Chapter was beta'd by the wonderful Brissygirl! As you all know, this chapter has given me no end of trouble and it's taken a lot to edits and rewrites done. The formatting alone (not just the FFN formatting, which is a whole different pain in itself), has caused me no end of trouble this weekend.

Thanks for being so patient, you guys! I appreciate you so much! All remaining mistakes are my own. See the first chapter for disclaimers/additional warnings/summaries.


RECAP: RECAP: Our boys get BONDED! Family shows up. Harry discovers just how much he is loved by those around them and Quinn finds the he belongs just as much as he hoped he would. A soft fluff interlude before the next arc begins.


ROYAL QUARTERS / KING ALCANDOR'S SUITES - ALCANDOR & KILLIGAN


"Alcandor—Alcandor, please, my dearheart. Are you so vexed with me?" Killigan asked.

Alcandor's pacing slowed and he came to kneel at the foot of the bed where he'd deposited Killigan, still swathed in their fancy robes and shimmery veil. There were obvious signs of worry and unhappiness in his regal face as he regarded the other Merrow with a hint of affection and frustration.

"Am I not allowed to be concerned for you?" he asked, brows furrowed. "To worry for your own wellbeing knowing how I have left you and where you were meant to be?"

"It is your right to do so," Killigan said, simply. "And it is my honour to acknowledge it. I am well enough though. You need not worry yourself to such lengths. Alec came very quickly and Krym would never have left my side, had I not forced them to do so." Leaning forward, they cupped Alcandor's cheek with one finely scaled hand, cool to the touch.

Alcandor sighed, pressing his cheek further into that familiar hand. "You were lucky," he said, at last. "There was so much left to chance. I could not bear it if something had gone wrong."

"But we planned for it, dearheart. I know this was not the ideal outcome, but we are both alive. Our people are well. The borders remain protected. The breach was unsuccessful. Nevarah is safe. I am safe. You are here. That is all that matters."

"What if—what if something more would have come through? Without Krym-"

"It would not have gone otherwise," Killigan said, firmly. "I was told to behave and stay out of trouble. I did my best to comply with your earnest request. Krym is responsible for more than simply me. It is a honour to have their protection while I wear your crown."

Alcandor surged forward, burying his face in Killigan's middle, cheek smushed up against the thick, wispy fabric of one of their favourite court gowns. His arms automatically came up, circling around Killigan's waist, a thread of his strong magic reaching out through their bond.

Killigan gently smoothed fingers through Alcandor's long navy hair, finger-combing them to a few degrees neater than what it had been. "Am I in trouble?" they asked, teasingly.

Alcandor gave a half-hearted huff. "What do you think?"

The grin grew wider. "So much," Killigan said, petting at the delicate fluting of Alcandor's ears, tracing sharp clawed tips around the webbed spines and curves. "Is the tub filled yet?"

"Halfway there," Alcandor said, scooping them up and settling them across his lap as he switched their positions. Tucking Killigan's face into the crook of his neck, he hummed softly, reveling in the comfort of having his Bonded one near. "And what is it you could not tell me while we were among our fellow royals?"

"You noticed?"

"I notice everything about you, dearheart. Speak. The room is warded with my blood. Kieran ensured it the night we arrived."

Killigan sighed. They played with Alcandor's ears for a few more minutes, as if steeling themselves for the news about to be shared.

"…we awakened three of our Immortals."

Alcandor stilled. "The Fates?"

"Mhm."

"And they agreed to surface? Killigan!"

"Grumpily, but yes." Killigan's hands kept up the careful motions, moving on from Alcandor's ears, back to his thick hair, smoothing back flyaway strands and coaxing more moisture into the air.

Abruptly, a heavy press of humidity dropped into the room. Fine mist rose up from the damp carpet and thin trickles of water began to pour down the walls, covering each of them in a thin veil of running water. At the four corners of the room, glowing Waterstone gems lit up with soft blue-green lights radiating safety and elemental efficiency.

Killigan smiled, softly. "That's better now, isn't it?" They asked. "You shouldn't have kept it so dry in here. They can't hold your being Merrow against you. It's taken ages to come this far, but we accommodate them as best as we can when they visit."

"It's not that. I didn't need as much of it the last time I was here," Alcandor said, tiredly. "And since I've arrived, I've just been drawing on it more heavily than I expected. Kieran's been helping me with tracking down the rest of the runaways, but I think there's two or three that got through all the way to the surface."

"Here in Nevarah?" Killigan frowned. "Did you tell them? They could do quite a bit of damage here on land!"

"They know," Alcandor said, snuggling closer to them. "I told them first thing when I arrived. Even old bones got worried. She's had her sentries put up secondary protections all around the inner auditorium for the Hunt."

"That bad?"

"Worse. Alec said he found one of the runaways along the beach—had to get rid of them and had no time for a proper interrogation. He's worried there's more spies involved."

"Nevarah is a beautiful realm," Killigan said. "It does make an awful realisation to understand that there are many who would kill to possess it."

"Despite our open waters and borders," Alcandor said, snorting. "Nevermind, we did lock the entire realm down for their protection as much as ours. They will simply have to deal with it, as they have done, every single time this occurs. Tell me more about what you were doing on Earth? And that miserable scrap of a soul you dredged up from the-"

"Bath first," Killigan said, tracing a finger down Alcandor's face and curving around his fluted ear, before circling back to his mouth. They let cool fingers splay across warm lips, teasing at pushing it up into a hint of a smile. "Please? I have missed you."

"And I, you," Alcandor said, heavily. He rose, hefting Killigan easily in his arms as if they weighed nothing more than the decorative pillows scattered around the corners of the bed.


The dark-tiled, square tub was deep enough for Killigan's purr of approval as they took in the sight of the provided bathroom. "I'm impressed," they said, pleased and making no attempt to leave the safety and comfort of Alcandor's arms. "They learn well. I wouldn't have thought they'd make your quarters so—lavish."

"They have learned from the last visit. And I might have demanded a few things from Kieran once I settled in and had the presence of mind for it."

Killigan snorted. Checking the privacy and guarding wards within the bathroom, a flick of one hand saw Merrow magic twining meaningfully over the visible threads of energy encircling the enclosed space.

An arched eyebrow was Alcandor's silent question to that, before he rolled his neck back, magic flaring in perfect tandem with Killigan's, adding his own strength to ensuring their conversation would go to no other outside ears.

"Thank you," Killigan said, relaxing a fraction. "I know you have your own protections in place, but it puts me at ease. I'm glad Kieran was of some help. I meant more along the lines of didn't he already twist himself into a tangle to see to your every whim as he always does?"

"He's your uncle, not mine."

"True, but he is good at what he does. Was he of any other help beyond this?" Killigan wiggled their toes, curling them in the warm humidity of the bathing room. "I asked him to help, but you know how he is. My status doesn't do me any good at all."

"He's family, so I was polite and he was—close enough to politeness. He cares in his own way, I suppose. He filled in the gaps when Alec wasn't around. It's not perfect, but it works in bits and pieces. I don't want more of us up here when it's so risky, but we might need it after all. He's drawing up a second set of reserve contingency plans."

Killigan frowned. "That bad?"

"Alec thinks it still won't be enough. He said he's traced things back towards the Fire Section."

"...the fire section?"

"I've given old bones as much of a warning as I can without practically writing it down with her own hands," Alcandor said, flatly. "Whatever's upset the balance there, isn't our problem to solve. I'm more concerned with the possibility of rumours slipping out about internal unrest at the royal level. That won't be good."

"Nothing about it is good. What are you thinking? Beyond the spies?"

"Spies are getting redundant, aren't they? We already know there's a leak, but narrowing it down seems to be the slippery part. They have to be getting their information from somewhere and I don't care to wrangle any other court than ours. It's bloodthirsty enough as it is and if we add fire to the mix-"

Killigan shuddered. "Dangerous. Too dangerous. I don't like it. That's too obvious of a conflict. They have to know that we would not stand for it. There is already enough suspicion without going out of our way to look for it."

"Do you think it's a distraction? They're trying to confuse us? It is very likely they are counting on other factors," Alcandor said. "That's the part that worries me, because we can't account for anything."

"The rest of it doesn't?" Killigan shook their head, damp hair dripping around them. "You're right. We can't account for anything, but I'm confident enough that our worst plans are better than their best ones. Isn't it better to catch some of it, rather than none of it?"

"Oh?" Alcandor drawled.

"Have to be confident about something," Killigan said, shrugging. "Might as well choose the option that would give us some sort of advantage."

"I suppose. Hair?"

Killigan hummed. "Yes, please. And you'd best be going easy on Alec. He's probably stretched himself ridiculously thin to make so much of this work, not to mention keeping tabs on both of us. You are giving him a break in between of things, yes?"

Alcandor did not answer. Instead, he stepped straight over the edge of the tub and right into the water, as if he wouldn't drop into it.

He didn't.

Instead, the water surged up to meet them, cradling both of them gently as it ease into the warm, sparkling depths. Alcandor's eyes fluxed bright, neon blue, dulling to an acceptable teal, before he was comfortably seated on the built-in bench at the far end of the tub, his long feet stretched out before him.

Between one breath and the next, his legs had morphed into a thick, powerful tail, sturdy fins swirling in the warm water.

Killigan curled up on his lap, resting warm and pliant against him, scaled skin pressed firmly against scaled skin. "I'm serious, Alcandor. You be nice to him. He's your cousin."

"He's as good as my brother," Alcandor said, firmly. "And I can only help him if he wants to be helped. You know how particular he is."

"I know that he needs structure and support," Killigan said, evenly. "More support than structure, because everything he does is the result of a thousand micro-decisions in a heartbeat. He sees things that we don't and it saves lives. Are you giving him that level of support?"

"Why do you think I insisted on Kieran?"

Killigan winced. "He has a tendency to be heavy-handed."

"And we both know how Alec responds to anything else," Alcandor said, frustrated. "I'm trying, Killigan. I swear I am, I would do anything within my power to repay what he's done and what he's still doing for all of us, but I can't be everywhere all at once without-"

"Hush. I know." Killigan strained to be closer to him. "I only worry. He was quite agitated when he came through. I'm not sure if it was seeing Krym before he found me or something else. He probably ran into your mother, considering the abbreviated lecture shouted my way in between of some rather terrifying spellwork."

"He actually used it?"

"Zero hesitation and one-hundred percent effectiveness," Killigan said, smugly. "It was beautiful. You would've loved it. I think you would've promised him the realms if you'd seen how incredible it looked. It was that beautiful. He took charge and literally set a Reaper on that miserable little soul scrap. Overkill, but we love to see it."

"...soul scrap?"

"It was split into pieces or something," Killigan said, slumping lower for the water to lap at their chin. "I would've liked to know more, but the timing was all wrong. Too much of an audience and not enough access to deeper waters for what I wanted done. Anyway, would you be venturing out to Death's Courts any time soon?"

"Even if I am, I am not taking you with me, no matter how adorable you are. That face is not going to work."

"Alcandor."

"Killigan," Alcandor said, plainly. "You know very well that we can't both go and Death will not receive you now. You may ask questions and I may actually remember to ask them on your behalf, but we have already had this conversation. I need to go, but only for the usual negotiations and nothing more."

Blue lips curved into a pout, Killigan crossing their arms over their chest in an imitation of a mild sulk. "You could send Alec."

"I could not. He has his fins full with all the extras I keep throwing his way and on top of that, he won't stop fretting about his actual—did he tell you that he found him?"

"Him?" Killigan sat up so fast, their head bumped into Alcandor's chin. "Ow. Ow—sorry, sorry, my love."

Alcandor sighed, leaning forward enough for Killigan to press soft, apologetic kisses along the dulling ache spreading from his jaw. It took a few seconds for his healing to kick in and then it was fine and Killigan's soft lips had gone from light, feathery kisses to gentle nips—a wordless plea for more intimate attention.

"Make up your mind," Alcandor said, settling his hands on those sturdy hips and keeping Killigan still in his lap. "And yes. Him. His name is Harry, he has claims to family Clans within the realm, but I do not see any evidence of those connections. A supposed Empathic gift, no elemental associations, unstable magic—likely leaving him magic sensitive—and a great deal of complications on top of it. It's like he's chaos-blessed instead of fate-marked. I've never seen such a troublesome landwalker in a very long time."

"That's a lot. And he's Alec's?"

"It's not the best first impression, but he's young. There's time. Young ones always grow and change. For his own sake, I sincerely hope they make sure he is properly looked after. Alec thinks he has little to no regard for himself to the point of almost being suicidal. He nearly drowned during their first meeting and Alec's been fretting ever since, not that anyone but myself and Kieran have noticed."

"Drowned?" Killigan asked, trailing more kisses down Alcandor's neck to suck at his pulse point. "That is not entirely unexpected, given Alec's temperament, but I assume he wouldn't have drowned for very long."

"Not that kind of drowning," Alcandor said, very quietly. His hands flexed on Killigan's hips, thumbs smoothing over the line where fine scales became thicker and rougher. "The other kind."

Killigan stilled. "You're sure?"

"Alec was very upset. He hasn't been that way since—well, you know. I stuffed him full of calming charms and no less than three settling cocktails. It barely took the edge off and I had Mama's blood to spike it with."

"That's...worrisome," Killigan said, at last. "He's not losing control, is he? No—he was definitely in control with what he did today. Tell me more about this Harry-person, does he look the type? Alec's definitely got a type. Is he alone? Can we help? Is anyone handling that or are they all pretending there's nothing wrong with it?"

"I don't know who is pretending to do or be what. But he's—not alone, exactly. He's Bonded. Got himself an Alpha and a Beta, so he's triad-protected at least. I believe he has more Bonded now, but I didn't pry too much about it—Alec wasn't exactly clear about retelling the whole thing. Just said that he walked into the water and right through one of his experimental spells. Nearly killed him. Had a complete freakout in my rooms once he got back. I thought I'd have to poison him because the sedatives weren't working."

Killigan jerked upright, concern overtaking their delicate features. "Alcandor!"

"He asked me to!" Alcandor said, unhappily. He tugged Killigan back down to hold them close. "Believe me, I do not want to."

