This chapter was betaed by the wonderful brissygirl to provide a smoother reading experience. All remaining mistakes are my own. See first chapter for disclaimers/additional warnings/summaries.

RECAP: Hadrian asks the Cunninghams for help with Death's task. Lord Cunningham agrees. Charlie and Theo talk. Theo and Ethan have a private bonding moment. Quinn cares for Harry and Co. Charlie has a chat with his mentor. Molly and her group contact her family. Luna dashes off again with Rolf behind her. The Deveraines ready for the legal aspects. Court summons appear and worry Ilsa about Harry. Maury and Harry continue to chat. Cora, Vincent and Lewis share a moment. Voldemort is still prowling about.

Have you been to the forums? Special thanks to our very own Cheyla on the TBDH Forums, who has put together an AMAZINGLY detailed Timeline of TBDH, along with dates/plot points. Pop-over and check it out! It's pinned to the top of the forums. Link is here: topic/108964/180278851/1/TBDH-Timeline

And guys? Read SLOW. Seriously. There's a lot of hints in this chapter.


Charlie crunched away at the crispy—seaweed salad? Ebony had called it—and focused on the nice, savoury flavour. It was different, not just in texture and flavour, but from the bright blue-green shreds and chewy pieces of root, he was actually enjoying it.

Nevarean cuisine had certainly introduced him to some interesting dishes. A small part of him wondered about the food preparation and whether he'd find something he liked well enough to actually learn how to cook it on his own. That had been one of the main shifts in simply existing with the dragons in Romania, to making an effort to make human friends and interact with his coworkers beyond general creature-tamer daily chatter.

Fond memories teased at the corner of his good mood, tinged with a hint of bittersweet emotion. He missed it, if he was being honest. The excitement, the thrill and the rush of being able to do something well without having to think too deeply about it.

He was a natural with dragons. Always had been. Though now in retrospect, he supposed it was natural in a funny way. That brought up the stray thought of wondering how many other aspects of his life his dragel nature had influenced without knowing.

"Charlie?" A sleepy Ethan shuffled into the kitchen, his pyjama pants slung low on his hips and the pyjama jacket half-sliding off one shoulder. He was attempting to fix both as he walked and not making any progress with either. "You're up early."

"Morning," Charlie glanced at his gifted breakfast tray. There were still some dishes he hadn't tried yet and plenty to share, if needed. The slight pang of old memories faded away at the thought of making new ones. There was so much more ahead of him and it was enough to keep his interest.


"Thinking," Charlie said, ruefully. "Old thoughts. Old memories. Just thinking. Food? There's plenty."

"You can cook?" Ethan squinted at the tray. "Oh. Not yours." He stifled a yawn and then promptly crawled into Charlie's lap; head pillowed on Charlie's broad shoulders.

There was zero hesitation before Charlie's arms automatically came up to hold him. His smile softened, his expression turning indulgent. Ethan was taller than Harry, but he managed to make himself compact enough for cuddles, his warmth just as comforting. Their new bond pulsed with deliberate flickers of contentment.

"Still asleep?"

"Had to get up," Ethan said, yawning. "Wouldn't let me—sleep." He gestured half-heartedly at his head. "But you're fine, so it's good."

"Ah. I didn't know you reacted to that," Charlie said. He moved carefully to reach the cup of strong tea at the corner of the placemat. He brought it closer and helpfully overfilled it with sugar, stirring with a flicker of flame to warm it back up. "Tea?"

"Yes please," Ethan mumbled. He roused himself enough to sip on the tea until he'd drained at least a cup and a half worth of the sweet concoction.

Charlie smiled over his head at the way the sleepiness seemed to slowly fall away, replaced by a deep contentment. Ethan was simply comfortable where he was and not in the mood to move.

That was an unexpected detail.

He found himself rubbing one hand up and down Ethan's side, almost as an afterthought. It felt nice. Domestic. As if he could spend the rest of his life enjoying moments like this.

"Ebony sent the tray," he explained. "I don't even know what half of these are, but some of them are good."

"Lucky," Ethan mumbled. "Anything crunchy?"

"Seaweed salad?"


" strips, kinda crunchy, reminds me of a vegetable. Tastes nice and salty. Something chewy and brown with it."

"Oh. Right. That's actually a catch-all. Every seaweed salad is different. Yours sounds like a Fire deviation. The crunchy bits mean they've been roasted."

"Elementally specific then?" Charlie grinned.

"Something like that." Ethan opened his mouth, waiting.

Amused, Charlie twirled a fork in the dish and fed it to him without complaint.

"Tasty," Ethan purred. He cuddled closer to Charlie, his magic slowly stretching out to brush against the warmth surrounding him. "Good salt. Nice bite." Golden eyes flicked up to Charlie's face, then lazily trailed down to his jaw.

The kiss happened without needing anything to help it along. Just a comfortable press of lips that gradually deepened into a mutual spark of desire. They broke apart, Ethan's face buried in Charlie's neck.

"...finish in the shower?" Ethan prompted.

"Is that an invitation?"

"Do I need to make it clearer?"

Charlie stole another kiss. "Maybe a little clearer," he teased. "Just to be sure."

There was a soft sigh as Ethan shifted in the chair to straddle him properly. "A little clearer?" he checked, golden eyes shimmering.

Another kiss was traded between them.

"...a little bit more," Charlie murmured, eyes bright blue and cheeks half-flushed. "Just a little."

Smiling, Ethan happily continued.


Rian liked it even less when he picked up on the sombre mood of their Circle. He could trace some of it back to Jun, but the stressed expression on her face was enough for him to process two things.

One, he hadn't spent nearly enough time with her for the few moments of close contact to be worthwhile attempts at grounding her empathy. Two, Briar wasn't picking up on it either, which doubled the guilt for missing Jun's usual cues.

Unless she'd changed habits again, which was entirely possible. The woman could shift personalities like an elite Skinwalker, using runic glamours to make her shift even more believable.

He rubbed a hand over his face, retreating to a quieter corner of the hotel. An Alpha's pride was certainly something—but it hurt to see her hurting so deeply still after all this time. The adjustment period of a new normal was always awkward.

There was so much feeling in the air, that he needed a break from all of it. Yes, it was helping, but that didn't mean he wanted to be analyzed within an inch of his life as Jun's empathy smoothed and reformed over the worst hurts from her absence.

After the episode on the front lawn, Jun had gotten George calmed and settled inside. The rest of their Circle had pitched in to buffer and protect in equal turns.

On one hand, he was glad to see the Pareyas perking up and leaning into each other, but on the other, it reminded him how fractured they'd been for so long. There was nothing but time that would ease the gaps and awkwardness that lingered.

The dull throb in the back of his head reminded him that the unease filtering through their shared bonds was bigger than it had been before. With the addition of Regulus and George, in addition to repairing their usual dynamic, things had shifted yet again.

Rian pressed into the shadows near the side entrance of their private section of the hotel. He wanted to be out in the open, drinking up the night air and indulging in more intimate pleasures than the situation called for. Keeping those desires to himself rarely ever worked out well, but he had learned to watch his timing, if nothing else.

He stared up at the night sky, wondering if a grounding spell would help. Jun would probably join him if he dug a hole in the healthy front lawn and decided to hunker down for a nap. Even though Earth wasn't his element, he could appreciate the steadiness of its magic.

Unbidden, the image of a bushy-haired, frantic Hermione, flickered through his mind. Rian frowned. He'd left her with his niece, because Briar hadn't wanted to deal with any other newness besides Jun's return.

Perhaps he should check in on her. It wasn't as if they needed him back in the hotel...

A spell-orb spun on his fingertips with scarcely a thought, connecting at once to the desired residence. "Olivia? It's me. Good evening, Livy-luck."

The connection flared to life on Olivia's end, showing a sour expression and a furrow between her brows, even as her tears tinted red from the childhood nickname. "Uncle Ri? It's late."

"It's early somewhere," he said, easily. "You look exhausted. Aren't your Pareya helping? Or did you chase them off again?"

"Why do you always assume I chase them off? They can come and go as they please!"

"Because you usually do and they rarely leave unless you've said something particularly rude." He gave her a patented look.

Her cheeks puffed out as she continued to sway a small, blanketed bundle in her arms. "Fine. I didn't chase them out, but we're short-handed at the clinic and they're helping out."

"Again? Weren't you going to hire more Healers?"

"It's the Hunt," she said, wearily. "Where will I find new Healers? Everyone's interested in romance and all the stupid drama that follows it. No one's looking for work or accepting interview slots—it's a mess and people are hurting. We don't have enough available Healers to tend to them."

Rian sighed. "Have you asked any of the other-"

"No, and I'm not going to. They don't want to play nicely with us and I don't care!"

" do care," he said, mildly. "And you can't get that attached to the clinic. It's a business providing a necessary service. The moment you get attached-"

"I'm not attached!" Olivia seethed. "The other clinics have questionable—you know what? I don't need to explain myself to you. I did my research. We're more than better off to keep our affairs separate from theirs. It's fine. It'll be fine. It's just going to be terrible for awhile first. Look, did you need something? I still have to put this one down for the night and-"

"How's your guest?"

Olivia's lips thinned. "How do you think? She's the most useless Earth Witch I've ever had the misfortune of meeting! Doesn't know a thing about children, doesn't care to learn and walks around like she's expecting you to slit her neck the moment I step into the room. Why do I always get the unpleasant ones? Why don't you take your troublesome problems to-?"

"You lost her?" Rian's expression shifted into noticeable disapproval. "Olivia!"

"I-I didn't lose her!" came the sputtered reply. "You can't just accuse me of-"

"I've known you since you were the size of my hand," Rian said, flatly. "I can tell when you're lying and deflecting. What happened?"

"Nothing happened!"


"I was in the library! We were reading. I stepped out to get something. She was in there reading—the next thing I know, she's gone. I swear, I didn't chase her out. I don't know where she went, but I never laid a hand on her. I swear, Uncle."

He pinched the bridge of his nose, his displeasure barely contained. "I didn't say that you did," he said, slowly. "But you could have told me sooner, instead of waiting for me to call you. How long ago was this?"

Olivia muttered something in reply. She settled one of the twins into a sleeping cot and reappeared close-up with the other twin sleepy and fussy in her arms. "...if you need something else, send a message. Please," she added, as an afterthought.

Rian sighed. "As you like. Get some rest. Talk to your Beta, if you're too afraid of upsetting the rest of your triad."

Olivia pursed her lips. She gave a slight shrug, swaying the baby in her arms.

He didn't push. That was the most he'd get out of her for now and he knew it. "Take care of yourself, Livy."

" too, Uncle."

The bubble popped; connection broken. He feathered a hand through his hair, tugging on the strands. Maybe he should find Briar first and talk to him...

As if on cue, the shadows shifted and his cranky Submissive came into view, his eyes half-glowing red. "Rian," Briar grated out. "What are you doing out here?"

"You look terrible," Rian countered, holding out an arm to him. "Come here."

Briar made a sound in his throat, hesitating for the briefest of moments, before he walked straight into the hug that followed Rian's request. "Hate this," he muttered into Rian's chest. "Stupid instincts. Stupid idiots...displacement...all of it."

"Shh, I know." Rian pressed his cheek to the top of Briar's head. He pushed a tiny bit of calm and love through their bonds. If Briar was receptive, then he'd send a little more, but a little went a long way between them.

Briar half-whined in answer. One hand fisted in the give of Rian's shirt. "It's not fair," he said, hoarsely. "I just want—more—and there's none."

"More time? More touch? More, what?" Rian asked, gently.

"More of everything..." Briar curled in on himself. "It'll fall to pieces. You know it will. I can feel it hanging right over our heads and-" his voice cracked. "And everything will be a mess. We won't have any peace. No peace at all. I can't stand it. I don't want this, Rian. I don't want it!"

"Briar!" Rian squeezed him tighter, concern replacing his earlier headache. "Let's get you inside, hm?" He tried to guide him back to the hotel, only for Briar's eyes to flare bright-blood-red.

"It'll hurt," he rasped. "It'll crumble and it'll hurt."

Rian froze, his heart stuttered a beat. "Inside. Jun. Now!" he ground out."

There was no further complaint from Briar when Rian whisked him indoors without delay.

George woke to the feeling of warmth and muted light all around him. He was vaguely aware of several bodies pressed against him, some half curled around him. Magic—powerful magic—swirled in the air, a heady, intoxicating elixir that promised all sorts of things his muddled brain couldn't quite articulate.

The most obvious detail though—that was easy to pick out. It was the gentle, steady throb of a very specific feeling. One he hadn't felt since Jun had whisked him away. A feeling of connection—to Fred.

Oh. Oh.

He wrestled his arm free of someone's grasp to rub over his aching heart. A whimper caught in his throat, hot tears pooling in his eyes. It was definitely Fred. There was no mistaking their twinbond, stretched and thinned as it was.

Lips pressed together, trembling, George stared up into the orange-tinted canopy overhead. He could barely make out anything beyond it, except for maybe some veins-? His thoughts short-circuited as the rest of his confusion caught up to the reality of what he was seeing.

Surrounded on all sides, Jun and her Bonded formed a protective barrier from everything. The orange tint wasn't really a tint at all, but rather, overlapping fairy and dragel wings. It was Chris' glow that lightened the hidden space enough for him to see comfortably.

Even Regulus was there, slightly within reach, his dark hair fanned across broad shoulders. The reality of what he saw in front of him, sent waves of overwhelming emotion rattling through his bones without any chance of running out.

