Harlequin's Slash Fic

Differences

Title: Differences
Author: Harlequin
Universe: Harry Potter
Characters featured: Cillian/Alessandro (original characters)
Category, Word count: Short story; 9663 words
Rating: R
Summary: A young wizard investigates strange happenings in the Swiss Alps.
Notes: An ‘original’ piece set sometime before the Harry Potter books begin. If I were making the movie of it, I’d cast the actor Cillian Murphy in the main role (his first name is pronounced with a hard C), and a friend suggested James Purefoy as Alessandro – but of course that and the rest of the casting is up to you.
First published: 1 January 2007 on Harlequin’s Slash Site

 

Differences

 

I made quite the grand entrance. Not that it would have taken very much to impress this small town meeting of Muggles, but they gaped as I strode down the aisle resplendent in my sapphire blue velvet suit, and turned to speak to them in their own language, their own dialect. ‘Hello. My name is Cillian Blue, and I’m here to help.’

Silence greeted me, and much further gaping.

‘Perhaps you were expecting a hoary and learned ancient, but I do assure you that I am an expert in what troubles you.’

At last someone in the front row (a portly and pleasant–faced old soul) cleared his throat and stood. ‘You see, young sir, we weren’t really expecting anyone,’ he explained to me, before looking around the gathered townsfolk. ‘I didn’t know anyone else had heard of our troubles.’

Heads shook and shoulders shrugged in agreement. Where had I come from, and what had prompted my journey?

As the gent regained his seat, I noticed a handsome young man sitting on the other side of him gazing up at me. Well, almost all the Muggles were gazing up at me, in various states of expectancy or confusion or indignation. But this fellow was staring rather intensely, as if somewhat intrigued – and also as if rather amused. Despite the seriousness of proceedings, his mouth was quirking in a barely repressed smile.

After a moment or two I blinked and looked away. Having temporarily misplaced my train of thought, I let an ‘er …’ escape me. But then I was steaming ahead again. ‘I come from Britain, and I have never before crossed the sea, but my mother was born and raised not twenty miles from here, in the heart of the Alps.’ I pointed in what I hoped was the right direction, and a few of them nodded as if that were at least one mystery solved. Indeed, I grew up trilingual (English, my Irish father’s Gaelic, and my Swiss mother’s German), thinking nothing of it until I belatedly started school at seven years of age, and realised that this was unusual. ‘That is why they sent me.’

‘Pardon me, young sir,’ asked the old soul, ‘but who is they that sent you …?’

I dared no more than glance at the piercing yet merry dark eyes of the handsome fellow beside him. ‘Who is they … yes, of course, they is … I mean, they are … friends,’ I finished lamely. ‘Friends of yours.’

There was, naturally enough, some restlessness born of dissatisfaction with my answer.

‘I am not at liberty to divulge names, but I can assure you that they know what has happened here, and what the remedy is. They sent me to investigate, and to resolve the situation. I promise you that my schooling and my experience since’ – never mind that it hadn’t quite been two years since I graduated from Hogwarts – ‘have perfectly equipped me to help.’

Silence again, and a stonier one than before.

The old soul got to his feet again. ‘You’ll excuse our scepticism, young sir …’

‘I may excuse it,’ I allowed, ‘if you will tell me what progress you’ve made in resolving the situation thus far.’

‘As you’ll have guessed, sir,’ he said with a slight bow of acknowledgement, ‘not much progress at all. We hardly know what to think.’

‘Well, then. All I ask is someone to show me where the incidents occurred, and pass on any details that I don’t already know. I need nothing more. The rest of you can hold meetings to your hearts’ content, and we’ll see who solves the problem first.’

‘I’ll take him, father.’ It was, of course, the young man. He stood, and reassured the old soul with a gentle grasp of his arm. ‘What can it hurt? You won’t miss me for a day or two, not now summer’s come. He can stay with us tonight, and I’ll take him round tomorrow.’

And thus it was settled.

 

Late that night I stood in the door to his room with my valise in my hand, while he straightened a few things, gathered an armful of personal items. Alessandro, his name was Alessandro Jakob, he was perhaps two or three years older than myself, and he moved with a free strength, as if he’d spent all his life working outdoors and loving it.

As he walked towards me, towards the door, he looked me levelly in the eyes and said, ‘You can have my bed tonight.’

‘And you?’ I asked. ‘The hay loft?’ I did not feel guilty for it, as I imagined that his easy conscience and physical grace would allow him to fall asleep anywhere.

