The New Skin
Chapter 1: The Reverse
I was in another place. I didn't even notice it at first, too occupied with the pain in my chest and neck as I tried to draw a breath. When I finally stopped trying to breathe I could see it clearly. It was another place, another world, upside-down and backwards.
My blood had grown into a disturbingly large dark pool in front of me, but in that other place it was bright and white against black floorboards. Before the walls had risen up to a dim ceiling, but here they sank in darkness to a glimmering river somewhere below me. I was sinking too, slowly pulling away from my bright pool above.
I wasn't alone. A tall dark figure was walking through the river below me. It was hard to distinguish his features in the dark planes of his face. He stood directly below me and stretched a withered hand up.
I watched it come towards me in horrified anticipation. It came close, but it didn't touch me, veering off to my pool of blood. The bright liquid fled away from his fingers leaving dark boards behind. The boards weren't completely bare: his finger was pointing at a bright circle, like a coin, so bright that it hurt to look at it. He was going to pick it up, I knew it.
Some part of me objected; it was mine, I wanted it even without knowing what it was. I tried to move my hands to get it, but they felt so far away now, dipped in the cool pool of blood. I could barely feel them, much less move them, they only twitched.
He picked up the coin and left. I was bereft, I felt that I would have cried out and pleaded if I could, but all I could do was slowly sink towards the river.
There was another shape coming out of the glimmering water, a horrible dark thing I couldn't make sense of, an angular complicated letter from another alphabet, a broken concertina opening and closing. It gave out some sort of discordant clanging song that pierced through me. It was flying up at me with a strange frantic jerking movement. It clenched my shoulder in a sharp grip and shoved me roughly back up to the ceiling and poured something burning over my neck.
I was breathing.
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"Get up now," the voice interrupted. I was trying to… what was it? Yes, yes it was important.
"Get them out," I said. Only I didn't properly say it. I had no voice, there was only rasping breath behind the words.
"Oh bloody… not this again," the voice muttered. A hand took my shoulder and pulled at me. I winced away from it; it was like that clawing shape that I remembered. Did I remember? Everything felt like a dream. I tried to get my eyes to clear.
"Time to get up, up with you now."
"Get them out… please," I said as loudly as I could.
"We've been through this and through this," the voice said. Hands took both my shoulders firmly; there was no wincing away for me.
"Please, he's coming…"
They pulled at me, and I came up in a dizzying rush. My head gave a tremendous throb of pain; I heard myself gasp at it.
"They're out, they've been out, and they're out yet," the voice recited, barely patient. "Veni, vidi, vale, over and done with but the shouting." One hand held me up, the other was busy elsewhere. "Want to be shouted at, do you?" I didn't, my head hurt, I didn't think I could take shouting unless I were the one doing it. Unfortunately my voice didn't seem to be up to the task.
"Drink up now." He steadied my head, which was good, since I could hardly hold it up. A glass vial clinked against my teeth and something went down. I recognized the taste, strengthening solution. Swallowing hurt like hell.
"You up now?" I was sitting on a bed in a white room, looking down at a rag rug on top of wood floorboards. My own bare feet were down there, looking far away. Helpless, pale, thin-skinned things.
"Let's have a look, then. " The owner of the voice tipped my head up, and I was looking into Aberforth's blue eyes and grizzled face. He peered at me appraisingly, then turned towards a dresser at our side. I caught sight of a perch next to it occupied by that damn bird. Fawkes stretched his wings and settled. A broken concertina. I shuddered.
"Another one of these wouldn't hurt," he muttered to himself as he fumbled one-handed on the dresser top. Did he know what he was doing, or even what he was dosing me with? I saw a pitcher of water on the dresser and my outrage fled as quickly as it had come. Water, I wanted water. He turned around with another vial for me. I waved my hand at the pitcher, a high-pitched wheeze forcing itself out of my throat.
"Huh, what now?" he asked. I waved at the pitcher again. "Wait a tic, you'll get it…" he fed me the other vial. I knew the taste: blood replenisher. No wonder I was thirsty, blood replenisher had to be taken with a very large quantity of water. Idiot! If he had fed me some of that already but no water, he would have me overdosing. I waved at the water again, more urgently as the dry heat of the potion swept over me. The damn fool would do me in just as well as the snake if this kept up!
"Yeah, all right then, don't get all in a twist!" He poured a pint glass full and raised it to my lips. My fingers scrabbled against the glass, but he swatted my hands away and tipped it up. I didn't care that swallowing hurt like hell, it was the most delicious thing I had ever had. He tried to put the glass down when I drained it, but I flapped my hands and wheezed until I got more than four pints out of him.
Finally sated, I tried to lie back on the bed I was sitting on. "Oh, no you don't, you've got to get up now." Was he crazy? I wanted to lie back down. He kept me upright with a hand on my shoulder as he summoned a dark bundle from a chair. He shook it open: clothes. He dressed me as the strengthening solution took effect. I could hold my head up now on my own, though turning it was another matter; a sharp pain lanced up into my skull when I tried. I kept my head still.
