Content Notes: AU beginning from fourth year, angst, present tense, manipulation, implied child abuse
Author's Note: Note that an "instar" is a name for a larval stage in which an insect or arthropod is between two stages of molting, or shedding its skin in order to grow.
It starts because Theo is annoyed at Draco. Yes, he brewed a good potion two days before Halloween and the Goblet of Fire's choosing of the Champions, but Theo's was better. Professor Snape just favors Draco unreasonably and gave him more points than Theo earned.
Draco's good at Potions. He's not perfect. But Draco went around gloating like he was, and sneered at Theo for "doing an inferior job, that's all right, we can't all be Malfoys."
That means, when Draco makes his POTTER STINKS badges, Theo refuses to take one, continuing to eat his breakfast without looking up when Draco tries to pass them around the Slytherin table.
Theo glances up slowly. Draco bites the inside of his cheek in response. Draco is favored by Snape, and his family is richer and more powerful than Theo's, but one-on-one Draco knows exactly who's going to put him on the ground.
"Never mind," Draco mutters, and passes down the table.
Theo marches out of the Great Hall on the way to classes and catches Potter's eye. Potter looks battered, walking by Granger's side with no one else, conspicuously, within one or two feet of him. He glances up at Theo, startled, and then visibly braces himself for a cutting remark or a glimpse of a badge.
Theo smiles, mouths, "I believe you," and goes on his way.
Even Weasley doesn't believe Potter, which Draco insists is all the more reason to think Potter put his name in the Goblet. But Theo, who is intelligent and doesn't rely as much on presumptions and House bias as everyone around him does, sees the misery on Potter's face and concludes that there's no way Potter is that good an actor.
So soon it goes from Theo acting as if he believes Potter to annoy Draco to Theo actually believing Potter. And the way that Potter throws himself into studying for the Tournament—perfectly obvious that's what he's doing, if you're intelligent about where you're looking—Theo also comes to believe that Potter doesn't think he'll survive it.
Potter's trying, though. With no one but Granger to help him, with the scorn of the whole school and the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons students poured on him, with the Headmaster obviously not helping him the way Karkaroff and Maxime must be helping Krum and Delacour, he's trying.
It reminds Theo of the way that he finally understood, at six, that his father was trying to crush Theo beneath his control and would accept no display of independence or intelligence from his son. Theo promptly resolved to continue developing those traits, just in secret.
Potter is doing everything he can to survive.
Theo watches him and Granger covertly from behind the shelves in the library, and sees how grimly Potter reads, how he clenches his fists when no one is looking, how he closes his eyes and rubs his forehead in what seems to be pain but keeps bearing forwards. It's obvious that Potter would be more at home on a dueling battlefield than in the library. But he tries anyway.
Theo, meanwhile, whose natural home is the library, admires that more than he can say.
And he wonders, as he watches Potter struggle on, what it would be like to be allies with someone whose strengths make up for Theo's weaknesses, and vice versa.
Theo's father would laugh himself to death if he said anything like that. So would most of Slytherin, which is why it's a thought Theo has never had before.
But with a Gryffindor, Theo wouldn't have to pretend. He could show his strength openly, and Potter would probably be disposed to admire it instead of despise it, to return alliance for alliance, and openness for openness.
Of course, he'll need a reason to treat Theo that way, first, and occasional smiles and supportive sentiments aren't enough.
So, Theo waits for a day when Granger isn't with Potter in the library, and approaches him.
Potter glances up, eyes wary at once, but then they travel from the green edging on Theo's robes to his face. He cocks his head a little. "Nott," he says, with a small nod, and then waits to see what will happen.
Theo smiles more sincerely than he allows anyone but his reflection in the mirror to see, and sits down on the other side of the table. "Potter," he says. "I wanted to say that I admire the way you're keeping up with classwork as well as the research for the Tournament."
One of Potter's eyebrows wings up, in a more perfect imitation of Professor Snape than Draco can manage. Theo promptly stores that observation away to use the next time he wants to torment Draco. "I'm not the best in my classes, Nott."
"But you haven't collapsed crying from the pressure of the Tournament, either. You know, the way Draco would."
Potter laughs, and then looks furious with himself for laughing at a Slytherin's joke. Theo just gives him a secretive smile.
"Why are you being so nice to me?" Potter asks.
It's a bit pathetic that Potter thinks not screaming in his face counts as being "nice," but it works to Theo's advantage, so he's not about to explain how much better the treatment Potter deserves is. "Because I know you didn't put your name in the Goblet, and I think it's stupid that no one else can see that," Theo says. "It's perfectly obvious that you didn't cheat. And now you have to face a Tournament when you're three years younger than anyone else in the thing, because other people can't see it."
"Why can't they? If it's perfectly obvious, as you say?"
