.
“What do you think you’re doing here, boy?” the man asks, his voice just shy of a threat. He has a meanness dancing on his eyebrows, a hard look like Credence is so very far beneath him. He can feel his body curling into itself, a familiar shame settling its weight on his shoulders.
“I’m sorry” Credence finds himself all but whispering, his body playing a familiar act and he hates it. “There are so many, I don’t-”
“Don’t what, boy? Don’t know where to start your thieving? We’ve had your sort in here before you know” he growls.
Credence knows, can see it clearly, the man wants nothing more than to fist a hand in the back of his jacket and pull him from the store. But Mr Graves is here somewhere and he wanted him to pick something, something to buy. He can’t let him down now, he can’t.
In his panic the lie trips off his tongue, and like the wicked boy he is he follows it. “I’m here with my ma’s friend” he explains through the trembling of his fingers. “I travelled here to stay for a while but I lost my luggage and I don’t know what-”
“Credence?” a warmly familiar voice calls, the triple beats of his footsteps abating the growing panic as it has done for weeks now. Shame bursts its warmth in his cheeks. He failed, he was supposed to do just this one thing and he couldn’t.
“Is this boy with you, sir?” the man asks, disbelief heavy in his voice.
Mr Graves bristles, his eyes darkening with something that should scare him.
“Yes” is his curt reply, dismissal clear in his tone. Then softer, “Is everything okay Credence? Did you find what you need?”
“I’m sorry Mr Graves, there are so many I didn’t-” his fingers ache from how hard he wrings his hands, shoulders hunching low again . He can’t stand himself sometimes.
“It’s okay” Mr Graves says, soft and reassuring.
He hands Credence the suit he was holding- another suit? Surely not for him- and takes over, sending an icy glare toward the sales clerk. Credence feels bad for him, he didn’t know any better, and he isn’t exactly dressed like anything but the homeless street urchin he has become. The sadness still swirls in his gut, churning with the cloying guilt for what he did. His family are dead because of him. He should be able to cry for them, but the tears are all dried up, lost in the nowhere place which taught him so much more than he could ever know.
His arms are weary by the time Mr Graves stops loading him up with things, narrating as he goes in a low tone that laps gently over his ears without ever entering. He doesn’t dare pay attention to the cost as they pay at last, just scoops up the bags, gratitude and shame warring inside of him. He will never be able to pay back the kindnesses. It weighs heavy on his soul, after everything Mr Graves is doing for him- everything he has done- there is nothing he can do in return, not like this. He knows now, knows he’s real, he’s human and he’s worth something. How can he ever hope to pay back something like that?
Credence is quiet as they walk home, purchases clutched to his chest like a shield against the world. His worry sits at the back of his mind, relegated by the itch of an ache in his leg, nothing he can’t handle yet, but it could go either way. It must have been overwhelming for the boy, he found it daunting enough even with- or perhaps because of- the echoes of memories spent in far more formidable company. He handled himself well enough though, better than he had when the tailor had first laid hands on him, the clinical touch coating the back of his throat in bile.
It takes what seems like an age to get back, longer than the mornings walk. Raphael is outside their building, talking urgently to a woman Graves has never seen before- not surprising considering how reclusive he has become. In truth, without Aideen he would probably not have spoken to another living soul in all this time. They’re not quite arguing, Raphael and the woman, their voices are pitched low enough so as not to draw attention, their movements tightly controlled as they gesture back and forth.
As they near, he just about catches the tail end of their argument, “She’s just another little black girl gone missing” she says slowly, as if this is a point she has had to explain a thousand times before, “do you really think the police are gonna care about that?”
Raphael catches his eye then, throwing him a wave just this side of too casual, clearly signalling that they are no longer alone. A cloud of confusion darkens his face briefly at the sight of the boy at his side, clinging hard to their bags, which clears again almost as soon as it appears. She turns as they approach, levelling Graves with a look he is sadly familiar with, the shrewd, omnipotent scan of a newspaper reporter- or something of the like. She’s certainly dressed the part, a neat business suit hugs her slender frame, tight black curls cropped close to her head enhancing the delicate roundness of her face.
“Good afternoon Mr Graves” Raphael says, uncertainty colouring his tone. His eyes flick to his companion just briefly.
“Good afternoon Raphael, Ma’am” he greets them in turn. He doesn’t want to get himself involved, truly he doesn’t, wants nothing more than to hole up in his flat forever and never have to hold himself this tightly together again. But the way they were talking sounded too serious for him in good conscience to leave alone. Damn his bleeding heart. He can’t have been this soft before, back when he was a whole man, without the cheesecloth mind of a half-mad recluse.
He slips Credence his key and ushers him inside, though in truth he is so tired he wants nothing more than to sit down and never move again. The thought of the long trek up those damn stairs stays him though, as uncomfortable as this may be- mentally and physically- it has to be better than the liquid fire of that long climb.
An awkward silence clouds the air around them for a few beats or more. They reluctant to say any more in his presence, he reluctant to leave.
Eventually, it is Raphael who breaks the silence. “This is a good friend of mine,” he says, hand firmly on the small of her back, grounding and staying all in one. “Letitia García.”
“Pleasure to meet you” Graves replies easily. He won’t do her the injustice of reintroducing himself, he’s not arrogant enough to presume she would care who he is.
“She was just telling me about a friend of hers”
“A friend of my sisters” she cuts in. There’s something refreshingly self-assured about her, she seems unafraid to make her presence known, the kind of person who would not shy away from confrontation. He envies her for that.
“She didn’t come home last night, the family are getting worried.”
“She’s not the kind of girl to stay out late,” Letitia aims a frustrated glare at Raphael, as if to tell him with her eyes that he shouldn’t be blabbering their business to strangers. Graves couldn’t agree more.
“After all,” she continues, “it isn’t exactly safe for girls like us at the best of times, let alone after dark.”
“And there were no witnesses?” Graves asks, as much to his surprise as theirs. The old training is rearing its ugly head, reminding him of a life lost. He doesn’t quite miss it.
“None that’ll come forward” she says, drawing herself up and looking him dead in the eye. Though reasonably shorter than him, she stands tall and proud, a woman who will not be crossed. He admires her more than a little.
“I’m going to be keeping my eye out for any sign of her, I swear it”
“Thank you Raphael,” she rocks up onto her tiptoes and presses a soft kiss against his cheek. “Good afternoon Mr Graves.” She holds out a hand, wrong for tradition, right for him. Her handshake is firm, delicate fingers strong in his grasp. With a smile for her friend, and a nod for him, she whirls around and walks away, not once turning back.
Raphael turns to him then, a shrewd look in his soft, brown eye. For a second he panics about Credence, he doesn’t honestly know how to answer for his presence. But he is safe, and Credence, it seems at least for now, is forgotten. “Mr Graves” he says with a growing grin, “are you with the police?”
He can’t exactly say no, though it wouldn’t exactly be a lie. But he doesn’t want to live with half-truths, and if he can do anything to find this girl, useless as he is, he’ll give it a try.
“I was a senior detective” he settles on, “in a serious crimes division.” It is as close to the truth as he can allow himself to get, as close to the life that still haunts him.
“But not anymore?”
“Medical leave,” he gestures to the crutch, to his delicately trembling leg and all that it entails, “Not got much use for someone like me anymore.” His smile is more of a grimace, sadder than it has any right to be. But as much as he vehemently doesn’t miss it, he can’t help but feel a burning ache where his magic once lived, vibrant and free.
“Well, any help you can give I’m sure she’d appreciate. What with everything that’s been going on lately, she doesn’t want anything to happen to her sister.”
Graves nods in understanding, his eyes catching on the distant figure striding defiantly down the street, seemingly unaware of the people moving out of her way. He wishes he had her confidence. As she rounds the end of the block, he turns once again to Raphael.
“I’ll do anything I can” he says with a nod, and he means it. This self-pitying husk of a man isn’t all he has to be, and with or without magic, if he can help reunite that family, if he can keep another little girl safe, he’ll do everything in his power to help.
Chapter 5: Of Angels and Angles
He needs to get out of here.
Though where exactly he is eludes him, as does how he came to be there. Dark and dank and locked up tight, no way out. But he’ll find a way. He is smart, it’s the first thing anybody says about him, that he’s a smart guy.
“Hey you’re a smart guy, what are you doing running an operation like this? You could be doing anything with your life.” And he could, he could be doing anything he pleased, only his baby sister is going to school and that costs money. The kind of money a guy can’t make when he’s working down the store, in a factory, driving a cab.
So, so close. Soon it would all be okay again. Soon he would be free.
The metal nail file is something one of the girls had left behind, hidden in a shadowy corner, abandoned. It should deter him, that they failed, that despite one side being worn almost smooth, there are no clear signs of escape. No missing girls found. They don’t much bother about boys like him.
He is scared. More scared than he has ever been. What if he doesn’t make it out? What if this is it? He doesn’t know what they want from him. Why they’re keeping him down here. He’s nothing special, just a smart kid too dumb to use his brain.
Just a little further.
There’s a girl here too, though she ain’t woken up yet. Bundled up and tossed inside like a sack of potatoes, like dirty laundry piled up out of the way. In the near darkness he can just about make her out, curled in the corner of her cell, clutching herself for protection. He doesn’t think it does anything to comfort her. He’ll help her too if he can.