That barely suppressed smile broke through at last, though there was pity in it for my ignorant assumptions. ‘The guest bedroom,’ he corrected me. ‘It’s not as comfortable. Certainly not for a gentleman. You’re better off here.’

With a last assessing stare – an assessment which I surely failed – he swept past me and was gone.

 

I found breakfast awaiting me on a tray in my room next morning, along with a large jug of steaming hot water, so I was fully refreshed by the time I joined my hosts in their kitchen. ‘Good morning, Mr Jakob,’ I said with a polite bow. ‘Alessandro.’

‘Good morning, young sir. I hope you slept well?’

‘Very well indeed,’ I declared, ‘I thank you, sir. And thus I am ready for the day as soon as your son wishes to start.’

Alessandro stared at me in disbelief. ‘What, dressed like that?’

The three of us considered my clothes – my delightful emerald green velvet, which suited my auburn hair, pale skin and blue eyes. But who could ever be entirely sure of following Muggle thought processes? I suppose, when compared with Alessandro’s choice of sturdy boots, mud–stained overalls and well–worn shirt, I was a tad overdressed. ‘You consider it somewhat …?’

Mr Jakob seemed unwilling to comment.

After an uncomfortable moment, Alessandro stood, obviously too impatient to bother. ‘Oh, come on, then. And when you’ve ruined all your finery, you can borrow my old work clothes. The ones I’ve outgrown.’

‘You are all kindness.’ I bowed again, but spoiled my proper gratitude by muttering, ‘However, I trust that won’t be necessary.’

 

As we walked down the main street (indeed, the only proper street), people halted their business and stared – mostly at me, the stranger in their midst, but it was also readily apparent that the girls of the town were quite smitten with the handsome fellow beside me. He reacted to the attention with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, tossing his head so that his dark curls tumbled becomingly around his face, glistening in the sunshine. ‘Good morning, Alessandro,’ came the besotted greetings, one after another.

‘Morning,’ he gruffly replied, not once breaking his stride. It was the only time I’d seen him at all discomfited.

We left the town behind, but soon stopped by a fenced field. ‘The first the townsfolk knew of it,’ Alessandro said. ‘There was a flock of sheep here. Three of them were killed. Mauled. We would have thought it a wolf.’

‘I see.’ The field was empty now, and there would probably be few clues left. ‘Whereabouts exactly?’

He put a hand to a fencepost and vaulted over. Then he reached to help me. I handed him my valise first, which he wasn’t expecting. But he took it with only the slightest shrug, set it on the ground, and then reached again to help me clamber up and over. I didn’t have his grace, of course, but I don’t think I made too big a fool of myself.

The grass was thoroughly trampled with the footprints of the men who’d hauled off the remains and buried them. But I did find one small tuft of grey wiry hair, and then, further away, a paw–print left in the soft ground. I beckoned Alessandro over. ‘What do you make of this?’

He studied it carefully. ‘A wolf,’ he eventually said. ‘But it’s larger than I’ve seen before. And there’s something –’

‘Yes?’ I prompted.

‘Something strange about it. His gait isn’t right. Maybe he’s injured, I don’t know. It’s strange.’

I nodded. ‘Strange, indeed. Stranger than you know.’

From there we climbed or scrambled up pathways and trails leading higher and higher into the mountains. Alessandro kept a surreptitious eye on me, but I was determined not to stumble or fall, nor slow him down too much. Towards noon we drew near a ridge, over which (despite the otherwise clear blue sky) hovered a mist. As we wound our way up the last steep slope I suddenly heard a roar – a crashing roar which did not lessen but continued on and on. The puzzle was soon solved as Alessandro stopped on a wide flat rock, and threw out an arm to prevent me walking past him. I looked down and saw a waterfall still swollen with the thaw, plunging into a deep ravine.

‘There,’ he cried over the roar, pointing just past our feet to the rocks far below. ‘There, the same night, she fell.’ I already knew who she was; a young woman from the town. ‘Agatha Wilmot. We found her torn and broken.’

I gently grasped his arm. ‘I’m sorry.’

He turned away, took a few steps and stood looking back across the valley where the town lay, towards the further mountains. When I joined him, he continued at his normal pitch. ‘We don’t know what happened. She could have been mauled, like the sheep.’

‘The rocks are sharp,’ I pointed out.

‘Yes, it could have been the rocks as she fell. But, even then, why did she fall? Was she running from the wolf as it hunted?’