They were there for him. They'd done this, for him. As if he was one of their own. As if he mattered.


George hiccupped.

A gentle hand feathered through his hair, fingers pressing firmly into his scalp.

Jun... he knew, instinctively. He turned his face toward the touch. Her presence was steady and grounding, as if she knew exactly what he needed in that moment.

"George, sweetheart?" Jun crooned. "You're fine. Everything will be alright."

A whine built in his throat. She didn't know that, but he wanted to trust it—desperately.

"Everything works out in some way or another, if it's meant to," she amended. Her fingers carded through his hair in deliberate movements. "Sometimes they don't work out the way we want them to, but sometimes they work out when we least expect it. Everything you've been through so far—it's different, right?"

He nodded.

"Then it's working out—especially in ways that you least expect it."

Oh. George considered that for a minute. It was believable enough. He nodded again.

"Now, something upset you earlier, do you want to talk about it?"

He hesitated. It was such a strange sort of surprise that he wasn't sure how to explain it. How was he supposed to tell her about something that had always been there? Something he had taken for granted until it wasn't there?

She hummed softly, giving him time to mull it over. Her fingers shifted to claws, scratching lightly at that spot just to the left.

George sighed, boneless. "It's Fred," he said, half-purring. "I can feel him."

Jun was silent for a moment. Her hand kept moving, but her brow furrowed faintly. "You can feel him—how?"

"Twinbond," George said, simply. "It's back."

"...back?" Jun took a steadying breath. Her empathy flared at the corners, reminding her that she was leaning heavily into it to keep the atmosphere as calm as possible. "And that's—alright?"

"Definitely. I-I was worried when I couldn't—feel him. He's—alright." George's eyes glittered with unshed tears. The relief was unmistakable. "He's—alright."

"I'm glad then," Jun said, carefully.

His considering gaze shifted to her. He licked his lips, dredging up a speck of Gryffindor bravery. "Did you—break it? Our twinbond?"

She shook her head, once. "I dimmed it, so you wouldn't feel each other's heartbreak when I called out your inheritances. That kind of psychic feedback can be devastating when you're so new to what you've come into. It also hurts the closer you are. I didn't want you to hurt each other."

"Fred would never hurt me."

"He might not mean to-"

"No," George said, urgently. "He would never hurt me." He pulled away, sitting up. "Take it back—the dimming—whatever you did."

Jun frowned. Her empathy said otherwise. It warned her of allowing so much feeling to overwhelm and already stressed out youngling like George. "It's probably best if I gradually-"

"Please," he added, grabbing her hand in both of his. "Please take it back. All of it. Please?"

" will hurt," she said, at last. "And it will affect him too."

"It's already hurt us," George said, quietly. "And it's already affecting us."

Jun sighed. "Very well. The choice is yours. Close your eyes."

George hesitated.

"...if you trust me, that is?"

He closed his eyes. "I do trust you," he admitted. It was why he'd asked, instead of demanding.

"Then trust that I did not mean to cause you unnecessary distress." Jun leaned forward and pressed her lips to his forehead.

There was a brilliant flash of blinding white light, before bright blue runes lit up in mid-air all around George. They hovered there as Jun withdrew. She reached out, spinning some of them upside down and turning others in odd little quarter or half-turns.

"Breathe in," she coaxed, tapping his throat. "Breathe out."

George did.

He was not prepared for the powerful rush of screaming flames that enveloped him at once.

Jun blew out a breath. "Oh dear," she said, softly. "It looks like you'll share that too."

George stared at his flaming arms in a mixture of horror and panic. "W-what happened?"

"You share an element." Jun gestured to him. She rested her hands on his shoulder and poured a liberal dose of her own magic into him.

A heavy calmness settled over him, like a slow-creeping ice that carefully trickled down his spine, gently quelling the raging flames that had sprung from deep inside of him. "Y-you didn't tell me anything about-!"

"I didn't know how your flames would manifest," Jun said, calmly. "Though that is rare."

George couldn't help but scowl at her. "Which part? The white flame or the-"

"White?" Jun stared at him, struggling to keep her worry from spilling over. "George, sweetheart, those weren't white flames. Those were black flames. Black fire. Poisonous fire. It's quite deadly."

George choked.


Weston trembled in the shadowed corner; a pale hand pressed to his chest. He didn't need to breathe, but it felt as if he'd run a marathon and couldn't catch a breath. He sagged against the cool wooden fencing, wondering how far he ought to wander towards the Nevarean city lights.

There was a slight chance that he could slip in unnoticed. That maybe the ruling Vampire population there wouldn't take any notice of an unaccompanied vampire childe. A sickening wave of nausea passed over him.

Escaping his Sire's clutches had been the right choice, but the aftermath—that worried him. There was no way that his Sire would remain complacent about losing him—and his information. A single consolation was the thought that he'd done his best to forge useful connections with his informants and they might question his absence.

If you'd given me half a moment of your time—maybe it wouldn't have come to this... Weston thought, darkly. But he knew it was a lie. There was too much his Sire had to answer for and the only possible solution that he liked was death.

Except for the impossibility of the fact being their Sire-Childe bond and his current weakness. The poison wasn't too bad, he'd suffered worse, but it was persistent and that was new. He wondered if the Snapes had ever made it into Nevarah, safely, after all.

If they had, Severus would certainly be a welcome piece of familiarity. He might even find the nerve to ask for an antidote of sorts. The Potions Master was a brilliant man and he'd certainly rise to the challenge, Weston was sure of it.

He wrapped his arms around his stomach, doubling over from the next wave of cramps. This was the worst of it—hopefully.

"If you're dying here, could you do it quietly?" An irritated voice filtered through the night air. "I'm not really in the mood to deal with more dramatics today."

Weston jerked sideways. He caught a glimpse of vivid burning pink eyes and shadows clustering so thickly around the speaker, that he couldn't make them out properly.

Alarm bells sounded off in his head in rapid succession. Everything in his aching, tortured body screamed for him to run. Danger! Enemy! His instincts shrieked at him to run away.

He managed a wet cough that he tried to turn into a laugh. "Sorry. Just go—around." He gave a feeble jerk of his head to the side. Another painful cramp stabbed through him and his empty stomach heaved.

The shadowed figure approached, their footsteps light and steady. "A vampire childe?" There was the faintest hint of disgust, before long-fingers catch the edge of his chin, pointed nails forcing him to look up and into those gleaming pink eyes. "A starving childe. What is one like you doing out here in this state? You should be near your Sire or a trusted blood source."

Fae. Weston thought, faintly. Dark Fae. Danger-!

His body froze in terror. A Dark Fae in Nevarah wasn't uncommon, but a Dark Fae in close quarters with an injured vampire was not safe.

Dark Fae were particular about vampires for the same reason the vampires avoided them. A good thing could be had if both parties were willing, but that level of trust was so ridiculously rare, it seemed non-existent. It didn't help at all that this Dark Fae was heavily armored.

A discret Flexi-Suit, but too perfectly tailored to be anything other what it screamed it was not. The sheer amount of sharpened blades visible when they moved was more than warning enough.

Weston trembled. He would never stand a chance against that—not now and it'd be too close to tell, even in full health. "N-not hurting anything," he managed to get out. "M'fine. Go away!"

The Dark Fae merely stared him down, thin lips pursed into a line, but the rest of their face curiously blank. "...did one of us do that?" He asked, at last. He flicked his eyes down to Weston's stomach and then back to his face. The pink eyes shifted a little more red than before. "I don't sense any Fae magic, but it doesn't hurt to be sure."

A snarl built in his throat, but Weston felt the answer clawing up his throat. It was too late to avoid the inevitable. He'd never been in a Fae's thrall, but already, he couldn't stand it. The siren song of submission washed over him like the sweetest syrup.

Sticky sweet and pink at the edges, as if everything in the world was now a bright, cheerful reality, instead of the awful mess he knew it to be.

"S-st-!" his protest died on his tongue as he temporarily lost the ability to speak.

"Denied," the Dark Fae said, irritated. "I'm not looking for a plaything so stop thinking that I'm here to kill you. I'm not. I have more pressing matters to attend to. I only want to know how you ended up like this and if the one who did it, is native to this realm. That's all. You'll be released the moment I have the answer to that question. If whoever is supposed to help you—happens to be the root cause, then you need not return to them. Nevarah will welcome you."

Weston twisted. Strands of pain spilled down from where the Dark Fae's hand cupped his chin, yet somehow, the touch remained impossibly gentle.

"I mean you no harm," the Dark Fae continued. "We have rules within Nevarah. This is not done. I can get you help, but only if you let me help you."

Shock cut through him, followed by an overwhelming wave of relief. Weston choked out a sob, before his knees buckled. He was lowered, carefully, to the ground and then aware of a pale wrist presented to him for a bite.

He recoiled, even as the thrall slowed his reaction.

"I'm offering," the Dark Fae said, quietly. "You're not taking it from me. I'm offering it, knowing fully well what effect it will have. You don't have to accept, but you're in a pretty bad way, you know that, right?"

"...poison," Weston managed. He licked his lips. The pale wrist was so tempting. He could almost hear the steady, strong pulse.

"Yes, but we have this for a reason." The Dark fae glowed now, a thin sheen of silver radiating from his entire body. The fairy dust was almost as tempting as the pure Fae blood. Just a little bit of it could transform anything. It would certainly override the poison.

Weston trembled.

The Dark Fae sighed softly, . "Look, I'm not trying to force you into something you don't want, alright? But I can't have a starving vampire running around wild in the shadows right now. I'm running errands right now, but I can't leave you like this. Either you let me help you or let me take you to someone who can help you. There are vampires within Nevarah's gates. You'll be well-taken care of. They won't force you do anything you don't want to."

Weston's eyes grew darker. It was such a strange request, a stark contrast to what he'd expected when the entire encounter began.

Maybe this Dark Fae could help. Maybe there was still time to warn…

"Please," Weston said, faintly. "Help me."


A complaint soured on his tongue as Alec stomped through the Merrow section of the Royal's living quarters, a singular purpose in mind. He slapped open the bedroom doors of King Alcandor, dodging the guards stationed there with practiced ease.

"Alcandor, you imbecile-!" he snarled. "Didn't you think to secure your borders before surfacing? Why am I always the one cleaning up your messes because you couldn't be bothered to-!"

A low, rumbling growl from the bed was the only warning the Merrow King gave, before baleful, navy-blue eyes gleamed in Alec's direction. "And?" he rasped, a deliberate crackle and snap of magic, silencing all other protests.

For a long moment, neither Merrow spoke.

Alec was the first to turn away, his blue arms crossed over his chest. He still wanted to snap and snarl, but he did have some semblance of self-preservation.

"Well?" the King prompted. He sat up, gracefully, in the bed, the damp covers flopping around him. The air in the room grew significantly humid as he slid out from the bed and eased onto his feet. The squishy carpet made soft slurping sounds as he moved.

Moisture crept into every corner of the room, suitably dampening it for their Merrow needs.

Alec scowled. His shoulders eased a fraction as the air became easier to breath with the reintroduction of more moisture. "It was a breach. A small one, but enough to let something through. What else did you think it was?"

"Just a breach?"

Bright blue eyes gave a spectacular roll. "Probably a test to see what they could get through and how far. Some poor unfortunate soul is dead. Your gatekeepers are either indisposed or also dead and whoever or whatever let them through all the way to Nevarah's shores—they're smuggling contraband."

King Alcandor merely stared at him.

Another loud, angry huff came from Alec before he stomped over to flop into one of the arm chairs on the far end of the room. The wet cushions and fabric were delightful against his damp scales. "It's not pure Merrow. I don't think it's halflings either. Reads like Merfolk, but I didn't think we had a problem with them. Best I can trace without checking on it myself is that they came from the South Shoreside, which is-"

"Problematic," King Alcandor said, disgruntled. "Definitely problematic—and we don't have any problems with them that I am aware of. What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing. I've told you everything in as short of a report that I can-"

"Why didn't you handle it?'

"Was I supposed to?" Alec snapped. "You wanted me to check something out. I did. You didn't tell me to stick my fins in the kind of-"

"Would you prefer if I ordered it?"

Alec scoffed. "I would not. You'd have to explain it away no matter what you do and I don't need to be your soggy-"

"Take Goonter then. Clean it up."

" king," Alec ground out, through clenched fangs. "Is that the wisest course of action?"

"Of course not, but it is the most efficient. No matter where they come from or why they are attempting to reach our shores, the truth remains that they cannot be allowed to reach it. We are one of the strongest barriers between Nevarah and the great unknown. It is not a duty we should take lightly."

"I'm not taking my head on my shoulders lightly," Alec sniped. "It's not that simple. We can't just wage war underwater for the sake of a few Merfolk giving into their baser-"

"I didn't say anything about war," King Alcandor said, mildly. "You made the inference all on your own. The Merfolk treaty is watertight." His lips curled into a cruel smirk. "And they agreed to play by our rules. That includes not bringing their murderous intent to the innocent within Nevarah. I do not restrict them anywhere else. They are clever enough to use their miserable brains, if they choose to."

There was a long pause. Alec sorted through that mess of words, before a feral grin surfaced. "Oh?" he prompted; his voice deceptively mild in contrast to his recent display of temper. "Is that how we're playing it?"

"I keep you around because you're useful," King Alcandor said, bored. "Not intolerably stupid. Do try and refrain from losing your edge?"