She was here when he woke up, crying and crying and crying in her cell, but not the usual tears. Not the wailing the girls from school would use to get their way, nor the crocodile cry of the women in their silk-and-lace gowns. She woulda been silent if it weren’t for her breathing and the way she was sniffing every three seconds. He wants to comfort her but there’s nothing to say, nothing he could think of that won’t upset her more. They say he’s a smart kid but he knows he’s not, not really, not the way it counts.
So he sticks to trying to break them out.
He’s not alone.
He can hear the girl wake, hear the hitch of her breathing as reality descends upon her in a flood. Hear the quick, stifled sob when she realise it isn’t all just some horrid dream. He wishes is was too, but there ain’t no escaping reality.
So he tries and tries and tries again, to get the hinges loose, to work the door just enough that he might slip out. All he gets for his troubles is blood on his skin and cramp in his fingers. At least he’s trying though, at least he’s doing more than her. But that's not fair, he doesn't know how long she's been her. Maybe she tried too, when she first woke up here. Maybe the file is hers. He doesn't know her, shouldn't judge, but the fear clenched tight around his chest is almost unbearable.
In a brief flash of almost-light he sees her, really sees her, not just the greyscale outline of shadow and movement. She is curled up knees-to-chest in the corner of her cell, head buried in her lap, hair a curtain around her face. Her arms are wrapped around herself still, clutching a leg for protection, looking for some false sense of comfort in the never-ending dark.
The leg is not her own.
The siren song of sleep is calling to him by the time he drags himself back into the apartment, body sore but mind whirring away on this new problem. He can’t get involved, he can’t. Not only because he's supposed to be taking a break from all of this, turning away from the job that had taken over his life for too many years. They're not magical, the disappearances are not magical, the kidnapped girl is not magical. It violates so many codes him just trying to live here, this would be a push too far.
Credence isn't in sight when he lurches into the room, ricocheting off of the door frame to propel himself into the kitchenette. The bags are piled neatly on the dining table though, so he can’t have wandered off. As the door shuts, he emerges from Graves’ bedroom, borrowed book clutched in guilty fingers, head hung low awaiting punishment. He hadn’t missed the scars littering the boy’s palms, the gouges of a belt buckle against innocent flesh. He has never before felt a hatred burn so hot in his gut.
“This is for you, something in there you can wear now, it won't be the best fit but it's yours” he says instead, handing over an unassuming bag from the collection. The urge to press for answers bubbles up inside him, but the boys life is not his to question.
Credence offers a fleeting smile in return, ducking past him into the bathroom to investigate. The suit isn't tailored so the fit is a guess, but it is something of his own to wear. Something he'd spied him running reverent fingers over when he thought no one was watching.
Would he have asked for any of it? The question sticks with him as he finally allows himself to sag against the worn wood of the counter-top, just for a second, just until the sparking in his nerves has died down. The concept of free-will, it seems, was not encouraged in his childhood, though he must feel some level of comfort, enough to make himself at home, at least. Enough to accept the help that Graves is offering, meagre though it may be. They're going to have to figure this living situation out sooner rather than later though. The bitter ache of knowing he could have sorted everything in seconds, added an extra room with just the wave of his hand if only he wasn't such a mess, clenches hard in his stomach. The loss of his magic is a bitter sting no matter how far he goes to deny it, though at least he hasn't turned to drink. Not yet, though the thought that he might have if it wasn't for Credence sits sour in his stomach. After all, it isn't as if there's anybody left in his life to stop him
His mind drifts as he sets himself to task preparing a pot of tea, one silver-scarred hand rubbing absently at the ache in his shoulder. When bathing that morning he had noticed the discolouration, a redness where the crutch sits, sore and close to rubbing the skin away. The crutch, he knows, is not good for excess use, but he has always loathed idleness.
Credence emerges with very little fanfare save the tired creak of a worn door. The suit is not a bad fit on him, a tad roomy about the chest perhaps, but long enough for his gangly limbs. It settles around him like armour, a barrier he can maintain between himself and the outside world. All told, a sound investment, and one that knocks loose something like pride in Graves' chest. A glimmer of pleasure plays in Credence’s grin, not quite fully formed yet, but getting there.
“It's beautiful Mr Graves” he all but whispers, voice a soft tremor, running quivering fingers over the lines and folds, “but I can't-”
“Come and get your tea, Credence” Graves interrupts, fondness colouring his tone.
They drink in silence, seated at the stained wooden table, Credence clutching tight to the his teacup, letting the steam dance soft over his lips, rolling and fluttering on his eyelashes. By the time they're done, exhaustion weighs heavy in Graves' very bones. He would love nothing more than to just lay down for a while and forget the discomfort radiating through his core, the headache pushing against the backs of eyes that feel like the bottom of a beer glass left three weeks in the sun; dry, sticky and filmed over in ways better left unsaid. Unfortunately, that can't happen.
“Credence, you are under no obligation to agree, but I have something to ask you?” Graves says to the depths of his cup.
“Yes Mr Graves?” Anxiety steals over him, bowing his head and curling his shoulders. His trepidation is written all over his body; here it is, here is the moment his dreams are dashed, and he finds out that this saviour of a man is everything he feared he would be.
“Our neighbour, friend I suppose, has invited- extended an invitation to dinner with her family. It's been a long day I know, and I'm not expecting you to say yes-”
“Yes” Credence half-whispers, though it goes unheard.
“But I thought you should have the idea of going floated by you, sorry what?”
“If you want to go to dinner, I don't mind. I can read the book” he gestures, half-hearted, to the tome lying at the corner of the table.
“No Credence,” he says, though at the boys flinch he hurries to change tact, “no you don't- she's invited the both of us.”
“But she doesn't know me. How does she know me?” There's panic in his eyes, the quickening of his breath, the clench of his fingers.
“You're right, she doesn't.” Graves tries to soothe. “But I told her I had someone staying and she extended the invitation. She's good a good person, her and her husband both. They like to look after people.” A sigh. “They like to look after me.”
“And they want me to come?”
“They would love it, but you don't have to if you're not, if you don't want to”
“I'll, I can go. I'd like to go.” His hope is a delicate blossom, tentative and fragile.
They have time before Aideen is expecting them, time enough at least to recuperate from the morning's tribulations. Time to remember what it is to be sociable. He was once, before they left him to rot in that place. He can be again. He's been there numerous times, but usually as a dark, hunkering figure at the table, nice enough but not prone to engaging in conversation. Having Credence there will be a learning curve for them both, though quite why he feels the need to protect him is something he'd rather not examine too closely. It feels too close to an omen, the shaky timing of it all- their foray into the city, Raphael and his friend, even visiting Aideen- it feels like a thing pre-destined, and Divination never was his strongest subject.
It feels strange to be in clothes that fit, clothes bought for him because he liked them. He had never bought gifts, never more than giving him that awful necklace, not that Credence would have asked for them. He isn't even sure he would have accepted them, though a niggling thought in the dark of his mind tells him yes he would, he did, he would have done anything for attention. Now he just wishes more often than not to be left alone.
He can't quite get his head around how astoundingly different this Mr Graves is. Gone is the self-assured pride that Credence now knows was little more than arrogance and bluster. He is ashamed of himself that he could so easily be drawn in, his belief in that man's lies a squalling, sickening thing. He should have known better. He does now.
Fear bites at his ankles as they ready themselves for this dinner, the one he had so rudely invited himself to. Ma was right, he really is full of the worst kinds of sin. Grief punches swiftly through his gut. Ma!
But Mr Graves had said he was invited, which he still doesn't quite understand. Ma would never have let someone she didn't know into the church, it's one of the many reasons he would sneak out to see him. Only the poor orphan children were allowed in, for food and for leaflets. Maybe he would become like them, taken in for a meal and put to task if he dared to want more.
Mr Graves tries to look encouraging, though it doesn't quite make it through the hair grown thick over on face, tells him on the landing outside a water-warped wooden door that he doesn't have to do this if he isn't ready. But he is, he can do this.
They barely have time to knock before the door swings open violently, making him scuttle back a step or two, away from a small, round faced boy who couldn't be more than seven years old, no older than Modesty at least. Heavy, ice cold guilt whimpers at him. Modesty! The boy's face brightens at the sight of Mr Graves.
“Mam!” he yells, excited.
“Bran Keven O'Hannigan what have I told you about opening that door!” comes the reply.
A woman appears, hastily untying an apron from around her waist. She smiles at the sight of them on her doorstep, as if nothing in the world could please her more.
“Hello love” she greets, rising up on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek. Mr Graves returns the gesture without hesitation. This must be normal for them.
Credence shrinks a little as she turns to him. “You must be Mr Graves' friend” she says, holding out a hand for him to tentatively shake. She smiles when he does, softer, something that feels like it's just for him. “I'm Aideen” she says, low like a secret, “Aideen O'Hannigan.”
“Credence Barebone” he replies, helpless to stop the smile that steals over his lips. She seems like the sort of person who spreads joy wherever she goes. He can see why Mr Graves likes her, he deserves more happiness in his life.
A large man appears from inside the flat, a small girl hanging off his arm, and a baby balanced on his hip, chewing furiously on his own fist.