I left a pause, before quietly asking, ‘You don’t think she deliberately threw herself into the ravine?’

He shrugged uncomfortably. ‘There had been bad news. And a rejection, too, though a while back. Her mother said –’ Another shift of his shoulders before he insisted, ‘It wasn’t worth dying over. And Agatha had more sense than most.’ Yet still he seemed to fear it.

We searched around carefully, but saw no paw–prints. ‘Likely the ground is too hard,’ I concluded. I dusted off my hands, and contemplated the magnificent view. ‘It is past midday, Alessandro. Shall we eat our lunch?’

Those dark eyes cast me a hard look. ‘Not here,’ he said, before striding off again.

I didn’t argue, but followed him.

 

We at last sat down under a tree on the edge of an alpine meadow that stretched out verdant under the sun. White and yellow flowers dotted the long grass, which rippled now and then in a breeze, like the surface of a mild sea.

Alessandro settled into a hollow with his feet out and his back to the tree trunk as if he belonged there. When he saw me watching him, he smiled. ‘Yeah, I bring our flock here for a few days each month when the moon is brightest. And I sit here, and I watch them.’

‘Sounds delightful,’ I said sincerely, though privately thinking I’d be bored out of my skull by evening of the first day.

He grinned wryly as if he could read my mind. Instead of commenting, though, he produced a fresh loaf of bread and a wheel of cheese from his canvas pack. My wand was hidden, as usual, up my sleeve, so I clumsily stuck that elbow into my valise, touched my other hand to my wrist, mentally pronounced the required words – Pyrusmalusmenti! Aguamenti! – and produced a half–dozen crisp apples and a glass bottle of spring water. His grin broadened, and I was pleased to find that I amused him still. But alas he was no longer intrigued.

We ate, and then we rested through an hour or so of the gentle afternoon.

Eventually Alessandro stirred, and he asked, ‘How did you – How did they know so soon? It’s only a week since that night.’

‘Ah. We have our ways.’

‘And then you journeyed here all the way from Britain …?’

I nodded, with what I trusted was a suitably confident air of mystery.

‘You have your ways,’ he supplied. He cleared his throat, and sat up. ‘Mr Blue,’ he began.

The sudden formality startled me to full attention. Nevertheless I offered, ‘Call me Cillian.’

He barely acknowledged me. ‘This is where the third thing that night took place.’

I looked around me in surprise at the undisturbed peace. And then I looked back at him. ‘Really? Were you here, Alessandro?’

‘There was something stalking the sheep, on the other side of the flock, just before dawn. I, er … I woke. All of a sudden. Everything was quiet. Too quiet, it wasn’t natural. I saw the thing, and I yelled, and I ran towards it, to scare it off. The sheep scattered. But it stood its ground.’

‘Did you see it clearly?’ I whispered. ‘You were very brave.’

‘I saw it.’ Another clearance of the throat, and he wouldn’t meet my gaze. ‘Would have thought it a wolf. But there was something strange. I don’t remember much of what happened next, but I remember that all right.’

‘Tell me.’

‘Well, a wolf, on all fours, looks most like a large dog, right? The size and shape of it, the gait. But this thing, it reared up on its hind legs, and it took a step or two like that. Trying to scare me off, maybe. It was too gaunt for a dog or a wolf. And the size and the shape of it, and the gait. It was more like –’

‘Yes,’ I prompted calmly, knowing what he would say.

‘Like a man.’

‘Yes. Like a man.’

He stared at me, all that intensity back, and more. ‘You believe me?’

‘I do.’

‘My own father wouldn’t believe me. They’ve all been out wolf–hunting ever since.’

He had risked telling me the truth. The least I could do was offer him the same, unadorned. ‘Alessandro, it was a werewolf.’

That handsome face froze, except for a spark of fear in those dark eyes.

‘It will be all right,’ I declared in my most confident tones, grasping his shoulder. We drew near to each other now, talking of these eldritch things even in the midst of the bright day. ‘I have dealt with these creatures before. I have studied them. I know what to do.’

A shake of the head, disagreeing with me. I opened my mouth to offer further reassurance, but he silenced me with a sharp glance. And then he was rolling up his left shirt–sleeve, lifting his bare forearm towards me. I had turned to stone, knowing what I would see. I forced myself to look, to see the bite marks. Three full sets, barely healed. Clean punctures, not ragged.

Sorrow plummeted through me. I tried to remain strong, for his sake. ‘It will be all right,’ I said again, though my voice was strangled. I know he understood me. I’m sure he didn’t believe me.