Alec gave a low rumble of delight. "You'll need to set glamours in the water," he said, in consideration. "That much blood would cause a-"

"Call up something from the deep. Purify it. Whatever is trying to get in—you're sure it's coming from the South Shoreside?"

"Yes," Alec said, firmly. "Closest side to Earth 'portals. I wouldn't have mentioned it otherwise."

"The only thing capable of breaching a thinned water veil is an undead creature with curses heaped upon its sorry corpse."

"This one was alive."

"But you didn't have the chance to check it for curses, did you?"


"So it could've been cursed or that could be what they are smuggling, hm?"

Alec pressed his webbed fingers deep into the cushions to see the water seep over them. "What they were doing was not good."

"As opposed to being what? Bad? It's never that simple. You know it isn't."

" king, I don't mean to-"

"Spit it out," King Alcandor grumbled.

"You don't think—Tavit?" Alec's lip curled, showing his gleaming fangs. "If they smuggle them through and reanimate them, then that would be a problem, wouldn't it?"

"Well, it certainly wouldn't be an improvement." King Alcandor didn't bother to temper the sarcasm. "Tavit lives by his own rules. Did you sense his magic?"

"Not on shore. What I discovered was on shore and what was in the water was—I did not sense him directly, but he is a powerful being capable of-"

"That familiar of his is more dangerous."

"She is no mere familiar."

King Alcandor sighed, tiredly. He rubbed at his forehead and took up pacing the length of the room, his deep blue eyes growing darker with each stride. His long sleek mane of hair grew heavy and water-logged with each step. "I'll speak to him," he said, at last. "But the breach—we cannot afford to let anything in now."

"I know." Alec watched him pace from one end of the room to the other. "...will you notify the council?"

"Do you want me to?"

"Kesmar, no! The bloody gossips will turn the entire thing into a bloodbath because you're not there to tell them otherwise. We don't need that kind of complication-!"

"Then we won't. Granted, if you make a mess of things, there won't be any point to keeping this quiet."

"I won't."

"See that you don't."

Alec made a grumbling sound next and kicked his feet against the chair. "I can't believe I'm chasing down your headaches. This is supposed to be a Hunt!"

"Tell that to the intruders. It's not like I asked them to pick the most inconvenient time to make a nuisance of themselves. Besides, you never told me you were formally courting."

A dark flush dusted across Alec's face. "Because I'm not!" He snarled. "Stop that."

"I didn't even ask." King Alcandor smirked. "But if you're going to protest so-"

"I don't want to hear any of your ridiculous theories on my-"

"You should put some effort into it. I'm sure your—choice—will find you to be refreshing."

Alec bristled. His finned ears flared out in anger. "And I'll thank you to remember that who and what I choose to-"

"You're only this cranky because you aren't-"

Alec sat bolt upright. "Kieran," he muttered, straightening up. "Kesmar. I am not talking to him—or you! Get in the bath. I'll report back after I've found something more substantial. Don't you dare summon me before then or I will make sure to-!"

"Go!" King Alcandor sprinted across the room and disappeared into the bathroom. The door had just snicked shut when two perfunctory knocks sounded on the bedroom door.

"Your majesty?" Kieran's dour voice floated through. "A word? There are some complications that need to be—handled."

Alec shrank back in the chair, feet drawn up. If he didn't move from there, he couldn't possibly be seen, unless Kieran decided to circle around the chair, but there was a distinct possibly that would happen. His eyes darted frantically around the room and decor within reach.

Aha! A vase-!

Eyes burned blue, then bright-white-hot, before Alec shifted. From a solid form to sparkling cerulean liquid, he streaked from the chair, to the vase, absorbing the pure water there. His consciousness stretched and blurred, until he could pull on the fragmented ends of the 'portal that had brought him here in the first place.

His liquid form streaked through the waterways built into the Royal building, desperately seeking an outlet that was not spell-guarded or otherwise warded.

Alec spilled out on the hard rock drain on the backside of the building. His form shifted and twisted, until he could shapeshift back to his two-legged landwalking self. He coughed and gasped, grimacing at the slight tinge of darkness to his teal skin.

The waterways needed to be cleaned again. He'd have to mention it to someone.

But at least he was out. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Kieran before he had better evidence to show for the mess they were about to make.

Thin waves of dizziness washed over him as he stumbled away from the drain and towards one of the secluded walkways crisscrossing along the rear of the Royal Section. A few privacy and invisibility spells knitted together, kept him safe from prying eyes and potential lurkers. Alec rubbed at his neck and temples for a moment.

He'd have to replace the flowers. The water-blossoms were too specific to be a generic decoration, which meant they were specifically for the King.

Only one person would send those and only to King Alcandor. Alec grimaced. Kesmar. Maybe he'd just send a new arrangement with his next update. Grumbling to himself, he picked his way through the dimly lit streets and shadowed corners, until he was within sight of the Merrow Waters again.

The request wasn't impossible, just—complicated and troublesome. He was never coming back to the surface when this entire mess was over!


"Harry, what do you think Empathy is for?" Maury seemed to settle in even more, his smile still radiating a soft, gentle aura.

The question was deceptively simple and Harry made himself think about it, before answering. The more he thought of it, the harder it was to narrow it down. He finally settled on a simple definition. "Feeling compassion. To make better decisions."

Maury gave a slow nod. "Those are definitely good points, but not what I'm getting at. Empathy, especially the kind that we have, is a very specific kind of gift. It lets you help people in a way that others can't."

Harry felt his throat tighten, even as a flare of hope curled in his belly. "How could you possibly-?"

"Besides the obvious cues for cheering someone up, calming them down or persuading them to see your point of view, Empathy demands emotion. It pulls on your emotions and the ones that you're reading. It asks you to find out why or how, though sometimes that's harder to control at the start than you might think."

"It's all hard right now," Harry said, honestly. "I-I don't know how to control any of it. I want to. I want to use it for—I want to use it. Not just have it and feel so useless with it. Sometimes I end up feeling things at the worst possible time. Other times, I don't even know what I'm feeling. I don't know what's real!"

"Just because you're feeling more emotions than you're used to or someone else's emotions, doesn't mean they aren't real, Harry." Maury hummed. "Emotions are real and valid. You will feel more than you ever have before and that's perfectly normal. In fact, I'd encourage you to identify what you feel when it seems like you're losing yourself. If it's too overwhelming or confusing, take the time to identify why and how."

"But how do I do that? I've never had to before."

"Identify three emotions—or, three things you can say you are feeling right in the moment."

Harry's brow furrowed. "Like—now?"

"Yes. Tell me three things you're feeling right now."

"Confused. Relieved." Harry bit his lip. His eyes grew shiny. "…grateful."

Maury's smile was warm and comforting. "Wonderfully done. That's a simple and easy exercise whenever you think it's all too much. Slow down. Stop yourself. Identify what you are feeling, hm?"

Harry's ears warmed at the praise. "I'll try," he said.

"That's all I ask of you. Now, the first lesson of any kind of empathy usage is blocking. You want to be able to block out unwanted emotions or overwhelming ones, so you aren't forced to react to them. Usually the second lesson is about separation. First, you learn how to block and then you learn what to block. They blend together."

"...would you tell me how to do it?"

"Of course. That's exactly why I'm here."

Harry took a shuddering breath. He was almost afraid that this was a terrible kind of dream reality, because it seemed so easy. It'd never occurred to him that perhaps, his missing mentor was someone who was thrilled to simply be there to help him.

"The first thing you have to do is focus inward—and before you worry, yes, you can try this while we're here. Mindscape is still reality, just a different side to it, yes?"

Harry nodded, quickly. "What does focusing inward mean? How do I do it? What if I can't do it-"

"You can do it," Maury said, easily. "I know you can. Focusing inward means slowing yourself down. Empathic gifts can run away with you, if you aren't used to that kind of external input. Your sense of self-awareness will increase exponentially as you practice and grow in this. It'll be almost impossible to ignore, which means you might find yourself reacting quite differently to things in the future, then you did in the past. This is why identifying three emotions can help you to narrow things down. It lets you narrow your focus to things you can control. Because if you know what you're feeling, you will know how to react to it in a way that is beneficial to yourself and those around you."

Another careful nod was all that Harry could muster. He was practically vibrating with intensity. For all that everyone had explained and praised his Empathic gift, no one had actually told him how to use it nor explained what he was supposed to do with it!

Maury was—just what he needed.

A flicker of fondness washed over him. Harry's face warmed. He swallowed hard, hoping he hadn't somehow created some sort of emotion and shoved it into nothingness.

"That was my doing," Maury said, lips twitching. "You're adorable."

Harry ducked his head, well-aware that his face was definitely a bright, flaming red. "Oret-!" the protest slipped out, but it was half-hearted at best.

Maury's smile didn't waver. "You are," he said, quietly. "I always wished for a child, but that was not something gifted to my Circle. We were not any less for it, of course, but it was a hope that I held until my final moments." He beckoned Harry closer. "When you wake up from this, I want you to try and write some of it down somewhere. Or make a copy of the memory so you can sift through it again, if you ever have need to, alright?"

Harry twitched. "What if I don't remember?"

"You'll remember."

"W-what if I don't?"

"Then I'll remind you. I'll most certainly remember. Just because we're here in the in-between doesn't mean that my Caspered self is clueless to what's happening. I am here for you. Rest assured in that."

Harry huffed. "Alright." He twisted his hands together, waiting.

"Empaths help people. This might mean reaching out to those who are trapped in unsavoury mindscapes, those who are lost on a different plane of existence or even a child who might be unable to communicate their needs clearly. Empathy has many different forms and applications. The most common and easiest to master is to read a room and narrow down any differing opinions to specific individuals."

"Can't you do that with magic though?" Harry wanted to know. "Intent. The intent behind magic is important, so wouldn't it work better to read the magic?"

A flicker of sadness danced across Maury's face. "I'm sorry you had to learn about it that way," he said. "Not everyone learns to read magic because they know what evil intent feels like."

Harry shuddered. "Ugly," he said, hollowly. "It feels—ugly."

"It's an emptiness. A void. A hungry void that only consumes more and more, the longer it exists. It isn't meant to be good or beautiful. But even with intent, you can intend to mean well, but secretly hate being ordered to do something to the point that you will more than self-sabotage to wrangle a different result. Reading magical intent is the surface, so to speak and reading genuine intention via Empathy is filtering through the deeper waters to see what's really under there. Does that make sense?"

A slight shrug was the best Harry could muster.

"It goes beyond magic, because while magic is pure energy, Empathy is pure emotion and that comes from an entirely different place. Think about it for now and if you need me to break down into something else, I will. I think you'll wrap your head around it in a bit. Now, focusing inward. That's fancy-speak for saying focus on the present moment. It's a quick way to ground yourself and get out of your head so you aren't locked into a feedback loop."

"But how do I do that?"

"Let's try it," Maury said, easily. "You should be able to get a reading off of this, though it might be muted. Very muted. First, ask yourself what the temperature is where you are. Are you hot, cold, warm, or almost comfortable? Check your limbs and wings—even when they're folded back, you can feel them. Start from your toes and mentally work your way up to the crown of your head and the tips of your wings. You might not be able to go into great detail at first, just an overall sense of wellbeing, but you'll reach a point where you can pinpoint each joint and appendage."

"Why?" Harry asked, his voice small.

"You're checking in with yourself to make sure there's no pain or strain. Instead of relying on outward appearances or someone else's observations or opinions, you're going straight to the source. Ask if you're tired, hungry or angry. Sometimes we hold tension in our bodies without realizing it, other times we might be clenching our jaw or grinding our fangs—an unintended posturing that isn't always necessary."

"What does it do? The jaw-clenching, fang-grinding?" Harry bit his lip. "Is it a nervous tell or—what does it mean?"

"Most of the time it means annoyance or restraint," Maury explained. "If you're annoyed, your jaw might clench, it gives your face a slightly more severe look and broadcasts that you're less-than-happy with your current spot. Grinding your fangs is a bit of movement, dominant ranks will be hyper-aware of that, because on an Alpha, it's a split-second before they attack, defend or reprimand."

Harry winced. "...Oret?"


"H-how much power do Alphas have?"

"As much as you give them," Maury said, easily. "It's a matter of choice. Your submission isn't something that is guaranteed, but rather a consistent choice that is to be appreciated and acknowledged. In the same vein, they return the sentiment to you. The same for your Beta. That's how a triad is formed. There's a part of you that says, I trust this person with my vulnerability and then when they reciprocate, you prove that their trust is not misplaced. It's different for everyone and it's a very delicate shifting of authority and responsibility. That is true for all of your Bonded, it's simply more noticeable for triads."

Turning the idea over in his head, Harry mulled on it for a while. He was glad that Maury didn't rush him, but rather waited patiently for him to sort and gather his thoughts into something that he could better understand.

An unexpected jolt of fear zinged through him. His mind helpfully dredged up two very specific memories. The warmth of Theo's lips close to his ear, his body close enough to touch, his words deceptively light—but the meaning quite heavy.

Theo had counted. He'd specifically counted from one, to two and that left—Harry barely suppressed a shudder. He'd done a great job of not thinking about it for a long while.

Conflicting feelings twisted inside of him. He trusted Theo, but at the same time there was a sense of something going wrong that wasn't quite right. Theo knew a lot about him now. Knew some of what he'd been through, more than Harry had ever shared with others before.

The memory of Theo's reactions to hearing about the Dursleys' and the adventures at Hogwarts was strangely heart-warming. Of course, he knew there was nothing to fear from him. Not from Theo. Not his Theo.