“Are you gonna have them in then, or are we eating on the landing?” he says with a grin. He is bright like Aideen, sporting a beard like Mr Graves'- though not nearly as thick, and without the sprinkling of white- with laughter etched into the creases around his eyes.
“You stop cavorting with the little ones and greet our guests, and maybe then I'll see about the eating”
“Graves” he nods, his hands full with squirming children.
“Cillian” Mr Graves greets, fondness in the lines of his face.
He turns to Credence then, with a smile as bright as a rich man's pocket watch. “Now, I haven't met you before, you must be Mr Graves' mystery guest. Let me tell you, the children haven't stopped talking about you all day”
“I-” he stutters, startled.
“Don't look so scared” Cillian laughs, loud and joyous. “We just couldn't imagine who our Graves would be bringing, we never see any of his friends.” With a wink at Mr Graves, he lowers his voice into a loud, conspiratorial whisper. “If you ask me, he doesn't have any.”
They laugh it off, though Credence is offended on his behalf, the heat of embarrassment clammy on the back of his neck. Surely he hasn't known them long enough to make such jokes. Mr Graves doesn't take offence, so it must be okay, but still it sits strange in his stomach.
The home they're lead into is the same of Mr Graves', and yet, nothing like it at all. There is colour everywhere, bright and inviting and with none of the shadows that cling to the corners no matter how hard Mr Graves tries to banish them with light. Maybe it's the clear signs of habitation, the toys scattered on every available surface, shoes strewn in the hallway, bright, nonsensical paintings pinned up wherever they can fit, crowding each other for space. Their home is lived in in a way that Mr Graves' isn't.
A young girl is seated at the table playing with her hair, which falls in loose curls down her back in what Ma would say was the sign of a Jezebel. She like a tiny version of Miss Aideen, who runs a soft hand over her head as she passes. Beside her is a little ginger-blonde boy, his pale, freckled legs swinging to and fro as he absent-mindedly gnaws on the end of a well-chewed pencil. Ma would never have let him soil their stationery like that, would have used it as proof of his sinfulness. His head snaps up so fast as they approach that Credence fears for a second that he might hurt himself. Wide doe-like eyes flick back and forth between the two, as something like excitement sparks to life in their depths.
“Hello Mr Graves!” He crows. His voice is surprisingly soft.
“Hello Kieren, what have you got there?” Mr Graves replies as he lowers himself carefully into another of the worn wooden seats.
“Homework” he sighs, dejected.
“You know, when I went to school I used to love doing homework, no it's true.” he laughs at the children's disbelief. “We had the most wonderful library you've ever seen.”
“Dad says I hafta finish it.”
“Well you can finish it tomorrow, it's time for bed, all of you” Aideen chides, scooping up their work.
There are a chorus of objections, but Aideen stays firm, hands on hips as they slip into what must be their bedroom. Cillian leads the way, the little girl swinging off his arm not joined by the young boy Bran hanging around his neck. He doesn't seem to mind though, laughing loudly as they whoop in his ear.
Credence can't help but be enthralled at how gentle the O'Hannigans are, he can't imagine what she would do if he talked back or deigned to hold her hand. He most certainly can't remember his Ma ever gently chiding him for his impertinence, if he had done wrong he learned swiftly and painfully not to do it again, though his wrongdoings changed so often he could rarely avoid punishment.
Aideen and Cillian emerge a few minutes later, arms wrapped loosely around each other. It feels like an intrusion to see their fondness for one another written so plainly.
“Shall we eat then?” Aideen asks with a smile, gently extracting herself from her husband, and heading over to the stove. It's like a dance to watch them, Cillian lays the table whilst Aideen puts the finishing touches to their dinner.
“I hope you like shepherd's pie” she says with a smile, as she lays the dish on the table.
“If you didn't before, you will. Nothing can beat my girls cooking” Cillian grins, looping an arm around her waist and pressing a kiss to her temple.
Their obvious affection for one another is odd, not a bad thing, just not something Credence has ever really witnessed before. There's a warmth to Mr Graves' face as he looks over at them, something relaxed in his expression. He must be used to it by now.
The food is amazing, like nothing Credence has ever experienced before. Mr Graves is a good cook, he feels guilty for even thinking anything less, Miss Aideen's is just different is all. Given the way Mr Graves compliments her on everything though, he is sure he wouldn't take offence. Miss Aideen is so lovely, and Cillian so funny that Credence can't help but relax in their company. Mr Graves looks, not happy but almost content, certainly the most relaxed Credence has ever seen him- though that isn't saying much considering how much pain he now knows he must have been in visiting the basement. He's different here though, softer, like the shadows on his face have smoothed out.
“Thank you for the meal Miss Aideen” Credence says shyly as Cillian collects the plates.
“You keep up like that Credence, and she'll be adopting you soon enough” Cillian laughs, soft and warm.
“Oh hush you, the boy just minds his manners is all.” Aideen chides, smacking a gentle hand on her husbands chest as he settles once more beside her.
“Thank you Credence, you're very sweet.”
“Where have you been hiding such a charming young man then Graves?” Cillian asks with a a grin.
Graves frowns for a fraction of a second before replying “he's a from out of town, his mother is an old friend.”
“Mr Graves found me when I was looking for somewhere to live.” Credence all but whispers, hesitant. “I couldn't stay at home with my Ma and sisters anymore.”
“Well that was very sweet of you Mr Graves.”
“Aideen” there's a warning in his tone, but its almost playful.
“You have a perfectly lovely name Mr Graves, even if you won't let me use it” she chides, rising from the table. “Now, are you going to let me sort you out there, or am I going to have to ask my husband to use force?”
She stands, hands on her hips, staring him down. “Percival Graves I have watched you growing that mess you call a beard for far too long, absolutely refuse to let you leave my house without cleaning it up.”
“Aideen really you don't have to”
“I'd best do as she says Graves” Cillian says, conspiratorial, a grin firmly etched into the lines on his face, “she's like a dog with a bone when she's got herself a cause.”
He relents, because of course he does. Miss Aideen is too bright to say no to for very long. She's quick about her work, Credence thinks she must look after her family's grooming, something he couldn't imagine Ma doing at all. She's good at it too, when she's finished Mr Graves looks, while not completely different, certainly cleaner, neater.
She must catch something in his expression, because she asks gently whether he too would like to have his hair cut.
He is hesitant to agree, Ma used to sit him down and be done with it as quickly as possible, but Miss Aideen is nothing but gentle. He barely recognises himself once she's finished, the flat curve of the bowl cut now textured, layered so he looks not younger but something close.
Tears blur his eyes as he thanks her, unable to stop touching, feeling out the differences.
“No sweetie, no tears” she gives him her own watery smile, “tonight is a celebration.”
“You've been a good friend Graves, that's why we wanted you to know first.”
“We're expecting again” she says, hand cupped over her belly. The soft glow to her smile suddenly makes a lot more of sense.
“Congratulations” Mr Graves says, a smile of his own trembling on the corners of his mouth. “You're such good parents, that baby is going to be so loved.”
“I'm so happy I could cry”
“There were always so many children passing through the church, but none of them look so happy” he muses, mind caught up those pale, drawn faces, eating up every word his Ma told them if only so they could have a hot meal in their bellies.
“You're religious? Well then Credence Barebone, you are always welcome to come to Sunday mass with us.”
“Thank you, I'll, I” he stutters torn. One the one hand, the guilt of not going to church eats away at him, on the other he's scared to once again surround himself with the vitriol ma would spew. Miss Aideen seems far to lovely to believe the way she had.
“You don't have to make a decision, the offer is there if you want it” she smiles, reaching across the table to place a delicate hand on his arm.
“Thank you” he blushes.
“Now hate to be a bad host, but it's getting late and I just know those the little ones are listening in when they should be sleeping” Cillian says around a jaw-cracking yawn.
Miss Aideen presses a kiss to Mr Graves' cheek as she bids him good night, and he reciprocates in kind, whilst Cillian hugs him roughly, uncaring of the precariously balanced crutch. He worries for a second that they'll do the same to him, he isn't ready to be touched- cutting his hair was almost too much- but they merely press a plate of cookies into his hands and demand he makes Mr Graves eat more.
The final image of the couple curled softly together in the doorway lingers long after they begin their own climb. Mr Graves seems happier somehow on the long walk back up to their apartment, lighter, though something is obviously troubling him. He doesn't reply though, when Credence asks, merely tells him he can take the bed again tonight, and to sleep well.
It's as he's shutting the bedroom door that he catches a flash of Mr Graves heading wearily toward the bathroom, his face so pale he looks almost ill. Credence shuts the door before he can catch him looking, everyone deserves their privacy after all.
The clock has crept it's steady pace toward early morning as Graves sits at the table, staring sightlessly into the depths of a steaming cup of tea, fingernails tapping idly against the side. He can't sleep for the thoughts chasing themselves over and over in the shadows of his mind. Barebone. The name had twinged something in his memory when Credence had given it so delicately to Aideen. Barebone. He knows that name. He cannot place it no matter how hard he tries, but he knows it. He has spend hours going over and over and over in his head but the knowledge stays just out of reach, a memory shrouded in the hazy mist of this damn temporary amnesia.
