Hold still. I can't do this if you keep moving!
Mea culpa, mes ami, I can't help it…it feels like it's burrowing, I've got to – can't you numb it? Petrify it?
Not if I want to heal it clean. Just hang in there a little longer, adelphos.
Terry closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and pressing his palms flat into the cushions of the couch. His shoulder was burning, pulsing, and oh, Merlin, it hurt, but the pain wasn't truly the issue. It was the horrible, crawling, squirming itch of the curse, and every instinct wailed that his flesh had been invaded by maggots or worse, that he had to get away or claw them out or something, and the tingle of magic as Mike tried to help him was only making it so much worse.
Are – The distraction of the physical sensation was too much, and Terry let a sigh of frustration seep between his clenched teeth, forced to rely on spoken words. "Are you sure you can fix it?"
Mike glanced up from the glow of his wand, his brown eyes reflecting the orange of the spell eerily. Did I mention the need for certain parties to stop moving?
"I really am trying," Terry muttered, opening his eyes again to attempt to focus on a single point where two buttresses came together in the cathedral ceiling of the common room, trying to keep it steady and centered. The feeling was primally repugnant, but at least he didn't have to worry about panic, and if he only had something else to focus on, to distract himself…but no, an architectural detail wasn't nearly enough.
Carefully, trying to contain the movement only to his neck, he turned his head to nod towards where Christian was standing just behind Mike. He could see that the Sergeant was trying to stay calm, but what a horrid mess his shoulder must look was evident on the younger boy's face nonetheless, and it was a small comfort to know that he could at least spare him having to watch any more. "Get me Ackerley."
Mike's brows knit, and it wasn't just the concentration of the delicate, tedious spellwork. "Maybe you should wait to talk to him. At least until you're –"
"He did it," Terry replied brusquely. "He can bloody well look at it."
"Technically, Wayne did it." There was a faint hint of rebuke in Mike's voice that no one else would have caught beyond the simple correction. "Stu just didn't counter."
"And that," he pointed out, "is the problem. He was supposed to have my back, there's no good reason that spell should have even come close. I taught him the counter-charm myself weeks – ah!"
Terry stopped as Stewart's tall, lanky figure sidled uncertainly into his field of vision, shifting on his elbows to face him more directly, then wincing as the unthinking movement drove the point of Mike's wand hard into the wound.
"I know, I know." Oh, but that had not helped the irritation in the least. And how utterly unfair that this much concentration not to move would cause the body to shake from tension.
Stewart looked utterly miserable, his cheeks flushed, his long hair hanging in his face as he stared at the shoes that shuffled over one another against the blue carpet. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, I completely forgot the counter-charm. You'll be okay, though, won't you?"
"He'll be perfectly fine," Mike replied sourly, "provided he doesn't impale himself on the implements of his intended recovery."
A faint, forced smile twitched at the corners of Stewart's mouth. "Good."
"No, not good." The tone of Terry's own voice startled him a little, reminding himself unsettlingly of the authoritative snap that he had heard rarely but memorably from the Commander. He had thought the worst of the anger was subdued beneath the familiar, comforting warmth and blur, but then again, if he let himself admit it, this wasn't the worst at all. If he let himself admit it, he was furious in a way that he had rarely felt the like of, and this was only the palest edge of it.
So there was no reason for Stewart to wince like that, was there? He was getting off so much luckier than he knew. "I've been quite neatly vivisected, in case you haven't noticed, and whether or not Mike can reassemble matters, I don't see what the DA has gained by tonight's exercise being canceled because you decided we all needed an impromptu lesson in glenohumeral anatomy."
"I didn't mean –"
"I would hope not," Terry interrupted. "Because then I think I might be a little cross. But your intentions are irrelevant, aren't they? My curiosity lies elsewhere."
He ignored the silent warning, telling himself that it would be patently useless to allow his attention to be returned to Mike and, by extension, the certainty that Nifflers were being introduced into the flesh of his upper arm. Stewart seemed to be waiting for him to continue, but when he didn't, the blue eyes tipped reluctantly up to his. "Sir?"