It wasn't just instinct telling him that, because deep down in his very bones, he could feel the thrum of honesty. Another memory resurfaced, unbidden, the moment in the Snape-Baronsworth apartment where Theo, exasperated had suggested that Harry write an apology letter, if it would help.

Or maybe it was just a regular letter.

Harry bit his lip. It was kind of hard to remember, but he needed to do it soon. He didn't want Theo upset with him. He didn't like it when Theo was upset or stressed, though it seemed like that was all they'd been since arriving in Nevarah.

No—wait. That wasn't right either. He'd upset Theo even before they'd set foot in another realm. In the Burrow, in front of Dumbledore. Harry fought the urge to scowl. He wouldn't have really snapped at Theo then, knowing what he did now—it was just the feeling of helplessness.

Of watching his life and future being taken from his hands and shaped to someone else's liking. At the time, he hadn't known that Theo would've been putting up a front. A brave front, but a front nonetheless.

Theo most certainly would've addressed it in private or at least found a better way to explain himself than simply warning him off. Harry shivered, even though it seemed impossible to feel a chill in this strange space.

It's Dumbledore's fault... the thought scrolled idly through his head. Harry stiffened. Maury's earlier words warred for acceptance inside of him. The thought that he could choose his own future and not have to subscribe to what people expected of him.

Oh, he did like that, but it was still a strange sort of hope to reach for. A different existence than he'd ever considered for himself. The faint flicker of fear still lurked at the back of his swirling thoughts and before he could talk himself out of it, Harry made up his mind to at least ask. It couldn't hurt.

"Alright," he said, finally.

Maury's lips twitched in that familiar way. "What was it that I said?"

A slight squirm gave away Harry's embarrassment. He spoke up after a beat, realizing that Maury had no qualms about waiting out his awkwardness. "You said attack, defend and-"

"Reprimand. Ah. Are you in trouble with your Alpha, Harry?" There was a slightly teasing lilt to Maury's tone as his eyes shimmered merrily. "He didn't seem upset with you when I saw him. Exasperated, perhaps, but not upset. He worries too much. He will go grey before his time. You should remind him to take breaks often. Take a few of those breaks with him and he'll eventually work it out on his own. There's no need for you to work yourselves to the bone. You have plenty of helpers willing to step forward."

A low groan came from Harry's throat. "H-he warned me once that we shouldn't get to three. I'm at—two. I don't like it."

"Three whats?"

Harry shrugged. "I don't know? I wasn't trying to push him or anything. It was just that sometimes, I felt smothered. Like he wasn't listening and he just wanted me to do whatever he wanted so things would work out perfectly."

"In front of a crowd or in private?"

"Does it matter?"

"To an Alpha's ego, yes. It's a pride thing. They don't want their authority to seem—challenged or diminished by the one rank that is supposed to support them. An obvious divide between Alpha and Submissive is usually a blatant sign that there's unbearable strife lurking beneath the surface. It's also a more subtle way for distressed Submissives to draw the attention of a more dominant friend or family member, to have themselves removed from the situation."

Harry's jaw dropped. "But how would I possibly know that?"

"Instinct," Maury said, a touch ruefully. "And explanations from your Sire, Bearer or Third. Or me. It isn't a formal thing to learn, but say for instance, you were acting out in public when you're normally very much in tune with your respective Alpha, it's a subtle warning flag. Your parents, myself or a sibling would be the first ones to take you aside and inquire after your well-being and your Circle. Barring immediate family or a mentor, your closest friends or appointed godparents would try next. This isn't to say that you'd be meek or withdrawn, it's more, when you're comfortable with the dominant ranks in your immediate space, it shows. You might tease and push against your boundaries, but you would not cross them and you most certainly wouldn't do it in a place that might embarrass your Intended or Bondeds." His gaze turned knowing. "But that's not what you really want to know, is it?"

A slight tremor travelled through Harry's hands. He twisted them together again, almost helplessly. "We're already on two. I-I don't want to get to three. I never want to get to three," he said, fiercely.

"That's a lot of pressure on yourself," Maury observed. "And quite unnecessary too, I might add. Have you talked to your Theo about this?"

A sharp, quick shake of his head was the barest answer Harry could manage. His lips pressed tightly together as if not sure whether he could trust any words at all.

"If you aren't sure where to start, ask him for some time to discuss something private. It doesn't have to be your entire Circle. It can just be the two of you. It isn't something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. There's a lot of instinct there and some social pressure as well. See, you're trusting him to look out for you and your Circle in both body, mind and reputation. You're expecting him to tell you if something's wrong or out of line, so you can both learn from it. He's also expecting you to let him know if he's overstepping, if he's making your uncomfortable or if you're not safe enough."

His hands stilled in his lap. "What happens when it's—when it's too late?"

"That depends entirely on the dragel. Your Alpha isn't the only one with that kind of authority. It's a Circle. Reciprocal. You give it to each of your Bonded and they give it back to you in turn. A cycle of give and take. What happens between you, stays between you and is unique to each of your Bonded. If you're upset with him, he'll certainly come straight to you to work it out. Dominant ranks do not like to be in disfavour with their Submissives."

Maury studied him for a long, moment, then reached out to feather a hand through Harry's hair, the gesture almost reflexive in nature.

Harry leaned into the gesture, his eyes fluttering half-closed.

"Ryuusen would usually pin me to the nearest flat surface and bite directly over his claim mark," Maury said, lightly. "He'd make sure to dig his fangs in much deeper than is comfortable, to make his point. When I stopped fighting him, he'd release me. That was the way our dynamic worked."

"That's all?" Relief was evident in Harry's shining emerald eyes. "What about the rest of your Bonded? Did they—I mean—please?"

"My ACE Alcrowe, was a little more hands on. I'd get a swat or a flick, if I was being particularly stubborn, but usually as a means of getting my attention or making sure that I was listening to him. He'd bite my ear usually, to make his point. Rarely ever manipulated his mark. The Twins would have me wash dishes or run laps. Neither option was ever fun."

Harry's brow furrowed. A shadow seemed to pass over him.

"The rest of my Suite would have me polish armour or work through a set of spars with specific rules—like only two points of contact or no-single-strikes, that sort of thing. Llevan would give me paperwork and I'd have to attend a number of events as his escort. He always picked the most boring dinners and parties." Maury rolled his eyes, a fond expression on his face. "There's others, but the main point, Harry, is we talked about this. All of us. We knew what to expect from each other and where our boundaries were. They weren't trying to make me miserable; they were trying to keep me safe. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong. We learned together."

Harry curled in on himself miserably. There were old, angry, ugly memories in his head of the Dursleys and even older bits and pieces from being the weird kid in school. Dudley had never helped things by being the golden boy, his seeming perfection earning him a free pass through everything.

He flinched when a ghostly hand brushed along his arm. "S-sorry."

"You have nothing to apologize for," Maury said, simply. "Though I would like to ask a question and you do not have to answer it, if you do not wish to."

After a beat, Harry made a sound of agreement.

"Thank you. Are you worried Theo will hurt you?"

Harry started, violently. "He wouldn't!" he protested. "He won't!"

"Is that what you believe or is that what you trust?"

"I t-trust him," Harry managed.

"Then talk to him about this. Tell him how you feel. Tell him why you feel that way. From what you've told me, he does his best to understand you. Help him to understand you. If you're this worried, you shouldn't ignore that. Ask yourself why you're worried. What do you think will happen if you reach that awful three mark?"

"I-I don't know. I don't want to know," Harry whispered. It was too close to the Dursley's and the way they expected him to read their minds.

"Then that is what you need to find out. Harry, sometimes we build things up inside of our head to the point that it's practically unbearable only to discover sometime later, that it was practically harmless." He paused. "If you don't feel safe doing that or you're desperately worried, ask your Pareya to stay with you. They are incapable of deliberately physically harming you, so you will be safe, if that is a concern."

"Deliberate?" Harry stared him; his expression unreadable.

"Well, if they tackle you to the floor to get you out of the way of a stray curse, that would probably hurt, unless you're half-gorgon or half-gargoyle."

Harry blinked. That was news to him and his mind had instantly gone straight to the massive statues outside of Hogwarts. "What?"

"Focus," Maury said, easily. "We're talking about Empathy, how to access it through inward focus and then we took a side-trip into one aspect of dominant ranked inclinations. Every Alpha, Beta, Pareya—all ranks—are different. There may be some similarities, sure and maybe they're more obvious than others, maybe they overlap, but it's in the same way you are. You're different from me, though arguably we're both Submissives, Nameless, with an Empathic gift."

"Oh." Harry relaxed. The worry was still present in his face, but the tension was gradually draining away. "So—focusing inward?"

"Try it now. Take a little inventory of how you're feeling in this moment. Focusing on three emotions like before, is a good place to start."


Maury hummed in answer.

"...thank you."

Another familiar smile graced Maury's face. "Scared yourself?" he asked, gently.

Harry shrugged. "Kind of. How'd you know?"

Maury winked. "One of the first things most Empaths do when they start practicing their focus is looking a little too deeply inside of themselves before, they're ready for it. Sometimes it brings fears or worries to the surface, which is a good thing. Sometimes those things are larger and deeper than we expect and in the wrong company, that can be a bad thing. I would suggest you practice your focus when you wake, in private. I'll teach you a few grounding techniques before we're through, so you can use those in public, if you need to."

A grateful nod and smile came from Harry. "Thank you," he whispered. "So, Focus?"

"Once you're aware of everything happening to your physical body, you can move onto your magical one. When you're at peace with yourself and your magic is balanced, the internal harmony spills over into other aspects of your life. You might feel lighter, more graceful, a sense of inner strength or reinforced intuition—basically, you know you can take care of yourself and whatever happens to you and it reassures a very specific need in your soul."

"What happens if I'm not—like that?"

"That's where the realignment cycle comes in." Maury tugged Harry over to his side again, as if he couldn't help but want to keep Harry cuddled close to him.

"I thought it was just for bonding? Or fixing my magic?" Harry frowned. "Ethan and Terius tried to help me count it? I-I don't—I didn't really understand it."

"It can be confusing," Maury agreed. "And it is a bit of an unusual concept, if you've never thought about things in that way before."

"What other way would I look at it?" Harry's brows remained furrowed in a straight line.

"Well, some magical creatures have mating cycles," Maury explained. "Or specific rituals that play to their instincts and needs. For us dragels, because of the sheer amount of energy that runs through us and the depth of our magic, regardless of element, we have realignment cycles."

Harry snuggled closer, working to wrap his head around the thought more securely than the first time when he'd heard of it. He supposed Maury made some kind of sense, especially when he remembered the first thrill of entering Nevarah and the overwhelming possibilities that had rushed through him at the thought of knowing just how much magic was at his disposal. It'd only grown since adding Charlie and Ethan.

"First off, as you use your magic, it concentrates on various points in your body. Excessive use of a focus object might weigh on your limbs or your vital organs, since they would be the most likely pockets of internal energy storage. Think of wild magic in this case. Wild magic has no set anchor, it latches on to what you give it. So, if you need magic in a hurry and you call it without purpose, it may answer by going straight to your heart. If you're boosting a spell and you're directing the excess there, it might pool in your gut or settle in your feet. Energy goes where directed. Energy is magic."

"So, realigning makes it reset?"

"Yes—that's one way of looking at it. You could also say it's a redistribution of energy."

"What happens when I don't realign?"

"You get cranky," Maury said, amused. "And other symptoms. But mostly, you start to lose control of yourself and your magic. Because you aren't balanced enough to keep yourself together. Your Bonded will in turn become unbalanced trying to figure out how to help or soothe you and it'll set them on edge. You'll all end up out of sorts if you fight a realignment period. It creeps up on you if you aren't tracking it." He paused. "If you're unbonded and away from your family or trusted friends, this is where the madness might set in. You start to lose control and things turn ugly very quickly."

"Why?" Harry asked, his tone painfully young. "Isn't there any way around that?"

"No," Maury said, simply. "Connection is important, no matter who you are or where you are. For us dragels, it's vital. One reason we crave having a Circle or a circle-sort of support system is for that very reason. Intent is a powerful thing, but so is reality. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with this kind of magic, Harry. It's strong. It can destroy you, your world or a realm, if you're not careful. That's how powerful it is. That's how far it reaches. It's a lot to take in, sometimes. We seek out others for many reasons, companionship being one of them. But we also seek to share that burden. That invisible weight."

Harry's shoulders hunched forward. That seemed like far more responsibility than he wanted. "And there's no way around it?"

"Look at it this way, if you gave a warrior a powerful sword and they decided they didn't have to practice anymore, because they have such a powerful sword, how would you feel?"

"...worried? Upset?"

"Probably both. You'd be worried that you made the wrong choice and upset that they are treating your gift so irresponsibly. You might expect them to self-destruct or become a danger to those around them, if not stumble onto a path leading to an early death. But if you give that same sword to a warrior who adds it to their training regimen and makes sure to take the very best care of it, which warrior would you choose, if your life was on the line?"

"The one who trained."

"Exactly. Using your magic, paying attention to it and making sure you're in harmony with it, yourself and your Circle, is important. You can't help others if you don't help yourself first. That's the first rule of being an Empath. No matter what else I teach you, I want you to always remember that."

A warm fluttery feeling curled through Harry. "I can't help others if I don't help myself first," he repeated, half to himself. "The realignment thing varies though, right?"