"But he pulled himself together, right? He had to or he wouldn't have used that spell off-realm. Does he know? The Harry-person. Did Alec tell him? Oh, it must be adorable. Alec's waited so long for someone to hold his heart. How is their courtship going? Did they exchange gifts yet?"

"You have too much faith in him, sweetheart. No, this is Alec. He cursed him."

Killigan blinked. "...he what?"

"Cursed him. Zero hesitation there too, I'm sure. You know that lovely spell he likes to use in court? When he wants to be menace but not enough of a troublemaker to have the court nobles call him out on it?"

"The language-mixing charm?"

"It's not the least bit charming unless he wants it to be. Made him actually cycle through every single one of the basic main dialects of our native tongue in the Main City every single time he tried to speak of the encounter and then had him retelling the entire encounter down to the last detail. I highly doubt he would've ever said half as much if he knew what he was saying. If it wasn't so Alec, I would've laughed."

Killigan tipped forward, forehead pressing against Alcandor's damp shoulder. Shoulders quivered with barely suppressed laughter. "I shouldn't laugh, but honestly. Alec! Did he really? How is that supposed to endear him to his Intended?"

"I don't think he thought that far," Alcandor said, tiredly. He shifted his hands from Killigan's hips to curl around their waist, pressing them closer together, his coiled tail brushing against the edges of the tub. "And because it's Alec, I'm sure you can guess what else he did with the spell."

More laughter spilled out, this time, Killigan couldn't keep it together. "Oh, Alec. How can someone so brilliant be so incredibly-"

"I said I think of him like a brother," Alcandor said, flatly. "I did not say he was smart."

Killigan snorted, nipping at Alcandor's purpling neck. Webbed fingers danced along Alcandor's sides, stroking firmly along warm scales. "He's smart, but sometimes I think he's scheming too much. Let me guess, the spell latched onto anything else that wasn't supposed to be there and required immediate removal?"

"Seals," Alcandor said, helpfully. "It pulled out a power limiter and a soul-dampening one. I'd suspect he might have given a soulscream, but with that level of interference, it probably wasn't more than a soulcry at the most—and with it being off-realm, you can imagine how that went. It troubles me to think of the side effects. Soul magic is a fickle thing at best and to have it altered is never good for anyone."

Killigan hissed in sympathy. "As if there isn't enough chaos mixed up in that already. I'm starting to feel a bit sorry for him, even if he is a landwalker. Maybe he's not so bad? I mean, he'd have to be pretty decent to be functioning so well with all of that on him, yes?"

"Perhaps. But you were there too," Alcandor reminded them. "I thought Alec would turn feral when the magic reached out. Too dull to pull anything in, but sharp enough to cut. Desperation. That kind of anguish will affect every single Intended, whether he wants it to or not. He probably doesn't even know and I don't think the ones affected even realise it, given that there were no rushed Bondings when I looked up his registered Circle."

Killigan winced. "It wasn't very pretty for Alec. I cannot begin to imagine the others."

"I doubt it was any better."

"So, are they any closer to courting now?"

It was Alcandor's turn to snort in amusement and disbelief. "No, actually. Part of that is my own fault, I've insisted on having him handle things on his own—I know, Killigan, don't look at me like that—but I only trust him. I can only trust him. There's too much that could go wrong in someone else's hands."

"Well, that explains why he's so grumpy." Killigan pressed a kiss to Alcandor's throat. "And why you're so jumpy."

"You know I would not deny him. I will give him leave to court and bond and whatever else his petty little heart desires, so as long as he does his duty and remains successful in his assigned mission. If he fails, I don't think there will be enough of us left to care."

Killigan's touches turned soothing instead of seductive. "He will do his best. You know this."

"I know. That doesn't mean I have to like what I ask him to do. I only have to ask it of him, on behalf of our people and the rest of the realms. Sometimes, I cannot help but think it is a terrible thing to do to put a knife in the hand of one who deserves to live in peace and not strife."

"That is the burden of a good ruler," Killigan said, quietly. "To shoulder the weight of decisions made for the continued survival and livelihood of more than just ourselves. Our people trust us and we cannot betray that."

"For all he's done for us—both that of which I know and hope to never truly know—he deserves his own happiness."

"Of course, he does. But he won't appreciate meddling and you know that. We can only support him in the ways he's asked."

"He's already asked once," Alcandor said, grumpily. "And you won't believe what he asked for!"

"Oh?" Killigan studied him for a long moment, a twitch at the corner of their mouth giving away the abundance of amusement. "Oh, I see. You were the one to take the spell off, weren't you? Oh, you were! Alcandor. It couldn't have been that bad." Webbed hands slid up Alcandor's neck, continuing upwards until Killigan cradled his face with the utmost care.

"...you know very well it was. I have no desire to have anyone else but you, in that way. If it wasn't for the magic—I swear I'd tear his little-!"

Killigan leaned in, pressing their foreheads together. Warm breath brushed against wet scales, a fluttering pulse thrumming through their bonds. "You know I would never begrudge you anything," Killigan said softly. "Especially if it is for Alec's sake—for our family—our people, our realm. Do you think me so petty?"

Alcandor made a grumbling sound in his throat and pulled Killigan impossibly closer, his lips sealing over the claim mark prominently displayed on Killigan's neck.

"Alcandor? Answer me, dearheart."

"...no."

"I am sure he appreciated having the spell removed," Killigan said, carefully. "You are kind and gentle, no matter how you wish to present yourself. And Alec wouldn't have put any kind of normal magic on him. If you didn't remove it, I would've had to-"

Alcandor's hands twitched, briefly. "Also, no," he said, coolly. "Unless you want to, of course."

Killigan hid their smile in the damp tangles of Alcandor's faintly wavy hair. "I do not. You know very well my feelings and wishes are the same as yours. There is no other I would wish for, but you—our Bonded aside. But since you've given him your blessing though, doesn't that mean I should do the same?"

Another, quieter rumble was shared between them, Alcandor's hands flexing possessively along Killigan's flank, clawed tips digging in to a point of pleasure-pain.

"You are not required to do anything that you do not wish to. Kieran could do it."

"He could and he'd hate it. I couldn't make him so miserable. He handles the rest of the outer courts that we don't. It wouldn't be fair at all. Besides, you do spoil me so."

"You deserve it and more," Alcandor said, easily.

Killigan smiled. "Still, that was reckless, even for Alec. If you were called in to take care of it, I take it the entire Royal Courts are aware?"

"Very much so, though probably not to Alec's reasoning behind it. They wouldn't know what to do, if they did. Raspen's even playing favourites. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were all dancing around the edge of a courtship of their own. Dawne is all caught up in the thick of it as well and Ebony—well, old bones is just waiting for it to go down in flames. I thought they would've played nice with their respective councils, but it seems like they chose the Hunt to be their crowning challenge."

"That's in poor taste, isn't it?" Killigan frowned. "Shouldn't those be separate? Ours was."

"We are different, my love."

"Yes, but not because we're doing it to be different. There's a reason some rules and rituals are set the way that they are. This sounds—disjointed. Are they really not working with their own councils?"

"Not that I can see, but it's always different for them. I don't know if it's a landwalker thing or something else."

"Perhaps they haven't thought that far ahead. I would have expected the previous Royals to help them, but if they are family ties, then I suppose the crown challenge would require distance. Isn't that what all the talk of trials and such were about?"

"Yes," Alcandor said, slumping a little deeper into the water. Threads of warmth swirled around them, checking that the ideal temperature was still perfectly maintained. Fresh bits of wild magic mixing with the heavy moisture clinging to the air.

"Is that a happy yes or a bad yes?"

"That's an I-don't-care-yes," Alcandor said, grazing his fangs over the purpling mark showing up on Killigan's blue skin. "It isn't a proper crown challenge. It's more like the Royals stepping forward to show a united front for the sake of someone in desperate need of an advocate. The trial is for abuse. The kind that I despise the most."

Killigan silently stroked a hand down Alcandor's hair, scooping up handfuls of water to dribble over his head. "By his family?"

"Aunt, uncle, child," Alcandor said, stiffly. "Apparently, his mentor sacrificed himself for blood protections while his inheritance came in. They did it in such a clever way that not only did it hide him from those with intent to harm, but it made sure that no one would interrupt the inheritance process. A very intricate bit of magic."

"...someone is targeting him?"

"Hence Alec's temper."

"Ah."

Alcandor reached up to pinch at one available ear.

"Alcandor!" Killigan trembled in his grasp. "My king!"

"Do not scheme things and meddle where it is not wanted," Alcandor said, firmly. "They did not ask us for our help and we will not interfere. Do not make me repeat myself either."

"I would not!"

"For Alec, you would—and myself, as well," Alcandor said. "I would prefer not to be involved with any of it, because I haven't the attention to spare. We have enough happening as it is and if a landwalker is caught up in all of this, you know they will be the first and easiest casualty."

"Oh, are they going through with it then? Officially granting royalty to the Storm and Shadow?"

"It requires nominations, but yes."

"Cunninghams or Kuroes for Shadow," Killigan said, decisively. "I'd bet on the Cunninghams though. They have a good edge. Wicked sharp. The Kuroes are too nice and too plentiful—you practically trip over one of them every time you turn around and it would only encourage the other Shadow Clans into thinking things they should not."

"As long as it isn't the Vegas, I'll be fine," Alcandor said, stifling a shudder. "There is something seriously wrong with them. The Cunninghams are clever and self-sufficient though. You're right about that. I don't think they'd give up their ranks though and they're fully Bonded. What about the Storm side? Guesses or suggestions?"

"Anyone you endorse will likely be accepted as an official option. Who's speaking for them now? Wasn't it one of those Vales?"

"Bianca. Yes. She's grown, but it doesn't show much on the outside. Still looks rather young. I don't think anyone's going to appreciate it when they actually think about the how and why."

"She's good though. I mean, I've heard of her. That's something, isn't it? I thought she was the sister of that Deveraine with the-"

"Mother, actually. They will have their claws in many things, if candidacy is approved."

"Perhaps. But so do we. It's not a bad thing." Killigan squirmed again when Alcandor's tail grew larger, pressing against the sides of the tub and forcing an enlargement spell to activate so they could remain comfortably pressed together. They settled when Alcandor's arm around their waist, tightened obligingly. "Adds more weight to the Deveraines though. A second Blood Title and a Royal Connection—that might put more a target on their shoulders."

"Strong and steady shoulders. They can handle it, if they must."

"Can they?"

"Both of their Blood Titles are present," Alcandor said, meaningfully. "Anyone stupid enough to try something with them deserves what will come. Elves are not kind."

"You always did like their bloodthirsty preferences," Killigan said, humming with interest. "Are you done scheming now? Since I wasn't allowed."

"Getting bored already?"

"...just waiting ever so patiently for my delightful-"

"Finish that sentence, I dare you."

Killigan sniffed. "You promised that when we next saw each other that you would make sure that I-"

"So, I did."

"And?"

"...now?"

"When else?"

"...excellent point," Alcandor said, matter-of-factly. "Have I mentioned that I adore you?"

"Only once for the day. Perhaps thrice."

"Do allow me to make it up to you."


CELEBRATIONS AND MENTAL CONNECTIONS / TERIUS AND HARRY


At the outdoor picnic tables in the Kalzik guesthouse backyard, Terius held Harry's wrist loosely in one hand while he manipulated a glowing blood-red rune-inscription in mid-air over it. An expression of concentration drew his brows together, the stormy look back in his blue-grey eyes.

Theo shuffled anxiously in place beside him, a sharp glower shot at Terius anytime Harry so much as twitched or flinched from the powerful magic so close to him.

Quinn sat across from him at the other side of the table, close enough to see what Terius was doing and occasionally making suggestions about it with his no-nonsense official Healer expression fixed on his face. Some changes made the rune glow, while others had it vibrating to the point that sparks danced off the surface, sizzling onto the tabletop.

They seemed to be getting along quite well, which Harry was grateful for.

Seeing the man up close after such a long time was a bit jarring. It reminded him of the awful first meeting and the way everything had been so disjointed and mismatched. To have Terius sitting across from him now, his singular focus solely for the sake of Harry's comfort and continued well-being—it left him off-kilter.

Oh, he'd kind of wondered what it would've been like if they'd actually gotten along from the start, but now, he wasn't sure he'd have been able to stand such genuine sincerity, even if it was masked behind gruff words and a stern manner.

Because despite all of that, Terius had softened up to him over time, treating him with the kind of Pareyic care reserved for his own Bonded and he'd even shown up to Harry's bonding ceremony—with gifts. He'd used his own Blood Magic specialty to help with things and now, here they were, with yet another surprise Harry hadn't expected.

For all of Terius' adjustments to the rune, his process was ridiculously methodical and he'd kept his touches light and impersonal, explaining each step every so often, so Harry wouldn't be worrying about all of it. As if Harry could understand it and deserved to know exactly what was happening to him, no matter how minute the change.

It was—nice.

Harry rubbed at his chest absently with his free hand, wishing the dulled ache would ease up. It hadn't exactly gotten worse with Quinn's bonding ceremony, but it also hadn't improved either. The dampening spell had helped quite a bit, but now, with nothing else to distract him, it was harder to ignore.

Instead, he had a steady sort of throbbing ache, as if he was yearning for something that was just slightly out of reach.

Something he couldn't touch with his own two hands.

Ethan and Charlie were seated on another picnic table diagonally across the yard from them, with Ethan sitting atop the table and Charlie with his head resting in Ethan's lap, his arms loosely wound around his waist.

It was a lovely, adorable kind of moment and Harry was only halfway jealous that Charlie had an Ethan-lap-pillow and he did not.

Charlie and Ethan's acceptance of Quinn's mental link had scarcely taken more than Terius confirming their consent and the immediate application of three sets of runes and a bit of blood shared between them.

Well, Quinn's blood to them and their bloodless runes to Quinn, so as not to disrupt the purity of his Healer's Blood for any future healings. Apparently, it was so potent the bonding ceremony had left them all on a dizzy high of joyous emotion and steadily growing magic.

It was so much more than he could've hoped for.