Potter's eyes are pinned to Theo's face. They shine a brilliant green that makes Theo's stomach squirm with a new kind of excitement. Theo keeps that to himself, and shrugs a little at Potter. "Because they're content to be blinded by the Boy-Who-Lived mythos. Rather than looking for themselves."
Potter's face immediately darkens. "But Ron believes it, too."
Ah, an opportunity. Theo leans a little closer. Potter imitates him without seeming to notice that he's doing it. "Tell you a secret, Potter?"
"Of course." Potter looks torn between intrigued and wary, which at least proves he has more common sense than Theo used to think. That means that Theo can teach him more easily when they're together.
…Allies, not together, Theo thinks a moment later. But that slip, even if only in his own mind, is interesting. He puts it aside to think about later.
"I think Weasley's probably a good person as far as Gryffindors go," Theo says, while his stomach curdles at having to speak such words. "But he's so much of a hothead, and so jealous of what his brothers have achieved, that he acts stupidly the minute he thinks someone else is doing better than he is. I saw it with Granger first year. And now that his only brothers in the school are the twins and they pay him no attention except to prank him, he's switched that to you."
"But it's stupid to be jealous of me! I don't want to be in this stupid Tournament! If he really wanted my place, he could have it!"
Theo nods sagely, his stomach warm now with how well his ploy is working. "I know that, and you know that. I think Granger knows that, too. But think how few other people do. Think how powerful Weasley's jealousy must be, if he's letting a friendship of four years dissolve because of it."
Potter closes his eyes for a minute, and then slams his book open. Theo glances up and notices from the clock hanging in view that it's about time for Granger to show up after her Arithmancy class.
"Good luck on the First Task, Potter," Theo says softly, and slips out of the library.
The First Task is bloody dragons.
Theo has been sitting there with what feels like a lump of ice in his stomach ever since he came to the stands. He watches the way that Krum and Diggory and Delacour face their dragons in a daze. They all manage to get their golden egg, but all of them get hurt themselves or cause some damage to the dragon.
Now Potter is marching out of the tent. Three years younger than everyone else, less powerful, less tutored in magic.
Theo clenches his hands on his knees.
Then Potter Summons his bloody Firebolt and climbs on it, and swirls around the dragon, the Hungarian Horntail, fiercest and worst, as far as Theo is concerned, of the four beasts that the Dragon-Keepers brought to the challenge.
Theo can't take his eyes from Potter. He can hardly breathe. Potter's power and grace, his problem-solving skills, his daring…even his daring, yes, a quality that a Slytherin should hardly desire, all of them are on display.
And all Theo can think of is how much of a shame it would be to lose it.
Potter lands with the golden egg, and there's an enormous roar from the stands. Theo can practically see people's minds changing. Now suddenly a lot of them believe Potter, or they'll say they do, in order to be on the right side of someone as strong as he is.
Theo stares down, doing his best to catch Potter's eye despite the distance between them. And it works. Potter looks up at him, bright eyes such a brilliant green they shine even from here, and winks at Theo.
Theo's stomach drops and swoops.
He's an accomplished liar, but not to himself. All right. He wants more from Potter than an alliance or even a pretense at friendship. And he's going to ensure that he gets it.
Weasley is gasping and exclaiming about Potter's flying ability, and it seems as if he's about to hurry with Granger over to the Champions' tent so that he can "apologize" to Potter and repair their friendship. Theo knows that if that happens, Weasley will also go on a rant against Slytherins and probably succeed in turning Potter against Theo again. Theo offered Potter some support, but Weasley is Potter's oldest friend, and his prejudices have had three years to sink deep into Potter's skull.
Oh, no, we can't have that, Theo thinks, and aims his wand carefully at Weasley's back, unnoticed in the screaming, scrabbling chaos of the crowd. "Confundus," he murmurs.
Weasley promptly stumbles and then stands up babbling, as far as Theo can make out, something about doxy eggs. Theo smirks, slips off to the side where Granger, standing next to Weasley and getting steadily more exasperated with him, won't notice a lone Slytherin, and makes his way into the Champions' tent.
Potter is watching the tent entrance. His eyes light up when he sees Theo, and he smiles, but he also looks confused.
Expecting his best friends, no doubt. Theo half-bows his head and half-smiles.
"That was excellent flying, Potter," he says softly.
"Thanks." Potter's eyes dart between him and the tent entrance, and Theo can see the question in them, where Weasley and Granger are, see the slight slump of his shoulders when he realizes they aren't here yet.
Theo no doubt can't keep them from coming, but he uses the delay as best he can. He swallows and looks away. "I—I thought you were going to die," he whispers. "Diggory and Delacour got injured, and—and I thought, you weren't as old as they were, you didn't even want to be in the Tournament, how could…" He shakes his head.
His voice really is trembling. He really is using what he felt then. Theo can manipulate anyone, even himself, if he puts enough work into it.
"Hey." Potter's hand rests gently on Theo's chin and turns his face back around. Potter is giving him a worried smile. "It worked out all right."