I tried to remain strong, but when I reached to grasp his shoulder again, I somehow ended up holding him, and his arms convulsively gathered me in closer. We held each other tight, him sitting and me kneeling there beneath the tree that had sheltered him from all trouble until this. A few tears were shed, though we need not mention that further.

The time came when it was right that we parted. I shifted to sit beside him, and I gazed sightlessly across the unsettled surface of the meadow. As if I could make it so by words alone, I repeated, ‘It will be all right.’

‘It will not,’ he bluntly retorted. ‘I will become like … like that thing.’

‘Perhaps not.’

‘The truth, Cillian.’

I swallowed hard. ‘Then, yes, you probably will. We won’t know until the next full moon. But there is a potion. It will limit the effects of the transformation so that you’ll be safe. I will teach you how to make it, and your father will protect you.’

‘Protect me …?’

‘Yes, you. It is not your fault, Alessandro. It is as if you caught an illness. There is no blame.’

‘But that thing is a killer.’

‘We will not let you cause or come to harm.’

‘If … if Agatha …’

I said, as carefully as I could, ‘I suspect that Miss Wilmot jumped, or fell accidentally. Werewolves, generally, do not kill human beings. They infect, but they do not kill.’

A silence stretched, until at last I judged that, if we were to reach his home again before the sun set, we should leave. When I said as much, however, he bleakly declared, ‘I can never go back.’

‘Of course you can. You must. You are not changed in who you are, my friend. You will not cause anyone any harm, I can promise you that.’

He stared into me as if he could see the truth for himself. Which I suppose he could. ‘We won’t know for three weeks yet,’ he said brokenly. ‘Right? So, you’ll stay until then.’

It wasn’t a question. Nevertheless I answered, ‘Yes.’

‘We’ll work out what to do then.’ He steeled himself. ‘Don’t tell my father. Please, Cillian. Not yet.’

I considered for a moment, before agreeing. ‘All right. But, Alessandro, he is a good man. He will love you just the same.’

His bleak glance said it all. He will not.

 

We became inseparable throughout each long day. I did not flatter myself that this was due to my worth as a companion; it was because Alessandro feared what he would become, and he trusted me to protect any innocents. We did not talk of the matter further, though, and Alessandro quickly regained his usual sunny nature, even if he was no longer quite so easy and relaxed as he had been.

Having soon completed my own investigations with Alessandro beside me, it became my turn to follow him around, and I helped him as best I could, which at least kept him amused. One afternoon I watched him splitting wood behind the barn, shirtless as I was the only other person present, and swinging the axe with his supple grace. This was, needless to say, something I could not possibly do without a spell or two to help me – and even then I doubted I knew enough about the task to be able to direct the spell correctly. After watching carefully, I decided that one must split the wood along its grain, not across it, but that was about as far as I got.

‘Well, are you going to just sit there all afternoon?’ he asked me when he was done. ‘Like we’d have a blazing fire every night if we didn’t have a guest.’

I sprang to my feet. ‘What can I do?’

‘You take a load indoors, and I’ll start stacking the rest.’

‘Of course.’ I considered the blocks of wood for a moment or two. With my back to Alessandro, I magicked myself a pair of gloves (marine green and impervious to splinters), and then I pointed my elbow at the wood. Featherweight! That would lighten my load. Alessandro was already busy, so I started cramming as many blocks as I could into the crook of my arm. The problem became one not of weight but of general unmanageability. It seemed I could never hold more than three at a time, and as soon as I picked up a fourth, one of the others would slip away and fall to the ground.

Eventually I swallowed my pride and walked into the house with my three hard–won blocks. This was going to take a lot of back–and–forthing, I could tell. As I came out, I was caught carefully brushing down my turquoise jacket, itching to get out my wand in order to give it a thorough clean.

Alessandro was laughing at me. Standing there, hands on his hips, and laughing at me.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘You daft peacock,’ he said.

I was caught between his words and his fond tone, wondering if there was a compliment in there as well as an insult.

‘You sweet little idiot. You watched me do that myself not two days ago. Fetch the straw basket from inside the shed, and carry them that way. Then we might not be all day at it.’

‘Ah. Thank you.’

He shook his head, and turned away, muttering, ‘Never have time for a beer at this rate, and at least one person here has earned himself a cold one.’

‘You’re going to the pub?’ This was promising; Alessandro had barely spoken two words to anyone else (except his father) since we’d returned from the meadow.