The clothes were enormous, trailing off my legs, flopping over my hands. Aberforth was taller than me, but not that tall. I wondered dully where the clothes had come from. Had he rolled a drunk for them? Thankfully Aberforth shrunk them so they almost fit. Where did he think I was going? I wasn't going anywhere. I couldn't leave, not when I didn't know. He was half-turned back to the dresser. I had to be sure, it was more than my life…
I clutched at his elbow. "They're out? All of them?" My voice was nothing but a wheeze with a ridiculous quack at the end. He gave an exasperated sigh and peered at me again. "They're out, they're all out, it's over. Do you believe me or am I lying to you?" I didn't venture to answer that. If he was lying, he was good enough to pause in his speech or let his eyes flick up. I supposed that he wasn't lying, but I couldn't seem to keep my crawling anxiety from spilling over. Wasn't there something that I still had to do?
As if he had some part of his brother's gift, he said, "you're all done, they're out. It's your turn now. Ready or not, you've got to get out. If they find you here… I don't want any part of it." He put a box down on the coverlet next to me and muttered, "have to be ready."
"Said you've got a spare." I looked at him blankly. "Wand, spare wand, we left the other one to cool your tracks." I trailed my finger along the newly-smooth skin of my left arm. It was strange not to see the mark there. "Inside," I managed. He looked disgusted when he understood me. "Bloody typical."
He helped me shift over and put my arm on the dresser top. He cast scourgify on it, then a cold stasis, not quite freezing. I clenched my teeth as the ache of the cold set in. "Show me," he said. I drew my finger along where he should cut.
He was quick; I had to give him that. He pulled the bluish skin away from his cut, but when he couldn't see the spare at once, he grabbed my other hand and pulled it over. "Right, you know where it is. Pull it out." My arm felt like a frozen log. I found the shrunken wand and extracted it. Aberforth moved my hand away impatiently, scourgified the cut and healed it. My head swam a bit as warmth and feeling flooded back out to my fingertips. He was holding me by my shoulders again and turned me to face the box on the bed.
It was a White Owl cigar box; gilded paper covers peeling at the edges. He opened the lid to reveal a chipped, stained ashtray taking up half the box. I wasn't sure what that was, but I recognized the rest of the contents. Two parchment-wrapped bundles were my emergency muggle money supply from my office. Then there was a roll of shiny light-blue fabric that made my heart sink. It was my sleeping-bag, shrunken. Top of the line, all the bells and whistles, automatic warming- and cooling-charms, built-in padding and pillow, completely weatherproof and windproof, self-shrinking. Recreational Enchanters, Inc, the very best. I hated the sight of it.
It had been the headmaster's last birthday present to me. He had presented it with ill-disguised childish glee and wanted to show me all the features. I still couldn't put a name to the source of the anger that had bubbled up and overwhelmed me as he demonstrated the self-sealing flap over the zippers. He saw it on my face before I said anything.
"Now, now, it it's the wrong color I'm sure it can be adjusted…" He must have known that color had nothing to do with it. That and his disappointed look, his conciliatory tone, pushed me too far. "Do you think I camp? When have you ever known me to camp?" I snapped. Ungrateful, ungracious, a right bastard, as usual.
"I haven't," he said calmly, "I thought it might be useful."
"Useful! It's useless, utterly useless! I'll never use it!" I recognized his hurt look with equal parts satisfaction and guilt.
"You may use it…" he said after a pause.
"Never, I'll never," I couldn't go on without putting a name to it, and I didn't know it well enough to name it. Was it that I thought I might live, or was it the thought that I wouldn't? Was it that he thought that I might live, or that he knew that I wouldn't? Whatever it was, I couldn't approach it without anger flooding me. I couldn't quite look at Albus or his present, his last present.
"I'll just put it away then," he said, disappointed. I didn't look up when he left my quarters. I hadn't seen it since then, until now when it was sitting smugly in its self-compacting sack next to my money.
Aberforth was placing the objects from the box one-by-one on the coverlet next to me. The bag, my two bundles of money, and the knife I had been carrying. Underneath was a heavy parchment envelope that I knew held my false ID and supporting papers that I obtained years ago. Dr. Cyril Ramson DMA still submitted occasional articles to Potions Monthly, just to keep his hand in.
A small leather case held about 15 vials of assorted emergency and healing potions, then there was a bag of holding, folded flat. Finally, he used his wand to lift out the ashtray. "Touch activated," he said. He packed the other objects back in the box and handed it to me along with my spare wand.
"You can stand now, yeah?" I wasn't as sure as he seemed to be, but the strengthening solution had done its work. I stood, balanced by one hand on the dresser while I waited for the pain in my head to ease.
"Useless," I rasped. Aberforth ignored me.
"I'll send word to you later, understand? You've got to be gone now. You ready?"
I knew what I was supposed to answer to that. Ready or not, I had to be ready, always. My neck wouldn't quite nod so I just wheezed my assent. He motioned to the ashtray. I touched it and was gone.
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This story is a prequel to my already posted and completed story, The Clear Cut. There are some recurring characters between the stories, but both can stand on their own and be read in any order, so please don't hesitate to check out The Clear Cut if you are interested.
This story is almost completely written, I just will be editing and typing up chapters before posting. I will post roughly one chapter per week.
I welcome all comments and will reply to every review that I can, so please let me know what you think!