"It's pretty simple. The length and duration vary depending on the number of Bonded, your magical strength, your combined magical strength and how off-kilter you might be. You can force it through some very specific spells, but it's not advised. It might have various side effects too, like excessive lethargy or extreme clinginess. That fades as everything resettles, but it might also prolong your next cycle."

"Seems—excessive," Harry admitted, at last. "All of that just to sleep?"

"Your body basically hibernates while the rest of you heals, repairs and rewires itself. Kind of like a maintenance cycle," Maury said, fighting a smile. "Sleep is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. Good sleep habits usually mean an easier realignment, because you won't be that off-balance." He tapped Harry's forehead. "So, stick to a bedtime routine, alright? It's also grounding for your Bonded, because they'll tend to gather around you."


"You are catching on quick," Maury said, pleased. "Yes. Instinct and eventually, personal preference. Your Gheyos will usually hover around you for the time leading up to the cycle. They'll look for the safest place they can find around you and they'll get overprotective, expecting you to fall asleep on your feet at any minute. That's highly unlikely, but it has happened before. Once you're settled, along with your Alpha and Beta, they'll gather around you and be within arm's reach or wingspan. In the meantime, your Pareya will be gearing up on high-alert. They want to know their surroundings intimately and their magic may be more volatile, depending on what kind of threats they envision. They'll keep watch the entire time you rest. Some might not move more than to call their wings out and simply wait."

Harry's expression morphed to one of shock and slightly horrified fascination. "Isn't that—?" his voice came out strangled.

"They are reacting to the Gheyos being unavailable and trying to ensure that they also have a safe place to rest. The moment you all wake, once the ACE and King are up, the Pareyas will snap out of it, so to speak. They're usually incredibly drained after keeping guard, but they won't rest until you eat, sometimes your Alpha too—and then they'll return to the space for their turn. They won't sleep until your Gheyo Suite is guarding them. They won't trust sleep unless they know they are safe beyond a doubt. Depending on how well the realignment went, they may sleep longer or shorter than the rest of you."

"What happens when they wake up?"

"You feel it. Everything settles. You breathe easier. Your Bonded gravitate towards each other with ease. There's less bickering, if any, and a lot of intuitive connection. You know what they want, instinctively and they know it too. It's a very private period for most Circles. If you have children, they'll sleep through both parts. They won't wake until your Pareya are settled again. This reduces strain on ranks and also allows that soft period of re-connection. Sometimes, friends might start to sync up with each other. It's quite common for friends to take turns cycling through their realignment, but in a way that there's always one or two Circles available and guarding, just in case."

"Mine was forced forward," Harry said, quietly. "Remember what happened at the Healers? Did I tell you, already?"

"I'd love to hear it."

"Well, it's not much to tell, but when we first came through, Theo was worried about me. He wanted us to visit the Healers as soon as possible, especially after Ilsa removed Charlie's seals..."


Theo stirred faintly from sleeping to wakefulness with all the grace of a newborn creature. His limbs were heavy and uncoordinated, his body aching terribly all over. Sleep hadn't done him any good at all.

No. Sleep without Harry had done him no good at all.

A sharp pang of disgruntlement settled over him like a mantle. If this was what he had to expect from the coming days, it would suck. Terribly.

The burning strip of warmth along his left side was soothing and reassuring in a way he hadn't expected from Charlie. Ethan was gone, presumably to check on Harry and so Theo allowed himself to relax into the moment, willing his exhaustion to leave, so he could convince himself to function properly for the day.

He sighed. Loudly.

Charlie didn't even move.

It was only when Theo turned to his left, expecting to see red hair and sleepy blue eyes, that he went from half-asleep to wide-awake in an instant.

Blond hair, pale skin and the softest of snores made up one fast-asleep Quinn Kalzik.

Theo choked, freezing in place. He did not remember Quinn snuggling up to his side, though a tiny part of him was relieved that he'd taken them up on the offer to join them. To sleep. Not cuddle.

This was unexpected.

Quinn's aura was soft and light, blanketing over him protectively. His face had smoothed out in sleep, golden earrings gleaming from beneath tufts of soft blond hair. There were hints of tiredness at the corners of his eyes and the slackness in his limbs, despite the fact that he was plastered to Theo's side.

Uneasiness and relief twined through him until Theo finally shoved it aside, as his usual logic returned to him. It was just a cuddle. It didn't necessarily mean anything, though it had caught him off-guard. Charlie was apparently off somewhere, like Ethan and for whatever reason, both of his Bonded had left him, most likely thinking that he needed the extra rest.

It wasn't too far of a stretch.

The question was how Quinn had gotten so close without tripping any of his usual instincts and the fact that he was all but half-smothering Theo without the slightest bit of hesitation. As if it was perfectly normal to cuddle up to random guests in the night.

Theo stifled a groan. Alright. He wasn't a random guest, but it left him conflicted now as he cautiously tried to ease out from under Quinn's vise-like grip. For a sleeping man, Quinn had the grip and weight of a wide-awake Hippogriff and something else.

Right. He had no idea what the something else was, but his traitorous mind cheered happily at the thought that if he bonded to Quinn, Harry would most likely enjoy the best cuddles in all the realms for the rest of his life.

He bit back another groan. It was too early for this kind of thing. He absolutely should not be thinking down this direction in this moment. His Brindus bonds tingled faintly, a hint that Ilsa was reaching out to him from somewhere nearby. Brows furrowed; Theo focused on them long enough to send a tendril of inquiry.

No response filtered through straightaway, but the contact was enough for him to start to untangle himself from Quinn in earnest. Exasperation replaced embarrassment as Theo realized that a sleeping Quinn was in no mood to be displaced.

Lips quirked, faintly, before Theo leaned over, cautiously. He nuzzled Quinn's shoulder, expanding his aura just enough to press against Quinn's in a gentle nudge of authority. Quinn had stayed up later than he had and from the soft, whuffling snores, he figured the Healer could use some extra rest.

Quinn twitched, faintly.

Repeating the gesture, Theo waited, hiding a small smile when Quinn's reaction was exactly what he'd hoped for. Withdrawing with a sleepy yawn, Quinn rolled over to his other side, leaving Theo free and clear to start his day.

Easing out from under the blankets, Theo tucked them back in around Quinn's shoulders, unable to help the impulse. He noted that Ethan or Charlie had packed up two strips of the bedding and stashed them on one of the couches.

Quinn was halfway between his bedroll and the spare one, so Theo left him to it. He wandered out into the hallway, reaching out into his bonds to check on each of his Bonded.

Soft flickers of pleasure and contentment danced through from Charlie and Ethan, which made him smile as he figured out what they were up to. They were bonding nicely, from the feel of things and he was happy to know it.

Harry's bond remained muted and faint, but Theo relaxed upon entering their bedroom. In the same position as the day before, Harry slept on, healing energies visibly swirling over him in protective waves. It looked as if Quinn had cast an extra spell of some sort to monitor Harry's progress, because a continual readout of his vitals scrolled through a holographic cube resting on the nightstand.

Theo squinted down at the glowing letters and took note of the timestamps and readouts. It seemed Harry had slept well through the night without any issues. The spell declared him to be a third of the way healed up.

"Good morning, my treasure," Theo murmured. He skimmed his magic lightly along the surface of the healing spell. When there was no reaction, he leaned down to press a kiss to Harry's forehead. "Sleep well? I missed you." He added another kiss for good measure. "Keep resting and healing. You are safe and in excellent care."

A flicker of urgency came through his Brindus bonds and Theo straightened up. Ilsa was even closer than before now. He hesitated, briefly, then sighed and spelled a fresh change of clothes onto his person.

If Ilsa was coming to see him, then it was best that he went out to meet her. There was no telling what the reason was for, but he hoped it was good news. Pausing in front of the small vanity set, he rushed through his usual personal spells, slicking back his hair as the final touch.

The dress robes were the same ones he'd worn on the first day of the Hunt and now, he tugged at the stiff cuffs and gleaming buttons. He'd have to make sure to order another set of clothes sometime soon—something that now included Ethan—with the same style and colour combination.

Ilsa waited for him at a shadowed spot in the far corner of the front of the Kalzik guesthouse property. She was braced against one of the well-tended herbal trees, half-hidden by the tall greenery.

It was only because he knew what to look for—and feel for—that he picked her out at once. From the wary look in her golden eyes, she didn't want to stay there for their little chat.

"Where to?" he murmured, drawing near.

Her lips twitched into a near-smile. Tiredness shone in the darkened corners of her eyes and the set of her shoulders, but a relaxed air hung around her instead of the tension and worry that he'd expected. It seemed that she was settling back into usual self and he liked that.

He followed her to a point where everything seemed to twist and rearrange, before the sky fell dark and a velvet swirl of rich purple surrounded them on all sides. Shades of darkness gathered in the corners, as the Voidspace settled itself around them, casting a sprinkle of glittering stars overhead to provide a focal point.

Theo relaxed, a fraction. "Is it safe to be here?" he dared to ask.

"Perhaps not," Ilsa said, slowly. "But Aracle spoils me, so here I am." She caught Theo's chin, quickly, when he tried to look around. "Don't look for him. He's here. Trust me on that."

Theo swallowed. He managed a tiny nod and dropped his gaze when her hand fell away. "Has something happened?"

"A great many things have happened," Ilsa said, wearily. "I hardly know which side to begin explaining. You haven't eaten yet, have you?"

"That depends on what you're offering," Theo teased. He shuffled closer for the one-armed hug that he knew would come. It did.

Ilsa squeezed his shoulders, gently. "You look a little ruffled," she murmured. Moving easily through the Voidspace, she focused long enough to visualize a patch of soft, clean grass. A blanket materialized a beat later, followed by a neatly packed breakfast basket.

They settled within reach of the basket and helped themselves to the various foodstuffs within. Theo made no complaint as Ilsa filled his plate twice as she brought him up to speed on how things fared at present.

", it's certain?" Theo said, at last. He'd guessed as much when they'd been shuffled off to the Peverells.

"Very much so." Ilsa sipped at a cup of hot tea. It soothed her soul, just barely. "But that's our problem and it shouldn't concern you nor affect you and yours in any way. I only want you to be aware of what's happening, just in case something should happen."

"Alright," Theo murmured. "I am glad things will work out."

Ilsa flashed a grin, more fang than lip. "You don't remember it well, because they were unhappy before you arrived, but made an effort for the sake of the children. The Twins really do work well together, especially united against a common foe. With Ithycar here to back them, they will happily scheme away to their hearts' content and the results will be quite satisfactory to our end, yours included. They've accepted him in the same way they did you."

Theo nearly smiled. He could picture that easily. "The incident on the rooftop-"

"Handled," Ilsa said, crisply. "And on Bahn's behalf, I apologize. He did not expect it to turn so quickly in the other direction and his reaction was slightly off. Because it was a public incident, there will likely be some monetary compensation for it as well. Would you like it? I could have it all directed to Harry by your request."

"We would not refuse it." Theo held out his empty teacup. "Thank you."

Ilsa refilled it with a flick of her fingers. "Good. I also apologize about the beach house. It seems you've all been displaced for the sake of our drama and I really did not mean for your first return to Nevarah to be so-"

"You've done more than enough for us and you're still helping. I know you are. There's really nothing to be apologizing for. The Kalziks are very kind," Theo said, simply. "They don't mind our staying in one of their recovery cabins."

"Generous, but you can't stay there forever. You need to make time to view available properties or even tour a few estates. You might find something you like, even if you aren't sure about your numbers or settling. As much as I would suggest taking your Harry with you, it's fine to check some of it out without him. You can let him know what you found and anything that you feel he might like, you can visit it together when he wakes. Be productive. He deserves a place to put down roots and you'll all be better off for it."

"It won't be military," Theo said, quickly. "Obviously."

Ilsa smirked. "And it can't be a Pareyic coven, given how long it took you to bring your first Pareya on board."

"It's hardly that long-" Theo began. He stopped. His face flushed. He took a sip of tea. "It isn't that long."

"I didn't say it that way," Ilsa said, taking a sip of tea to hide her grin. "We have more Pareya, almost, than we know what to do with, but there's enough children to keep them busy and the ranks balanced enough. Together, we have enough Gheyos and other ranks. What I am here for though, is this." She handed over the official summons letter. "Are you aware of this and if not, did you have any idea?"

Theo frowned. He took the letter and skimmed the contents with golden eyes that grew steadily darker. "When did this arrive? We haven't received anything of the sort. I haven't, at least."

"I see. You should receive one or more soon. This one arrived this morning. I know I've asked you this before, already but-"

"It's fine," Theo said, quietly. He handed the letter back. "The answer's still the same. Yes and no. He flinches, sometimes and then he has moments like our bonding night. Where it's almost as if he can't get all the words out fast enough. They were cruel to him, Oretta. Unmistakably cruel."

Ilsa took a deep breath. Her shoulders quivered for the briefest of seconds, before her posture straightened once more. "I knew that much, at least. Did you ever meet his family?"

"No. I am under the impression that he would give anything to keep us from meeting them. He was so relieved when he was allowed to stay with the Weasleys, for fear of dragging muggles into magical affairs."

"They are magical," Ilsa said, slowly. "His aunt must be, at the very least. There's no way he would be dragel, if she wasn't. They are blood relatives. ."

"But if she was, what does that say of her? How could she treat him so poorly? It wasn't a one-time thing or a few lapses in judgement through the years!"