It was awkward to draw his wand with his off hand from this position, but Terry had trained himself to be ambidextrous years ago, and it wasn't difficult to manage the spell itself, even if it earned him another sigh of annoyance from his friend and Healer. A flick, a flash, and the wireless by the common room fireplace came on just long enough to allow a single bar of music before he silenced it again, gesturing back to Stewart. "Can you identify that?"
Stewart blinked, clearly baffled, but he decided not to argue, frowning in consideration for a few seconds, then nodding. "'Treasured,' by Fairy Lights, I think."
"You think?" Terry raised a questioning eyebrow at him. "I thought music was your specialty, Mr. Ackerley? Certainly, you spend enough of your time and effort on musical endeavor. Or is your concentration limited to practicing your crowd-pleasing hair tosses and the precise limits of how far you can stretch the tensile fiber strength of a pair of blue jeans before losing your lower extremities to gangrene?"
Someone - probably Anthony from the location of it – gasped, and for a moment, Stewart looked like he'd been hexed, but then his lips set, his chin thrusting forward as his eyes sparked. "Off the '93 album Midsummer Tales, their third, which had two singles reach the tope ten, although none of their work has matched their '88 debut record. They disbanded last summer permanently after the lead singer had a religious epiphany and moved to China."
Mike looked up from his work, eyes widened in genuine surprise. "Off one bar? That's –"
There was no chance for him to finish the sentence as Terry had already fired off the next question, his eyes locked with Stewart's. "Top hit record of 1966?"
"Charts for wizarding pop and rock music popularity weren't started formally until 1970, but most sources agree 'Gimme Gimme Goblins' by the Spellcasters."
"A customized six-string Helios Corona."
The efforts at his shoulder had stopped completely, but Mike wasn't the only one staring, mouth agape. A crowd had gathered, pressing in as closely as they could. They were all not to seem spectators at what might well turn into an intellectual bloodsport at any moment, but it was impossible to resist. Terry never spared them a second glance. "Most prominent classical composer of 100 years ago?"
Stewart's eyes were gleaming now – unlike Terry, he was anything but immune to the effects of an audience – and he was grining, but it was a hard, exhilarated smile as he crossed his arms, tipping his weight cockily onto one hip. "Generalized late nineteenth century or 1898?"
"Influenced most prominently by?"
"Muggle or wizard?"
"Connect him to the first piece."
For half a breath, Stewart paused, and the tension from those watching was palpable, nearly unbearable before the smile widened in triumph. "Rimsky-Korsakov, composer of a virtuoso piece called 'Flight of the Bumblebee' composed almost entirely of sixteenth intervals and used in the Muggle radio programme 'The Green Hornet' in combination with the Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky, based itself on the legend of the Phoenix which is also invoked in the title track of Fairy Lights' second album 'Back to Ashes.'"
Applause burst out from their impromptu assembly, but although Terry's withering glare silenced it almost at once, it was already done. Stewart swept the circle with a brief, cheeky bow, then turned back to Terry with a smirk. "Anything else?"
"Just one more question." Despite still being flat on his back, he knew he did not seem like someone who had been soundly shown up, not in the least, and there was a low murmur of intrigue as the others realized that perhaps this was not over yet.
His opponent, however, remained completely confident. "Try me."
It wasn't the aggressive pace of the previous questions, and that should have been the younger wizard's first cause for alarm. This one was turned over slowly on his tongue before he spoke, each syllable delineated, enunciated, honed to stilettos of ice that perforated the air of the utterly silent room. "In what musical form, notation, philosophy, or sub-culture is it acceptable to make such a profoundly inadequate excuse as 'I forgot' when it is clear you have plenty of room for a shrine to the picayune nuances of Euterpe between those fashionably pierced ears of yours?"
He saw the words strike home in Stewart's eyes as surely as seeing a spell take effect, but to his credit, there was no outward flinch, no recoil, merely the faintest waver to his words that an amateur in verbal warfare could even have taken for anger. "I never said I was a dueler, I'm a musician."
