The heartbeat of the bird was a trill of speed, so fast that it purred, thrumming against the rhythm of the wings that carried him up, away, out, through the glare of the halogen lights and away from the jet of the spell that passed harmless by and on into the night sky beyond. Still, it seemed scarcely faster than his own had been, perfectly natural for the terrific adrenaline that he could somehow almost still taste, and even though he had got away, the terror was there and in a way he had never expected.
He had known the spell for years, but Icarus had never tried it before, and nothing could ever have prepared him for the howling battle of instinct that gripped him now. The instincts of the bird that took to the air as easily as breathing it. The instincts of the man that said this was wrong, that to fly under your own power was impossible, that saw the toy-like warehouses below drawn in lines of disbelief. He tried to swallow, to lick his lips, but he couldn't navigate this alien form, and there was only the hard edge of the scavenger's beak to be found.
Not wrong. Right. Birds are supposed to fly. He didn't know how. Of course you do, it's…it's… But concentrating on what had been entirely the wrong thing. Instinct knew, but he didn't, and the moment he tried to focus on what he was doing, it was as if gravity had reached its clawed, invisible hand to snatch him down for his impertinence.
Black wings flapped frantically, but he was too panicked now to regain the thoughtless cradle of air currents, and all he managed to do was slow himself, and he felt a snap like a fingernail split below the quick, saw a long feather spiral away into its own cartwheeling descent. A voice - rough and too-gentlemanly – mocked the shrill caw that replaced the young man's scream. Your little wax wings will melt if you get much closer.
The impact wasn't as hard as he had expected. He had thought that from such a height, he would surely shatter every bone, reduced to nothing more than a smear against the sheet metal roof of the warehouse, but the bird was hollow-boned light and he mustn't have been falling as fast as it had seemed, because although he felt another half-dozen feathers snap, although he knocked the wind from himself he…yes…he was alive. Alive, and as he staggered dazedly to the clawed feet, stumbling over the forwards-backwards toes, he discovered he didn't even seem to be bruised.
With a shivering gasp, he shook himself, shedding the guise like a poisoned cloak, and there was an alarming groan of metal that made him freeze, wondering for a split-second if he had made yet another mistake. But no, it was just the change in weight from the raven to the man, and he let out a long, quavering breath he hadn't even realized he had been holding as he tried to force his reeling mind to take some sensible assessment of his situation.
It was not, to say the least, good. None of their extrication plans had involved an escape that had left him not only wandless, but naked, nor had they involved being caught by wizards who would recognize him. The panic tried to build again, but he choked it down, mentally slapping himself. He had to think. It was his only chance. No chance at all. His only chance.
Risking leading them back to Seamus' flat was unacceptable. He couldn't Apparate without a wand, and even if he could manage to somehow fly again, Dublin was almost 150 kilometers away. Getting down from the roof of the warehouse would be a task in itself, and there was no possible way to stroll casually nude through a busy port without attracting a lot of very awkward questions. The Commander would contact his parents, that much was sure – and soon – and they would give him his address, which meant if he didn't get back to his flat within a few minutes and then out again, there would be no going back. Unacceptable. He needed his notes, if nothing else.
Icarus started to pace, but the footsteps echoed far too loudly, and he wrapped his arms around himself, refusing to give into the growing urge to just curl up and cry. The problem was a simple one, then. Just get back to Dublin within the next ten minutes at most, then implement the plan they already had in place for their identity being compromised. No wand was really the big issue.
He closed his eyes, rubbing his hands together nervously. There was an option, but like the Fiach, he had never practically attempted it, because the consequences of failure were just too high, no matter how much he knew it should be possible. Icarus hesitated, shivering in what he wasn't sure was pure fear or the surprising chill of the wind off the water, but then the shiver turned into a strange, recklessly hysterical chuckle. Why not? If he failed, how much worse could things get, really? To be nothing but a voice on the wind for all eternity? Sure. Why the bleeding fuck not?
Opening his eyes again, he turned slowly until the wind was precisely at his back, making himself feel it, stroking like a lover's hands over every inch of his body. Making himself love it, want it, leaning with it until it almost felt like he was going to fly again, then he pushed until his lungs were utterly, achingly empty, tasting the bitter dregs of breath and letting himself starve in the absolute absence for a long, suspended instant. Gaoithe Amhabhar. Then in, pull it in sweet and fast and deep and into and past his lungs and into his entire being and it was his entire being because he didn't exist any more, he had become the wind itself; unbound, unhindered, unreal.