Terius promised that the runes would not scar and would eventually fade into nothing as new scale growth erased the mark from outside view. It was good to know, simply because it would hide the fact that they shared a mental connection, protecting all of them from having it turned against them.

But the magic boost—oh, that was different!

Harry couldn't put into words how good it felt to know that his magic was easily accessible and stronger than ever. The first frightening weeks when his inheritance had come in and his magic had gone out were still disturbing to remember.

He'd felt so helpless all over again for the first time in a long while, trying to understand what was happening to his body and trying so desperately to protect himself even when it seemed like his body was against him. The lack of magic had made it unbearably difficult, but now, it was nothing more than a bloody memory in the back of his mind.

A light tap to his forehead made him jerk upright, refocusing on Terius' stern glare.

"Your mind is wandering," Terius said, sternly. "Please do not."

It was more so the 'please' that did it than the disapproving expression or the stern tone, as Harry hadn't actually expected the request. But when Quinn gave him another one of those soft smiles, Harry melted all over again and sat contentedly as Terius moved his wrist around, changing the line of runes over it.

He had no idea what the man was actually doing, but as a dragel famous as a Blood Magic user with far more than a working knowledge of Runes, he was in good hands. Terius knew the kinds of magic that could be amplified or manipulated by use of blood or other bodily fluids and everything in between.

Tears and blood were Terius' preferred mediums though and he'd swiped some happy tears from Harry when the ceremony had concluded with brisk efficiency.

Now, Harry could see why.

The tears—glowing the softest, faintest hint of white-gold—were poured into the little silver bowl that held several drops of his Bonded's combined blood, tinted with proof of their respective elements. Harry could almost taste the magic in the air as Terius skilfully wove it between skin and scale, doing something that made Harry's empathy perk up at once.

Almost as if the dampening spell wasn't even there at all.

"...is something wrong with it?" Harry asked, uncertainly. Terius had grown rather still for a moment, his thick brows furrowed into a sharp line across his forehead. "Shouldn't it-"

"Please ask the Hartwoods to charge these and bring them back as soon as possible," Terius said. Holding out a hand with three dark blue glass marbles, he waited until Theo reluctantly held out a hand.

"...Quinn-" Theo began.

"Is needed here," Terius said, matter-of-factly. "As soon as you can manage it? Have them make it the purest filtered version they can manage."

Still frowning, Theo rose from the table and skirted around it, heading towards the guesthouse where the Hartwoods and Lewis had gone indoors to help with coordinating and arranging the food and entertainment for the ceremony's afterparty.

Amusement flickered briefly across Quinn's face, before he cast a curious look at Terius. The slight twitch of his shoulders said that he'd understood something that wasn't said, but didn't see the need to acknowledge it.

Harry tried to guess what it was.

A nervous flutter curled in his stomach. He rubbed at it, anxiously, trying not to pull his captive wrist away from Terius' careful casting. He could feel the magic slowing to a soft trickle and it made him nervous, especially since the process wasn't anything like it'd been for Ethan and the others.

"Fetch your Submissive a cup of that ridiculously over sweetened chai," Terius said, abruptly. His blue-grey eyes fixed on Quinn until slowly, Quinn rose from the table, dipped his head in acknowledgement and wandered off towards the guesthouse where the windows were open and delicious food smells filled the air.

Harry twitched again. There was no mistaking what was happening now. He sat on his free hand to keep from pointing or gesturing wildly.

"What's wrong?" he asked, firmer than before, recognizing the distraction—and Quinn's acceptance of it—for what it was. "Whatever it is that you thought you couldn't ask me while Quinn was here isn't something that I appreciate-"

"I would have preferred to know this before I started, but it is much too late to deal with that now. Do you want them all off now or later?" Terius asked, flatly. "Now is as good a time as any, considering the reaction to the ceremony and it would not take long for me to modify any temporary barriers or internal restrictions, but I do require your consent to do so and I would strongly advise against being influenced by your Bonded's opinions for something like this. You are still your own person and it is your choice."

Harry blinked.

"Your seals," Terius clarified with the patient air of a parent speaking to a toddler. "Do you want me to remove the rest of them now?" He shifted to stand between Harry's line of sight to Charlie and Ethan cuddling and whispering on the picnic table across from them.

"...what will happen if you do that? Isn't that bad? Quinn would've taken them off if there was a way to do so without-"

"I am not the young genius Healer Quinn Kalzik," Terius said, haughtily. "I am the highest-ranked Blood Magic master within this realm. What I am offering you is not something to be compared to others. It is something that only I and I alone, can do."

Harry bristled. "Quinn would've done so sooner, if it was that easy," he said, firmly. "And I don't like the implication that you think I'm incapable of deciding for myself with my Bonded around. I don't appreciate being treated like-"

"It is not their choice to make and you would not feel any change," Terius said, his irritation thinly veiled, behind a vaguely polite expression. "It is scarcely more than a twitch of my fingers to me. I only thought to ask out of common courtesy and because you have the right to choose what happens to your own body, even if the spells within it are causing you discomfort or harm and you choose to keep them there."

The blue-grey of his eyes darkened to a near pure grey-almost-black. Gusts of wind whispered around him, curling around his limbs and ruffling his hair, before they rushed on.

Surprise crept over Harry in a way he hadn't expected. "If there isn't any change, why would it matter if you take them off or they burn out the way that Quinn said they would-"

"You have a thread of fate that compels you to attract the nearest problem and then sacrifice yourself for the sake of absorbing it on before anyone else can offer an alternative solution," Terius said, one brow arched neatly. "I am offering this out of self-preservation, because if anything should happen to you, I do not think your Bonded would handle it well. Your Bonded, of whom happen to be somewhat well-connected to the point that it might be troublesome for others."

Harry made a sound in his throat.

Terius sighed, patiently. "Harry, they would handle it extremely poorly. I imagine a significant amount of violence, bloodshed and devastation would occur in a rather unpredictable pattern. They care for you so deeply, I imagine that turning feral in response is not something to take lightly."

"...that's not what self-preservation is," Harry said, slowly. It almost felt like they were having two different conversations and he'd missed when the second one had started. "Why are you offering this to me and what's taking them so long to get back to-" He stopped.

Of course his Bonded should've been back by now. Even Ethan and Charlie should've noticed.

The air was strangely silent and still. As if they were in their own little bubble with no chance of anything else slipping in or out. The irritated expression on Terius' face, shifted to one of immediate exasperation.

"Would you focus on yourself for once in your life? I would not do this without your explicit consent, regardless of how beneficial it would be, but if you prefer to remain exactly as you are, that is your choice and I will not ask again."

Soft pulses of warmth travelled through his bonds, sending a gentle, calming energy circulating through his entire body. Harry braced himself.

"Alright. Fine. Do it. Take them all off." Emerald eyes narrowed faintly. "Without any bad side effects. If you can manage it."

Terius stared at him for a long moment, then reached up, sliced his own thumb on one fang and dripped three precise dots of blood over the pale skin of Harry's wrist, still in his hand.

The blood sizzled and hissed, wisps of steam wafting upward as a line connected each dot, forming a triangular shape on Harry's wrist. Bright red faded to a dull coppery brown and then, an eventual black.

A final crackle and pop fizzled out, the steam vanishing as the three bloody dots burned out. The magic burned straight through his skin and into the scale below, causing bits of dried scale to slough off and crumble to dust before they could touch the surface of the picnic table.

Thin threads of air swirled around the triangle, whisking away any kind of dust and dried blood bits. It was all so quick and clean, that if Harry had blinked for longer than a few heartbeats, he might've missed the entire thing—even with the barest hint of heat, as his scales had burned off.

Nothing had prepared him for that.

He'd expected pain, complicated magic and something that would make him regret demanding so much out of something so important.

But it was already over.

The pleased gleam in Terius' calm gaze suggested that it was a perfect result for whatever he'd done. His eyes fluxed back to a lightened blue-grey instead of the strange near-black it'd been only moments before. A tiny, barely noticeable smile, graced his lips.

Harry shivered, sitting up straighter midway as he realised that nothing had changed that he could actually pinpoint.

Nothing at all.

Not even the slightest hint of a magical or energetical shift, no impulsive urges, instinctive or otherwise and definitely no deliberate boosts of any sort, magical or otherwise. Just—nothing. A great big nothing!

As if he'd blinked from one heartbeat to the next and life had continued on without any hiccups.

Terius held Harry's wrist up with two long fingers, before gently setting it on the smooth wooden tabletop surface. "It is done. Whatever 'side effects' may emerge from this have absolutely nothing to do with the spell that I have performed to remove your remaining seals. I did exactly as you requested, but for every action there is a reaction. I suggest that you do whatever your Healer Quinn tells you to do to keep your health at peak performance. Exercise, diet, sleep—whatever he tells you—if you wish to have a speedy recovery. Seals can leave a void inside of you, as they required space to exist in the first place. In the absence of their presence, there may be a vacuum. Act accordingly to recover to your true potential."

Slowly, Harry drew his wrist back to himself. He couldn't see anything there now, not the lines that had formed the triangle, nor any hint of whatever spell Terius had used to reach his seals. He sat, speechless, unsure of what to say now.

Terius snapped of his fingers to start repacking his little kit of potions and mixing implements. They burst into action, packing themselves up to be stashed away in the magical folding cube that was immediately tucked into a pocket hidden beneath his dull grey robes.

It was almost as quick as the spell removal and yet, Harry had the vaguest inkling that maybe, all of that ceremony had been for his benefit. Terius surely hadn't needed any of it to properly remove the seals and that should've required a tremendous amount of magic.

He swallowed hard as Terius regarded him silently for one more moment, then reached out and patted him very lightly on the head.

Twice.

"May your lives together be a wonderful experience of unending bliss and harmony," he said, formally. "The ceremony was beautiful and deserving of your connection to each other. I offer my sincere wishes that such devotion and loyalty brings you together over and over again, throughout your lives. Give my regards to your Bonded and our hosts. Goodbye."

And with that, Terius Baronsworth, Blood Magic Master User, spun in a swirl of grey robes and gentle breeze.

In one heartbeat to the next, he was gone.

Harry hadn't even seen the portal.

Dumbly, he sat at the table, both arms now held out in front of him and braced on the table, staring at the empty space where Terius had once been. He thought they'd gotten along much better since arriving in Nevarah, but this was—he'd never expected that!

And he'd certainly never known that the fussy man was anyone important. Alright, important yes—but not to that degree!

Harry? Quinn appeared out of the corner of his eye; four mugs balanced in two hands, looking a bit perplexed. Where's Terius? I thought he wanted some chai. Did something happen?

Harry accepted the steaming mug of chai, wrapping his twitchy fingers around the heated sides. The urge to run around the yard wildly with his hands in the air was almost overpowering. He had no idea what it meant. "I don't know," he said, at last. "Can you check something for me?"

Of course. What's up?

"...the mental link feels fine." Harry gingerly poked at it, surprised to find that he'd adjusted to having a literal connection to his mind so easily. It was so different from what he'd expected. So light and natural, as if there was absolutely no other possibility than yes—he should be connected to Quinn.

He's very good at them. Quinn smiled. Did you expect something to go wrong? Your luck isn't that bad, Harry.

Harry winced. "I feel like my luck will go out of its way to prove you wrong now," he said. "Please don't be wrong. Just—can you check my seals or do you need to do something fancy to-"

No, I can check them with a simple energy reading. Wrist, please. Quinn set the rest of the mugs down on the table and clicked his tongue against his teeth, drawing Ethan and Charlie's attention. He took Harry's proffered wrist and cast three different diagnostic spells in rapid succession.

Harry chewed on his lower lip, worrying it between his teeth. He still couldn't feel anything at all. No distinct change, though he'd seen Terius do the strange blood-drop-triangle-thing.

Something had happened. There was just no telling what.

Quinn's eyes grew comically wide. He gripped Harry's hand in both of his tight enough to draw a squeak. Harry—what happened? What did he do? I was only gone for a moment-!

A hysterical laugh caught in his throat. Harry choked out a handful of giggles. "So they're gone? Just like that? No side effects? Would you believe me if I said that Terius decided to get rid of them for me?"

Quinn's jaw dropped.

"I think that's the best bonding present he could've given us," Harry said, face tipped up to the sky to keep the happy tears at bay. "You're sure they're gone?"

As if they were never there at all. Harry—why did-?

"I don't know," Harry said, shaking his head. "I don't know, Quinn. He just—he was kind of upset about it. I think. Then he asked. Said I had to choose. That I had the right to choose."

You do! You—did. And that was it?

Harry nodded.

Quinn's teal eyes shimmered bright. Oh, Harry!

And then Harry was hugged so hard from all sides, Quinn squishing him to his front, smelling sweetly of spiced chai and perfection, while Ethan caught him from the side, a happy laugh muffled in Harry's hair. Charlie wrapped around all of them from Harry's other side, his smoky scent overpowering all of it. And then, before he could wonder too much, Theo was there, his slender arms curling around Harry from behind, his cheek pressed up against Harry's ear.

"Harry," Theo said, raggedly.

"I know," Harry said, wetly. "I know-!"

Definitely the best bonding present! Quinn agreed. I think Mama will want to check, if that's alright?

Harry sniffled. "Yeah. It's fine."

The group hug tightened automatically.


BONDING CEREMONY / KALZIK GUESTHOUSE / HARRY & CO.


There was so much food everywhere! Harry was pushed to a soft cushion in the centre of a heavily laden banquet table with so many colourful and delicious smelling platters arranged in front of him, that his mouth watered before his brain could parse out that he'd never even tried half of those dishes.

Everything looked good and he wanted to taste it all.

Quinn was seated at his left and Theo on his right, with Ethan on Theo's other side and Charlie on Quinn's.

Harry bit back a slight protest at that, because Theo had said later and Ethan had done his best to play peacemaker between them for whatever was bothering his Theo.

Something had slipped under his skin and settled there in a way that made him unhappy. In a way that Harry couldn't help.

Yet.

Maybe there was something he could do, but it would take some time to figure it out. Right now, the still brimming euphoria over his recent bonding was something he couldn't have suppressed, even if he tried. And the removal of his seals was the icing on top of it.

