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A Rush of Red Flames

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Keith stops enjoying the spectacle of the Goblet of Fire— all red flames and sparks as another slip of paper shoots forth— the moment the fourth champion’s name is called. His name.

The thundering applause that greeted Takashi Shirogane is nowhere to be found as he rises from the Gryffindor table on shaky legs, unable to answer his friends’ questioning stares or the thinly veiled outrage of the visiting students from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons. The silence fills his ears like cotton, fuzzy and distorted, and only gives way to scandalized murmurs once he’s departed the Great Hall. It shrouds him even as he’s led up to Headmaster Alfor’s office to defend himself.

“Please, sir, I didn’t put my name in there! I swear. It never even crossed my mind.” He digs his heels into the thick rug spread across the stone floor, terrified by the prospect of expulsion.

“I’m well aware, Keith,” Alfor replies, smiling kindly. His phoenix chitters from its perch by his desk, its plumed head twisting to study him. “At sixteen, the Goblet shouldn’t have accepted your name— much less chosen two champions from the same school. It is a concerning mystery and we are investigating, but I trust you played no part.”

A little of the fight drains out of Keith. He’s still dulled from the shock as the headmaster explains their binding obligation to abide the Goblet’s decision if they want the tournament to proceed and sends him back to the Gryffindor tower, where Lance and Hunk are still awake in their beds, waiting up late for him.

Lance draws the curtains around his bed and skulks after Keith explains he won’t be punished, but instead is expected to participate in the Triwizard Tournament along with everyone else.

“Oh no,” Lance sighs, peeking out just to mock Keith with an exaggerated pout. “You get to soak up all the glory and hang out with Shiro during the competition. Tragic.

“Ignore him,” Hunk says as he throws Keith a chocolate frog and dims the conjured light from his wand. “Hey, listen. Everything’ll feel better tomorrow. Or, y’know… it might not, since everyone thinks you cheated your way in and the other schools are furious and the Triwizard Tournament is historically highly dangerous— 

“Stellar reassurance, Hunk.” Lance’s voice is muffled from the pillow smushed over his head. 

Hunk heaves out a heavy sigh. “Well. Good night.” 

The dormitory goes still and quiet, save for some snoring, but sleep never comes for Keith. He lies on his back and stares out the window as the stars slowly crawl past, wondering why on earth someone would put him up to this.

 


 

Over the next two days, Keith is acutely aware of a shift in the student body— a taking of sides between the two champions from Hogwarts, and the split is far from even.

“You guys feel a chill in here?” Pidge asks dryly at breakfast, squeezed in between Lance and Hunk at the Gryffindor table. She gives a feigned little shudder.

There’s a wide berth around the four of them and more than enough chatter to set Keith on edge. “They think I cheated,” he mutters while angrily stabbing a number of small sausages onto his fork.

“Yeah,” Lance agrees, shrugging. “Shiro probably thinks you did too.”

“Ignore him,” Pidge sighs. As the owls carrying the mail begin to filter in through the Great Hall’s high windows, she mutters, “I would love to know how your name got in the Goblet, though.”

Keith gestures emphatically up and down at himself as he chews down his food. “Yeah, me too,” he garbles out as soon as he can manage it. 

Across the hall, he can see Shiro sitting at the Slytherin table, flanked on either side by the white-haired duo of the Head Boy and Head Girl. Around him are admirers from every house— no doubt wishing him good luck and consoling him on the unfortunate business with that scheming Gryffindor— and Pidge’s brother, who might as well be an honorary Slytherin.

As if sensing Keith’s gaze, Shiro turns his head a fraction and happens to catch him staring. It’s too far to read the older boy’s expression, but Keith’s ears burn as he pointedly looks back to Lance.

His focus is shot during classes, and even many nudges from Hunk and Pidge can’t keep him focused on Coran’s lesson. It’s only Muggle Studies anyway, an easy course he’d figured would help lighten his load now that he is first-string Seeker for Gryffindor with practices looming near and—

Ah, shit. How is he supposed to keep up with Quidditch while participating in three grueling tournament trials? Well, Shiro can pull it off, his brain helpfully supplies. And while serving as team captain, too.

The distraction follows him into the Gryffindor common room, where he spends a half-hour running his finger along the feathery ridge of his quill rather than penning his essay on parchment. He ought to be practicing the arsenal of wards and charms Pidge spent the afternoon trying to teach him to prepare for the ominous first challenge. He ought to be figuring out how his name wound up in the Goblet at all. He ought to be up in his bed, insulated from stares and whispers by his fluffy comforter.