‘Yeah. You’ll come, too?’ He paused – not looking at me, but waiting, as if he cared about my answer.

‘Yes. Of course. Thank you.’

And without a word he returned to his stacking.

 

Naturally enough, the main topic of conversation at the pub was my investigation of the town’s troubles. I kept their attention focussed on myself, perched on a stool in their midst, while Alessandro propped himself against the bar and quickly downed a pint of beer. (They didn’t have butterbeer, and hadn’t even heard of it before, much to my disappointment. We concluded it must be a British speciality.)

Anyway, Alessandro’s friends and acquaintances were all happy to assume that I had no real idea what I was doing, so it was easy enough to fob them off with vague predictions and circumlocutions. ‘You’ll be off home soon,’ was the general conclusion. ‘Nothing’s happened like it since.’

‘Ah, no, I must stay. I have my theories, you know.’

‘Theories? We don’t need fancy theories, when Rolf here shot a great big wolf the other day. Shot it dead.’

‘But how do you know it was the culprit?’

‘It had grey hair, like what was found on the sheep.’

I nodded as if I were very impressed. ‘Fair enough, and I hope you’re right. But I’ll stay until the next full moon’ – I noticed Alessandro making short work of his second pint – ‘when my own theories may be proved or disproved. So that will be …’

‘Eleven nights,’ we all (but for my friend) chorused. And then we laughed. We each had different ways of knowing, but we shared much of the same knowledge nevertheless.

‘I trust that you’ll be free of further troubles,’ I continued, ‘and, if so, my hunt will take me elsewhere.’

Alessandro was staring at me now, as if suddenly struck by something important. I wasn’t about to ask him for elucidation amidst this crowd, however, so I just sat there, and let the conversation ebb and flow around me.

I fancied that I had managed to blend in quite well. I was wearing chocolate brown velvet, with a cream silk shirt, which at least harmonised in colour with my companions’ apparel. Also, I suppose, I was old news by now, having stayed at the Jakob farm for over a week without anything very strange occurring.

‘Hey, maybe you can investigate Alessandro for us,’ my neighbour declared as the evening wound on. He startled me so much I wondered if I’d dozed off where I sat.

Alessandro rolled his eyes, and stood up a little too quickly.

‘Yeah, maybe you can resolve that situation for us.’

‘He’s our mystery man,’ a third fellow confided.

‘Cillian, it’s time we were home,’ my friend said.

‘Twenty–one, and handsome, and never been kissed!’

‘Oh, you’re a fine one to talk, Pascal,’ Alessandro angrily retorted. He tugged at my sleeve, and I slipped off the stool happily enough. ‘I’ll be kissed, and more, and counting my grey hairs, before you’ve even loosed your mother’s apron strings.’

‘Hey, come back here and say that again! Coward! Hey, Alice!’

But Alessandro, with me in tow, never once faltered. Within moments we were walking back down the road in the cool night air, with the stars bright above us. It seemed twice as long as the journey there, but no doubt that was because I was more than ready for bed.

A companionable silence held until we were home again, and climbing the stairs to my room. His room. ‘Cillian,’ he murmured as we reached the landing, quietly so we didn’t disturb his father’s slumbers. ‘You didn’t take any of them seriously.’

It wasn’t quite a statement. ‘Any of whom?’ I asked, and offered him a drowsy, beery smile before being ambushed by a yawn.

He was looking at me, searching for the truth. ‘Good.’ Then there was a moment when he grasped my shoulder, as if needing further reassurance. ‘You daft, odd peacock.’ And there was no mistaking the fondness this time. But the moment faded, and he pushed past me, and disappeared into his room. The guest room.

I stumbled on alone, and I was so tired that I just magicked my clothes into fresh, wrinkle–free, sky blue pyjamas, and then fell into bed and sleep all at once.

 

The next morning the house was quiet, so I lay in bed late. But eventually even I felt it was time to get up. I’d hauled off my pyjama top and restored it to its original cream silk shirt and chocolate brown velvet, when I realised that the jacket had a big greasy handprint on the back; obviously a souvenir from one of our less cultured acquaintances of the night before. I fumbled for my wand, and began carefully drawing the stain out of the fabric.

Which was of course the moment (of all moments!) when Alessandro abruptly burst into the bedroom with my rather belated, hastily assembled breakfast on a tray. There I was, half naked, wand in hand. There he was, even more dishevelled than usual, but something firing up in those dark eyes, something I’d barely even glimpsed before.