Fastest along the coast, Belfast gone now, Dundram Bay and Kilkeel, and the land curved East, then West again at Balbriggan, close now, getting closer, inland over Swords and Dublin burned ahead as an urban night's sun, across the tip of Dublin Harbor at Ballybough, and now it was just a single breath away, through the heart of the city and past the University on a zephyr's wings that felt so much less frightening in their greater unreality. Mount Merrion, North Avenue, Callary Road, three blocks, one more turn, and it was the most wonderful thing in the world to smash through the window and into his own flat, uncaring of the consequences of the gale unleashed in the tiny, unprepared room.
Flesh and blood again and no idea how long he had, how long it had been. Moments, minutes, hours? Couldn't afford to think of it.
Grab the bag at the bottom of the closet. The pass of a washcloth over face and hands, refusing to look in the mirror but knowing there must be blood. Get the notebook from the desk drawer that had smashed open when the wind toppled it. Money, Galleons and Euros mixed in his fist snatched from the inside of a hollow book. Lock the cat in the bathroom so she couldn't get out the shattered window, a tin of food ripped open and tossed in after. Clothes snatched from drawers and yanked on haphazard; dress trousers and an old sweatshirt. Trainers with no socks and the laces left undone. Keys snatched from the hook. Run.
The first block was a sprint, but by the time he had reached the corner, he was forced to his knees, gasping for breath as a stitch seized his side as wicked as the blade of any knife. Icarus grabbed at his ribs, his pulse throbbing through his entire head against the open-mouthed gulps of air. The fear had turned, for the moment, into a manic kind of anger, and he would have cried out in frustrated rage if there had been breath enough for it. Not fair that his own body would turn against him now!
But better now to walk anyway; it would attract less attention. Still panting, he pushed himself to his feet, and by the time he had reached Stillorgan Road, he knew that no matter how he felt, he looked at most a bit flushed. The darkness would mask the oddness of his outfit, and he was just another student with a battered knapsack, making his way along the outskirts of the University where it would be a fine task indeed to go looking for a youth of twenty, dark-haired and light-eyed, 173 centimeters and medium build, though a bit on the heavy side. A small favor, maybe, that he wasn't more distinctive, but small favors were not to be taken lightly at times like these.
It was forty Euro for a room at the Montrose, but he had that and more, and the clerk didn't bat an eye as he paid for two nights, single room. He was about the same age as Icarus himself, and if anything, his look was one of sympathy as he handed over the key. "Get kicked out, did ya? Roomie troubles or a bird?"
"Yes." The reply earned him a smirk and a laugh and a pat on the shoulder, but Icarus didn't really feel it. Now that he was firmly into the part of the plan that was a plan, it was so much easier, because he could just go through the motions without thinking, and it seemed increasingly like thinking was something that was getting harder and harder to do. Limbs like lead and a head that felt bizarrely hollow as he took the lift to the third floor, unsure if his watery knees would acquiesce to stairs. Down the hall, find the number, turn the key, lock everything there was to lock, drop the bag on the floor, and….
Now what? Seamus wouldn't go looking for him until morning, and then there would be several steps before he would check the roster at the Montrose for John Tracy. Which meant he had the rest of the night to himself to….
As if in slow-motion, Icarus slid down the back of the door to the carpeted floor, staring blankly at the cheerily impersonal furnishings shadowed in the darkness. He knew he should turn on the lights, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it for a reason that didn't even make any sense because there wasn't one. He needed something else to do. Needed it so bad that it made his skin itch and crawl…except no, that was silly. It was just sweat that did that.
There! Yes! He would take a shower! Icarus gave a mad little laugh at the decision, already stripping off his shirt and trousers, the shoes kicked away as he fumbled with the unfamiliar latch of the bathroom door for a few moments before succeeding in getting it open; a triumph he vaguely knew shouldn't have been one.
Here, he did turn on the lights, because it took a bit to figure the taps, and then the clouds of steam were rising above the frosted glass, and he grabbed the tiny paper-wrapped soap from the countertop as he stepped inside. The water was burning hot, and he jerked away, almost slipping, but he adjusted it cooler without much trouble, and the hiss of pain turned into a long, nearly sensuous sigh of relief as he let the spray run over his taut, knotted shoulders and down his back. It felt good – so much better than just a shower had any right to – and he closed his eyes, tipping his face back into it as his lips parted loosely.