He feels like the fine bone china he knows somewhere deep in his memory that Madam Picquery uses, so delicate one wrong touch could shatter it, shatter him. It's been too long since he last slept, really slept without the nightmares waking him after a few scant hours. He knows though that sleep will do little to remedy the conundrum swirling through his mind, sleeping in his bed.
The knock startles him badly enough to send the once scalding drink flying. He doesn't know what time it is exactly, but it's certainly either too late or too damn early for someone to be pounding on his door.
The pounding doesn't stop until he throws it open, narrowly avoiding a punch in the face for his troubles. Raphael stands on the landing looking remarkably dishevelled, shirt buttons open to his chest, sleeves rolled haphazardly to his elbows, hair in complete disarray. Whatever he has been doing in the past few hours, it seems to have taken its toll.
“Graves, you're here, brilliant, I-” he cuts himself short, only now noticing the dressing gown thrown loosely over Graves' shoulders, plain cotton pyjamas underneath. “Is it late? Shit it's late isn't it? I'm sorry I just”
“Raphael breath” he all-but orders, voice stern. “Tell me what happened.”
“Letitia called, no one's supposed to know yet but she was there somehow, at the scene and shit Graves they've found a body.”
The blood in his veins turns to ice. This is too soon, too soon, he isn't ready to go back out in the field again. And he can't help, they're not magical. Madam President and the rest of the institution he used to call home would have his balls if he broke Rappaport's, he may have gone through what he did but that's no excuse.
Still the instinct to help is strong, stronger than his will, stronger than the misplaced loyalty he can't help but feel towards the organisation, the people, who let this happen to him. Who hold blame in their hearts, no matter how small, for the things that man did in his name.
“Hold on, let me just, one second” he fumbles the crutch as he lurches himself back inside, grabbing hastily for something to write on so he can scribble a short note to Credence. Gone down to first-floor he scrawls on the back of a receipt from earlier, use anything you want, back soon.
It isn't the best letter, and he feels the beginnings of guilt crawl up his neck for the panic it will no doubt cause the boy, but he hasn't the time to craft anything better, and he is loathed to wake him. Neither of them have had enough sleep of late, but Credence deserves to rest.
He's out the door and following Raphael as fast as his body will take him, though it doesn't feel fast enough. An energy threads through him the likes of which he hasn't felt in far too long. The thrill of the hunt, the overwhelming desire to pull at that one thread until the whole damn mystery unravels.
Raphael left his door wide open in his haste to share the news. Graves has half a mind to chastise him about it, after all these rooms aren't warded, anyone could walk in. But explaining away his paranoia would take more energy than he currently has, and in all his time he has yet to really see much outside foot traffic.
The inside is very reminiscent of its owner, haphazard but hardly a mess, as if everything is in it's right place, only that place is unfathomable to anyone but the owner. The only thing seemingly out of place is what he was called over to see, a jumble of papers scattered across the dining table, some in what Graves has come to understand as Raphael's own surprisingly intricate penmanship, others in a neat print that must belong to his friend, Letitia.
“Thing is Graves, she said its not normal” he is saying as he rummages wildly through the pile. Graves is very aware that the door still isn't shut. “The body that is. Just that, 'not normal'. What does that even mean?”
He isn't sure himself, and tells Raphael as much. It's difficult to know what someone else is thinking when their frame of reference is an unknown variable, that's something he had to realise the hard way.
Barely an hour has passed before Letitia joins them, scarcely enough time to look through whatever evidence they have collated and try and make some sense of it. They've done well between them, but it remains painfully clear that they are amateurs, and that is reflected in their work- not enough detail about some things, too much superfluous information about others. She looks visibly shaken, has to almost physically restrain herself from locking the front door behind her- a habit he knows far too well. As untouchable as she had seemed only hours ago, it is a shock to see her so vulnerable. Tiredness seems to weigh on her, making her seem so much older than her years.
“You've started without me, good, there's a lot to catch up on” she says as she sheds her jacket and joins them, casting a darting look over the sections Graves has split their notes into- useful and not mostly. Her shirt is rumpled where it wasn't earlier.
“Sit down Letitia” Raphael urges, all but pushing her into one of the mismatched chairs. The table holds the ghosts of gatherings past, he is a chronically social creature.
“Christ” she mutters into her palms, sinking down with relief, “I saw it.”
“I was nearby and I heard the scream, there was all this commotion going on and I managed to get there before the police turned up and dragged us all away.” She looks faintly sick, the blood drained from her face. Graves can only imagine the horror she witnessed, he's been to so many murder scenes in his life eventually all the blood and the gore merges into one unending nightmare.
“It was all wrong” she says after a few deep, shuddering breaths. “Or parts of it at least. Her skin- she was white but her hands.” She swallows, breaths for a second. “Her hands weren't, and one of her arms. Jesus H fucking Christ it was far too thick and hairy to even be female.”
Silence falls thick and tense between the three of them. Graves feels faintly sick, and he's seen all sorts of horrors his two companions couldn't possibly dream of. How can he say no to helping, especially now.
“It wasn't dead” she says at last on a choked back sob, “I saw her move, she looked right at me and then-” she covers her mouth with one trembling hand, shaking her head and blinking back tears.
“Sweet Jesus” Raphael breathes at last. His skin is so pale he appears almost white, and he looks like he's far too close to vomiting for anyone's comfort.
“I'm at a loss Mr Graves, I want to stop this monster, not just for her but for all the girls like me who the police don't give two hoots about. But I can only do so much, I'm not even a reporter, I'm just a stenographer for a newspaper company.”
“We know these people Graves” Raphael says, clutching a hand tightly over her clenched fist. “We know so many people who have disappeared recently. I'm scared, I don't want to find out my friends are dead, or, or like that.”
“If we're going to do this you have to understand I don't have my own contacts with the police. My division was entirely separate, we didn't really mix with regular homicide, but I'll see what I can do.” His stomach sours, burns and something ignites in his chest, something like he hasn't felt in a long time. Life in the decaying corpse he inhabits.
There isn't much he can do, not really. It would be almost impossible to make connections with the non-magical authorities without arousing suspicion within MACUSA- the last thing he wants when he's trying desperately to live under the radar and away from his past.
But, if nothing else he has a lifetime of detective work to fall back on, a dusty attic full of skills he's built up that will never leave him no matter how cavernous his hall of memories has become. And he was damned good, one of the best even. There is, after all, a reason he got so highly promoted so young, and it wasn't because his family is one of the original twelve. Yes, back then he was a powerful wizard, but maybe being one step off a squib doesn't mean he's lost absolutely everything. The O'Hannigan's are fine without magic- though their ignorance may not last much longer if his suspicions are correct- and Raphael does well.
The strong and untouchable Letitia's tremulous thanks make his worries and doubts almost worth it.
It's too late- early?- to go back to bed, and with the horrors the imagination would conjure in place of really seeing what Letitia saw- how he wishes he could watch her memory himself, but without magic, a pensieve and a way around the law, that is most decidedly not an option- it's far easier to ignore the trauma and go back through what they have collected. To look for patterns in disappearances, or in fact anything useful in the pile of well-meaning but ultimately mostly superfluous data.
He almost feels it a second before the door flies open, like a static shock to his entire body, the ozone stillness before the first crack of lightning splits the sky. Credence bursts in, panic in his eyes as they skitter all over the room before coming to land on Graves. An aura crackles about him, something powerful, barely restrained nipping at his heels. It kicks something loose in his mind, connections he should have made spilling one atop the other. Merlin he can be so dense sometimes, so blind, caught up in the ridiculous carousel of his own self-pity, too busy licking his wounds to see, to realise.
The boy, the one who had died, the one who he had hurt. The Barebone boy. The very same child one of his Aurors got demoted trying to defend. Except he isn't a child, not really and certainly not anymore.
He feels like he's going to be sick, Merlin's beard how can he stand it? To stay with him, to look at him, look directly into the face of evil and not want to keel over? The one thing he knows for certain is that this boy is brimming with magical potential, and MACUSA absolutely cannot know he's still alive.
It would cost them both their lives.
Chapter 6: Don't Carry It All
In the dreams she is whole.
She shines like the summer sun, all warmth and radiance. Endless bountiful days stretching out into eternity. She is happy. She is free.
Her skin is burnished gold, her hair the shining conkers of their autumn games. Nothing can touch them here. The sun hangs fat and lazy in an endless sea of blue, not a single wisp of white to mar the gentle serenity.
She laughs and it is like music- a thousand silver bells, or the rush of wind in full summer leaves. Her smile a treasure, her joy etched into her eyes.
A true child of summer.
Plants seem to bloom in her wake, opening to her touch. Everything opens to her touch.
She is soft, a delicate bloom blossoming in the heat. She gives the world hope, breathes life into the land around her. She loves and is loved, endlessly, unrelentingly.
She is colour, brightness and light. She is everything.
But all things come to pass.
She will grow cold in the autumn, colder still at the first licks of winter. She is a child of the summer, built for endless days of running barefoot through sweet, green fields. Of paddling through crystal clear streams so cold they take her breath away.
The cold will bite deep and unrelenting, and she will forget what warmth ever was. The light will fade from the world around her, retreating back underground. Darkness will creep into her, days getting shorter and shorter. The long endless warmth will give way to a relentless barren chill.