Terius had not reappeared, but Harry was too giddy to care. He had said goodbye after all and with everyone else clustered around him, Harry was hard-pressed to care about it.

Instead, he let himself be hugged, congratulated and plied with more food and drink than he could ever hope to eat in a single afternoon.

It was glorious.

The only point that worried him was the brief appearance of Dahlia and her entire Circle turning up at the doorstep—for Dyshoka to whisper a quick goodbye to her parentals. Their Circle was massive, far more faces than he remembered seeing down at the stage in the auditorium and they hung back at the edges of the vibrant celebration.

Harry received a hug, a wish of luck and good health along with a gentle admonishment to take good care of Quinn and give him lots of hugs and cuddles, because he liked them best.

"You can't stay?" he asked, grasping at her sleeve without even knowing why. The sense of melancholy and sadness brushed against his empathy, before the dampening spell dulled it out to nearly nothing. At least he knew the spell was working, but it was hard to realize how much he was feeling.

"I couldn't stay if I tried," Dyshoka said, blinking back tears from her shiny golden eyes. Her hugs felt like Quinn's—as if he was someone precious and deserving of comfort and care. As if he was someone important to her. "Our Circle has responsibilities that have been set long before our fates ever crossed. My place is with Dahlia and she is needed elsewhere."

Harry stared down at where his hand rested on her arm and she patted it as if he were the one in need of comfort and not her. "But this is a celebration for Quinn—you want to be here, don't you? Can't someone else go?"

Dyshoka cocked her head to the side, her smile curving a tad lopsided. "No," she said, slowly. "No, they can't. I wish there was some other alternative. There isn't, but that's alright. At least we had a few minutes or an hour. That's better than nothing."

Harry bit his lip. It didn't feel better than nothing, but it also wasn't his choice.

"Everything will be fine in the end, Harry. This is our trial to deal with. Enjoy your afterparty and you two take good care of each other, alright?"

His next question died on his lips, as Dyshoka flung her arms around Quinn and hugged him hard enough to have his arms flailing out in protest.

That was funny, if nothing else.

Whatever they said was through their own shared mental link and Harry only felt the empathy overflow of so many feelings filtering through their bond and then re-filtered through the dampening spell. It was so—honest.

Quinn held onto her for as long as he could, before Surajini appeared, sweeping both of them up into a hug of her own. They chatted quietly and softly among each other, occasionally pausing for another hug, a kiss to the cheek or forehead and then more hugs all over again.

Harry was swept up into it and he was on the fringes!

When Surajini squeezed him into another group hug, he couldn't stop the chirp of happiness. It seemed like his future—at least where the Kalzik were concerned—would be filled with more love and affection than he could've ever hoped for.

Surajini planted a kiss on the top of his head, then nudged him into Quinn's open side. "You two should be out there and mingling," she said, swiping a happy tear out from one cheek. "Go on! Enjoy your time together. Dyshoka?"

Dyshoka offered a small smile. "I know, Mama," she said, nudging Harry and Quinn forward. "I know. It's probably only a few minutes from now. I can almost feel it…"

The Kalziks' rallied around them, welcoming in the excess family from new relations 'porting in to celebrate Quinn's bonding and deftly managing the overflow of tense Gheyos, courtesy of Dahlia's much larger Circle. In fact, he could've sworn there weren't so many Bonded for her, but his memory was a little fuzzy about all of the details.

"You're making a face," Shayla said, popping up at his side, one delicate hand reaching out to poke at his forehead. "Don't make faces, Harry. You'll get wrinkles when you're old and grey." She easily slipped between him and the Kalzik's, redirecting his attention to her own cheerful face.

Harry batted her hand away, half-heartedly. "How—are you?" he asked, stumbling over the question, unsure of how to phrase it any other way to let her know that he cared. She was one of his first friends in Nevarah, after all.

He'd definitely call her a friend now.

Shayla shrugged, her eyes glazed over a bit, as if her mind were realms away. "I'm fine. We're all fine. It's a lot to adjust to, but I knew what I was getting into, so I can't really complain."

"And you can't stay either," Harry said, glancing between her and over at where Dyshoka and Surajini were currently hugging it out, while Quinn stood guard.

Shayla's smile grew pained. "Gheyo business is Gheyo business," she said, softly. "And whether I like that phrase or not, it is appropriate for now. It isn't a matter of whether we want to stay. Believe me, I'd love to stay and celebrate. Everyone would. I mean, look at you! All happy and Bonded and with everyone here to share in it—I'm so happy for you, Harry!"

And he could feel the truth of it. She was happy for him, ecstatically so, as far as his empathy was concerned. She flung her arms around his neck, squeezing tight.

"You better take care of yourself, alright? I don't wanna hear some kind of weird something or the other happening when I'm off-realm and can't come help. Because we'd come. If we can come, we will. I'd rather we didn't have to."

Slowly, Harry wrapped his arms around her, hugging back as tightly as he dared. Her magic softened, twining gently around them in a way he could now count as familiar.

"I won't do anything weird," he said, carefully. "But no promises if the weird finds me. Be careful too."

Shayla squeezed him tight once more and stepped back. "As long as you're careful," she said, poking his chest. "And trust your Bonded to help. Your Theo has a good head on his shoulders, when he isn't worrying himself to death."

Harry sighed. "I can't make him not worry."

"Perhaps. It's an Alpha thing, I think. But maybe you just need to make sure he knows you're going to listen and you're not going to judge him. Dahlia is a little like that. Thinking further ahead than I have a tendency to, but she's rock-solid. Steady. Secure. Exactly what I need and not just because of my whirlwind kind of element." Shayla twirled a finger, a wisp of wind fluttering around them. "We're all different. That's the beauty of a Circle."

"It is," Harry said, softly. "I'm glad for it."

"Good," Shayla said, simply. She cast a careful glance around the ongoing celebration, her silver eyes gleaming in the low light. Her long, flowy top had deliberate folds and slits along the sides, showing off beautiful lines of healed, pristine claim marks. The dark tattoos standing out proudly against her skin in the low light of the evening. "I don't know when we'll be back. It might be sooner or later than we're hoping. Dahlia won't give me a timeline, because she says its impossible to know."

"Is that bad?" Harry asked.

"I'm not actually sure. I'm still trying to keep everyone's names straight," Shayla said, stifling a laugh. "They're all so earnest and sweet. You wouldn't think that for three solid Gheyo Suites. I'm lucky."

Harry choked. "What?"

Shayla laughed. "You heard me. I think the only other Bonded Circle with something like that is the Cunninghams and they run like a small army. Everything in perfect oiled precision."

"…how?" Harry tried, his hands gesturing aimlessly in front of him at the expanse of the dragels scattered across the yard.

"Sheer dumb luck, I suppose. Or Fate. Whatever you want to call it. I'm not picky. I'm not saying it'll be easy either, but I'm not alone. In fact, I don't think I'll ever be alone now," she said, wryly. "But it feels like it'll be fine. I have Dahlia. I have Dyshoka. That's more than enough to keep my head on straight. It's not what I expected, but it's probably what I need—or they wouldn't have come through."

"But all those Gheyos," Harry said, slowly. It was hard to wrap his head around the necessary shift to think of courting one for himself, muchless a whole Suite! An entire Suite sounded like more than he could bear. Three was absolutely impossible.

"I'm lucky Dahlia choose me," Shayla said, softly. "A Gheyo Submissive was probably better suited to this, but—they have me and no one seems to mind."

"They shouldn't mind," Harry said, automatically bristling in her defence. He liked her. She was good. He wanted her to have the same kind of goodness that he did. "Will you—be alright?"

"Yes," she said, simply. "You need to hurry up and get a Gheyo or two of your own though. Someone with a blade to defend and fight, if the need arises. Dahlia would definitely have come to help you, if it was needed, but I'm pretty sure we'll be off-realm for a good while. You need someone who has your back—no offense to your Pareya, of course."

Harry hesitated. "It's not that easy," he said, shuffling back towards the outdoor picnic tables where he'd been with Terius. It was quieter out in the backyard and away from all the bright lights and happy chatter of the celebration in full-swing, he could hear himself think a bit better.

Automatically, Shayla fell into step beside him. "Sure it is. Don't overthink it. You look for a Gheyo with a nice face, a strong fighting style and then you try and imagine what it'd feel like if they looked at you the same way they look at their blades."

Harry arched a brow. "Really?"

"…well, that's sort of how I did it. Everyone's a little different there, but for the most part, you see something. Whether you're just appreciating what you're seeing or if your instincts or magic calls out to them, you get a starting point."

"I don't think I have a problem with starting," Harry said, glumly. "I have a problem with finding an ACE, then figuring out how to ask them and then-"

"An ACE will usually ask you, once you show some interest," Shayla said, matter-of-factly. "Most of the time, you attend one of their duels. If that's not something you can manage right now, then just flat out send them a favour. Theo has to be giving you pocket money, so I know you can afford that—but if he isn't, I'll spot you for a few dozen."

"Dozen? Shayla, I've never sent a favour!" Harry shot her a look. "And if it was that easy, I would've sent one already. One! Not a dozen or-!"

"What do you mean you've never sent a favour? Of course, you'd send more than one, Harry! Why would you only send one? You want to be noticed and you want them to notice you. It's a matter of—oh." Shayla's silvery gaze narrowed, before she winced and slapped a hand on the wooden surface of the picnic table. "Oh Arielle! Of course, you haven't. Alright. Fine. That's fine. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I just—forgot. There's nothing wrong with that. It's new, it's different and you weren't Nevarean-raised, so I get that it's different. But that's alright. You've been doing a lot of other things. We can work with this. Do you want to send one now?"

"…now?"

"Yes! Preferably before Dahlia has to go. More than one, even, to make sure you did it right the first time. Look, if we're interrupted—get Quinn to help you finish, alright? He knows how to do it, I know he has to know. It's a Healer thing."

"What? Wait—Shayla!"

"No waiting. You'll just overthink it and worry yourself into a mess. We don't need that," Shayla said, waving a hand at him. She pressed her fingers together in an odd little shape that seemed to form a teardrop of sorts. "Do this with your hands—it's a spell for opening an anywhere shopping point."

Harry fumbled with his fingers for a few minutes, until she reached over to do it for him, pressing some fingers together and pulling others apart. That was easier than he'd expected.

"Oh," he said, relieved. "Alright."

As if on cue, a glowing blue window popped up at his left elbow, sharpening into a proper holographic screen with eight items displayed in miniature rotating slots.

His jaw dropped.

Shayla strained to see over his shoulder, squinting at the screen. "Huh. That's different. Don't be too impressed. This is the cheap stuff, so you don't have to panic if you accidentally blow something up."

"…I can accidentally blow them up?" Harry shot her a look. "Shayla!"

"Because it's your first time," she said, briskly. "Magic is weird sometimes and that's normal. Learning stuff takes effort and sometimes you screw it up, alright? Now focus. You don't actually need an incantation for that, just the proper thing with your hands that I just showed you, alright? Good. Now, when you're sending a favour, there's edible, non-edible, wearable and non-wearable."

"Aren't those kind of the same?"

"No. Maybe. It doesn't matter. Don't think so hard about it. The idea is that you're sending something to convey your interest without being overbearing or awkward, so that the recipient can decide if they like something about it enough to return the favour with one of their own."

"I don't see any prices," Harry said, squinting at the eight options. "How do I know which is which?"

"See the little fang and claw symbols at the bottom? Yeah. The fang means its edible, the claw means it's wearable. If it's showing no to one or both of those, then non-edible and non-wearable. Spending money—yes or no? It's better if you're the one paying for it, but I can spot you."

"Yes, spending money. I think. I have a token?" Harry hesitated. "And non-wearable means…?"

"Usually it's something for your wings or scales. You know, a healing balm, scar balm, face pack, that kind of thing," Shayla said, wrinkling her nose. "But you have to be careful with those, because sometimes that's kind of personal. Like, really personal, depending on the dragel, so those would be more of like, a third or fourth favour option? When you've gotten to know them a bit and they've sent you a favour or two on their own. Has to be reciprocated, so like, don't send one until you get one or two back. Basically two. It's kind of like showing that you're exclusively interested in making something of the connection."

"Right," Harry said, taking a deep breath. "And they're all rank-appropriate?" There were little rank markers over each of the eight types of favours displayed on the screen.

"Basically, yes? I mean, you can personalise gifts later on and that sort of thing. Gheyos really like armour and any kind of sharp, pointy thing, but you don't ever want to just give a generic blade or some plain custom-made thing that isn't really them. You need to get to know them before you do that. So favours now, are usually generic popular snacks or drinks, colourful sleeve guards, maybe earrings or rings, that kind of thing."

Slowly, Harry nodded.

"Alright. Pick your person." Shayla waited, expectant.

Harry blinked.

"You have to have someone in mind, Harry. I can practically see it on your face. You don't have to give me a name, but I'm not even going to be here when you're sending it out, so it's not like I'm going to tell you not to-"

"Can I send one to Hadrian Cunningham? The Shadow ACE from the-" The words tumbled out before Harry could stop himself. "I mean—I can, right?"

"Maruke," Shayla said, absently. "He's not a Cunningham. He's studying under Mariana. I think he had some kind of growing pains or whatever. But it's Hadrian Maruke and yes, you can send him something. You can send any dragel any favour, unless they've publicly and privately declared themselves off-limits, of which you'd know, if you try to send one and it bounces back. You get a refund though, so it's not like it's wasted or anything. Not to mention, you can always search the updated list before sending stuff, if you think they're on there. Make sense?"

Harry gave a quick nod. "…what should I send him?"

"Gheyo, Gheyo, Gheyo," Shayla murmured, tapping her chin with one finger. "I'd suggest food," she said, at last. "A snack pack. Do you have any idea what kind of snacks he likes? Have you looked him up? I want to say he likes sweet stuff, but that's kind of a default for most dragels. The need for sugar and blood is kind of all instinct, you know? Can't go wrong with it."

"…how would I look him up? At the library?" Harry stared at the eight spinning favour options still showing in the shop display window.

"You could," Shayla said, slowly. "But Gheyos with a title, get entered into a hall of fame kind of thing. They get collector cards and commemorative books and plaques. It's a Gheyo thing."