Blood. Salty, metallic, sweet and horridly biological, half-clotted to gluey thickness that held awful texture against the water, washed from his hair and into his mouth. Icarus gagged, doubling forward as his eyes flew open, and oh, sweet mercy, there was red everywhere. Spattered on the walls, streaking down his arms and running into his eyes and swirling down the drain and – he tried to scramble back away from it, but his foot found the tiny soap, sending him crashing to his knees in a burst of blinding pain as one of them skinned against the tiles and that tiny trickle of fresh and his own was the last straw.
He couldn't even remember when or what he had last eaten, but it all came up now. Icarus threw up more violently than he ever had in his life, and there was no time to even lunge for the toilet, hot and sour-sharp in his throat and mouth but cool compared to the water over his knees, thick slime and unidentifiable chunks of whatever it had been among the red trails and rising steam. The smell, the taste was overpowering in the close heat, and he clutched down tighter into a ball, unable to stop himself as his stomach clenched again and again, emptying itself and cramping too far beyond nothing left to vomit.
It hurt – his throat hurt, his chest, his knees, his stomach, his hand where the palm pressed hard against the cheese-grater holes of the metal drain cover, it all hurt – but he didn't care. He just wanted the retching to stop, but as soon as it did, he wanted it back again, because that at least overcame everything else he had done. He had done. Oh, Merlin, what had he done?!
The remains of the vomit that the shower had not yet sluiced away didn't matter as he tucked himself into a corner of the tub, pulling his knees in tight to his chest and wrapping his arms around them, head down as the water still ran blood from his hair – how could there still be more! – to half-drown him and force him to suck the taste on each breath. I…I…oh, I…oh fuck. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, I….
Knife in his hand, carved ridges of the wolf's fur slick with sweat and ridged into his clenched palm. Cool vibrating planes of the container against his back as he pressed to it, waiting, holding his breath, and now there he was, and just enough hesitation to see that yes, it was Ulster before he lashed out. Wand first, the Body Bind, and then Seamus' voice had come smooth as a living whisper into his ear again.
The moment he's down, ya go for the eyes. Don't be lettin' him see ya, or they'll have that when the Aurors do him over afters. Can't go deep, though, or you'll kill him right off by goin' through into the brain. Shallow slashes, sorta twistin', like takin' the rotton bits out o' a banana.
He never said they'd pop, that even with the Body Bind he'd twitch, that whether it's being a wizard or just another human being that Icarus would sense the pain, the nightmareness of having them gouged, that eyes aren't just another body part, they're visceral to protect, that it would make him want to clench his own and half-feel the blade into them. Even if ya botch the rest, ya gotta take the eyes. And they planned that. Sat at his own kitchen table and planned that years ago with charts and fucking lists and bullet points and casual debate like choosing the right tie to present a paper. What kind of monsters….
And it made so much more sense now in the worst ways why Seamus had come back from the first the way he had. Why the man who was tougher than dragon hide in every way Icarus could think of, whose part in the Battle of Hogwarts was still told in awkward shifts and wide-eyed, half-frightened awe by those who had witnessed and lived had cried in his arms like a child damned. Why a half-dozen, a dozen times later it still left him off for days, veering between shaken and distant or so vivid in flares and passions that he seemed utterly mad, why he flat refused the faintest drop of drink but buried himself between the legs of any willing whore he could find.
He had done it. Not just tonight, he'd done it every night, twice as guilty because he hadn't just chosen the targets and sealed them to this fate that he hadn't really understood on paper, but that he'd made someone do it and then had the audacity to call himself their friend. How many times had he killed Seamus when he sent him to kill others? How could he still be sane at all after…?
Now you're in a race 'gainst shock and bleedin', ya are. Gotta move quick. He ain't a Death Eater, and better for it, for 'tis harder with the extra little touches what those ones get. Start cuttin'. Hold the knife like this t'keep it shallow, stay away from the inside o' his arms and thighs, backs o' his knees, throat, wrists. Anywhere the arteries come real close t'surface. Broad surfaces are easiest – chest, belly, face – but try to be spreadin' it out. Get his lads at least once, that'un gives any bloke the shivers to be hearin'.
No mention that the knife would catch on cloth, stutter on the leather of a belt and drive it accidentally too deep on the belly. That human intestines were under pressure and burst out like striking back when the abdominal wall was perforated. That the knife would dull as he cut and cut. Just how goddamned many strokes fifty-four really was. How you started to run out of flesh you hadn't already cut that wasn't somewhere banned. That the network of slashes would look so much like what the Commander wore on his back that they had all agreed had been put there by inhuman sadism.