To everything there is a season.
She is not made to suffer the chill of the snow, or the festering damp of long, dark rains. The slow creep of cold that settles in the bones, gnawing away until she forgets what warmth ever was. The dark days, grim and dull, that hang limp and lifeless. The air so cold it burns the lungs right out of her.
She thrives on summer sun, but winter is on it's way.
For a moment, everything is still. The room crackles with tension, the thrumming, restless ice-cold river of fear and apprehension. Credence stands in the doorway, all heaving chest and trembling limbs- he must have run as soon as he found the note.
Though Letitia bares her shock with an effortless grace- already relaxing back into her seat- Raphael is visibly shaken, eyes wide, half out of his seat as if to defend them from the would-be attacker. Graves himself can barely wrap his head around the supernova bursting through his mind, whiting out and burning up everything he thought he knew.
The only certainty left, his only clear thought, is that he has to get Credence on his own and fast. There are too many wards spread across the city, ancient and new threaded together in a patchwork of charms, each one looking for something different, all enmeshed together. In all honesty, even Graves couldn't predict which would be tripped first. And with the city still on high alert after everything that happened, well, its unlikely that any slip-up would pass by without investigation. Not if he is involved in any way. He can't quite pretend that doesn't smart, but now is not the time.
He makes his excuses, which are no doubt rushed and incoherent- the information they have isn't likely to change immediately, it's been a long night, they could all do with a few hours to decompress etcetera- but he manages to get Credence into the hall and away from the sort of eyes that would certainly trip alarms. He is flushed and shaking, and Graves knows somewhere deep in his gut that they aren't going to make it back to the flat before something happens. He himself is stiff and aching from too many hours pouring over scattered scraps of an investigation, and Credence can barely catch his breath, let alone hold on to his corporeal form.
It's a snap decision pull them down to the basement apartment, a half-formed thought exploding into action before he can fully realise the implications. It isn't too far away, a single flight of stairs toward the end of the hall, and down is always easier than up.
But the light doesn't work. The door swings shut behind them, pitching them into shadow and the light does not work.
He forgets, sometimes, how temperamental non-magical technology can be. He doesn't know why he didn't realise that before, didn't think that maybe a landlord as absent as theirs wouldn't keep up maintenance on a disused set of rooms- water damaged and moulding if the smell is anything to go by. Maybe he just assumed Credence preferred to sit in darkness. Maybe he was being self-absorbed. Whatever the case, as soon as the door clicks shut behind them, they're plunged into darkness, thick and impenetrable.
The panic starts as a low simmer in Graves' stomach, not ignorable, but not quite overwhelming either. It builds as the seconds tick by, seconds where the cold and the darkness and the silence creeps over him like a shroud.
In a fit of panic, he reaches for his companion.
“Credence, give me your hands” he says, wrapping Credence's long fingers in his own. He cups their palms together, steadily, carefully, though every instinct in him is screaming that this isn't safe, he needs to get out, get out, get out!
Eyes squeezed shut against the pounding darkness, pushing in on him, worming it's way into his gut. His body trembles, cold sweat breaking out as his heart pounds so very hard.
“Credence listen to me” he whispers, crowding in close- he can feel the edges melting away, the cold nothingness the boy loses his grip on himself.
“Credence can you to help me, can you concentrate for me. Just breathe for a second, breath and listen to me. I can't do this alone Credence, please.”
Credence gives a soft whine, vibrating hard with the effort of keeping himself together, of not straying to that other place.
“I want you to picture something for me, please Credence, I want you to think about light, a ball of light casting away the darkness. Can you do that for me Credence? Can you hold that picture in your mind?”
“Yes Mr Graves” he says softly.
“Okay, okay, now I want you to think hard and repeat after me. I want you to keep that image and say Lumos with me, okay?” A nod. “You ready?” Another nod.
Together they mutter the incantation. Though he hasn't needed an aide in years, and regardless of how useless his magic has become, Graves too keeps the image at the forefront of his mind if only to comfort himself.
For a second he thinks they've failed. For just a moment he teeters on the edge of panic. Then a brightness presses tentatively against his eyelids. There is a pale light quivering between them, hovering a scant few centimetres over their palms; weak and sputtering, but there nonetheless.
Slowly, in the tremulous witchlight, the itchy static around the boy dissipates, until he is left as solid as he ever was.
The tingle of magic sits faint under Graves' skin. Neither of them are conjuring alone, Credence's raw power filtered through Graves' natural control- a closed circuit. It's something he's heard of, certainly, something the magic-adjacent have a tendency to lean their hopes toward; but as far as he knows it has never really worked before, and even if it had he never even dreamed he'd be involved. Dual casting is tricky, it shouldn't really work, and yet, though their light may flicker as faint as a first year's, it still holds strong.
“Credence, I would like you to listen to me now okay? I need you to try your hardest to calm down. Just breathe, nice deep breaths, that's it. I know it's scary, believe me I know, but the parasite inside of you is dead, okay Credence? It's gone. But the only thing your magic knows to do when you're scared is to scatter, okay, it taught your magic to do that so right now it's trying to tear you apart and that's not what we want. But your magic is yours, Credence, it's yours. Feel around for it, keep thinking about the light and feel for your magic, Credence, can you feel it?”
He gives a tentative nod, eyes still squeezed firmly shut, hands trembling but solidifying around the edges.
“Brilliant Credence, you're doing so well. Now I need you to do one more thing for me, okay?”
He waits for another nod, and when it comes he can't help the smile that threatens to ignite.
“Alright Credence, I need you to open your eyes.”
A beat goes by, two, before his eyelashes flutter. A blink- two, three- then those big doe eyes struggling to focus as they meet his own.
“Mr Graves?” his voice is unsteady, full of confusion and concern, fear and wonder.
“It's okay Credence, it's going to be okay,” he squeezes their hands gently, something like excitement squirming through his gut. There is so much they need to discuss he can barely comprehend where to start. First things first, though, he needs to calm Credence enough to get them safely back to the flat. He's better when he's channelling, he can control the panic response to flee, but that urge will be there until they can train his magic into reacting safely.
“Right, okay, okay now you see this light we're holding?”
Credence gives a distracted nod in reply, eyes riveted to the pale witch-light hovering between their hands.
“I'm going to take my hands away now, and you need to concentrate really hard and keep that light shining” he says, as he starts to loosen his grip, sliding away from Credence's touch.
The light begins to flicker the more Graves withdraws, weakening but still just managing to hold. Credence has a deep frown biting into his forehead, and his hands still tremble, but it seems to be borne of concentration more than fear.
Achingly slowly, Graves leads them out of the basement and up the stairs, still muttering soft words of encouragement, ready to stop and try something else at the first sign of trouble. There is no trouble, though, no one comes out to stop them- it's far too early for anyone in their right mind to be awake and wandering the halls- and Credence keeps his concentration well enough to keep their flickering light aflame.
Graves sits him down on the sofa as soon as they reach the flat, whilst he busies himself making them both a cup of tea- no longer a frustratingly long process that serves mostly to just make him pine for his magic, but a distraction, something to do with his hands whilst he tries to think of a plan of action.
Credence is powerful, and his magic doesn't bare containment well, that much is obvious. That he continues to associate with Graves considering exactly who he is is another matter entirely, one that will bare closer examination, but later.
The tingling in his core, like a limb long dead awakening at last, is something he'll break down over once he has a minute to himself.
“Credence you can let it go now” he all but whispers as he places a steaming mug on the table.
He isn't prepared for the pang of loss as the light dissolves, leaving a ringing emptiness in its wake. It takes a minute for Credence to stir, then all at once the breath rushes out of him and he slumps in his seat.
“Mr Graves, I don't understand?”
“Drink your tea Credence, we can talk about anything you want after, but right now you need to drink up” he pushes a mug into the space between his palms. It's hot and sweet, the only thing he himself craves after overtaxing his magic. He wouldn't dare try anything harder these days for fear of getting lost at the bottom of a bottle.
“I'm not a witch,” Credence takes a long sip of his tea, eyelashes fluttering in surprise at the unexpected sweetness, “He said so too. I wasn't special, not really.”
“You are magic Credence, I know it's scary but it's the truth. That,” he swallows, his throat suddenly parched, breathes for a second, then, “that man, he cannot be trusted. He wanted the creature inside you, and he would have done anything to get to it.”
“How? How can I be? It doesn't make any sense?” There's a tremble to his hands that he does well to hide by gripping tight to his mug.
“It doesn't have to.” That feeling deep inside, awakened by their magic, twinges, but he does his best to ignore it. He knows more than others how little sense magic makes.
“We're born with the ability, it manifests itself in small ways when we're young, often around eleven years old.”
Credence's eyes fall to his lap, gaze forlorn as he watched the steam rise and curl along the rim of his cup. “But it didn't with me?” he says, voice small and hating himself just a little for it.
“I think you knew somewhere deep inside that you wouldn't have been safe, so instead of manifesting, your magic latched on to something else. A mindless creature that knows nothing but destruction, it must have fed off of you for years.”
“But it's gone now?” He doesn't raise he eyes, but something about him seems to relax, brighten even, as if the weight of his worries can finally be rested, if only for a moment. Graves knows intimately how that feels, though he may never throw off his own shackles.