Ilsa's pained expression held a mother's sorrow. "I make no excuses for her whatsoever, but suppression seals are tricky things. You know the kinds that I use, paired with the Brindus bonds to keep the body and mind sound, instead of one deteriorating over another. Madness is always an option in the face of truths you don't want to acknowledge. It's very likely the one who cast the seals wasn't as experienced in the art as they should've been. Many pay the price when that is the case."

Theo suppressed a shudder. "And instinct wouldn't come into play at all?"

"If it did, possibly it manifested as a very warped sense of entitlement or exaggerated dislike. Intended love, Theo, walks that fine line between pure love and pure hate. The difference is that you love without needing a reason and that same freedom can be twisted into hating without reason. If she was sealed before his birth and therefore had no reason to love him—no family obligation as instinct would demand—then there would be precious little to keep her from-"

"From abusing him? She would choose madness over family? Over a brighter future?" Theo shuddered. "Harry's not a—he tried so hard to please them, Oretta. Over and over again. I knew so little of him when I was at Hogwarts and even now, I'm still learning of him. What he needs, what he wants and all the secret little sides of himself that he doesn't show. I don't know what else to do but love him through it and that barely feels like enough!"

Ilsa's expression softened. "That is all we ever can do for our Bonded," she murmured. "To continue to strive to see them for who they truly are and accept them that way. Meeting them in the middle. Loving them with our whole hearts. That is the beauty of a Circle and trust me, you do love him enough. More than enough. You only have to make sure that he knows that. Tell him, show him, remind him that you chose him and you will continue to do so for the rest of your lives."

Theo took a shuddering breath. "So, one twisted seal ruins several lives in a single instance and that's it?"

"Magic is not an infallible medium, Theo. You know this. There are a thousand nuances to every spell, charm or curse. Seal magic alone is almost as specific as runes. If someone else cast it and she didn't know, that's an extra layer of control over her. A seal like that could feed off of multiple points. If she was so desperately out of tune with her own soul that she couldn't fathom the presence or possibility of a seal, there's no telling how twisted it really could be. There's too many variables at play."

"But would it warp enough for her to willingly hurt him?" Pain shone in his now hazel-hued eyes. "Why, Oretta? Why would anyone-?" He faltered.

She reached for him, slowly. Tucking him against her side with one strong, tanned arm. "Some say power, greed or jealousy. Some say it's the void inside of all of us. The darkness that we never truly confront, being drawn out of us and the end result being the very worst of what we have to offer. There's many ways it could've gone. There's no telling why one option was engaged over another."

"It has to hurt. It can't be painless." Theo pressed his palms to his eyes, willing the pressure to ground him. Thinking through this made his head and his heart hurt.

"Of course, it does. Fear and pain are often the root of many things. A lack of love, not necessarily. Love is given, but if it is not received, then the one missing it may think it was never offered at all. That does not excuse despicable behaviour, but sometimes, it is enough to calm our desperate minds, so we can continue on. Madness comes for everyone in one form or another. It is up to our strength of spirit as to whether we resist."

Theo shuddered. "I hope I resist always."

"You have someone to love whole-heartedly and that love is returned tenfold. You need not worry." Her golden eyes shone brightly.

"I cannot help that."

"Indeed, but there is peace to be found, if you wish it. Do not worry yourself into a panic. You will need your wits about you. There will likely be more than one court appointment, considering the nature and topic of the summons. You should prepare all of them as much as you can even before Harry wakes. I fear you won't have much time, but I'll see about having things delayed until he is conscious. In the meantime, make sure Charlie and Ethan understand what's happening. Tell them everything you can. Ethan may prove himself useful, if he knows the entire story, so if you haven't explained it all to him, do so at your earliest convenience. You all need to be on the same page."

Theo nodded, slowly. He'd figured that much out on his own, already. "Is it terrible of me to want a blood price?"

"Not in the least," Ilsa murmured. "You are only reacting as you feel."

"As his Alpha, you mean. There's only rage left, Oretta. It urges me to seek and destroy. I try to think of it as his family and all I can hear is the way they treated him. That no family that treated him so horribly is any kind of family at all. Then all I can see is the way Harry spoke of them so calmly and plainly, almost as if he thought we wouldn't believe him. As if it was normal."

"If you don't know how deep love can run, Theo, it would seem normal, wouldn't it? If all you had were scraps of love or instances that you perceived to be filled with kindness or affection, you wouldn't know it's wrong, because you wouldn't have anything to compare it to."

Theo made a soft sound in his throat. This was too close to his own unhappy childhood and he did not want to delve too deeply into that now. It'd taken a great deal of Ilsa's care to give him the security and strength he had now. To give him something better, healthier, to mirror to Harry and his Bonded. "I just don't want him to be hurt again, if I can help it."

"Admirable, but you can't protect him from everything, Theo. You have to let him grow and learn on his own, even when it hurts. What you can do, is to stand there beside him and stay. Let him know that you're always there for him, no matter what and don't just say it, prove it."

Theo sighed, softly. "I know."

"Good. You also know how our courts play out. They would never surrender a child to their abuser nor would they allow them to suffer for any sort of contact, beyond verification and confirmation. Despite their blood connection, they will not overlook what's been done."

"...I worry that he will find nothing but guilt when it is over. He will think that somehow, he could've saved them or-"

"Hush. You do not know that. Harry is kind-hearted, he is a loving soul and that may never change. I hope it does not. It gives him a light that can pierce the darkest of nights and that is indeed, a true gift. Whatever the courts rule, you will all have to live with the verdict. It is not anyone's fault now, what happens. It is action and consequence. They will be held accountable for what they've done and handled accordingly." She reached out to squeeze his hand. "You know you have my blade. I stand for you in whatever capacity is needed."

Theo managed a smile at that. "Thank you. I would only ever ask you. Right now, it feels as if we're building a foundation as quickly as it's crumbling and there's no end in sight for the-"

"And you're all so young. Don't put that pressure on yourself. You have time. You all have time. Plenty of time to rebuild and group as many times as you feel necessary. Centuries ahead of you, so breathe and trust that things will work out as they should."

"Harry's so strong, you know? Carrying everything on his own. I feel so helpless sometimes. Just standing there as if my hands are tied, unable to do a thing while he tries as hard as he can."

"You lend him your strength," Ilsa said, simply. "Sometimes that is enough. Our Bonded do not need us to fight their battles for them. Just to stay beside them as they fight, lending our strength in whatever way they will have it. You do not learn to slay your demons by ignoring them. Now, remember when you told me of Harry's connections? The noble houses of Peverell and Evanson?"

Theo winced. "That's the connection, then—Evanson? Have they laid claim?"

"I do not know. They should also have received similar summons, but it also begs the question of why they didn't know of Harry's existence. By blood, they should've received notice of the Aunt first. It also bothers me that they are also taking an inordinately long time to respond to your connection request. The Peverells were quick enough-"

"Because Ithycar had connections," Theo reminded her. "And Harry practically fell into their lap, thanks to his incredible luck. They've treated him well, though I still don't like the actual connection."

"The connection or the individual?"

Theo wrinkled his nose. "The individual. Lewis. There's something—shifty about him and it rubs me the wrong way. I can't ignore it. It's like—scraping my fangs clean, but a little too closely."

"He might just be that way. He's not a triad rank?"

"Pareya. Which is why it worries me even more, because if he means to do harm, it'll be twice as hard to see it coming. As long as he keeps his claws and fangs out of Harry, I'll leave him alone."

Ilsa snorted. "Really? Generous of you."

"Oretta-!" Theo flushed. He meant it. Mostly. As long as Harry was fine with it, he'd manage. Until they had Pareya of their own, someone had to keep watch.

"They welcomed him though. Ithycar's connections notwithstanding. They didn't contest a claim and they didn't shun him in public. That's at least a nod to their side and even though you're here with the Kalziks, I'll wager a guess and say that they haven't thrown you out."

"They're a well-bred and turned Circle," Theo said, wearily. "They would not openly react to anything, considering their social status. For all of her fickle temper, Cora conducts herself properly when they're in public. She has all of the social graces expected of her position. The Evansons are—different. They had favour in both Earth and Fire courts, from what I could discover in the Archives the day we submitted the requests. I've submitted claims on both sides and sent an informal message. I'd also think they would've received notice of our Bonding's registration."

"No response at all?" Ilsa's eyebrows arched up to her hairline. "That's strange and also not good. The first meeting shouldn't be in court. That'll be rough on all sides, especially on account of Harry's gift. I guess it's too late to request something informal. Especially if Harry's out."

Theo slumped. "It won't matter now, given the circumstances. Even if Harry wakes on time—and he should—his empathy will probably stretch further than it ever has. I didn't want it to be that the first time he meets any of his mother's family, it's in a courtroom to argue whether some of them have abused him or not."

Ilsa winced. "You get that from Bahn," she said, mildly. "Imagining the worst of things. It's not that terrible and unmanageable. You don't have to make it sound so hopeless. Yes, it is unfortunate and not ideal, but it is what it is and we can figure something out."

" soon as you figure it out, tell me. I'd love to hear it."

"You'll be one of the first to know." Ilsa snorted. "Is there any other way you could try to make contact? What did you send them, exactly?"

"Two official requests and one follow-up when Harry was distracted. One to the Clan head and one to the direct family line for Harry. I assume they reached, because the interruption charms never activated. They're specifically listed as invitation-only. Approaching them now, especially without Harry, won't be—good."

"Do you know anyone who could go in your stead? Don't say Dahlia, please. I want her to enjoy as much of her new Circle as she can. Once Lady Paielda gets her claws into her, that'll be the end of everything."

"Everything?" Theo blinked.

"She has—blade obligations. Much in the same vein as I do. We swear to the blade and we live by it. She has responsibilities on account of ascending to an Alpha rank. I have mine for returning to Nevarah after such a long absence. There are checks and balances in place."

"I don't really know," he said, at least. "I have some contacts I could reconnect with, but it's not ideal to simply demand favours on such short notice."

"You underestimate your influence and reach," Ilsa said, flatly. "I trained you better than that. Any acquaintances you've been avoiding or otherwise out of touch with, will be glad to hear from you. Especially if you parted on good terms. It's the Hunt. Make lunch or dinner arrangements. Meet for drinks. Arrange for a picnic or something, if you don't want to feel so tied to formality, but don't ignore it because you're stalling. That won't do."


"And leave Charlie, if you don't want Harry to be by himself. Take Ethan with you. He should have enough social grace to handle whatever you end up with. Trust him. Trust yourself." Ilsa's lips twitched into a fond smile. "And if you need me or mine, you know how to reach us. I need to leave—it feels like something's unsettled."

Theo rolled up to his feet in a single movement. He held out a hand to Ilsa, pleased when she accepted the gesture. "Thank you, Oretta."

"I didn't do that much," she said, kindly. "You aren't alone, Theo. Neither is your Harry or Charlie. Reach out if you need us. Trust that we'll be there, because we will, alright?"

He hugged her in answer.

"Breathe in," she whispered, resting her chin atop his head. "Make sure you talk to your Bonded, alright? Tell them what I've told you."

The Voidspace wavered and vanished, taking Ilsa with it.

For a moment, Theo stood with his arms awkwardly wrapped around nothing. When he caught his bearings, he was back in the front yard of the Kalzik's. He squared his shoulders and retreated indoors. There was a lot to catch up on.


Quinn breathed the barest sigh of relief when Theo slipped out of the room without attempting to wake him. He'd been too tired last night to properly think through the consequences of crawling into the made-up beds on the floor to sate his instincts and keep close at hand for Harry. He'd expected to sleep for a few hours at the end near Charlie. Not to wake up practically smothering Theo, wrapped up in blankets as if they belonged together.

Warmth flooded his face. He had no claim to them. He was just the Healer. There couldn't be a claim. He wasn't fit for their Circle. They needed someone with less baggage and better communication skills. Even when he'd had his words, it was hard to put them to proper use. Adding that to the mix was a headache that Harry—the gentle soul that he was—did not need.

One hand reached up, tracing along the heavy scares on his neck. He'd shared some of his past with Harry. A sad, unhappy tale that had eased the ache in his soul just a little bit, but a memory that still hung over him. Some days he wished his family had never let him get that far and then others, he knew that it was his own fault. He'd known, in bits and pieces, when he was drunk on magic and revelling too deeply in his newfound Alpha-rank.

Harry deserved a steady, calming Alpha, like Theo. Someone who was resilient, but quietly commanding and yet, observant enough to give space and support when and where needed. They were well matched. He definitely had to give them that.

Which brought another stab of guilt. Even if there were to be anything between them—and honestly, Harry could do so much better than him—he'd have to own up to one little white lie. No, maybe it was more than that. He slipped out from the blankets and snapped his fingers for the housekeeping spells to activate.

Sitting cross-legged with his back against one of the corner armchairs, he rested his palms on his knees and let his eyes drift shut. Meditation always helped to ground him and often, it helped to sort out the muddle of thoughts in his head.

Talking down to himself—or refusing to see that he had worked on his character continuously since that fateful day—was short-changing himself. His therapist had reminded him to look at the big picture, then focus on the baby steps, so that's what he would do.

If he was honest, a needy, desperate part of himself wished that he could have what Harry and his Bonded did. A slow, but steadily growing warmth and strength between them. A kind exchange between ranks, even when significantly stressed. He'd seen how wired Ethan was upon their arrival, yet it was impossible to miss how he'd mellowed out and given straight into his Pareyic rank. Snuggled up in Theo's arms in those same blankets—and he was doing it again.