"Like chocolate frog cards!" Harry said, sitting up straight, delighted to have found a good comparison. "You collect them?"

"Chocolate what's now?" Shayla gave a shake of her head, blonde hair flipping over one shoulder. "Don't explain. We'll run out of time. Yes. You can collect them. Young Gheyos in training and such, like to trade them and some cards are expensive, as the Gheyo has long since passed on. It's a big deal. But it also has basic information on the back, like height, age, element, rank, and favourite things. You know. So you can get a card and send them a favour they're more likely to accept."

"And if they refuse it, nothing happens to me, right?" Harry asked.

"…right."

"Do you have one of those cards? How do I get them?"

"…usually you'd ask a Gheyo to buy one for you. Family Gheyo—like a parental or family friend or your mentor," Shayla said. "If you're someone without connections or you're not Gheyo. I'll fix that though. Rook!" She leaned to the side and clicked her tongue against her teeth. "I know you can hear me, please—help Harry here for a minute?"

Rook, a tall Dark Fae with a very impressive aura, sauntered over to Shayla's side as if he belonged there. His vivid pink eyes swept over Harry with a vague hint of knowing in them. Leaning against Shayla, he deliberately let his weight push her forward just a bit. "What are we doing, princess?" He asked, chin dropping to her head.

"Ow, Rook—off!" Shayla whined, pushing half-heartedly at him. "You're heavy! Harry needs a collector card for Hadrian Maruke. Do you have one and can you get one?"

Rook hummed. "For Harry?"

"Yes, you brute—quit it!" Shayla twisted enough to push him off, then squealed when he snatched her up in a bear hug. "Rook! Put me down-!"

"There's one in my pocket," he said, shifting to hold her properly in his arms. "And Dahlia said to expect a count of twenty about three minutes ago."

"Three minutes?" Shayla sobered up, immediately looping one arm around Rook's neck, fingers toying with the three silver layered necklaces that hung down his front. "I'm teaching Harry about favors. Please?" She kissed his cheek, noisily.

"Brat," he said, leaning away. "There's one in my pocket."

"…I'm not going to ask you which pocket."

Harry studiously looked away. The quiet shuffling and rustling was over before it started and then a pretty, shiny golden card was placed on the table in front of him. It bore a lovely picture of Hadrian in full dress-armor—everything was sharp and dark, but without the feathered mask that he'd seen at the Hunt's introduction ceremony.

Instead, his armor was thick and plated, deep black with hints of burgundy and purple twined over the front with feather-imprinted accents. His mask was now a full-helmet, hiding his entire face from viewing and only showing those blood red eyes and nothing more.

His title was stamped on the top in embossed lettering, with a thin red border around the edges and shimmering redness on the sides. When he picked it up, a slight thrill ran through him and Harry understood at once, what Shayla had meant by having a Gheyo look at him, the same way they looked at their blades.

If Hadrian ever fixed those blood-red eyes on him with the same intensity as he did with the black-tipped blade held aloft in his collector card image—he'd probably combust on the spot.

A tiny little sigh slipped out.

"Oh, you do like him," Shayla said, quietly.

He jolted, remembering belatedly that he wasn't alone and oh—yes, Rook was definitely giving him a look now. All teasing eyes and a tiny little crooked smile. Warmth flooded his face.

"If you like him," Rook said, his voice quiet, but amused. "Then you're going to have to make nice with the Cunninghams. Make sure you tell your Theo that. And he also likes to work with independent ranks, so don't look for pair-bonds. Some Gheyos pair up, the longer they remain unbonded. It's better for them. Keeps magic and mood stable—all of those good things. But every ACE has a preference. Hadrian's known for working term to term and never getting attached."

Slowly, Harry nodded.

Rook's smile widened. "I could give you a list of the last Kings and Queens he worked with. Maybe a Prince or two. He doesn't go too far into the lower ranks. Keeps to the upper levels. You're best off asking him, once he's responded."

"Please, Rook?" Shayla asked, her voice turning soft and sorrowful. "He won't have us here to help. He doesn't have what we had-"

Harry's gaze narrowed.

There was a long moment before Rook sighed. He shifted Shayla in his arms again, his eyes darkening a few shades. "You should ask Quinn about bonding to Shadow types," he said, at last. "Hadrian is pure Shadow—he wouldn't hold that Blood Title if he wasn't—and what Shadow types need is very different from what other creature types do. Other elements included. He'll probably prefer Shadow elementals. It's something you should be prepared for."

Shayla's smile remained and she snuggled closer to Rook. "Thanks."

Rook grunted, reaching out to the shop screen with one hand. He flicked through two options and then a small list popped up in a separate window at the side.

"Thank you," Harry said, fervently. He didn't recognise any of the names, but it was already a dozen of listed Gheyos and an attached timetable for public viewing duels in the next week ahead.

"Attend some of the duels," Rook said, simply. "And send some favours. Send multiple ones, if you feel like it. Doesn't hurt in the slightest. If you send to those—try to attend one of their duels and send something while you're there, alright?"

Harry nodded. "Thank you," he said, again.

"Don't thank me," Rook said, shrugging. "Just make sure you're honest in what you send and what you reply to. If you're not interested in any way—burn it."

Shayla grinned. "I wish I could be here to help you with the-"

A loud crack of thunder sounded over head.

Several violent slashes of thick purple lightning streaked across the sky, sending up colorful flashes in soft bursts here and there.

Harry flinched at the next crack of thunder, before flickers of pale blue-green energy began to form a protective dome over the backyard for the changing weather. "Shayla, is that-?" He began.

But her face shuttered, the laughter and lightness gone in a heartbeat. Rook set her down at once, his own expression grim. "You get with Mimei and you stay with her, understand?" He said, sternly. "And if you can't track her, you stay with Harmon."

Shayla bit her lip. "Mimei—yes. Harmon is-?"

"The mark here," Rook said, reaching behind her to press a spot on her lower back. "Feel that? That's what you want. Got it?"

"Yes."

"Shayla."

"Yes, Rook."

"Good girl. It's coming."

The hair on Harry's neck, stood up, every single instinct screaming at him to run and hide as the sky went from a tolerable dusky blue for evening to pitch black darkness. Fresh slashes of white and purple energy slashed across the sky.

A giant flare of white light sparked directly overhead, flecks of blue-white appearing at the corners as a large portal formed overhead.

Harry's stomach flip-flopped. That didn't look like a friendly portal at all. It looked like something that would swallow him whole and spit him out to be left for dead.

"Rook!" Dahlia's cry was loud, cutting across the frantic chatter of the Kalziks herding the younger ones out of the yard and towards the guesthouse. The rest of Dahlia's Circle came flooding out in a nearly practiced manner with the sheer fluidity and synchronization.

"Circle up!" Dyshoka called out, her voice booming in the backyard, despite her serious face. "Harry-love, you're going to have to stay close to—Quinn! Come and stay with him!"

And Quinn was there at once, holding an arm out to Harry, who went to him gratefully. He let himself be wrapped up in those arms where nothing had to matter, just that they were there and they were together.

"Quinn?" He said, quietly.

It's alright, Harry. Quinn held him tight. It'll be be alright.

"It's here!" Dahlia called out, her eyes fluxing to deep, dark brown and then pitch black. Her armour materialized over her Flexi-suit like a breath of fresh-air.

Like Hadrian's collector card, it was stylised with flourishes at the ends and moving plates in gold, white and pale lavender—as if it were a flower itself, and not just a bit of armour wrapped around a deadly Gheyo.

An artificial voice spoke from overhead in a flat monotone. Immediate Portal request for The Black Dahlia and all known Bonded and Intended associated. Absolute countdown has reached the maximum overtime allowance allotted. All known entities will be transported to location XXXXX for XXXXX on behalf of XXXXX.

Harry squeezed his eyes shut right before the light flashed again.

The electrifying crackle and pop of transportation magic claiming the ones it'd come for, left the simmering pulse of energy behind. He blinked through the spots in his eyes to find the yard devoid of Dahlia, Shayla and their fierce Circle.

And the sense of overwhelming sadness that remained, nearly drove him to tears again. "Quinn?" He clutched at him. "I don't understand-"

They'll be alright. Quinn nuzzled his cheek. They'll be fine.

Harry took a deep breath. He could trust that. He could do his best to trust in that. "Alright," he said, slowly. "How do I finish sending a favour?"

A favour? Quinn perked up in delight. Harry!

"…just show me how to finish it. Shayla was helping."

Is that a list of names?

"Maybe. Focus, Quinn, please? I've never done this before."

Then we should practice. Lots and lots of practice.

"Quinn!"


COURT DAY PREP / KALZIK GUEST HOUSE / HARRY AND CO


Harry sat anxiously at the breakfast table, the celebration had gone on for so long that he felt as if he hadn't slept more than a few hours when night had fallen. Now, awake, he wished he could return to bed and sleep until everything else made sense again.

His eyes tracked Quinn's calm movements around the small kitchen, while Theo and Charlie whispered at each other in increasingly agitated tones and gestures.

Even if he strained to hear them, his enhanced hearing couldn't make out the words. It was almost as if the conversation was half in their minds and half out loud. The sounds were mostly there, but the meaning behind all of it was only coloured by the context he could sense in their shared bonds.

The longer it went on, the more confused and uncertain he felt.

As if he was missing out on something important. A chance to make himself both useful and helpful. His empathy prickled beneath his skin, energy twining and twisting, as it tried to find an outlet that he didn't understand.

His hands curled into fists at the table as he wished he could reclaim the calmness and joy he'd felt last night at the celebration.

"That's enough," Ethan said, his voice firm but calm. "You're making Harry nervous. Either use a privacy spell for these kinds of conversations, or talk yourselves through it later when you've calmed down. Right now, I'd suggest you walk it off and try again anywhere that is not here."

"We're not arguing," Theo said, at once. His voice barely raised, but the sharpness in his golden gaze was unusually bright, as if there was something else he wasn't saying out loud.

Charlie frowned. He said nothing, but his tufted ponytail puffed into a brilliant bubble of scarlet-and-orange flames dancing at the nape of his neck. His blue eyes were nearly as razor sharp as Theo's as he straightened up.

"Aren't we?" he asked, tightly.

"We aren't," Theo said, mirroring the frown back at him. "At least, I'm not."

Charlie's jaw clenched.

"Your hair's on fire," Ethan said, nodding to Charlie. "Theo, maybe have a seat and stop trying to micromanage?"

Theo froze.

It was almost as bad as a flinch.

Harry felt that straight down to his toes and it made his fangs ache in sympathy. Whatever they were arguing about—talking, not arguing—he'd missed it. The subject, the cause or whatever had set them off.

One minute, he was still basking in the afterglow of a successful addition to his Circle, a bonding ceremony gone right, and all the warm, fuzzy feelings that came with having new people in his life who weren't after his name, fame or fortune.

And who definitely weren't there to try and kill him. Somehow.

It was certainly bask-worthy and he'd intended to enjoy the happy high off of those accumulated feelings right up until he'd realised that the little moment between Theo and Charlie from before, was slowly simmering to a point.

Apparently, it'd reached the boiling point.

Harry's hands twitched in his lap as he fought the urge to reach up and dig his claws into his neck, hard enough to draw blood. Better yet, he could just slice through his claim marks and make it all stop-!

Quinn paused in mid-breakfast creation, his brows furrowed as he turned and took in the entire situation. A deliberate pulse of calmness zinged through all of their bonds—a forceful demand for everyone to pause and ground themselves.

He waved a hand at the kitchen counter and stove, ingredients and utensils leaping to attention, as a meal began to craft itself behind his back. The vaguely stern expression on his face made Harry sit up a little straighter in his chair.

"Quinn?" he ventured, cautiously. The urge to claw at his marks subsided at once. He absolutely did not want to be on Quinn's bad side right now—not ever, if he was honest. The thought of even being scolded made his stomach churn unhappily.

"Come. Sit. The food will be done in a few minutes. I apologize for the delay, but while I can cook, the rest of the kitchen work is not my forte. We are going to need more Pareya, even if I do take over the cooking and grocery shopping bits."

Harry nodded, quickly. "Y-yes. That's fine."

I'm glad. Quinn's lips twitched. I do not have any particular preferences though. So if there is a Pareya or two that catch your fancy, then do speak up.

Ethan bit his lip. "...I certainly would not mind more Pareya," he said, quietly. "I'm afraid housekeeping and some of the usual things aren't my natural talent either. My specialty is more in the networking side of things. I do know basic household charms and spells though. So, just tell me if you need something different than what I've done so far."

"How do I know if I need something?" Harry muttered, half to himself.

"You ask," Ethan said, softening. "You ask and I answer and we figure it out together."

A tiny bubble of amusement nearly made Harry smile. He was really glad to feel the extra sense of grounding that had come with adding Quinn to their Circle. It had soothed something inside of him that had been restless and loud, while clearly giving a secondary benefit to Ethan, who seemed more settled and surer of himself than ever.

Harry could definitely get used to that. He was still not-quite-smiling at Ethan when the moment passed and Quinn's frown drew his attention once more.

When no one made any attempt to move, Quinn gave a slight jerk of his head towards the table.

Ethan did something with his hands that produced a perfectly arranged place setting at each chair, then added in basic refreshments of water and juice, along with prettily folded napkins and centrepiece of shiny, glazed rocks in a shallow, ombre-tinted dish.

"Oops," Ethan said, sheepishly. "I always seem to get rocks as a centrepiece. I never really mean to summon one, but-" he shrugged. "That's what comes out. Is the rest of it alright? I can refine it to our tastes, but the initial casting and spell, need to have the same base."

It is serviceable and elegant. Quinn gave another nod, this one more appreciative. Thank you. The rocks are—interesting. More interesting than a vase or flowers, anyway.

It took a few more minutes—very long, silent minutes—before Theo shuffled into place at the breakfast table looking tense and anxious in a way that Harry hadn't seen him in some time.

The urge to circle around the table and climb into his lap was almost unbearable. Just like the need to claw into his claim marks, a few moments ago. Now, it'd shifted into a pressing need to make sure that they were close and that nothing could be misunderstood between them, even as his empathy twanged in sympathetic strums.