Instead, he ends up wandering the castle grounds with Hunk and Romelle by his side, grateful for a break from prying eyes and gossiping mouths. Even Hunk’s worried babbling about getting in trouble is soothing in its own way, but the enchanted map left to him by his mother is helpful as ever in avoiding any teachers or prefects who might deduct house points upon catching them out after curfew. 

“I must say,” Romelle murmurs as they pass the darkened lake where the giant squid lurks, “I’m really glad they’re toning down the tournament now that they’re bringing it back. Coran says it used to be quite the bloodbath— maimings, deaths, vanishing champions.”

“Wonderful.”

“Uh, Keith,” Hunk says, still staring anxiously down at the map in his hands. “What’s going on over there?”

Keith follows the point of Hunk’s finger to a spot in the forest where dozens of names are gathered. Most mean nothing to him, but a couple stand out— like Lady Luxia of Beauxbatons and Iverson of Durmstrang. Romelle hooks her arm through Hunk’s and leads him along as they investigate, Keith leading the way as he puzzles over why the visiting headmasters are in the Forbidden Forest after nightfall.

His answer comes through the bare branches of trees shedding their leaves for winter, where he can see a camp of some kind, consisting of four enormous cages that contain bound behemoths. The light is dim and the view is obscured, but Keith glimpses enough to know— ridged backs and whipping tails, sail-like wings and guttural noises that dredge up primal fear.

The brief flash of a spout of flame seals it, the burning glow gripping Keith by the heart even as Romelle gasps and Hunk wobbles like he might faint.

Dragons.

 


 

The day before the tournament’s first task, Keith takes an early run to clear his thoughts of the past week’s mess. He’s been dreaming of dragons— fire-breathing and glistening-fanged, with his skin blistering under their flames and his lungs flooded by smoke— and racking his mind for a way to survive them. Pidge and Hunk had spent the better part of yesterday afternoon grilling him on his plan of action, and all Keith had come up with was attempting to summon his broom and hoping for the best.

They’d all found the discussion somewhat less than reassuring.

He’s skirting around the Whomping Willow when he spies someone in a robe heading across the grounds toward the Forbidden Forest, a heavy burlap sack cradled in their arms. On closer approach, he realizes it’s Shiro, absent his usual silver-haired companions. It’s uncommon to see other students out on this side of the grounds so early — much less Takashi Shirogane, the rightful Hogwarts champion.

Keith’s heard that phrase whispered behind his back in between classes, and his heart sinks to think he’s infringing on an experience and distinction that should’ve been Shiro’s alone. Worse, Shiro thinks he’s done it intentionally, and through dishonest means.

He sighs. Though his feet turn to lead and his heart continues to plummet down into his stomach, Keith changes course and follows Shiro toward the wood. It doesn’t take long for the older boy to catch sight of him; after a little jolt of surprise at the unexpected company, he waves Keith over.

“Keith, right?” Shiro asks, though there’s no way he can’t know, not with the whole castle filled with gossip about Keith’s conniving ways. “Pidge’s friend. I’m not sure we’ve ever properly met.”

“Uh, no, I guess not.” They’d passed in the halls and briefly occupied the same two-meter radius while Pidge and her brother swapped books, but that was it. Shiro— and all of the Slytherin trio, for that matter— is several leagues beyond him, and walking side-by-side like this is the closest they’ve ever been. “Yeah, it’s Keith.”

“Shiro,” he introduces, like there’s any need. Like anyone in Hogwarts doesn’t know the star chaser of Slytherin, the boy with his name on a dozen school trophies, the champion of Hogwarts. “Are you always out this early?”

“Most days,” Keith answers. It’s habitual at this point, and he feels off and shorter-tempered on days he skips the routine. “I hope I’m not bothering you and your… uh, sack of meat? I just wanted to apologize, Shiro. You were supposed to be our champion— our only champion— and I’m sorry for stepping all over that. But I’m telling the truth when I say I didn’t put my name in there—”

“I know,” Shiro says with a little smile. At Keith’s surprised gape, he adds, “Heard your side of it through the Holt grapevine. But even without that… I saw your expression when your name was called, Keith. That wasn’t triumph.”

“No,” Keith agrees, his relief showing in the form of an awkward laugh. Shiro didn’t blame him. Shiro understands. “I don’t know what happened. Or how I’m going to make it through the first task, let alone three.” A thought occurs to him. “Hey, Shiro, do you have any idea what we’re up against tomorrow?”

“Fishing for information already, huh?” He tutts disappointedly, prompting a mortified blush from Keith. “Whoa, relax. I was only teasing you. And no, I’ve no idea what’s planned. Why?”