‘Cillian,’ he said.

‘Yes?’ I asked.

‘Look.’ A pause to clear his throat. ‘My father has gone to market,’ he commented inconsequentially, ‘down the valley. He won’t be back until late.’

‘Er … Yes?’

I stood there, no doubt betraying my confusion. Alessandro hovered there in the doorway, tray still in hand, as if waiting for something, I knew not what. Tension grew.

Eventually casting about him for a topic of conversation, Alessandro’s eyes dropped to my stained jacket. He smiled. ‘Daft, odd, fastidious peacock.’ Definitely fond.

‘Fastidious,’ I echoed. ‘It’s true. And where did you learn the word?’

‘Books. Never had much use for it before now.’

‘I imagine not.’ We smiled some more, and then he came into the room to put down the tray, and I looked at my wand, unsure of how much he’d seen. And if he’d seen it all, how was I to explain? How to explain this away without using the words wizard or magic?

To my surprise, he was the one to broach the subject. ‘There’s something odd about you. I mean no offence, but you’re odd.’

I looked up at him. Met his gaze. ‘Yes. I’m different, as you’ve already surmised. I’m not quite like the other men around here.’

‘And neither am I,’ he replied.

‘Well, of course not, my dear friend,’ I assured him. (After all, we do each like to think ourselves unique. Except for when we like to think of ourselves as an integral part of a whole.) ‘But there is something about me, something about my capabilities that …’

I got no further, for he gruffly insisted, ‘I know,’ and then his hands were on my waist, and his mouth on mine, preventing any further speech.

Ah, I thought. Ah, so this is his secret. But even though I stayed completely still, something within me answered his demand. And I wondered. Could this possibly be my secret, too? A secret that had been well hidden over the years, even from myself? A youthful fumble or two, not even amounting to an indiscretion, and I’d assumed I was mistaken. I’d assumed that love would pass me by, that other aspects of life would be more important. But perhaps not. Perhaps I had simply been waiting for this. Waiting to be overwhelmed.

Alessandro had pulled away, stepped back a little, and was now watching me warily, darkly. ‘No?’

I smiled. ‘Yes.’ And I tugged him close again.

With a groan that managed to be surprised, relieved and eager all at once, Alessandro wrapped his arms around my waist, lifted me off the floor, and began kissing me passionately.

From there we paused only once, as he lay down beside me on my bed. His bed. ‘I don’t really know –’ he muttered. ‘I’ve never –’

‘Me, neither,’ I said – and added with a confident smile, ‘We’ll figure something out.’

And we did.

 

For first times, it was hardly legendary, but I was happy enough. All of that last sentence is an understatement. Our second time, we did far better.

After some truly delightful exploration and experimentation, Alessandro found a way of moving over me so that his whole body made love to mine, and our manhoods meshed even as our mouths did. When he finished again, he seemed stunned by the joy of it, and the very sight was enough to finish me, too.

‘Oh, Cillian, Cillian,’ he murmured as he settled beside me, sounding even more overwhelmed than I felt. ‘I knew as soon as I saw you. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.’

‘Beautiful? Oh, no,’ I chuckled, ‘you have the wrong fellow for that. I know all too well that I am an odd–looking cove. Eyes too large, cheekbones too high. I will not tell you the nickname they gave me at school, for it was too cruel. And then I am but a pale slip of a thing, while you are sun–kissed and strong and –’

‘You are the finest china,’ he insisted, ‘and I am naught but home–fired pottery.’

‘I may be fine,’ I whispered, ‘but I will not break.’

‘Good,’ he said roughly, and moved over me once more.

 

And so it went, for all that long day, and then for the ten nights after. He would tiptoe into his bedroom, our bedroom, and I smiled rather than laughed in my delight to see him. Alessandro didn’t know, of course, that I cast a spell each night to ensure his father’s sleep remained undisturbed, and so we loved with smothered laughs and muffled cries and gentle thrusts that would not make the old bed creak.

Nothing in all my nineteen years could compare to this sunny, stolen, innocent time. The only tragedy was that it had to end.

 

‘Don’t let it happen,’ he begged as the sun began to set on our last day. We were halfway up the sky in his alpine meadow. ‘Give me the potion, Cillian, or so help me I will throw myself into that ravine.’

‘It will do no good to have you drinking potions if there is no need. We have to let it happen, just once. So that we know.’