Charlie took the seat on the other side of Ethan, his disgruntled expression more obvious up close, while Ethan's golden eyes darkened a few more shades towards hazel, as if in reaction.

Absently, Harry reached up and rubbed at his marks, wincing when he touched Quinn's that still felt a little raw and open.

Don't touch it yet. Quinn patted his head as he circled around the table, tapping each of them on the shoulder in turn, as if mentally counting something off. The mark, Harry. I meant, don't touch the mark. It'll settle by tonight for you or probably tomorrow, depending on the strength of our connections, but it'll feel a little sensitive right now and getting your fingers into it before you eat, isn't the best idea.

"It was fine last night," Harry said, tucking his hands under his thighs.

Theo's gaze sharpened, darting to him and then away. His already stiff posture was worse, after Quinn tapped him ever-so-lightly on the head.

Harry squirmed on his chair. He really did want to get up and just-!

I'm going to be blunt, Quinn took the seat on Theo's other side, effectively placing himself between Theo and the others, as if he were a living barrier. Please do not take offense, or if you must, at least hear me out first. Harry—first of all, if you have an instinctive urge of any sort today—short of stripping and demanding intimate attention in the middle of court—please indulge yourself. Fighting your instincts will cause more harm in the long-run instead of a moment of discomfort or embarrassment in the present. If you have the urge to claw your marks, try to resist and go to whichever one of us you feel drawn to in that moment. That's usually a pretty basic sign. Anything else—ask us. Ask all of us. I don't care if you're screaming it through our mental connection, I want us all on the same page, alright?

Harry's face flamed at the mere thought of actually stripping in front of an audience. Oh no. Absolutely not! "I-I wouldn't-!" he began, faltering when those pretty teal eyes softened just a fraction, radiating warmth at him across the dining room table. "...I wouldn't," he said, again.

Perhaps not. But I don't see the harm in being specific. Amusement tickled the edge of Quinn's mental connection. I mean, as an empath, denying yourself the opportunity to feel, acknowledge and process your emotions in full, will eventually affect us, whether you mean for it to or not. So, it's best to feel what you're feeling, acknowledge it, then you can process and release. It's not that hard, but since our connection—I get the sense that it has been difficult for you. Perhaps for a long time.

Charlie's head snapped in Harry's direction, his expression growing pained. "What Theo is arguing about right now, is another piece of information that he was worried would worry you," he said, flatly. "My grandmother—Sadara Prewett—has responded to our query entered on our arrival in Nevarah. The original request for family connections on Mum's side. She was asking to meet us this morning. Theo was insisting that we could drop in before the court's opening session and I was saying that I don't mind waiting longer, because it doesn't feel like good timing. I've waited this long and a few more hours or days won't matter."

Harry blinked. "But it does," he said, half-to-himself.

Charlie stilled.

Silence filled the kitchen, but it wasn't a harsh or frightening thing. Just a long, deep pause as if everyone was trying to understand what Harry had said and why.

Quinn's head tipped to the side, a questioning expression on his face.

"I mean," Harry tried, his hands folded in his lap now, worrying at the bonding ring on his finger. "It matters. That you do want to see them. It's kind of—like Quinn's mark. It hurts if I touch it. That's what it feels like to me and Theo—you're really worried. I mean, I knew you were on edge for a good part of the day, but you really do feel kind of off and-"

"A Circle is a shared experience," Ethan said, quietly. "It means we all feed into each other and things are both amplified and reciprocated, sometimes on a level we're not expecting."

Quinn held up one hand, slightly above his breakfast plate. My mother always told me not to have disagreements at the table, because it causes indigestion. While that is not a rule that I was always able to keep, there is some merit to it. Theo—a word, please? Would the rest of you excuse us?

"You don't need to run off and have secret little conversations," Charlie said, blue eyes flashing. "I know exactly how to-"

It isn't a secret conversation, Quinn tipped his head to the side, studying Charlie with bright teal eyes that seemed all at once to be too sharp and too sure of themselves. But if you'd like for me to include you in a conversation of our own, I'd be happy to do so after Theo and I have had a little chat-

Theo stood up, abruptly, his chair screeching against the tiled floor.

Thank you. We'll be right back, Quinn slipped out from his own seat, briefly touching Harry's shoulder as he passed behind him. This way, Theo? Please?

Quinn cast privacy wards around the living room, seating himself elegantly on the sleek wooden floor in front of the low coffee table. He patted the couch closest to him and gestured back at the kitchen.

Have a seat. The wards will hold. I can promise you that I will keep everything between us entirely confidential, however, that means you have to actually invoke that clause and then stick to it yourself.

Theo stared at him.

Sit. Here, preferably, so your head is higher than mine and you won't be trying to crawl out of your own skin.

Theo sat.

Quinn waited.

It took some time, but the strain was obvious on Theo. The tightness around his eyes remained and the definite stiffness in his movements, as if he was trying too hard to not appear as upset as he actually was. Given the distinct lack of any kind of feedback through their newly acquired bonds, Quinn was loathe to guess at any of it.

The cause, the root, the problem—whatever it was, he preferred the truth. Now, actually.

Anytime now.


Silence hung suspended in the privacy bubble wrapped around them.

Theo stared fixedly at a point just to the left of Quinn's contemplative expression. He sat just as prim and proper as when he'd first arrived, not a single hair out of place, nor ruffled scale to be seen.

Dimly, in the background, Charlie, Ethan and Harry could be heard speaking amidst the clanking of breakfast underway.

To his credit, Quinn didn't appear any more ruffled than Theo did. He sat on the floor, feet tucked up under him, hands resting on his thighs, brow furrowed ever-so-slightly as if he was working through a mental puzzle that only he could see.

So, Theo waited.

He's spoken his mind, simply because he could no longer avoid the topic. And now that it was out in the open—theoretically—he'd get an answer.

In more ways than one.

He was silently pleased to note that despite Quinn's renounced rank and more pronounced dominant traits, he was able to defer to him and take their ranks into consideration without taking offense at it.

That was—good to know. He filed it away for later perusal, already decided within himself to mirror back the same respect that Quinn had shown him without prompting. The ceremony of their bonding aside and the conversations that it'd taken to reach that point, were now settled comfortably somewhere in the back of his mind.

I...see, Quinn frowned, one hand drumming fingers against his thigh. That's both adorable and frustrating—no, wait. I mean, it's nice that you want to be on the same page as Harry—or the other way around or whatever. Yes. Good. Right. Excellent choice. Communication is something I know I will need to be more proactive with, but I am also sensing a fair amount of confusion.

"From me?" Theo asked, brow arched.

Quinn tilted his head to the side, the gesture mildly endearing. I am not sure. I have a vague sense of Harry's—gaps. The basic knowledge where a mentor or a dragel-raised parent would've taught him what he needs to know. But there's also the contradictory information I think we're all giving him.

"Ah," Theo said, delicately.

He cannot sort through all of that now. I mean, he could, in time, discern for himself, but it would likely help if we were all on the same page. Not just the two of you or the two of us or whatever is going on with you and Charlie right now-

"Nothing is going on with us," Theo said, with a sigh of long-suffering. "The message that came regarding his—family—worries me."

Explain.

"The courts, Quinn. I know you have to know more than I do about them, if not at least, the very basics, which I know from time spent in Ithycar Deveraine's office and their Circle, growing up. There are no secrets within Nevarean Courts. You know this."

Quinn's expression shifted, slightly. I see. You're worried something will come out?

"I'd be surprised if it didn't," Theo said, darkly. "That right there? That's what I do. And I don't even have to think about it. Second-nature, if you will—an instinct, if you can't wrap your head around it that way."

Contingency plans, Quinn straightened up. That's your strength, isn't it? Every Alpha is different, but some are far more subtle than others and they require—different things. You have to tell me, Theo. Now. Later. In the future. Whenever. You have to tell me what you need. Not just as your healer—because I can't help heal what I don't know and not every wound can be healed. I can and I will help you—all of you—in whatever way I can, but I need to know the things that hurt. The things you hide. And why.

"True," Theo said, inclining his head. "I'll make time for that later. Right now-"

What are you expecting?

"For Charlie? His parents seemed to be a Torvak match," Theo said, slowly. "And there was never any mention of a Third, but Charlie needed Oretta's spell to claim his dragel inheritance. His birth right. Their entire family has a mark for Blood Traitors between them. I do not think it will affect Harry, but I cannot be sure. Charlie had to be ritually cleansed. If Oretta wasn't there—and Harry had already half-bonded to him with how close they were already-"

You're worried his Third will show? Charlie's Third?

"I don't know about his Third, but I knew his mother," Theo said, flatly. "I knew of her, anyway, and if Molly Weasley is within Nevarah, then I cannot see how Arthur Weasley wouldn't be far behind, which means his entire family is crash-landing into Nevarah. He's not ready for this, Quinn! None of them are and Harry was close to them long before I ever came into the picture. I don't want this to hurt them."

I see. You're not responsible for their feelings, Theo. You can't change what they're going to feel or how they'll react. That's on them. What about the Weasleys though?

"They were practically a soulbonded pair on Earth. Or as close to it as you could get," Theo said, raking a hand through his hair and making the gelled ends stick up over his ears. "Without any obvious dragel or Torvak anything to explain it. Just a nauseatingly in-love, obviously emotional and devoted witch and wizard."

And there was never anything about a Third?

Theo shrugged. "Not that I know of. I don't think it mattered. I've never met mine and I know my family is far from the ideal of what any kind of family ought to be."

...do I need to be worried about that?

"Up to you. I've made it this far without shattering. Might make it a few more years."

Quinn wrinkled his nose. I will not see you reach a shattering or breaking point.

"…I don't think that's something you can control."

Perhaps I cannot, but you can. You do not have to talk to me, Theo, but if you are not leaning on your mentor or taking any other outside support, I am going to recommend a therapist. Preferably one that is not my brother and for an appointment in the near future. It would help.

Theo blinked. "What?"

It's not healthy, the way you're pushing yourself to adhere to invisible standards that none of us are asking of you. It also isn't necessary to carry emotional and mental baggage like that. I'm not saying therapy will fix anything, I'm just saying it could help. We are not expecting you to be our only solution and I am sure Harry would be devastated to hear that relying on you is causing some sort of breakdown.

"And you'd recommend anyone that isn't your brother?" Theo asked, dark amusement flickering in his golden eyes.

Alejandro is not that kind of therapist and while my other brothers do have the proper certifications for it, I think something a little more removed might be better. Someone not in my family, so you would feel more at ease talking to them without having to wonder if any of your sessions would ever make their way to my ears. It wouldn't, but I understand the instincts and where you're coming from. Let me think on it and if you are agreeable, I will request something on your behalf. It'll go faster that way.

"Not even bonded a day and you've already diagnosed me?" Theo's tone sharpened.

Quinn clicked twice, slowly rising from the carpeted floor. I couldn't make you do anything you didn't want to. But if the idea is so appalling, then I'll wait to remind you of it after the trial is over. A Circle is reciprocal—that makes a give and take on all sides. I want you to be here for as long as you want to be here.

Theo watched the privacy bubble dissolve, unable to say anything even as he realised that Quinn had the last word—and that he'd left after standing to his full height—definitely higher than his own head.

A rumble died down in his throat.

Reluctantly charmed, he stood and followed. Quinn did have a point. There'd be plenty of time for discussions and necessities later.


COURT DAY / PROCESSION / HARRY AND CO.


Harry reached for Theo's hand, settling for clutching a bit of his dress robe cuff instead. It was hard to keep from staring wide-eyed at everything, feeling as if he were seeing the magical world for the first time all over again.

A slight twist of the cuff fabric pulled free of his hand, before Theo's pinkie finger hooked around his own.

The small gesture drew a shaky smile, but Harry did his best to keep it together. A deep sense of solemnity settled heavily on his shoulders as they followed the escorting Gheyos to the magical lifts that would carry them up and through the protections to the Outer Courts and into the Judgment Hall.

Breathe, Harry, Quinn's reminder echoed gently in his head, followed by a soft pulse of warmth and reassurance. We are all here with you.

Charlie twisted slightly, glancing down at Harry with those same, brilliant blue eyes that always seemed to see straight to his very soul in the moments where he least expected it. "It'll be fine, Harry," he said, quietly. "Whatever it is, we'll be alright in the end."

Harry's smile steadied. "I know," he said, reaching for Charlie's hand outright. "It just feels so—serious right now."

"It is a serious event," Ethan said, rolling his shoulders back. "And it might seem like a maze in there, but as long as we stick together and follow our escorts, everything will be fine. Please—and I stress this simply because I don't think the obvious needs to be said, but we are still learning each other's coping mechanisms and if taking a walk to calm down or pull yourself together is a thing—that is probably not going to be an option while court is in session."

There will be breaks, Quinn said, sternly. Do not scare them, Ethan. There are breaks in between sessions, witnesses, accepted judgements and the like. It is not at all like your courts on Earth. Extremely different. And I already said that whatever you need, Harry—you do it, within reason. I'd draw the line at stripping down, but if you wanted to shift into your indoor dragon form, that's an option.

Harry twitched. "It's the different part that worries me. The Earth and Nevarean differences."

It's different in that everything will come to light and the justice that is served is not always what is expected, but in the end, it is most suitable. Or so it seems.

"Now who's confusing them?" Ethan asked, dryly. "I was only going to say that we'll be grouped together, because of our bonding, and expected to move and function as a unit. They'll treat us like one—just like they would any other proper Circle. Lately—this morning in particular—we're acting less as a cohesive whole and more as parts of a gearbox. It was a reminder to be honest and open, because whether you want to or not, there will be little privacy to explain ourselves to each other once we're inside there. I also don't want us overloading your mental channel."

Ah. Well. That is somewhat true, Quinn allowed. But for the most part, there will be some breaks, some refreshments and such—I also don't think it will take an entire day to sort through everything. Might take more than that. Maybe two or three. I'm also used to some level of inside chatter, so don't worry about overloading me yet. I'll say something if I feel it's getting to be too much.