“I don't know, Credence. I imagine it was shattered when Picquery did what she did to you but it will have become so much a part of you I can't say for sure that it's not still somewhere in the essence of you, that it wasn't the creature that kept you alive. It's gone for now, that's what matters.” He isn't certain, but there isn't anything malevolent about the boy, not a trace of darkness that he can detect- and he knows deep in his gut that he would be able to sense these things with or without magic. He may never cease being an Obscurial, but it doesn't have to take over who he is.
“I don't want to hurt anyone.” Credence all but whispers, hunching in on himself once more.
“You don't have to. I have my fair share of problems with magic too, believe me, but it's nothing to be afraid of. Magic is who you are, and if the Obscurus does come back then we can deal with that together. ”
“I knew I was different, I knew there had to be a reason why ma didn't like me,” he heaves a shuddering sob, eyes brimming with tears, “I killed her, Mr Graves, and my sisters, and Mr Shaw and maybe more I can't remember. I know I killed them though.”
“Did you mean to? Were their deaths what you were aiming for?”
“No. I just got so angry and then they were dead and I know it was my fault I just couldn't-”
“Stop yourself? There was a lot of very powerful magic flowing through you, no doubt stirred up by a truly malicious man. Grieve them, yes, feel remorse at their deaths but do not blame yourself.”
“But it's my fault.”
“It is and it isn't. You did it, that cannot be denied, but you weren't in control. You have to stop blaming yourself for something that was out of your hands.”
The question hits him like a slap in the face, as shocking and painful a quaffle to the gut. It startles from him a breathless “what?”
“He did things to you too, didn't he?” Credence half-asks, all too knowing. “Bad things.”
“How do you-?”
“Because he looked like you, Mr Graves,” he says it so simply, with none of the weight that hangs heavy around Graves' neck, “and everybody said it was you but it wasn't. I know it wasn't and, if it wasn't you then he had to have done something.”
“How can you be so sure it wasn't me?”
“He was nothing like you, Mr Graves, he was cruel under all the kind the way bad men are, you can just feel it. And his eyes weren't your eyes, Mr Graves, his were cold and flat, like there was nothing behind them, not really. Yours are sad.”
“You're right, of course. He did... impersonate me for quite some time. Did a fine job of it if what I've heard is to be believed.” He takes a moment to centre himself, to push the endless rough churning in his stomach far, far down. “Our situations are different, of course, but-”
“How are they different? He hurt both of us”
“You were innocent, Credence. You were manipulated by a very powerful man who knows exactly how to prey on people to get what he wants. I was a trained Auror, a high-ranking one. I'm supposed to be able to take out threats like him not be overpowered. I failed, Credence, I failed my Aurors, I failed myself, I failed you.”
“Mr Graves, he is the devil himself come to claim our souls, and everybody knows the devil is the greatest trickster to ever walk the Earth. You say he manipulated me, that I couldn't have stopped what he made me do, well then neither could you. And in any case, I know my ma never cared enough about me to know something was going on, but you have a whole team of people who should have seen through him right away but they didn't.” He stops as suddenly as he started, breath heaving a little, embarrassment lighting a fire under his skin.
Graves can't stop the welling of tears that fall silently down cheeks grown ever gaunt. This boy who doesn't know him from Adam, who was lied to, manipulated and tricked by an evil man wearing his face, is perhaps the only person to see the truth of the matter. To strip Graves' insecurities bare and try to lay them to rest. It's too much. It's all too much, and yet.
“Thank you Credence” he says softly. Though his first instinct is to run, to hide away from the ball of emotions too dense to unpack, he stays. Offers a watery smile.
Some days he can barely shoulder his guilt, fears he'll collapse under the weight of it, crushed to death by his own failures. It never occurs to him that maybe, just maybe, he doesn't have to.
Alone in his bedroom, the weight of the past few hours feels almost crushing. Credence is asleep on the sofa, exhausted from the repercussions of first time magic use and what it takes out of a person- he may be powerful, but he is untrained and that takes just as much of a toll.
His blood sings with the kind of fizzing tingle he thought long since lost. The burble of magic just underneath his skin, dancing through his veins. He doesn't quite know how to feel about it. For so long he's missed it, a part of his very soul wrenched out of him, or a limb severed. Now it's stirring again, awakening from the long dormancy and unfurling it's reach once more. It scares him.
He cannot help the fear in his heart, though he is nothing but glad. He still doesn't understand quite why it deserted him in the first place, let alone why it has returned. The uncertainty churns his gut.
Though he is beyond tired, his mind refuses to shut off. He lies in the greying pre-dawn light, body heavy with exhaustion but mind buzzing . He wants to see if it's real, if he really has his magic again or if it's just a hangover from channelling Credence. He's scared, so scared that that is the case, that his mind is playing tricks on him again. He can barely trust it these days after all.
He heaves himself up slowly, aching body crying out for rest. He knows himself, knows deep down that he will not be able to rest until he's at least tried. The fear and doubt will eat away at him like rats in his stomach, and he's already to full feeling after the heartfelt têt-à-têt they endured. The one person who should rightfully hate him more than he hates himself just... doesn't. He can barely grasp how Credence can stomach looking at a face he himself can barely stand, but he can and he does and somehow he doesn't blame him. It's more than he can handle.
So he does what he always does, what he'd be known for if anybody really knew him- he blinkers himself, he blocks it all out and focuses on the matter at hand. He shakes so bad he can barely fumble the wand from the drawer he had banished it to, back when the mere thought of magic had him running to empty the contents of his stomach. Fear is never the strongest emotion to cast with, but it is all he has these days, the only thing he can so easily let fill him up and guide his hand. The wood feels foreign in his grasp, to smooth, too light- he hasn't needed it in years but he could swear it fit him better than this. Though he wants nothing more than to back out of this whole idea he holds firm- if he backs out now that will be the end of it, he'll never build up the courage to try again.
It takes everything he has, every ounce of emotion, every scrap of concentration, but he manages to cast his own lumos- benign magic without weight or pull, a child's spell. His light is paltry at best, wavering and pale, brighter than a candle but not by much. He shakes with the effort of holding it for so long, and as the light fades a rush of exhaustion crashes over him. It isn't much, barely a flicker compared to what he knows he is capable of, but it's there. He cast when he was so sure, so certain he would never again be able to access his magic. Never again be able to see the world in the same colours, taste the same breeze. It is something to live for.
It takes a few minutes for the toll to wear off- true magical exhaustion is something he barely remembers, so used to taking the stumble, brushing off the backlash and moving on. Higher stakes magic- the kind that demanded its dues be paid in full regardless of the price- was something he rarely had to use in his day to day, so he has little experience waiting on his health.
An idea strikes him, as he runs through and discards the shortlist of spells that come to mind. He poured a lot of time as a youth into learning as many spells as he could, the more archaic the better, but he refused to let himself neglect something simple for the sake of arrogance. He never thought the three months he spent perfecting simple transfiguration spells would be worth anything in the long run, but he worked hard to make sure they were as easy as breathing to himself just the same. If nothing else, they made for some memorable pranks back when he was the kind of boy to play pranks, to have anyone to prank on.
It's a struggle, takes everything in him, every scrap of strength he can muster, and more false starts than he can stomach, but the large, heavy crate he has been using as a bedside table becomes a bed frame twin to his own. He absolutely cannot handle dimensional magic yet, he's far from strong enough and just as likely to create a black hole in his apartment than a second bedroom, but he lived in dormitories for much of his youth and slept in close quarters in much worse places working his way through the ranks. He can handle a shared room, though he'll work on redecorating later. He sags under the weight of exhaustion, staggers back to his bed and flops there in a messy sprawl.
Tired as he is, it is almost impossible to sleep. His mind is too busy, too frustrated and angry and scared of the nightmares waiting for him. He shouldn't have let Aideen near his face, let her sharpen the softening of his jawline. No matter, mirrors could be avoided and the only other person who would have to suffer his face is Credence.
Credence Barebone, the boy with the Obscurus, the boy who is presumed dead by the Wizarding world, Credence who has magic. Credence who he must protect at all costs.
He hates to think it, shudders at the very idea, but it might be worth going back to that place. His home and his prison, the last place he wants to be, and the only place he can think of to begin the boys education. He likes to be well read, never throws a book away. Unless that man destroyed more than he was- half-heartedly at best- briefed upon, then some of the books he will need should still be in the library. The thought of taking Credence there flickers and is gone in an instant. He isn't sure how well either of them would stomach the stench of dark magic that haunts his dreams. If he's not careful it could trigger the Obscurus. It will almost definitely trigger the panic biding its time at the back of Graves' throat, heavy and thick.
Despite everything, Percival Graves is going home.
Chapter 7: Your Ghost
It’s dark and cold and everything hurts so very much. She didn’t know she could hurt this much, didn’t know such a thing was possible. Bone deep and thrumming, pounding at her from every direction until it is all she can think, all she can feel. The pain of it brings tears to her eyes, hot, salty things that scald on their way down red swollen cheeks. She can barely breathe through them, lungs tight and face hot. The knees of her best dress soaked through to her torn stockings.