Ya wanna make a proper mess, so lash your hand back each time, let it spray, and try not t'get in the way too much when it spurts.
In books, it said that the human body contained about five liters of blood. He knew now that was absurd. It had to be at least fifty times that, and nowhere did it say how much it spread, how far it spurted, gushed, oozed, how there was no avoiding getting it absolutely everywhere, how it would soak right through a heavy wool cloak and pool on the ground to go through the knees of your trousers and squish in your shoes.
Icarus groped blindly for the soap, but he couldn't find it, and he couldn't uncurl, and it didn't matter anyway, because he knew, he knew it would never go away. He was Lady Macbeth, branded and marked for his deeds done and ordered, and he knew he could turn the knife on himself, cut every millimeter of skin from his own body and it wouldn't make the blood go away. Still tasted it. Oh, mother's love, he still tasted it over the vomit, over the tears that had started he didn't know when, over the runny nose he could only smear uselessly against his knee.
Fifty-four – count, ya can't feckin' forget to count! – and then 'tis time t'end it, and let's just be hopin' you've had the plums to be quick 'nuff 'bout it that he ain't died yet. Your landmarks'll be fecked, so use one o' the last cuts to lay open his chest proper good 'nuff to see the sternum, then go in and under and up left, like you're tryin' to clean his left ear through a way what ain't natural.
How there had been blood left, he couldn't have known, but there had been. Enough to surge up around his wrist from the final wound, make his fingers drip during the Flagrate to the brow in careful block capitals to hide his handwriting and then…then the Stunner to the back because he was a fool, a thousand, a million times a fool and had been so wrapped up in his terrible task that he hadn't considered something as fucking elementary as looking behind him.
And now none of it mattered. Everything he'd done and everything he'd made Seamus do and all the horrors they were trying to stop wouldn't matter if he'd just fucked it all up, and what if he was wrong about more than what murder meant? What if he was wrong about the Diabhal Dubh, too? There was a reason any real scholar had their research peer-reviewed, and he wasn't a real scholar…he was twenty years old and had never properly finished secondary school and…
"I don't wanna none o' this!" The cry was so high and thin and plaintive that it didn't even sound like himself, muffled against his knees and almost lost in the hiss and pulse of the water. "I just wanna over…I wanna go…wanna go home…."
Even that was wrecked now. He could see his parent's faces when the Commander told them what he'd done. They'd hate him. Hate him forever, because no one could love someone who'd done such badness, even if mothers were supposed to forgive anything. No one could forgive this.
He was crying harder now; keening, infantile wails between guttural sobs that should have been humiliating beyond belief except that no one was there to hear and the hotel was half-empty. Part of him wished it was crowded, that there would be a stranger pounding at the door and telling him to shut the fucking racket, but he was alone. All alone, and there was no one to stop the tears or the sobs or any of it, and no way he could stop it himself. It just kept coming, building past where he thought it couldn't get any worse.
The water was lukewarm, then cold, and gooseflesh shivers rattled over the uncontrollable trembling. Long ago, it had gone clear, but he could still see the red. His fingers clutched his sides, digging in deep, going to bruise, he knew, but he didn't care and it didn't even hurt any more, because it all hurt too much and there was no one to make it go away, and the soft bulge of the flesh under his hands was just another proof that there was no such thing as safe and that never again were empty words.
Fifteen had been too young. Twenty was too young. Twenty-three was too young. There was never old enough for this, but that didn't matter, because the world didn't care. It just kept going, and the bad people were always stronger because they didn't have hearts to break like this, they didn't see the red in the clear water, and there were always people who would follow them, and it didn't matter to them if they could never go home, and how could a person be so bad and still not get to have what the real bad people did?
And why did so many of the people who said they were good just stand back and ignore and let it happen until someone had to do something even if they couldn't, shouldn't, didn't know and didn't mean to? Where were the mothers kissing your forehead and tucking you back in when the nightmares were real? Why? Just whywas any all not fair not fair I wannagohome!
But there was no going home. Just the flash of the knife in his memory, the pounding of the water against hands that were invisibly stained and now white-wrinkled, the ache of his head and his chest and his stomach, the curve of his back against the hard wall, and the echo of raw-throated incoherence off the tiles with no one pounding on the door to make it stop until it bled itself out alone.