Harry froze, grateful that the magical platform was still slowly lifting them skyward, as the realisation finally clicked. Yes, he'd resigned himself to the whole court mess, yes, he'd figured that Nevarah would have some strange and odd way of handling things, given the way that dragels and family seemed to be extremely important.

But no.

He hadn't considered that things would take longer than a day.

Oh.

Oh dear.

Beside him, Theo looked even more green than he had after his conversation with Quinn. Harry wished he could calm him down or soothe him enough to get that awful look off of his face. He'd never seen it before, but he knew that he didn't like it at all.

The platform finally rose up to light level, where Harry was now awestruck by the beautiful sight that stretched out before them. It was nothing like what he'd seen when first entering the Main City and even city hall.

As far as he could see, a beautiful building of shimmering, transparent stonework—crystal? Maybe?—loomed in the distance. Tall and neatly sectioned with thick, luscious green vines growing over one portion, while blood-red light streamed through another section and vibrant purple in another. Black stone seemed to make up the entire base and the massive, wide stairs that led up to grand doors with gilded handles.

Definitely a crystal building with all its sharp edges and corners, but also a prism, reflecting the light and magic surrounding it on all sides. The air was thinner, but somehow fresher, as if it'd been carefully syphoned down through a thousand filters and poured into the rich brown stone walkway that stretched across bottomless depths.

For the building sat in the centre of a stone-crafted bit of land, with eight distinct walkways stretching towards it from eight different sides, bridging a gap where gorgeous waterfalls surrounded by stunning flowers and elemental sprites, poured down into billowy, cloudy depths that seemed to go on endlessly.

The platform docked seamlessly with the ground level, a short portion of the walkway, now wide enough for them all to step off, their Gheyo escorts included. It widened a little bit up ahead, to allow them to walk side by side comfortably, yet still to see the awe-inspiring beauty of the natural space.

"Do you have a timed entry pass?" The ACE escort near Theo spoke in polite, measured tones. "If not, we must wait here until the current queued party arrives and is admitted, before any secondary admissions are allowed. It is protocol."

"No entry pass," Theo said, showing the court summons. "But we are scheduled for today. These are our summons. Is there a waiting area for us in the meantime or-"

"You may wait here," the ACE said, gesturing to the left of the larger platform around them. "And there is an assigned lobby for those in the queue line that may provide additional privacy, if you require it. I do believe you're not too early, so the timing should be alright."

"That might be best," Ethan said, glancing overhead.

Harry squinted into the distance, where it seemed as if there were tall stone pillars set in a massive circle slightly behind the crystal court building. "What are those?" he asked, tugging on Quinn's mental connection for an answer.

Quinn's teal eyes swept over him carefully, searchingly, before his lips pursed. That would be where Charum Mortis is performed. It is inaccessible unless the one entering, truly desires it and once it begins, it does not stop.

A shiver ran through Harry.

Despite the warmth of Charlie's ever-present flames at his side and Theo's finger hooked around his for reassurance, there was a sharp, shard of ice that stabbed through the last bit of foggy uncertainty.

This was real.

All of it was real.

He chewed on his lower lip, wishing desperately that Maury had lived, if only to walk him down such a lonely path to the building. The ache in his heart of remembering the conversation and how Maury had chosen that end for himself—oh, it hurt.

"-ry, Harry!" Ethan stood in front of him, his hands placed on Harry's shoulders. "Hey—look at me. Focus. Breathe in, breathe out, in, out—that's better. You pulled really hard on all of your bonds just now. It's alright. You're alright. We're all here." His golden gaze flicked to Theo and then back to Harry.

Theo's brows furrowed together. He gently pulled free of Harry's grasp and circled around to stand in front of him, nudging Ethan to the side to give them some measure of privacy from their escort Gheyos.

For a long moment, they merely stared at each other.

Harry, searching for some kind of explanation, some sliver of hope, some sort of anything—to grasp onto, to keep himself anchored in the storm.

Theo, watching him calmly, steadily and with a gradual steadiness returning to him, the gold burning bright and yellow in his eyes. "Quinn suggested I ask you this later. After this is over. But I think if I don't say it now, I'll lose my nerve."

"You don't have to, if you don't want me to-" Harry began.

"That's part of it though," Theo said. "Harry—I don't know what this trial will cover, but-"

Theo didn't so much as blink when twin privacy wards flared up, covering all of them. One from Charlie, the other from Ethan, while Quinn pretended not to notice, his expression calm and genial, while his own magic added another layer of privacy wards to the first two.

A near laugh slipped out.

Hands held out, Harry waited until Theo placed his in them. "But?" he prompted, relaxing. "You can tell me, Theo. I'll listen."

"...I do not do things as honestly as you," Theo said, at last. "It is not in my nature. I do not behave in a way that is similar to you that would be make sense in times like this."

Harry only squeezed Theo's hands, carefully.

"There are things I have kept from you," Theo said, steadily. "And some that I never intended to ever tell you. Is this something you can live with?"

Harry blinked.

There was so much weight in that question that he didn't even know where to start, and a hint of exasperation surfaced as he realised why Quinn would've suggested the conversation wait until later. It felt like he should have more time to think about an answer to such a big question and yet—yet!

"That depends," he said, slowly. "Are they truths you think you should spare me from or horrible secrets you think I'm too pure to hear?"

"...things I have done to keep you safe. Us, safe. Protected. Both now and in the future." Theo bit his lip. "And probably some that I do think you're too nice to hear. You're nicer than me, at least. You've forgiven more in the short time I've known you, than I have in my entire life."

"Things I wouldn't agree with?" Harry arched a brow. "I do trust you, Theo. That includes your sense of judgement. I don't need to know everything. I don't think I want to. It's a lot. It'll be even more now, with more of us."

Theo shook his head. "I do not think so," he said, slowly. "You would probably agree with more of it now that you've seen what Nevarah is and how Circles function, that sort of thing. But I also think you have a stricter sense of justice than I do. I will freely admit that mine is rather—warped—but it is not because I do not trust you or I think you are not strong enough to bear it."

"It's who you are," Harry guessed, an understanding dawning slowly like a sluggish night, crawling its way into existence and stretching its wings wide and open in the clarity of the morning light. "I trust you," he said, slowly. "I do. I'd rather know what you were doing, than not. I appreciate you trying to protect me from some of that. It's—nice. I don't think anyone's ever really cared about it in that particular way. It's always because I'm young or they don't think I need to know, because I'll do something stupid. Or, assuming that I'm stupid."

"You're not. You're brilliant and you're brave and Harry, there is a lot I would do for you. Whether you would ask it of me or not."

"I know," Harry said, smiling at him, softly. "And whether you believe me or not, there is a lot I'd do for you too."

Theo's smile was a bit shaky, but there. "I trust that," he said. "But what if you disagree with my opinion? And I disagree with your disagreement?"

Harry squeezed his hands again, once. "I trust you," he said, again. "I would have that trust between us. I would learn that you would only have my best interests at heart, even when I can't see that. And I would hope that you would learn that I am not speaking from some naive or clueless place. I've seen things, Theo. And I've done things as well. You know this."

"I do and a lot of it makes me so angry, Harry. I could never forgive the things you have. I couldn't leave it without wanting some kind of revenge."

"And that's alright. I might need someone to be upset on my behalf, because it doesn't hurt the same way it once did." Harry's brows furrowed a bit deeper. "Quinn's right. We should be having this conversation without worrying about a time limit. Are you afraid something you've done will come out in the trial?"

A tiny shrug of one shoulder.

Harry sucked in a short breath. "Alright," he said, carefully. "Alright. Is this about the seals? My family? Or something else? Your family? Hogwarts? Earth-"

"Maybe all of that. Maybe a lot more," Theo said, tiredly. "Quinn's right. This is a lousy time to-"

"I don't care about the timing," Harry said, stepping closer. "I've trusted you—I do trust you—and while I know there's still a lot going on that we'll eventually learn about each other—Theo, I'm not made of glass. I won't break."

Theo shuddered, leaning forward so his forehead rested on Harry's shoulder. "And if it's something you're going to hate?' he asked, in a small voice. "I'm not you, Harry. I don't think or act in ways that are natural to you. Some of my first instincts are vicious. Cruel, even."

Slowly, Harry tugged a hand free and reached up to curl it in Theo's soft hair. "Then I guess you're going to have to apologize and I'm going to have to learn to forgive."

He jolted, faintly when Theo's arms curled around him tight enough to draw a squeak.

"And if I'm a horrible Slytherin that doesn't know how to apologize?" he whispered.

"Then you're going to have to learn and I'll have to be patient," Harry said, simply. "I'm not expecting you to be perfect. I'm just hoping we'll grow together. You've told me before, that this isn't a game. It's serious. It's life. So, I'm being serious now. We'll figure it out. I've been reckless and I've been careful. I know that. Hermione drilled some self-preservation into me and a little bit of it actually stuck."

Theo made a soft sound in his throat when Harry's hand stopped petting his hair.

"No, Theo. I just—I want to help. Sometimes I want to help more than I want anything else. Oret—Maury—he told me a lot of things, when we were in my mindscape. I have a lot to think about and we have a lot to talk about. But that doesn't mean you have to be afraid that I'm going to leave or break this off or do something equally drastic. I won't. I wanted this, remember? I came to you."

"...you did," Theo said, softly. "And I was so—surprised. Honoured. Amazed. I still am. You could've had anyone. Someone more mature, someone more-"

"I didn't want anyone else," Harry said, quietly. "I wanted you. Something in your soul reaches out to mine. It feels like coming home, remember?"

"I don't want to hurt you!"

"I don't want to hurt you either. But I think, if we do by accident—we can work it out, alright? Please don't worry yourself to death over something we can work out together. I want this. I want us, Theo. I want it for a very, very long time."

Theo's breath hitched. "Alright," he said, clutching Harry tightly. "Then that's what we'll do."


"Primary attendants arriving!" An ACE stepped off of the second platform off to the right. "Please make way!"

The accompanying Suites appeared clad in pristine white dress Armor. They poured out into perfect, straight lines, double-file, to protect the ones walking between them. Eventually, the two moving lines merged into a single-file procession, lining the long, yawning pathway up to the court building, they stood in formation, poised to move.

From the centre of the second platform, the primary attendants stepped forward.

Clad in the same pristine white as the accompanying Suites, the main difference was the very obvious accents of gold and silver that adorned bared limbs and silky, perfect hair.

Wards crackled and shot up halfway to the floating security platforms overhead, dampening the sharp, cutting wave of magic blasting through the entire courtyard,

Oh.

Harry perked up.

That had to be a fairly powerful Circle. He leaned around Charlie's protective stance to try and catch a glimpse of them.

Automatically, Theo's hands on his waist, tightened. "It's Oretta," he mumbled into Harry's neck, still half-leaning into him. "What is she doing here? I thought they had their session scheduled differently than ours."

"Isn't that Ilsa?" Ethan asked, sidling closer. "I thought she had a parallel case time to Harry's trial."

"I thought so too," Theo said, baffled.

There was nothing Harry could say to that, because the wards thinned from brilliant gold to a soft, nearly transparent shimmer, as if the thinnest veil of a waterfall poured down from the skies.

And then he could see it.

Ithycar and Delani walking in with Bhindi and Bahn between them, like a Circle going to war.

Well, walking was an odd way to describe how they glided across the brown brick pathway stretching out over the endless mists below on the way to the court building.

The Deveraine Twins were, of course, dressed impeccably in flowing gowns of pure white with matching jewellery and hairstyles that left them looking identical from all angles. If it wasn't for the very definite scowl on Bahn's face with his slight baby bump and the slightly forced smile on Bhindi's with her trademark haughtiness, there would be no telling them apart.

Ithycar was dressed in plain robes beneath a decorative set of elaborate golden dress Armor—Elven Armor—his boots clinking quietly along the pathway, while Delani's robes bore sweeping sleeves and a gauzy train behind her, a thick golden collar necklace screaming of wealth and status.

The most obvious point, however, was the very obvious display of all claim marks exposed, clothes and Armor only artfully held in place to preserve modesty without hiding what was meant to be seen.

Slowly, Theo turned just enough to watch them walk by, heads held high, their Bonded gliding along behind them. He squeezed Harry again, as if for comfort and reassurance.

Okahn and Takar were next, holding hands and dressed in robes with an Advisor Rank's cut and style of multiple layers and fitted shoulders. Their steps were perfectly matched and it seemed as if there was one set of jewellery split between them—the left side of everything on Okahn and the right on Takar.

A half-step behind them, came Aracle, his outfit considerably simpler, but the shimmering band of gold medallions that kept the thick, rich cloak fastened about his shoulders was identical to the one that Nara wore. Her hair was twisted up into an elegant style and she walked with her hand tucked in the crook of Aracle's elbow.

Behind them, the Pareya emerged.

Daintily stepping off of the platform and surging forward as if pulled by an invisible line. Some of them carried the younger children in their arms, while others—like Alma—had Baby Camalis strapped to her chest in a soft, fabric carrier with a golden crest pinned at one spot.

Harry watched them with a hint of awe and curiosity well-mixed together. "It feels like they're going to war," he said, half-to-himself.

"They are," Theo said, quietly. "See the gold? On the twins?"

Harry squinted.

Bhindi and Bahn sported thin golden circlets around their heads, half-hidden by their near-platinum blond hair, streaming out behind them. None of their Bonded wore one, but the charged air hanging overhead, suggested it was more than mere symbolism.

"Crowns?" He asked, confused.

"Yes," Theo said, simply. "What most have forgotten is that while they are dragel—they are also Elven."

Harry felt a presence before Ilsa Deveraine actually appeared behind them. The questioning sound in his throat was squeezed out when her strong, sturdy arms pulled him and Theo into one of her bone-crushing hugs.

"Oretta?" Theo struggled to catch a glimpse of her face. The relief in his voice was tangible and catching.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief just from the soothing presence of her steady aura.

"There we are," she said, gently, warm as ever. "Hello Theo. Hi Harry." She bent enough to nuzzle into Theo's gelled hair and Harry's carefully styled mop.

"Why are—you're here now-?" Theo faltered. "Oretta!"