Keith licks his lips, considering. From what little he’s seen and heard of Luxia and Iverson, he thinks it’s safe to say they’ve passed the hint along to their respective students. “It’s dragons, Shiro. Four of them. I’m pretty sure the other champions know too, and I didn’t want to leave you in the dark.”

Shiro whistles low and adjusts the burlap bag in his arms, nearly losing his grip in the process. Keith can smell the faint bitterness of blood wafting from it. “Dragons? I thought they said the new tournament would be tamer,” he mutters. “I’ll never hear the end of it. Adam’s going to be pissed.”

“Your boyfriend?” Keith asks, as if he doesn’t know— as if he and the rest of the school haven’t seen them attached at the hip for over a year.

“Ex.” Shiro throws it out with a forced sort of casualty. “As of last week. He was vehemently opposed to the idea of even putting my name into the Goblet. Wasn’t worth the risk, to him. So… he gave me a choice.” 

And he’d chosen the tournament. Keith’s stomach drops anew— Shiro had put aside a yearlong relationship for the mere chance of becoming the Hogwarts champion, while Keith had been handed the opportunity on a platter. Before he can offer any kind of condolence to Shiro, a flicker of darkness in the woods ahead jolts Keith to a stop.

But Shiro just keeps on walking, unfazed, and as the flutter of Keith’s heart begins to quiet he recognizes what lies ahead: thestrals, gaunt and sinewy and hauntingly dark. It’s the flock that draws the carriages to and from the castle, picking their way through the trees toward them.

“Oh. That explains the raw meat.”

“I was wondering if you were going to ask,” Shiro laughs as he sets the burlap sack on the ground and fishes out a glistening chunk of liver. “Offal, from the kitchens. So, you can see them too, huh?”

“Yeah,” Keith answers as the flock draws near, eagerly bobbing their heads at Shiro. “Ever since I got here.”

The Slytherin starts tossing out chunks of organ meat, letting the thestrals feed one by one. “My grandfather passed just a few weeks before my second year. I already knew about thestrals, and seeing them was… oddly comforting. I’d come visit whenever I missed him.”

Shiro offers him the last piece of raw meat: a chunk of heart, heavy with congealed blood. Keith lets it sit in his palm as a thestral gently lips at his hand to devour it. “My dad… um, it was smoke inhalation. He was a firefighter.”

Shiro’s eyes— a clouded silver, intensely soft— are on him even as he pets along the spinal ridge of the largest thestral. His sympathetic look turns troubled, and Keith can see the subtle twist of his lips as he searches for something to say. “Makes me wish we weren’t facing dragons tomorrow. Will you be alright?”

Keith nods, his throat tight. Fear of fire had never stopped his father, after all, and Gryffindors are meant to be brave. It’s only Shiro’s concern that leaves him feeling weak and renders his heart tender. As the skeletal thestral nuzzles at his fingers with a sharp, beaklike snout, he asks, “What about you?” 

“Me?” Shiro’s dark eyebrows lift high, and the hand he presses to the front of his robes leaves a bloody little smudge. He notices his mistake too late, grumbling at himself, and wipes his hands clean on the burlap. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine, Keith. And so will you.”

 


 

Stewing in the tent before the first trial isn’t the worst emotional turmoil Keith has ever experienced, but it’s high up there. They’d each drawn their dragons without even feigning surprise at the reveal, and he has the mixed fortune of going last. The miniature Hungarian Horntail is currently rolling across his palm and spewing tiny puffs of flame, and it’d be damn near cute if Keith wasn’t an hour away from facing off with a beast of its likeness as large as a house.

Shiro had drawn the third dragon— a Swedish Short-Snout, silvery blue and heavily-horned— and he sits beside Keith as they wait their turns. Plaxum leaves first, and the sounds from outside of the tent rattle Keith down to the bone. James is next, pausing to nod respectfully to the two of them before he goes.

“You look confident,” Shiro says once they’re alone, the ministry official overseeing them standing just outside the tent.

“Do I?” Keith asks. His throat and tongue are chalky and dry; it’s as if all the moisture in his body is seeping out through his sweaty palms.

Shiro side-eyes him and nods. He sounds borderline impressed as he says, “You have a very assured resting face.”

“Glad I have that much going for me.” There’s a swooping gasp from the crowd in the stands, and a furious roar rises to drown it out. Another round of cold sweat breaks out down Keith’s back. “So… my wand’s core has dragon heartstrings. Kind of weird to think I’ll be using it against an actual dragon.”

Shiro snorts, amused. “Think yours came from a Hungarian Horntail? That’d be a little poetic.”

“A little,” Keith agrees. 