But she’s not alone, that much she knows for sure. There’s someone else here, someone moving about in the darkness, and if they so much as touch her she’ll scream. She doesn’t want to look, refuses to pick her head up because what if it's them? What if it's her captor, if they are the one moving around in the darkness? If she doesn’t look at them, if she can’t remember their face then they might let her go, right? Because she can’t tell anyone anything if she doesn’t know. She doesn't want to look. It smells so bad and it’s so damp she doesn’t really want to see any more than the bright flashing nothingness behind her eyes. It’s dark anyway, there would be no point, and she doesn’t want him to see her crying.
She just wants to go home.
She didn’t mean to upset her mama. She just wanted to go out is all, just wanted to have some fun like the other girls do. It’s not fair. She’s always the good girl, always the teachers pet. She just wanted to be normal for once. And now he’s going to think she stood him up and he’ll move on to prettier girls and it’s just not fair. He is always so nice to her, treats her like a proper lady, all flowers and dates. She knows she shouldn’t have but she liked him and she doesn’t care what mama says he likes her too, really likes her. But he won’t now. He’ll think she didn't want to come.
If he knew her, he’d know she wouldn’t. She isn’t like the other girls, that’s why he likes her. This is the first time she’s ever been even a little naughty. The first time she’s ever tried to do something for herself, to forget her reputation and just live and she ends up like this. It isn't fair. She's not supposed to be one of the stories her mama tells her about to scare her into being good. She's supposed to go dancing, she even wore her best shoes, the ones she isn't supposed to, the new ones with the bows on the buckle. She doesn't know where they are now, can't tell if she's wearing them and doesn't want to look. All she knows is she's cold. Cold and tired and numb.
Her whole body is screaming in pain but she feels so numb. Are bodies supposed to do that? Maybe that’s just what happens when you get scared. Jemma Sinclair said her cousin Mindy was dared to walk alone through the bad part of town once and she did even though she damn near wet her pants and she couldn’t feel her toes for a whole week after. But then again she also said she was going steady with one of the Granger boys and that was a total bunch of old phoney baloney. But maybe she wasn’t lying about that. Maybe that’s just what bodies do.
She’s just cold is all, so damn cold.
And she’s only getting colder.
The house has grown stale in his absence. What was once well-worn and grand has become sad and cold, an empty echo of the man he once was. The air tastes of disuse, of old dust disturbed by his presence alone. Nothing has been touched since he left what feels like years ago. Touched further that is. It hasn't felt anything like his since He invaded, too many people pawing through his things, judging his life like they were justified to comment on what they don't know. It chafes. Everything chafes. From the moment he awoke he felt off, misaligned, nothing seemed to fit. The anger is something fresh, something to cling to, now, in the empty weight of what once was.
The memory still lingers in the air, the ghosts of the past still ever-present. Though he is sure the stench is all a product of his bruised mind; cloying and heavy-sweet, still it weighs down his lungs with its filth. Stepping back inside this half-forgotten thing- kicking up the dust of these nightmarish halls- feels wrong, like wearing a jacket he was certain still fit, he could clearly remember wearing it not long ago, so then why can he not move his arms? He knows the house, its walls are more than memory, every part of him remembers this place. But he cannot shake the feeling that it isn’t his anymore, he no longer belongs here. Anxiety prickles his skin, tightens his lungs. Every fibre of his body is telling him to leave, to get out and never come back. Nothing feels right here. He doesn't fit, nothing about the shade of this man fits who he is becoming. He's beginning to think that may not be such a bad thing.
The house seems somehow more imposing after such an absence, though he can understand the resentment- misused and abandoned as it was. Still, he can’t bring himself to heal the place, not then and especially not now. The wound is still far too raw to try. The corridors are long, cold, dark things, but he doesn't have the energy to illuminate them any further. The paltry light from the windows will have to suffice, he doesn't plan on sticking around long.
The wound isn’t fresh, but it festers. It is almost painful to walk the floors of what used to be his home and feel nothing positive. There is no joy left for him in this place, no happy memories twinkling in the corner of his eye. It has all been burned out by the darkness that consumed his life.
The library has always been an imposing room, grandiose in a way he always strived to match, but fears he never quite managed. Rows upon rows of books sit restfully, weighty with knowledge in the most comforting of ways. Deeper still are the restless ones, old tomes, ancient tomes, living, breathing creatures of parchment and magic. Shipped over from the old world when his ancestors emigrated, filled with raw power- wild magic, old magic. These are the books He would have been interested in, so powerful they shiver and strain in their bonds, desperate to escape, to sow their seeds once more. Some are so dark their foul stench seeps out into the room, full of the blackest of magic. Those are the aisles he’s always been careful to avoid.
No, Graves’ bounty is nothing like these.
It would be unfair to suggest he hoarded, but when it comes to books Graves had never been able to sever ties easily. There is always a niggling doubt at the back of his mind that one day these might come in useful, one day these could be the key to unlocking the mystery. That is why there are worn school textbooks gathering dust in the more habitable remote corners of the room- abandoned through obsolescence rather than unease. These are what he came for.
Many of them will be useless at present, concerned with the intricacies of spell-work rather than the nature of magic. In any case, Graves has always considered the magic they teach at school to be too clinical, too subjective. His family are Irish in their roots, as a boy he was taught the old ways, the dirty, dangerous kind of magic. Fairy magic, land magic, the breath of the hills and the crush of the stream. Where each spell is a gift, power lent by something quite Other, and whose dues must always be paid in full. Society would say it is too close to dark magic, but that couldn't be farther from the truth- the pact made between mage and maker is a sacred thing, pure in the most ancient of ways. It is half the reason he once toyed with the idea of teaching, and wholly the reason he decided against it.
It is this sentiment that he wants to introduce to Credence, the knowledge that magic is a natural part of the world, not something to be feared, but a gift to be cultivated.
It's only after gathering together his old school books that it hits him how vast the Graves' collection truly is.
It can't be anything but the greatest of luck that the library was of little interest to him, left relatively untouched, even if the stench of the man still seems to cling to the walls. Though- how far fortune plays into it is hard to say; a web of enchantments lays thick over this room, older and more intricate than his protective wards. There are things here that should never been seen by the wrong eyes. The family compendium is a dark thing, as complete and intact as he remembers- though his memory is hardly a solid point of reference. He doubts any book could be removed for long by anyone other than the patriarch.
They call to him in their creeping susurrus, promises of power unimaginable, of his hearts desires made real. The sweet-rot scent is all in his mind, he knows, but the heavy touch of dark magic paints his skin still. No shower will get him clean. He'll never be clean again.
The tomes he searches for are far back, hidden in the dry dark like a well-planned afterthought. As long as there has been life, there has been an all-encompassing fascination with death. The idea that one's essence, ones soul, can be separated from its vessel, can travel of its own accord is not a new one, but the folly of man lies in his reluctance to accept the consequences. And there are consequences. The sum given shall always be the sum taken, those are the rules when playing with the gods of the dead.
There are a couple of texts he remembers stumbling across in his hour of need- in the days when a young, naïve boy thought perhaps magic could fix some of the damage war had wrought. One talked of illnesses that bit bone deep and carved a place for themselves around your soul; another about the body's ability to jettison its very essence whilst it fixed its own ailments. They weren't a perfect fit, but something in them had to at least touch on Credence's experiences.
Near them, oldest perhaps of all, is an old thing, thick with dust and brittle with age, though he knows that the pages themselves will forever remain as firm and fresh as the day they were written. If his mind rebels from thinking on how, exactly, it was bound- the odd softness of the pale leather- then that is his knowledge and no-one else's. Still, He slips it in his satchel along with the others- gifted to him when he was made head boy back at school, charms woven into the bindings so completely they could never be undone.
The pulse of magic at the back of his mind grows ever stronger, and he finds himself longing for his little magicless flat. He cannot avoid this house forever, he knows that somewhere deep in his bones, he is forever tied into it and the family lineage at contains. But he can run for now, just until his magic returns to him properly, just until he feels halfway human again, just until.
He catches a taxi back, breathing deep the fresh air, thankful for his escape. One day he will feel strong enough to return. One day.
There's someone on the O'Hannigan's landing as Graves makes his way steadily up- for once it is a good day, and the trek isn't so much the daunting task it once was, the pain relegated from sharp fire to a dull throbbing grind. The stranger is tall, easily the same height as Cillian, who has a few unfortunate inches on Graves himself. He has an ease about him that makes the near perfect posture seem natural, effortless. He turns as Graves nears, flashing a polite but distant smile.
“Hello Mr Graves” Aideen calls, her face a picture of delight.
“Hello Aideen” he replies, hand raised in an aborted wave. He is becoming used to the strange occupants of this little building, this instinctual dislike of a new person throws that unfortunately all too far into the light.
“Oh of course, you two haven't met,” Aideen chuckles half to herself, an answer to a question never raised; “Mr Graves, this is-”
“Elias Carmichael” the stranger cuts in, hand raised to shake, smile all straight, white teeth and wide blue eyes.
“Graves” he replies, somewhat terse. He'll try if he has to, for Aideen, for all she's done for him, but this circle of non-magical acquaintances- dare he say friends?- is already getting far too wide.