"I can be wherever I like whenever I like, Theodore," Ilsa said, mischievously. "And incidentally, I can also be very persuasive when I want to be. I thought you boys could use the support. So I've asked for it. You need only agree."

Harry took a short, sharp breath. The weight of Ilsa's words was something he'd never expected to feel directed to him in a million years.

"Theo?" He asked.

"I agree." Theo looked to him. "Harry?"

"…yes."

"Alright. Then let's get you all inside and settled and we'll take care of the rest." Ilsa whistled, starting forward with an arm slung around Harry's shoulders, towing him forward—and Theo, by default.

"It'll be fine," Greta said, still grinning at him in that sharp, satisfied way. "Trust me, Ilsa's always at her best when she has something to fight for and there's no way she'd have ever let you all go up against something like this—alone."

Harry nearly smiled, his stomach doing a happy little flip. Maybe—maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all.


START OF THE COURT SESSION / NEVARAH - HARRY AND CO


Harry filed in to the inner section of the assigned courtroom behind Theo and Charlie, reassured by Ethan's solid grip on his arm and Quinn's quiet presence behind him. A whiff of calming lavender filtered through the air, just light enough to catch his attention. The taste of mint was still fresh in his mouth from the last round of freshening and straightening charms Ethan had cast over all of them.

Fingers and toes tingled, leaving Harry with a distinct sensation of being newly scrubbed and wet-behind-the-ears all over again. It was a small mercy that absolutely no one was paying attention to their entrance, considering that they were following along behind the Deveraines.

He was relieved not to have any eyes on him, beyond a few curious glances here and there.

Old, ugly memories of the Wizengamot and that ridiculous excuse of a hearing, came rushing back when he least wanted it. He distantly remembered arriving with Arthur Weasley, the change in location and time, as well as how no one cared to hear what he had to say or why he'd acted the way he had.

No one had cared at all.

If—if Dumbledore hadn't shown up and gotten things sorted out, he would've ended up worse.

Much, much worse.

And yet, Dumbledore seemed to be the cause of so much of his recent problems. Harry tamped down his nerves and drew sharply on every bit of courage he could muster. He needed to this as himself. As Harry.

Just Harry.

Not Harry-Potter-Savior-of-the-Wizarding-World.

A niggling sense of doubt lurked in the back of his mind, and he found himself reaching for Theo's hand again, the earlier words echoing over the memory replaying on loop in his head. Maybe, if he'd had someone like Theo behind him a little sooner, some of those horrid experiences could've been avoided.

Or at least, nullified so it wouldn't be anything like what he'd endured in the end.

His ears warmed at the remembrance of crying his heart out and telling his beloved triad everything that had happened since stumbling into Hogwarts. The whole deal with the philosopher's stone, the basilisk, Sirius and everything that had followed.

Oh, how it made his heart ache now.

He'd been so alone for so much of that.

Sure, he'd had Ron—sort of—and Hermione—again, sort of—but in the end, it was just him. Just Harry who had to put his hands on a dying man who was the vessel for a murderer, just Harry who had to stab a fang he'd pulled out of his own arm into a horcrux, and just Harry who had wanted one good person in his life.

One person who didn't hate him-!

Stay with me, Harry. Quinn's mental nudge was kind and grounding. You look a thousand realms away. Is it the courtroom? Or something else? I promise you, there's nothing to dread on the first day. It's more of an orientation day and oaths and all of that sort of thing.

"...the way you say that makes me think there's something to dread on the other days," Harry said, dryly.

That's not what I meant. Quinn's amusement travelled through their bond, evidenced only by the barest hint of his lip twitching upward. But if the distraction works, then I'll take it. See the sunstones by the corners? Those are the emergency exits. If there's an issue, we'll use that as a portal point, which means getting to the one that is closest to us.

"That one up there?" Harry squinted at the glowing stone up to his right, embedded in the ceiling. He hadn't even noticed it until Quinn had pointed it out.

Yes. Feel better now?

He startled when Theo's hand squeezed tight. He'd forgotten they were holding hands. "I'm fine," he said, automatically.

Quinn gave him a look for that, but didn't comment on it.

Secure in his semi-guided shuffling, Harry allowed himself to take in the room and how different it was from what he'd expected both on Muggle and Wizarding terms.

Dragels, as usual, did everything in a strangely restrained sort of grandness. It was almost funny to notice.

There were rows upon rows of staged seating, almost like the grand auditorium where the Hunt's festivities had taken place. Everything was set in colours of rich navy blue and deep, soothing brown, which made it much easier on the eyes than Harry had expected, given the brightness and dazzling white and gold of the Deveraine's glittery entrance.

Assigned staff appeared to be White-armour-clad Gheyos and Pareya directing attendees to their seats, keeping the entire process in a neat and orderly manner. Silencing charms, privacy wards and protective shields were erected around the sections and doubly-reinforced near the bottom row. Some of it was even sectioned like that dancing floor where they'd gone with Wikhn and Dahlia.

The hushed air that hung over the entire space was both calming and surprising.

It wasn't exactly like the grand stage for the Hunt, Harry realised, when he spotted a tall, pale-blue box and platform across the room from them. A giant oval space was between the seated audience and the massive platform.

Casting grounds, he realised, when he spotted the magical runes inscribed on the pristine grey stones. Pillars for conducting massive amounts of energy—almost as if they were lightning rods.

The warded space was then filled with dozens upon dozens of shimmering stones. Not gemstone, but precisely cut, fitted slivers of translucent stone in varying shades of red, amber, blue and green.

Pretty, but ominous.

As if he could fall straight into it for a thousand cuts.

Harry shivered as Ethan shuffled him along the carpeted walkway and then into a rather comfortable seat with a close view of the open area in front of them. He felt Theo settle on his other side and then Quinn's mental presence steady and present in his mind, while Charlie's bond flickered with caution.

"I thought we—didn't Ilsa-?" Harry faltered.

She has to request it first and it has to be acknowledged after the summoning of those who are presiding and present,Quinn explained. When it is cleared, they will ask us to move there—and we'll switch places with the Deveraines. Since the speaking platforms are blood-charmed, we have to wait until that changes over.

Oh.

Harry took that bit of information in, while staring at the strangely shadowed front seating where the entire Deveraine Circle were elegantly seated. It was slightly gratifying to realise that they were only two rows higher up than the Deveraine's box and that he had a fairly good view of the space in front of them and the blue box.

Gradually, the auditorium began to fill.

A timer charm was projected in the centre of the casting ground, counting down to zero as the final deadline for admittance into the room.

"Are all those people here for the Deveraines?" Harry had to ask. They didn't appear to be jurors or anything like the nauseating purple robes of the Wizengamot members.

Family members with clearance or Clan Chiefs and their respective Circles. Quinn tipped his head towards the far end of the staged seating. See the Fire Elemental over there? The one with his flames on low? You might remember him from the Hunt. That's Blood Flame, one of the Blood Title Gheyos—High Noble Zandian.

Harry snuck a peek and sat up straighter in his seat afterward. "He looks tall," he said, slowly. "And why are his flames so low?"

Doesn't want to call attention to himself. The Deveraines are Earth, so Fire is not a primary element to be highlighted there, unless their Fire Gheyo—Loren—requests something. The ones accompanying Zandian are the Suite that he's training and traveling with. The rest are his family. I think it's his sister's Circle? Ethan?

Ethan's golden gaze flicked to the side and then straight ahead. "His sister and sister-in-law's Circles," he said, quietly. "He's been sticking close by them since they were both expecting at the same time."

"Thomas and the others are here," Theo said, softly. "To your left, three rows up." He gave a slight twist of his head towards the direction of Thomas Gorgens and his distinguished Circle filing in, quietly.

Harry chewed his lip ragged. The man had greeted him quite warmly and he'd been kind, but Harry wasn't sure he wanted him to know about everything that had happened to him. Everything that he was becoming more and more certain, would be aired out in front of everyone to see once the trial began.

It wasn't pretty, it wasn't nice and it was certainly going to hurt—but-!

Theo squeezed his hand again, a little harder than before. "I'm sure he came to support Oretta," he whispered. "It'll be alright. He liked you, remember?"

He smiled in our direction, Quinn added, helpfully. I think he'll be on our side, if we need it.

A hum of conversation grew within the open space, until the timer reached zero and a monotone voice announced that the room would be sealing itself for the proceedings to begin.

"...thank you for your cooperation! Please keep your opinions to yourself unless addressed. Maintain your personal discipline. Refrain from Elemental outbursts and provoked physical violence..."

"Refrain from elemental outbursts?" Harry muttered. "How can anyone do that?"

"Charms," Ethan said, nudging him. "And potions and stuff. It also means they won't make a fuss if you want to—say, sit in Quinn's lap for a calming cuddle of some sort."

"Ethan!" Harry whispered, furiously.

Ethan shrugged. "I'm not judging. I might do it, if you don't. His aura's very nice. He keeps a good handle on his aura and you can't tell me someone who runs and works out every day like that, doesn't have very nice thighs."

Quinn's lips twitched. If you need a cuddle, just ask.


Behind the tall blue box-like pedestal, the wall split in two, swinging inward to show the arrival of an elegant procession of serene elegance.

The Nevarean Royals.

Leading them up to the blue box—and Harry was starting to think that it was really just a viewing box that was very far away—was the Merrow King Alcandor himself, followed by an ethereal figure beside him, and two members of his Royal Guard, evidenced by the fancy armour they wore.

That's a lot for the Merrow Royal contingent, Quinn mused, projecting his narration over the Merrow procession. Merrow are fiercely protective of their Royals and they usually don't involve themselves in landwalker affairs. It's always a significant event when they surface for the Hunt.

Harry managed a small nod to show that he understood. The memory of a certain grumpy Merrow and a certain awkward spell removal replayed with startling clarity. He bit back a groan.

Still, it was quite a sight to see all the Royals again.

"Is that his queen?" Harry had to ask. "The other Royals don't have anyone with them like that."

Quinn twitched. Perhaps. I haven't kept up on the Royal news. But Merrow Royals are chosen through a very vicious and elaborate trial-by-combat ritual. As far as I know, they have to pair-bond, if they don't already have a Circle in courtship. It isn't at all like the way Prince Raspen and the others are chosen. Nevarah chooses her Royals, yes, but the people have a say. It's a very delicate balance.

Harry bit his lip, his mind drifting to think of how he'd seen Princesses' Dawne and Ebony, since his arrival in Nevarah. Of how Prince Raspen had treated him so kindly and yet had handled so much of the chaos he'd brought along, with grace and patience.

That was nice.

Unexpectedly nice, but also a mark in Prince Raspen's favour. It made him wonder what kind of dragel would stand beside him.

Following King Alcandor, came Prince Raspen and two dragels that wore the same finery, but had no outwardly visible weapons. Princess Ebony came behind him, her long hair twisted up into the most elaborate-looking sculpture, dripping with glittering blood-red gemstones and gold, her armed guards wielding gleaming golden spears.

And at long last, Princess Dawne followed behind her gown a long, silvery-shroud that seemed to make her appear less like a young woman and more like an older, delicate Fae. Her hair was the same pale blonde it'd always been, but now with the jewels in her hair, every single movement seemed to glitter and glimmer. Her steps were slow and measured, allowing her to match the pace of her fellow Royals without falling behind in her place within their procession.

Each Royal made their way to a designated space in the blue viewing box and when they were all seated with their pair of guards standing directly behind them, the grand doors swung shut with a hollow clang.

"Good morning," Princess Dawne began, her voice soft, but carrying, thanks to the amplification charm that was spelled upon her person. "Today's focus is on the Clan War between the Deveraines and the Vaughns. This will be an absolute ruling to settle their differences, once and for all. Before we begin, I will summon Nevarah's Avatar, The Shrouded One, to bear witness and give wisdom. In accordance with our laws of fairness and justice, all available Immortals or Celestials wishing to witness or provide input, will make their appearance. This will cause a significant increase in magical energy and presence, please brace yourselves."


A/N: Well, I said I wasn't going to do super-monster chapters anymore, but this 23k and I don't even know what to cut out to make it more manageable and readable. *headdesk* I hope you all enjoyed it! There's a ton of little hints in here that you'll see playing out in the next couple of chapters and through the Trial Arc, that is starting as of NOW.

There is definitely more with the Harry/Theo moments to come, a lot more of our delightful Quinn and Ethan, as well as our darling Charlie, who didn't get as much Harry-snuggle time as I think he should have. Oh well. I tried to add as much as I could of Harry and Co, but the others snuck into the plot and it needs to be there for what's coming in the Trial Arc. Whew.

Thank you for being so patient in waiting for this update! If you're still reading here on FFN, let me know. What was your favorite line(s)? I'll be working on Ch 121 after a short break, as I have some other projects to finish first and some RL headaches to deal with as well, but I promise there's more fun to come soon-stay tuned.

As always-Enjoy the read and I'll see you next chapter! -Scion aka Chera Carmichael.


I was asked to include a short ranking summary in a recent comment, so here we go for quick reference!

DRAGEL CIRCLE -RANKS
• ALPHA — the dominant authority figure, equal to the Submissive, within a bonded dragel Circle. One corner of the operating triad.
• BETA — Mediator between the Alpha and Submissive. Usually acts on the Alpha's behalf, when needed. One corner of the operating triad.
• SUBMISSIVE — the heart of a dragel Circle and generally the shortest. One corner of the operating triad.
• PAREYA — the protector within a Circle, usually attuned to the Submissive and proficient in defensive magic
• GHEYO — the fighter within a Circle, usually attuned to the Pareyas and proficient in offensive magic. Gheyos have multiple titles within their ranks, denoting special fighting skills and establishing a clear authority figure. A Circle with all Gheyo ranks filled is referenced as having a full Suite. They are ACE, King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Knight, Page, Trainee
• MAGE - A magic-oriented fighter within a Circle that does not follow Gheyo ranking or authority. They are known for having tremendous magical ability and control.
Additional ranks include, HEALER, ADVISOR, RHEYO, ROYAL, COMPANION, GHEYIC PAREYA, and CARRIER.


Find me online as Chera Carmichael/Scioneeris for updates on chapter progress, dragel stuff and the discord.