Thinking himself in circles and forgetting that he was also worthy of the same things he envied. He'd wondered what it would feel like to sleep in Theo's arms on purpose. Instead of accidentally winding up there during the night. The way that he'd seen him hold Ethan, the gentle thrum of his magic humming through the room—Theo was calm.

Incredibly calm for a young Alpha in their current situation.

It had felt so right.

Quinn flipped his hands over, so his palms faced the ceiling. He'd felt so restless and helpless seeing Harry lying there in the healing trance. It was a good trance, he could definitely give credit there, but the thought of waiting three days to actually speak to Harry again—well, that started up a whole other set of feelings that Quinn was definitely not thinking about.

He huffed and pressed his lips together. He'd originally considered a quick, twenty-minute meditation block.

Given the current mess of his mind, maybe an hour was better. He could make breakfast when he was reasonably sure he wouldn't accidentally burn something because his attention was elsewhere. He just had to gather up those confusing, conflicting thoughts and shove them in a nice, neat little box to sort through some other time.

Like maybe a few years.

Or longer.

Quinn slumped. Meditating. Definitely an hour…


Aracle unwrapped his fourth mint and tucked it into the corner of his cheek. The soft, sweet-mint flavour flooded his mouth. He sucked on it for a little bit, then rolled it around with his tongue, staring mindlessly up at the ceiling in the third sitting room lounge near the window.

Warm rays of light spilled through the uncurtained window, the faint shimmer of a protective shield visible, if he looked hard enough. He'd had to slip away again, given how quickly things were moving along.

It always bothered him to have to stand there and hold his silence.

Staying quiet had never been a strong suit, but he tried.

Sometimes he succeeded.

Most times he wound up trailing after Ilsa and wondering if she was cursed to speak every time, he was forced to stay quiet. It didn't always settle right with him, but this was his Circle, no matter how dramatic and strange they could be.

They were all dramatic and strange in their own way.

Aracle eyed the still-wavering barrier outside of the window. There'd been three attacks on that side since he'd settled into the large window seat. Comfortable enough to curl up in the plush pillows, yet close enough to touch the decorative glass panes.

The mint thinned to a mere sliver on his tongue and Aracle finally unfolded from the window seat. He stood with quiet determination, pausing to determine where his Bonded and children were, before turning his steps towards one particular wing of the house.

It was easy to slip through, unnoticed, until he reached Soula's bedroom. If he'd timed it right—and he had timed it right—then she would be napping for her nerves right now. He tapped softly on the door and slipped inside, a shimmer of sparkle glowing on his fingertips.

Soula was indeed napping, curled up in a ball under the blankets, her long hair splayed out on the pillow behind her. Her magic was tentative and tremulous, as if it didn't trust her any more than she trusted it.

Aracle sighed. He'd hoped it wouldn't be so hard on her, but lately, he'd seen signs of unravelling and it worried him enough to actually do something about it. The golden-bronze shimmer that surrounded him, stretched out, filling the room with sparks of light.

He watched it drift down over her, settling in the creases of the blanket and the half-tangled curls of her hair. Watched as the time-shifting sand sunk into her skin and drew her magic back inside of her.

"You have a long future ahead of you," he murmured, reaching out to skim a hand across her forehead. "And I don't think your mother could bear it, if you died an early death, yet again." He hummed, softly. He couldn't have another user with similar magic in such close proximity for the upcoming complications.

It would be tempting Fate. Soula's magic would certainly grow to match his own, in time—and if properly cultivated. Now was not that time. He coaxed her magic to settle and simmer, easing the restlessness out of her magical core.

She would not need that now and with luck, she'd never even realize that something had changed. The small bubble of frantic energy roiled and twisted in the palm of his hand, until it shrank to the size of a marble.

He squeezed it, crushing until it was nothing more than a small, white round pellet. Banishing it into the nether, he hummed again, checking the timeline with a wide sweep of his hand. A thin veil of gold materialized where his hand had moved.

Images moved in slow-motion, speeding along with silent prompts from him. Eventually, he nodded. Things were resettling already and it looked decent.

Workable. More manageable than before. He could live with that. He'd already begun twisting things since the early hours of the morning. This was yet another careful adjustment to bring about the least painful resolution for their Circle.

Children seemed like such fragile, ethereal creatures in moments like this. Frozen between what they were and what they would become, a vast ocean of potential stretched out as far as Fate, herself, could see.

Aracle stood over her, guarding, watching, waiting.

The magic continued to settle. More sparkles in the room swirled around, before raining down again. He repeated the spell three times for a proper incantation bonus, pleased when the magic took root with a strong, steady pulse.

That was old, ancient magic.

He breathed a single sigh of relief. The sparkles travelled along the ground, retreating into him, the alteration complete. Aracle unwrapped another mint and popped it into his mouth.

It took ten minutes from the very first taste of sweetness, to the very last.

Ten minutes was enough time to find Ilsa before the next adjustment needed to be made. Aracle slipped out of the room as quietly as he'd come.

Soula never stirred.

Ilsa lounged outside of Soula's room, checking her sharpened claws. She didn't look up when he stepped out, but instead, crossed her arms over her chest.

A long moment passed, before Aracle dared to approach her.

"...did you really have to do that?"

"What do you think?" he countered. He moved slow enough to give her time to refuse, before gently coaxing her into his arms.

Ilsa made a grumbling sound of discontent, but allowed him to hold her anyway. "She's too young for this."

"She's old enough," he murmured, hooking his chin over her shoulder. "Better now than later."

Sometimes, in moments like this, he wished he'd never given away the secret of his Nameless gift. Wished he'd kept it all to himself, so he wouldn't have to explain himself when his instincts took over.

Instincts that had nothing to do with his dragel self and everything to do with the life-altering talent that he'd been born with. He nuzzled into her neck, nipping gently at his claim mark directly next to Ithycar's.

Her mumbling grumble became a reluctant purr. Curling his arms around her, Aracle focused on the soothing, steady scent that calmed his sparking nerves. Just because he could play with time didn't mean it always turned out right.

That was the worst part. Watching the mistakes and experimenting on what he could alter to produce the best result. Rewinding and trying again, time after time, until time, itself, thinned too much to be reworked.

It left him numb and hollow sometimes. Craving a touch, reassurance or whatever scraps of affection his raw soul could handle.

"Aracle," Ilsa's voice was firm. "Stop that."

He stilled, obediently.

"Not that," she said, impatiently. "The other thing."

He hid a smile in her neck. Of course, she'd notice and of course, she'd call him out on wallowing. "Sorry." He kissed her neck in apology. "Did you have a good chat with Theo?"

"He's fine. He's worrying. He'll be alright when this is over."

"We all will be," Aracle said, firmly.

"...are you eating a mint?" Ilsa tried to twist in his arms. "Aracle!"

"Want one?" He let her shift in his grasp. "There's more in my pocket."

Hazel eyes narrowed, her cheeks flushing lightly. "In your pocket?" she echoed. "Nice try. We need to go."

"We do? Where are we going?"

"Wherever it was you thought I needed more time for ten minutes ago."

"Ah." He straightened up. "So, no mint?"


"...the Kalziks. We're going to the Kalziks."

"Do I want to know why I'm going to the Kalziks?"

Reluctantly, he let her go. "Probably not. You won't like it."

"Should you be telling me that?"


Ilsa sighed. "Loveling," she said, exasperated. "Stop worrying yourself in circles and be yourself. You're best when you're just you."

He blinked.

She cradled his face in her hands, tugging gently so she could kiss his forehead. "Let's go, alright? And if you're not supposed to accompany me, then please go back to holing up wherever you were, before you came here, hm?"

Aracle managed a small smile at her bluntness. Yet another thing that he loved her for...


"Good morning," Ilsa said, pleasantly.

Surajini didn't look surprised to see her, but there was a slight furrow on her brow as she ushered Ilsa into the foyer. "Good morning, Lady Ilsa."

"Just Ilsa," came the quick correction. "Thank you. I'm actually here to see Bharin?"

"...he hasn't shown for breakfast as yet, but I do believe he's awake." Surajini's eyes fluxed a darker shade of golden-honey, before she led the way deeper into the house. "Is everything alright?"

"I asked a favour of him earlier and wanted to check in on it," Ilsa said, simply. "It's really nothing to worry about."

Surajini hummed in answer. She led Ilsa straight into a large dining room where it appeared that most of her Bonded were either almost through with their breakfast or just arriving for it. Murmured greetings came her way and Surajini smiled all the way over to her Alpha.

"Is Bharin up?" she asked, slipping an arm around his shoulder and leaning down to kiss his cheek. "I can't sense him."

Hiram paused, frowning at her. His gaze grew distant in the way it usually did when he reached deeply into a specific bond. "...awake and training in one of the side arenas near one of the West gates. He's a little banged up, I'm guessing that's why he's blocking."

"Ah," Surajini said, straightening up in understanding. "Would you care to stay?" she gestured to the table. "I'm sure he'll be in shortly; he doesn't miss breakfast."

"I really shouldn't," Ilsa said, carefully. "I'm not supposed to be out and about at present, but-"

"Some tea then? Chai?" Surajini moved to prepare a single cup of freshly made chai without waiting for an answer. She gestured to one of the empty spaces at the table, closer to Lachman. "Please, do sit."

Ilsa hesitated.

"The estate is warded," Patrick said, without looking up from his holographic tablet, where the news headlines scrolled across the soft blue square. "No one will know you are here until you leave and if you do so undercover, then they won't notice at all."

There was a slight twitch at the corner of her left eye, before Ilsa settled into the chair. That was helpful to know, but she'd been too preoccupied to read as much on her own. She accepted the cup of Chai with a smile. "Thank you."

"Your Theo and his Bonded are within our care," Surajini said, smoothly. "It would be rude to send you off without even a cup of Chai. Quinn's last report says they are doing quite well, but I'm sure you've already checked on them, yes?"

Ilsa flushed. "Again, I'm not supposed to be here, but thank you." Her eyes grew wide after the first, sweetened sip. "Oh, that's lovely."

Surajini's smile grew wider. "I make it a bit sweeter, the way my mother always did." She slipped into Patrick's lap, looking quite at home there. "Would there be objections if I were to hold a bonding ceremony on Dyshoka's behalf?"

Patrick twitched. Hiram set his cup down on his saucer. Lachman coughed into a napkin.

"A Bonding ceremony?" Ilsa hesitated. "I think the Imaldis Clans have first pick for that, don't they?"

"And as the Alpha's family, you would have second pick," Surajini said, smoothly. "Dyshoka is my—well, it's been awhile since we've been able to celebrate a new bonding in our home. I would love the honour of a bonding celebration, if hosting the ceremony is out of the question."

"The ceremony will likely be all Gheyo," Ilsa said, a touch apologetically. "And likely only their entire Circle. I haven't been asked, so I wouldn't expect there to be any witnesses from immediate family."

"Ah. Is that—typical?"

"In Dahlia's case, yes. I gave her over into Lady Paielda's care when it was clear that she took after me. Per their Clan guidelines, a bonding ceremony is an intensely formal and private affair. I would not mind if you wished to throw a celebration of some sort though. I highly doubt the twins would mind either. There is much to occupy them at present and an official celebration would be a bit much to add to everything."

"Are you sure?" Surajini wanted to know. There was a renewed sparkle in her eye.

"Jini-" Patrick began.

"Surajini-" Hiram said, more firmly.

Ilsa hid her smile in the cup of Chai. "If you'd like to plan something, by all means, you're more than welcome to. Please compile the expenses though and allow us to help offset the cost? It would be the very least we could do."

"That's not necessary," Hiram said, frowning. "And neither is-"

"Please, Hiram?" Surajini turned her pleading gaze on Hiram. "Nothing extravagant. I know Dy didn't request one, but at least a little celebration? She's our daughter!"

Patrick sighed. The arm around her waist squeezed gently as he leaned forward to kiss the side of her neck. "Sneaky," he murmured. "Clever of you to wait for a witness."

Ilsa stifled a laugh. "I promise you the twins will not mind. Especially if I ask them not to. While they could do it, we would appreciate your assistance in taking over the entire affair. It's too much for us right now. Thank you for offering—and please do send some of the expenses our way. That is the only way that Ithycar and Delani will be happy to accept it."

"It would be my pleasure," Surajini said, warmly. "I will send official invitations as soon as I've worked out the details. Is there anything I should be aware of? Allergies? Rituals? Preferences? We are quite Earth-heavy, so it will use a significant amount of Earth magic, but with a nod to the Air element, given Shayla Imaldis."

"A Storm affinity is also an option."

Surajini's eyebrows arched upward. "Dahlia?"

"Probably an even split down the middle," Ilsa acknowledged. "Storm from her bearer's side and Earth from mine."

"Admirable. Yes, of course, I'll adjust for that. Thank you."

Ilsa flashed a small smile. "About the rest of that, could I have Bahn send you something? I think he has a list of some sort for allergies, rituals and that sort of thing."

"That would be lovely."

Across the table, Hiram shook his head. "Please know that when she says she'll plan something; it won't be a small something."

Ilsa laughed, the sound filling the room. "I don't think the twins have any sense of moderation either, so they'll be suitably impressed and appreciative. I assure you Dahlia will appreciate it as well, even if she pretends otherwise."

The door to the dining room opened to show a shirtless and sweaty Bharin prowling through. He'd clearly just come from the arena, as evidenced by the still healing slash marks across his torso and the softly flickering healing spell that clung to him.