"No, Ackerley, you're a soldier." Terry gave a humorless smile and an almost unnoticeable wave of his wand, and the blue-lined robes transfigured abruptly to the solid, featureless, uniform black of a mission's attire.
Stewart startled at first as the rippling spell went through his clothing, but then he hesitated, running the once-sapphire edge of a cuff between his fingers as his shoulders sagged in a concession so complete that it took Terry by surprise. It sounded almost as if he were talking to himself, the challenge in the words completely absent in their delivery. "Or maybe you're wrong. Maybe I'm not."
Self-pity was not going to help them, and he refused to relent, letting out a brief snort of disgust before pressing on coldly. "Maybe you will be a soldier. Music isn't going to soothe You-Know-Who or his savage beast, and it's not going to help you much, because you're looking at an ultimatum now."
The blonde head snapped up, resignation replaced with confusion. "Sir?"
Terry raised three fingers, holding the other wizard's eyes so strongly that he half-expected to start receiving pieces of his thoughts any instant now. "You have three weeks to turn dueling into a symphonic masterpiece. Three weeks. Twenty-one days. Then you'll be up against me, never mind You-Know-Who, and if you 'forget' then, you're going to have to find some very creative microphone placement, because you are going to find your oral and rectal cavities inverted with every bit as much discomfort as I am currently experiencing."
All color vanished from Stewart's face as his mouth dropped open in shock. "There's no such spell!"
"Charm Development is my specialt--" He was still speaking, but the word never finished, cut off by the flash and snap of a Silencing Charm as Mike suddenly stood up between the two of them, brandishing his wand reproachfully.
"And one of my specialties is medicine, under which I must point out that this conversation is about as helpful as Tarantallegra, so speaking as Second Lieutenant in the current incapacitation – oh yes you are – of the Lieutenant, I'm declaring it over for the time being. If there's more to be said, you can talk about it later." He pointed sternly away from the couch, but though Stewart tried to say something, the spell kept the words resolutely muted, and he merely sighed soundlessly, nodding in defeat.
Mike watched him go, then made a small noise of satisfaction as he knelt by Terry's side once more, though his eyes were no longer at all sympathetic. And once your shoulder's done with, Lieutenant, we're going to talk about that head injury.
The charm had been lifted now, he could feel it, but it never occurred to him to answer the strange assertation aloud. I don't have a head injury.
Wrong answer. Mike steadied his shoulder with one hand, the other aiming his wand as the crawling, itching torment seemed to redouble. Because in that case, I'm just wildly disappointed and furious with you. That crossed a lot of lines.
He'd only heard that tone from his best friend once before, and when Terry winced, it had nothing to do with any physical injury. I thought you'd be proud that I stood up for myself, that I didn't just say it was my own fault for not teaching him right or some such.
The wand paused again, and Mike looked up with a strange, dark half-smile. I am. But standing on your own two feet doesn't mean stepping on other people. He didn't deserve that.
None of us deserve this year.
There was a long, complete silence, and Mike looked away, returning his attention to his task. At first, Terry thought he had decided to drop the subject, but before he could gather himself either to ask or try and find something else they could turn to, he heard the voice in his head again, so much quieter, so much older-sounding than he had ever expected from someone who so often seemed so untouchable by the darkness of the world. And in this year, who do we have but each other?
He said nothing more, but he didn't need to. Terry sighed, the guilt so thick in his throat now that it was hard even to make the words come out beyond a whisper. "Acke – Stewart?"
The answer came almost at once from the far corner of the common room, startled and high-pitched in a way that Terry knew much to his own dismay was the sound of someone who had been caught trying to control their emotions. "The guitar's staying in the case, Sir, I swear. This is my spells notebook, not the –"
Brushing Mike aside with his good hand, Terry sat up, ignoring the scream of protest that it brought from his shoulder as he twisted to face Stewart. He didn't bother to call him over or to lower his voice. If he had done the first in front of everyone, he could just as well do this too, and whatever it made people think of him, they would be more than fair in doing so. "I'm sorry."