“My wand is unicorn hair and yew,” Shiro says, flashing a wry smile. “I suppose that makes it yew-nicorn.”

It’s awful— as are their current circumstances— but Keith laughs anyway. Lifting his spirits seems to have been Shiro’s intent, because the older boy then settles back in his chair with a touch of satisfaction before closing his eyes and taking a few deep breaths. For the next ten minutes of silent waiting, Keith curls his gloved hands into the fabric covering his thighs and tries to focus on anything but choking flames and the discomfort of sitting in a puddle of his own sweat.

He feels the gentle nudge of an elbow as Shiro’s name is called by the tournament official at the tent’s entrance.

“Patience yields focus, Keith,” Shiro says as he stands, reaching down to shake the Gryffindor’s hand. “Best of luck.”

“You, too.” 

And then it’s quiet, barring the inhuman screeches and the rising and falling tide of the crowd’s reaction. His heart drops at a particularly pained gasp from the crowd; the anxiety of not knowing how Shiro is faring is nearly as pressing as his own predicament. Keith barely registers his own steps when his turn comes and he’s led to the ring. This time, as his name is bellowed before the crowd, people are cheering for him. 

… Or maybe it’s for the dragon.

Their furor eventually turns to white noise in his ears, rushing away like the tide as he steps into a boulder-strewn arena. It’s scorched to hell and back, with stone blackened, cracked, and split from unbearable heat. As the audience falls silent, Keith can hear the engine-like purr of the Hungarian Horntail from where it sits crouched over its nest. In among the true dragon eggs he spies the glimmer of gold— his target.

The Horntail’s eyes are gold, too.

“Accio broom.” It comes out quiet and weak, that reptilian stare lingering in his mind. His hand shakes harder as the Horntail begins to uncoil from its nest, lips drawing back to bear fangs.

Patience yields focus. Wand in hand, he squeezes his eyes shut and slows his breaths, even as the dragon’s footfalls tremble the ground under his feet. He thinks of Shiro’s encouragement— and his eyes, grey like the lining of midnight clouds as the moonlight pierces them— and this time, he imagines his broom perfectly. It’s laid out on his bed in the dormitory beside an open window, waiting for his call. “Accio broom!”

Moments pass with only the worried murmurs of the crowd and the guttural, crackling hiss of the approaching Horntail, but Keith can feel it coming, pulled by the thread of his charm. His broom reaches him at the last possible moment, and Keith snags the handle just as it jets past. A sudden billow of heat wafts across his back, potent enough to evaporate the sweat from his nape. A very near miss. 

The wind sings loud in his ears as he circles the ring low, but louder is the whistling whip of the dragon’s spiked tail toward him. Keith rolls to dodge it just in time, only to be confronted by a toothy maw stretched wide. He weaves around that, too, and trusts in his instincts as he dives low under the Horntail’s wing and hunkers low to his broom. 

The tips of his boots nearly drag across the charred earth as he races to the nest, a hand stretched toward that golden glimmer like he’s hunting the snitch in a Quidditch match. Behind him, wings beat like the coming of a storm; heat chases him by inches, the jet of flame probably just shy of igniting the tail of his broom.

If not for the grip of his gloves, he’d never have managed to grab his prize. As it is, Keith tucks the golden egg against his side and pulls the nose of his broom up, high above the stands where chains keep the Hungarian Horntail from following. It spits fire at him anyway, writhing furiously over his escape.

And it feels— unbelievable. Incredible. As the immediate danger fades, the relief that floods him is tinged with victory. The thrill stays humming in his blood, sharper than any nosedive or last minute save he’s ever pulled off. Even the press of bodies trying to congratulate him once he lands isn’t so bad, especially after a week of being shunned. As he’s ushered through the rows of oversized tents by a swelling crowd of students and the grabby hands of tournament officials, Keith turns and inadvertently catches a glimpse through the opening of the nearby hospital tent. He stills, eyes wide as he reels back a few degrees.

Inside is Shiro, tended by Madam Te-osh as he sits on an examination table. His clothes and skin are scorched as badly as the ring, and he’s dusted head to toe with pitch black soot, but his face—

His face, drenched from his cheeks down in a streaky mess of blood and ash, the gash torn straight across his nose exposing a flash of white bone.

Hands continue to tug Keith along and he’s too stunned to resist their pull. Distantly, he registers Coran’s voice in his ear, assuring him that Shiro will be alright; Lance, Hunk, Pidge and the other Gryffindors call out to him in triumph and celebration. But the golden egg in his hands feels as dense and heavy as lead, his limbs all gone weak as the heady high of adrenaline is punched out of him all at once.

And this was only their first trial.