‘No. No, we already know.’ Even at his most vulnerable he still had dignity. Even while he pleaded, reasoned, begged. It made this all the harder. ‘You already know, Cillian.’

I had to be strong, I had to be stronger than I’d ever been. I fixed the last chain around his ankle, tested the stake that Alessandro himself had driven hard into the ground. It would hold him. For a short while, at least. ‘We have to be sure. There’s a chance that you’ll be free of all this, and if we don’t know then you’ll live in fear all your life.’

‘Oh, Cillian, Cillian,’ he whispered. ‘For the sake of all that we’ve shared these last days, for the strange chance that we even met …’

I took that handsome face in both hands, met his forehead with mine. ‘I love you, Alessandro. I love you, and I will love you for all my life, no matter what.’ Those dark eyes stared into mine, searching as ever for the truth, and perhaps he saw something that rekindled a spark of hope. ‘I will never leave you. This is my first vow, and the deepest vow I will ever make, and it will outlast anything. I, Cillian Blue, will love you, Alessandro Jakob, for ever and ever, come what may.’ I added fiercely, ‘Do you believe me?’

‘Yes,’ he said, and he meant it, and he took strength from that. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then met mine again. ‘And I was yours, Cillian, I swear, from the moment I saw you.’

‘I know. I didn’t understand at first, but I do now.’

We sat together as the sun went down, our arms around each other. And we waited for the full moon to rise.

When it did, he began to change. It was painful to watch; it must have been excruciating to experience. And yet even then he thought of me. ‘Let me go, Cillian,’ he growled. ‘Get out of the way. If I hurt you,’ he said, quite matter–of–factly, ‘I will put an end to all this tomorrow.’

I backed away to the tree. His screams became howls. I watched him for a long sad moment as he struggled to be free. And then I turned him back using the Homorphus Charm.

His first words were savage: ‘Stay away from me.’

I sat there under the tree through all the long night. We didn’t speak. He wouldn’t even look at me. He just lay there curled up in the grasses, still bound by the chains, as the moon passed from one horizon to the other. Every now and then he moaned in despair.

 

In the morning, he was exhausted. I freed him, of course, and I took care of him as best I may. I washed him, and dressed him, and fed him. ‘Wolfsbane potion,’ I quietly explained, ‘taken monthly. That’s all you need, and this will never happen again. Not like this. I promise you, you’ll never have to suffer this again.’

‘But you will suffer,’ came his fraught whisper. ‘This is no life for you to share.’

‘Well, like it or not, Alessandro, it is our life, and we will live it, and there will be much good in it.’

‘Good? What can there be of good?’

I sighed, and wondered how long it would be before he smiled again, before he laughed. ‘Then here is a task that might appeal to you. We need to find the person, the werewolf, who bit you. One way or another, we must stop him from hurting anyone else.’

A glint appeared in Alessandro’s eye, a cruel glint. And yet, I thought, if there was a chance that Alessandro could show this other creature mercy, then maybe he could start to forgive himself as well. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘We’ll leave here, and hunt him down.’

‘Your father …?’

He looked away. ‘I already said goodbye.’ After a moment, he looked back at me, and the cruel glint had been replaced by sorrow. ‘Whether it was you in my life, or the wolf, or both – he wouldn’t have understood. He didn’t have that much love in him.’

‘Are you sure?’ I got down beside him again so that we were gaze to gaze. ‘Alessandro, love is stronger than anything,’ I explained. ‘My Professor taught me that, the Headmaster of my school, the wisest man I ever met. Love is stronger than magic, stronger than charms. Stronger than curses,’ I added significantly. ‘And we have love, Alessandro. So in this life we live together, there will be much good.’

His expression had softened enough so that he seemed fond. ‘Do you really believe that, you daft peacock?’

Yes.’

‘Well, then. Who am I to argue?’

 

 

It had been thirteen lunar months since Alessandro transformed into a werewolf for the first and last time, and a little longer than that – a year and ten nights, to be precise – since we became lovers.

Each month it was the same. On the night before the full moon I brewed the bitter Wolfsbane potion and took it to him, handed him the smoking goblet without comment. He wouldn’t even meet my eyes. He just took it, drank it down dregs and all with nary a grimace, and waited for me to leave. He wanted me to witness the fact that I’d be safe, but he didn’t like me to see the battle which raged in him as the potion and his sense of self fought the wolf inside.