"No, Sir," Stewart shook his head firmly. "You were right."
"But the way I said it wasn't," Terry insisted. "There's no cause for personal insults or public humiliation, and for that I do apologize." He twisted his face into a smile that he hoped conveyed as genuine, as the words behind it certainly were. "Although, that was really quite impressive."
Stewart looked startled, and that simple reaction hit Terry like a hex. What a bastard he'd been if such a well-earned compliment was a cause for confusion? "Er...no worries." Shewart shrugged, gesturing vaguely as if even he didn't know quite what he was trying to say. "I mean, thank you…Sir. I just…"
"Yes?" Terry prodded reluctantly.
He was expecting many possibilities, but the nearly worshipful respect on Stewarts face now was not one of them. "I had no idea you were such a music lover."
Terry chuckled blackly despite himself, shrugging and not caring what the gesture brought him in remittance. "I'm not. You kind of had my head spinning by answering that fast, and for what it's worth, I completely forgot about my shoulder trying to stay on top of it." He felt himself blush and looked away, even though he knew it was yet another thing that wasn't at all appropriate for an officer to do. "Rather exciting, I hate to admit."
He didn't want to look up and see what Stewart's face would show, but he made himself do it anyway, although even then he didn't quite know what to make of it. Amusement? Confusion? Hurt? Suspicion? Some mad combination of the lot? "Then how did you know I was right?"
"Because you're not mental, Stu," he confessed, "and it would take someone clinically insane to attempt to pass off bullshit in a trivia challenge in front of thirty people with various degrees of a research fetish."
To his surprise, Stewart laughed, and it was a laugh without malice, topped off with a small salute. "You're not so stupid yourself, Sir." He gestured towards the door of the sixth-year dormitory. "Mind if I go study now? I'd hate to have to explain that kind of physical rearrangement to my parents."
Unsure of how else to respond, Terry nodded his permission, but he continued to stare long after the door had shut. It didn't make sense. Publically cut down, humiliated, challenged, and derided after failing to remember a basic spell and causing someone to be injured…and he'd just…bounced back. Watching him go, it had seemed utterly ridiculous to even contemplate that he had gone in there to cry, to chastise himself, to do anything but simply study, and it seemed equally ludicrous to imagine that anything but those study habits would linger even until morning.
Was it something about the arts? Did it just require a thickened emotional skin to offer your heart and efforts to a field in which so much was subjective? Or was it something else? Something he should be aware of as an officer? Asset or liability…or both?
Behind him, Mike cleared his throat pointedly, and Terry sighed, dropping back onto the couch. He didn't look at him– couldn't, really – and he shifted to pull his shoulder out of easy reach, covering the wound with his hand. I can do it myself, Mike, it's okay.
The reply sounded just as indignant as he had expected. It'll scar if you –
C'est la guerre. Besides, I think you were saying something? He did look now, hoping that he at least had managed a suitable facsimile of resigned nonchalance. Go on; disappointed, wasn't it? And furious, and most likely disgusted and appalled and about ready to make a completely appropriate petition to the Commander to replace me as Lieutenant?
For a moment, Mike's eyes widened, as if he had forgotten his previous statement entirely, then a strange, cryptic smile appeared, and he shook his head slowly, reaching out to take Terry's hand carefully from his shoulder. No. Proud. Proud and sorry.
Sorry? Terry frowned, wondering if he had mistaken his own thought for that of his friend. For what?
And then the point and the confusion were entirely moot, because in a single movement that reminded him unavoidably that Mike had indeed been an athlete for years already, he was pinned to the couch beneath 12 stone of best friend who was not merely making it impossible to move by sitting astride his chest, but was also doing unspeakable things to his shoulder. Oh, you bloody thrice-damned irrumator kariolis, va chier! Casse-toi, pauvre con! Futue –
What else are friends for?