"Morning," he grunted.

Lachman was up at once, clearing away his dishes with a flick of his fingers and moving over to see to Bharin at once. "Extra protein?" he asked, fussing with Bharin's healing spell. "And your hair." He skimmed his fingers lightly over Bharin's dreadlocks, strengthening the protective spell on them.

"It's fine," Bharin said, his voice raspy. "Just needed to work out some energy this morning." His darkened gaze flickered to Ilsa. "And what did you come for?"

"Bharin!" Surajini chided, softly. "Ilsa has just agreed to let us throw a celebration for Dyshoka's bonding. Isn't that wonderful?"

"Ilsa or Hiram?" Bharin countered, a knowing gleam in his eyes.

"Bharin!" Surajini protested. She squirmed when Patrick laughed and nuzzled her neck. "Patrick-no! Not—not now!"

But Patrick had already caught her and didn't intend to let her go anytime soon. "I'm sure, Lady Ilsa won't mind," he said, amused. "You needed Bharin?" he tipped his head toward the Gheyo. "He's all yours."

Slipping out from her chair, Ilsa kept her smile in place. "I hate to impose," she said, tipping her head towards the table. "But a minute would be most helpful?"

Bharin regarded her silently for a moment, before he rose, slipping out from under Lachman's worrying hands. "Be right back," he said, when the Pareya made a noise of complaint. He followed Ilsa to the door, holding it open so she could duck through.

She didn't stop in the hallway, but rather gestured for him to lead the way. "Somewhere private, if you don't mind?" she murmured. "It's about that favour from earlier, the one on Earth?"

He straightened up. He'd wondered when she would remember that and if it'd be sooner rather than later. It seemed that it would be sooner. Maybe he could work out all of his frustration sooner than expected. "Of course. This way. My quarters? That wing of the house is quite-"

"Works for me."

"You want information out of her?" Bharin's sceptical look grew. "I don't think there's much to be gained. She's already fully in thrall and-"

"No, I want more information on anything she might have," Ilsa explained. "If I may speak freely in confidence?"

"You have my word."

"There are court summons for Harry. It lists his only family on Earth as his abusers. I want to know if that woman knew. If that's why she chose to hurt instead of heal. I also want to know what made her think that was alright. Someone or something must have given her the idea that there was no need to hide her—well."

Bharin sighed. "It is not that simple," he said, at last. "But I can check. There is nothing she would be able to hide at this point, though the information may no longer be relevant."

"There could be something there and I would hate to miss it," Ilsa countered. "Please?"

He sighed again. "An Earth portal is-"

"If Aracle did it, would you agree?"


"Aracle. My soulmate. Our Rheyo. He's—talented with this sort of thing. If he handles the portal, I assure you, it won't take any time at all and you won't be missed."

Bharin was silent for a moment, in contemplation. He rubbed at Surajini's claim mark on his bared neck. "Alright. Let him have at it."


Riven stumbled out of the triple-layered portal as the magical backlash finally caught up to him. He crumpled to the floor, staff slamming to the ground beside him, as his robes shredded in short order and thin, whippy spines burst out of his skin.

The transformation from mage to halfling dragel was missed entirely.

He choked a single word to activate the dimension-alteration spell on his home, before his entire transformation blew out of proportion.

Like the first crack in an ancient reservoir, he stared at half-clawed hands moments before his body twisted and jerked, contorting in agony as his true dragon form came forward. Four long, slender legs with poisoned spines flaring protectively, a split twin-tail with angry barbs at the tips. His spined beard and flared ruff were on full display as he screeched his displeasure to the uncaring darkness of an independent Voidspace.

He could not exist anywhere else, permanently, given his magical obligations and unbonded state. Every Cairothe bore that curse from the day they came of age. He simply tried to work through the loopholes, whenever possible.

Raspen had been due for a visit, so he'd gone, even though the little Kalzik Healer had requested him through formal channels. He'd wondered what had made a Kalzik actually reach out to him, but that had paled in the face of Raspen's request.

His mentored student never asked anything of him, save for—rarely—more time. It was the one thing he couldn't give him, no matter how much he wished to.

Sharp jolts of pain raced through his body and Riven gave a low, distressed whine. He forced himself to walk through the semi-corporeal walls of his house and into the artificial fields surrounding it. He'd built a forest of sorts, enough natural greenery to mix in with the artificial bits.

The massive healing pool at the very back of the Void was his sole aim. It'd taken more magic and blood than he ever wanted to think about again. It'd also taken nearly twelve years.

He stumbled a few times on the slow trek to the healing pool. His left rear claws were partially ingrown, the poison spines that ran along the ridge of his back and split between his tail, had suffered some scrapes that hadn't scabbed over properly.

In short, a mess.

A cranky, sluggishly bleeding mess.

He should've known better than to try and cast so much heavy magic in such short order. Focusing on placing one massive paw in front of the other, Riven limped past shiny foliage and fruit-laden trees.

If he were in better health, he'd have summoned something to hunt, simply to indulge his instincts and work the soreness out of his body. The lack of a proper bond caused his magic to occasionally double-up inside of him, straining for an outlet that wasn't there.

Normally, he tried to work extra hard during those moments, to use up as much magic as he could. The downside was finally using it up and transitioning to the next stage that followed—a distinct lack of fine control and extreme lethargy.

He was halfway out of the lethargic stage—or he had been—when Raspen's message had come through.

Grinding his fangs together, Riven continued his slow progress through the unkempt greenery. He could feel the pull of the healing magic now. It was a siren song coaxing him to come and drown in the delight that would restore him to proper working order.

It was easier to focus on that, instead of how awful he felt. Every step grew worse and it almost seemed as if darkness had literally followed him home. Natural light had already dimmed significantly overhead, a quietly oppressive energy stalking, almost, as he struggled along.

Riven reached the pool the same time the darkness closed in. He recognized a Reaper's energy, right before the first slash of a scythe cut through his right front knee.

He went down, hard—a few feet away from the healing pool.

Tail lashing side to side, he swept it through the underbrush, wishing he could fling the unwanted intruder far away—or right out of his Voidspace.

Show yourself! He demanded, forcing the mental command through the energetic channels that held his Voidspace together. Growling, roaring and hissing were poor methods of communication in his full dragon form.

Speech was possible with a spell—one he was currently incapable of casting.

The darkness pooled together as another bloody swipe carved a chunk out of his left flank.

Riven hissed, thrashing about. That hurt! He struggled against the pull of his instincts and the sweet call of the healing pool; his crowded mind unable to separate himself enough to revert to a halfling form.

Gradually the shape of a tall, shrouded Reaper took shape. It crouched on one of the rocky outcroppings over the healing pool, its billowing black robes fluttering temptingly around it. A shiny gold-tipped scythe gleamed from where bony, nearly skeletal hands clutched it tight.

"You interfere," the Reaper mocked. "You make bargains where you are not wanted!" The scythe twirled again. "I should carve you up, right there—spread you out like the ingrate you-!"

The tone was what actually did it.

A burst of anger so fierce and so intense cut through every single one of Riven's blocks. He snarled and screamed as he forced a change from dragon to Mage. The wounds carried through; his robes long destroyed.

But he'd done it. Now he was close enough.

He half-stumbled into the squelching, glowing liquid of the healing pool, lip curled to bare his fangs. He was grateful that he'd managed to reach the pool in time, even if the verbal sparring to follow, filled him with dread.

He was no negotiator. That was always more of a Necromancer's realm. He was simply the living magical bridge that held other invisible ties together. A glue between the realms, even.

The healing liquid gradually gave way beneath his weight, swallowing him up as intended.

"I do not belong to Death's Court!" Riven hissed. "And as long as I walk and breathe in this realm, I am not hers!"

The Reaper merely stared down at him, dispassionately. "You are marked for Death," they said, unbothered. "And you have overstepped your boundaries."

"He was not Death's to take!" Riven raged. "He was innocent!"

"Is that what that was?" The Reaper mocked. "Pity? Not sympathy?"

"Nevarah has claimed him. You cannot undo that."

The Reaper twirled their Scythe again. "Yes, you are right. But there are prices to be paid. Death will not be appeased by mere grovelling. You are nothing more than a lowly, walking corpse. Dead and rotting inside, held together by the fragile chains of your good intentions."

Riven clenched his jaw as the healing liquid burned through his skin, seeking out every single wound and forcing itself deeper into his body, attempting to repair the damage. It was an endless, thankless cycle.

The pain wouldn't stop until everything disinfected, cauterized and primed for regrowth and accelerated healing. The start was always the worst part. Sweat beaded along his forehead, shock gradually setting in.

"I cannot harvest you—yet," the Reaper continued. "But I think you know very well there are quite a few other things we can do."

Riven's eyes fluxed black. He would stand his ground now. He had no other choice and he'd chosen this option.

Heavy pounding rattled his front door on the hinges.

Limping, Riven eased from the lounge and made his way over. He was almost entirely healed from the earlier fiasco, but the final bits were taking their time. He already knew who it would be. There was only one reason a Reaper had sought him out earlier.

Because it hadn't gotten its intended prey.

Niko stood in the doorway, her long black hair tangled and splayed out behind her, while one skinny arm attempted to keep Tavit upright. "Help," she choked out. "You have to help him!"

Riven's eyes burned with yet more tears that would never fall. He gave a jerky nod and leaned against the wall. "Bring him in. Are you alone?"

Niko hissed. She half-carried, half-dragged Tavit's limp body across the threshold. "They would not follow me," she said, licking her lips. "They—they left him once I caught up. I hate them!"

Riven's expression grew pained. "You are allowed to hate," he said, quietly. "I would not tell you otherwise, when you have lost so much at the hands of that wretched court. Bring him over this way."

Niko's eyes grew shiny with tears. "Help him, please?"

"Of course. I don't have so many friends that I can afford to lose the few that I have." It was a weak attempt at humour, but the best he could manage in his current state. "Can you move him to the bath?"

Her critical gaze swept over him, seeing his weakened state and correctly interpreting where the wounds had come from. "They already found you?"

"Diablo," Riven said, darkly. "You know how he likes his—games."

"Miserable cretin! He'll cross the wrong one someday. I look forward to his erasure. I wish he'd game himself to-"

"Please," Riven interrupted. "Don't. I-I cleaned as much of the residue as I could, but there's still some scraps of darkness hanging about and I can't—don't tempt them, hm?"

She tossed her head in answer, hauling Tavit along by the armpits. This time, it was clear to see how her hair had gotten so tangled in the first place. It curled around the parts of Tavit that it could reach, helping to carry him along the cold, tiled floor.

Riven led the way to the master bedroom and bath. Soft lights clicked on overhead as they went, dimming in other areas as they passed. "The bargains held?"

"Would we be here if they hadn't?"

He gave a wan smile. "He was too young, too—kind—for what's been forced upon him. I couldn't leave him like that."

"I didn't ask for your excuses." Niko propped Tavit up against the ledge of the tub. "This idiot likes to bargain and for some reason, they think his bargaining is amusing. So they let him live. One day, it will not work." She hesitated. "Are you going to help him or-"

Riven's eyes glowed bright violet. The extravagant tub filled with the same, pale green gel from the healing pool outside. His lips moved in a silent chant, a spell to ensure that the healing properties would remain unaltered.

"Now?" Niko shifted impatiently as the green gel reached the halfway mark.

"He'll sink," Riven explained. "He needs to breathe it in."

Niko frowned. "He won't like that," she muttered. She heaved him into the tub with little ceremony, stripping down to join him.

Riven pressed his lips together in a thin line at the obvious dark bruises along her pale body. He could see where Reapers had done their work and where other darkened energies had taken over. From the look of it, she'd borne the brunt of their anger.

"Nikolandria," he said, sternly.

She threw a baleful look over one shoulder. "I owe him everything," she snapped, uncaring of her nakedness. "Do you really think me so weak?"

"...not weak," he said, quietly. "Stronger than both of us put together. A little self-preservation would go a long way for you."

She snorted. "Save your pretty words for pretty boys and girls. I have no need of them." Tavit's body twitched and seized in the gel. "You are—well enough?" She asked, awkwardly.

Riven offered a faint smile. "I'll be in the room. Call if you need me."

Niko grunted in answer. Her hair twisted up into a knot on her head, before she bent over Tavit's quivering figure. They disappeared beneath the pale green gel, the entire tub illuminating with brilliant magic as the healing latched on and the process began.

A/N: A/N: Hey guys! HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all my US readers. I had two moments when writing this chapter where it was literally "ow. My feels." LOL. I hope you enjoyed this monster of a chapter. It's 22k, I believe? I've worked on this all week just to get ready for posting today.

In light of it being thanksgiving day, I just want to say that I'm thankful for each and everyone one of you who read, comment, share and more. I never expected TBDH to become such a big part of my life (or anyone else's!) when I started it all those years ago. I am still so incredibly grateful for the support, friendship and amazingness from all of you. It's been a crazy year and I hope this chapter made your day a little better.

Y'all take care and stay safe! I am already working on chapter 111. ^_^

Also, if you're keeping up with my original stuff, Episode 5 of The Dragel's Song is out and Treasured Sands is now on chapter 53 of 74 for edits. Woohoo!

Thanks a BUNCH to everyone who's read, reviewed and shared about it-you make me ridiculously happy and I'm thrilled to have such amazing readers like you~!

Thank you for your continued support! I love you guys! ~Scion