"And the other Tasks?" Theo takes a deep breath and steps closer, able, from this distance, to smell the sweat on Potter's face, in the crook of his neck, to see the wild fluttering of his pulse in his throat. "Can you—I can't watch you get ready to handle them and not know what's going to happen…" He breathes out deeply and says, "Please let me help you."
"Really? You would?"
Potter's voice is full of wonder. Theo experiences a sharp flash of some emotion he can't name, but it's tied to the fact that Potter never should have had to feel that emotion, that other people should be feeling it for him when he's such an extraordinary wizard.
"Yes." Theo turns around, and revels in how close they're standing. He never even sees Weasley and Granger this close to Potter when they're working together in class or walking in the corridors.
"Why, though?" Potter's eyes dart to the serpentine crest on Theo's robe, up to his face.
"Because…" Theo swallows as if he's embarrassed to talk about it, but pushes through it, because that's something a Gryffindor would expect. "Look, I fancy you, all right? A lot." He looks away again, congratulating himself on the perfect balance of exasperation and heat in his voice.
Potter looks as though someone's hit him on the head. Theo glances at him again, and sees Potter register how close they're standing, too. His throat bobs up and down with a nervous swallow, but he doesn't back away.
For a moment, his hand rises and touches Theo's cheek. Theo deliberately wets his lips as he looks back at Potter. Potter's eyelashes flutter with uncertainty.
"Mate! What are you doing with a Slytherin?"
Perfect. Luck really is favoring Theo. He couldn't have worked this out better. Potter jumps, and Theo jumps, and Potter's hand falls from his cheek. Potter clears his throat, face flushed a bright pink, while Theo jumps to the side and acts as if he doesn't know where to look.
Meanwhile, Weasley is glaring at Potter, some remnant of Theo's Confundus Charm obviously still clinging to him, and the first words he's spoken to his "best mate" in weeks are aggressive. Not to mention that he interrupted a delicate moment between Harry and Theo where Theo deliberately left himself vulnerable.
Potter will remember that. Theo watches the subtle hardening in his face with glee.
"I should go," Theo whispers.
"Yeah, you should," Weasley says, sneering at Theo, and maybe if he would have left it there, it would have been the end of it, but he doesn't. He swings around to glare at Potter again. "So, as soon as I don't spend time with you for a little while, you're running after a snake, is that it?"
"Ron," Granger says nervously, eyeing both Weasley and Potter as if one of them's about to explode.
"No, Hermione. I want a bloody answer! First he decides he's too good to spend time with me, and then he turns to a slimy Nott, of all people—"
"You were the one who decided you didn't want to spend time with me, Ron," Potter snaps, and oh, the bitterness in his voice is a glory. "You were the one who thought I'd cheated." For a moment, doubtless too subtly for Weasley to catch, his eyes flicker towards Theo. "You were the one who decided your jealousy was more important than our friendship."
"That's not true!" Weasley says hotly. Theo watches him destroy himself with calm interest. "You're the one who's always prancing around here, puffing yourself up, acting as though you're so good because you have a bloody Firebolt that your godfather got you—"
Granger claps her hand over Weasley's mouth, staring at Theo. "You didn't hear that, Nott," she snaps.
God, Gryffindors have no notion of subtlety at all. Theo raises his hands, shaking his head a little. "I won't tell anyone," he says, and looks at Potter for a moment too long, making it perfectly clear to all of them the reason he won't.
"Mate," Weasley begins, shaking off Granger's hand. "I just want to know why you decided that you had to talk to a Slytherin of all people—"
"He actually offered to help me," Potter says, and oh, Merlin, he has a voice that can cut his enemies dead when he wants to. He turns and holds out a hand to Theo. "See you in the library tomorrow, right, Theo?"
Theo smiles back at Potter, charmed and warmed that he's paid enough attention to a Slytherin he's barely interacted with to know that his friends call him Theo and not Theodore. "Of course, Harry," he says, and let his hand linger in Potter's, fingers tracing a half-circle in the center of his palm.
Harry flushes all up and down his throat. He can't seem to pull his eyes from Theo's, or their hands apart, either. "Yeah," he whispers. "Yeah, thanks, Theo."
"Mate!" Weasley howls in anguish.
Theo turns and walks out of the tent, while Weasley busily feeds himself to a Nundu, judging from Harry's increasingly short and clipped responses.
Theo smiles all the way back to the castle, judging the heat and the flutter in his stomach, the way that Harry's eyes lingered on him, the way that they switched so easily to first name, how Harry is obviously going to make room for Theo in his life out of sheer stubbornness at the way Weasley snapped at him.
Theo can manipulate anyone, even himself.
If that means manipulating himself into falling in love with Harry Potter, Theo thinks that's neither the hardest nor the worst thing he's ever done.
With friends like Harry has, Theo thinks, as he slips back into the castle and gives Draco a bright, irritating smile, it's practically a public service.