“Well then, it's a pleasure to meet you Graves” he says, and the worst part is he looks like he genuinely means it.
Shame bites at him. He's has always been far too quick to judge, but any friend of Aideen's must be trustworthy, at least in some small part. After all, she saw there was something worth investing in him all that time ago.
“Anyway, I should be going” Elias continues, reluctance thick in his voice, “lot's to do, you know how it is.” A laugh. “Aideen, you think on what we discussed, he's a bright lad and I really think he would be an asset to our little team.”
“I will, thank you.” Her voice is full of soft pride, eyes sparkling.
Then, with a nod and a “Graves” he's off, tripping down the stairs in a way that sends a pang of jealousy through Graves' gut.
“He seems nice” Graves says, purely for something so say.
“He's one of Kieren's teachers, lovely fellow,” she says with a soft smile. “I'd best not be keeping you Mr Graves, you were out bright and early this morning.”
“Yes I had some errands to run.” He gestures half-heartedly to the bag slung over his shoulder.
“Well then I'll leave you to it. You give young Credence my love you hear?” She smiles, soft and warm.
“I will Aideen, you give your family the same.”
“Good day Mr. Graves”
With a brief wave, he starts again up the stairs, something in his heart growing heavier the closer he gets to home.
“I’m sorry Mr Graves it was banging so loudly and I didn’t know what to do” Credence says all in one breath. His eyes shift toward the table, on which a rather dignified owl is preening itself, no doubt with some form of summons attached to its leg.
He sighs heavily, “it’s okay Credence, you did the right thing.” Reluctantly he approaches the creature, which gives him a look full of boredom and disdain. It wouldn’t do to leave it waiting overlong, he doesn't know how long it has been there, but any length of time is too much. There are eyes on him always, if he isn’t careful they’ll storm the flat at the drop of a hat with no regard for his privacy.
It chirps once, irritated, as he removes the parchment- not about to stoop so low as to nip his fingers, but projecting its scorn nonetheless. Once free, it takes off through the open window, not deigning to wait for a reply.
With some trepidation, Graves unrolls the parchment to find the most arrogant of missives, one which could only have been written by President Picquery herself.
“What was that, Mr Graves?” Credence asks, bewildered.
“It’s how the wizarding world communicates,” he spits, contempt creeping into his tone. “Telephones haven’t reached our society yet I’m afraid.”
The flat falls to silence again, broken by Graves as he lets out a derisive snort, crumpling the letter and throwing it into the fireplace.
“How bloody dare she” he mutters mutinously, marching into the kitchen to set the kettle to boil. When Credence shuffles in a few minutes later, he is lent against the cabinets, shaking feeling back into his right hand.
“Is it bad news?” he asks, clutching white-knuckle hard to the book he had been reading.
Graves sighs again, tired beyond measure. “It’s politics Credence. We triggered something last night, now they want to talk to me about it.”
“That sounds bad.”
“It’s infuriating but it isn’t bad, not for us at least.” he says, rubbing tiredly at the beginnings of a headache stirring somewhere around his right temple. “It means they’ve been watching me closer than I thought which itself means they still don’t trust me and that is just-” he cuts himself off with a laugh absolutely devoid of mirth.
The shrill whistle of the kettle ends the conversation, and nothing more is said until they are once again seated at the table clutching steaming cups of tea.
“I’m sorry about all of this Credence, you shouldn’t have to be forced into my business.” He runs an agitated hand through his hair, clutching the back of his head for a moment before letting his hands fall once more. “I had hoped we’d have a bit of a reprieve today but my luck holds it seems.”
“I’m sorry I shouldn’t have let it in.”
“Not your fault. Even if the thing had gotten bored and left- and that's a big if- they’d have gotten the message to me somehow.” He huffs another almost-laugh, completely lacking in the barest hint of humour. “If anything an owl is the best we could have hoped for. If you’re under investigation, they have a nasty habit of popping up unannounced. I should know, I was one.” He takes a sip of tea, almost nonchalant- if they want to treat him like a criminal then why should he bother trying to convince them he’s anything but. The thought is strangely liberating.
“Is it because of me?” Credence asks, voice small as he chews nervously on his thumbnail, eyes trained on the table just shy of Graves’ elbow.
“Not at all, it’s because of me. When I couldn’t access my magic I wasn’t a threat, but now that it’s coming back they want to keep a close eye. They aren’t as trusting as you, they refuse to believe I wasn’t involved in some way.” He rolls his eyes and takes a drink. More and more of late the despair has been giving way to a sort of frustrated anger, a recognition that perhaps he doesn’t, in fact, deserve to be treated the way he has been. A dangerous thought for a wanted man.
Credence looks mutinous for a second, like he wants to protest the unfairness of it all, but seems to think better of it. He should know first hand that life isn’t fair, and people are worse.
Graves sighs, rubs his face, and runs his hands through his hair again. “This isn’t how I wanted this morning to go” he mutters, half to himself. Then, brighter; “Screw it. Let’s just ignore it for now, they aren’t my masters anymore, I don’t have to come whenever they summon me.”
“Are you sure that’s alright Mr Graves?”
“I gave half my life to that agency, the very least they could do is spare me a day or two.” He only hopes his bravado won’t prove false, a lie moves twice as fast as the truth after all, and it is far harder to kill.
The thing about magic is that it never does quite what you want or expect it to do, not if you don’t treat it right. Graves knows this, is well-versed in how to ask for the power and have it bestowed upon him in abundance; it’s one of the fundamentals he has built his life upon. Explaining that to someone else, someone who has had a historically tumultuous relationship with it, is more difficult than he anticipated.
Credence is a good student, great even. He took to the books like a ghost to haunting, but even they only go so far. He’s brimming with questions, only half of which Graves would have any idea how to answer. He was never cut out to be a teacher, too headstrong, too full of ideas, of the old ways. Attempting to teach someone about a natural fact of your life proves an altogether different kettle of fish.
Their first, and perhaps greatest, obstacle is wand work- something far too many of his books are altogether too deeply concerned with. It’s easy to teach the movements in theory, but with no actual way of procuring a wand for the boy, it is in fact an utterly futile endeavour. He’s never been overly fond of wand work himself, it has only ever felt to him like a learning tool that far too many wizards use as a crutch. There really is no need for a full-grown adult to channel their magic in such a way for their entire lives, not when raw magic doesn’t want to be tamed. His didn't in any case, always on the cusp of being too wild he never liked to be held back in anyway. He especially didn't like to see himself as harmless, was all too drawn to the advantage the underestimation of being disarmed would give him. Wand-less magic feels more natural, more powerful, like the Old Ones sing when he invokes their spirit. It's what made him such a good wizard, and almost definitely why they don't trust him now. It makes something ugly stir in the pit of Graves’ stomach to think that they'll use his injury as an excuse to do what many have been wanting for so long. That even if they allow him to return, he will always be relegated to the side-lines. They'll say it's for his own good, because he may never be strong enough to walk consistently far without his crutch. He feels no shame in it, but he doesn’t want to be tied to this magical one as well.
The boy though, he has powerful magic, that much is almost terrifyingly evident. He may not have the arrogance young wizards are often overflowing with, but he has more power buzzing within him than Graves has seen since, well, since he was a young boy himself. He’s practically brimming with magical potential and Merlin's beard if it doesn’t strike an ice-cold ball of fear into his stomach. All he wants, all he’s wanted since his release, is to have time. Time to recover before the Wizarding World comes calling, time to re-learn who he is before the universe plays her games with him, but alas she is a cruel mistress. They cannot tame this raw potential, only find ways to channel it, to make it work with Credence rather than in spite of him. It'll be a miracle if they get that far before MACUSA come knocking.
And yet, the boy is only full of wonder, of a thirst for knowledge. Credence- he has a name Graves, after all he’s done you could at least do him the honour of using it- has been nothing but gentle. This boy, The Barebone Boy, beaten down again and again by a world far too cruel, has proven himself so much stronger than he has any reason to be. All he wants now is to learn, and maybe the knowledge Graves can bring will go somewhere towards helping him gain some semblance of control over his life. He knows all too well how important that can be.
The issue is how to go about putting theory to practice without tripping any wards. There’s no way of knowing what new measures would undoubtedly have been put in place since his imprisonment; and even if there was, it would still be almost impossible to operate beneath them. Credence is far too strong to go unnoticed, and Graves far too shaky, and on far too delicate a footing to play any missteps off as his own. There will be no hiding once they catch wind that Credence is still very much alive, and that scares him more than he'd like to admit.
Of course, magic isn't only about spell work. Potions would be something safe to explore, as would some of the more rudimentary rune work, useful things to have under your belt, and which require surprisingly little magic. If they can get their hands on the ingredients- and Graves knows from years of experience on the job that the black market has innumerable faces and unfathomable resources- near enough anybody could cast a rune or brew a tincture. They carry their own power; the strength of the magic is almost entirely controlled by the commitment of the caster and if Graves knows anything about this boy, it’s that his dedication knows no bounds. They'll find a way around, they'll have to. Besides, it's not just Credence he has counting on him now. He fears Raphael and Letitia will never get to the bottom of this mystery they've uncovered by themselves.
If he pushes down the growing discomfort that no non-magical detective could find the culprit, then that is his burden and he shall bare it alone.