He always came to me later. If we weren’t hunting, he’d prowl the town, the village, the woods – wherever we were staying – until he found me, and then he’d fall on me, love me, ravage me. I adored it, though I’d never tell him that. I didn’t know if I was the prize for him winning the battle, or the willing substitute for all the victims left unravaged, or … But what did it really matter? I had spent the last year learning how not to analyse everything to the utmost degree. If life brings pleasure, no matter how unforeseen, one would be a fool to cavil.

This particular night, we were staying in the barn of a farm just outside a small village in France, and I had done my brewing in the farmhouse kitchen, with an audience of country–folk, Muggles all. I was used to bemusing people, whether Muggle or wizard.

I took the potion to Alessandro in the barn, and then headed outside, walked until there was nothing but empty fields and the dome of the night sky. The moon had not yet risen.

We weren’t hunting tonight. Indeed, the werewolf we sought, Freki Greyback, was always a month or two ahead of us, and when we’d tried to anticipate his next move, we’d been unlucky. Alessandro still burned with the need for revenge. All his loathing for what he’d become was directed at himself and at Greyback. And it never diminished, never faded. If anything, it grew.

He tracked me down as the air cooled. I’d never once thrown him off the scent on these wild nights, though when I tried it was only for play. He tracked me down, caught me round the waist, lifted me effortlessly off the ground, savaged my mouth with kisses. And then I let my head fall back as he bit and gnawed at my throat. Beautiful. The waxing moon rose and bathed us in light. I moaned my happiness, pressed hard against him.

‘Cillian …’ he whispered.

I met his gaze, amazed. He’d never spoken on these nights. ‘Yes, my love?’ I asked lightly.

‘You shouldn’t trust me.’

‘But I do. Implicitly.’

He closed his eyes as if the sadness had become unbearable. A moment later, though, he leant in again to nuzzle my throat, unerringly finding the blood beating just below the skin, and began quietly growling so the vibrations of it echoed through me.

We sank to the ground.

 

I woke in the barn the next morning, curled up with him in our bed of hay. I had no memory of how we got there – unless my imaginings were right, and he’d carried me home fast asleep in his arms. I smiled. Was it wrong to be happy when one’s lover was not? Was it perverse that being with Alessandro lifted my heart, even though his was so low? I didn’t know the answer, but at least Alessandro never made me feel guilty for it. I wished it weren’t so, of course; but it was.

After thanking the folk who owned the barn, we travelled further that day, and in the evening found ourselves a small abandoned cabin in which to sleep. It was the night of the full moon. As the horizon began to glow where the moon would soon rise, I tactfully withdrew. After the first time, Alessandro had never let me witness his transformation.

A while later I was joined outside by a wolf – a true wolf, not a werewolf. My lover. He looked up at me expectantly with those familiar dark eyes. He was still Alessandro, he was still consciously Alessandro – the potion ensured that – and therefore he was harmless. And yet he could not bear to remain this way.

Equally, I could not bear that he despised himself so. I knelt beside him, wrapped my arms around him, held him in the most welcoming hug I could manage. ‘I love you,’ I whispered.

His ears twitched. Of course he’d heard me, understood me. He indulged me for a moment – he rasped his tongue across my throat where he’d nuzzled me the night before. I shivered at the sensation, shivered in delight, but he pulled away. Looked at me expectantly once more.

I used the Homorphus Charm to return him to his usual form.

He seemed completely drained. ‘You really shouldn’t trust me,’ he quietly said. ‘Even now, let alone when I’m –’

‘But of course I trust you, Alessandro.’ I smiled. Decided to risk it. ‘Or maybe I just trust the efficacy of my potions …’

He didn’t laugh – it was a year since I heard him laugh – but he growled, and that was close enough. I wrapped my arms around him again, and we sat there for a while before heading inside to sleep.

 

He was morose as he packed his belongings into his canvas pack, and I mine into my valise. This was quite usual – he was often tired and disheartened for some while after the full moon set. I talked about the day ahead. All we could do was travel on in the same general direction, asking for news as we went. While we’d been holding each other that night, Greyback had been out hunting as a werewolf. And his attacks – though still mostly on animals rather than humans – were worsening. Every month that went by without us catching him meant another crime or more for which Alessandro felt responsible.

‘He’ll have infected someone else, some other poor bastard, and it will be our fault.’

‘It’s not our fault,’ I said, as I always did. And I meant it. ‘None of this is our fault, my love.’

He just rolled his eyes. Those beautiful eyes that used to be ironic at times, but never sarcastic.

‘At least we’ve been gathering solid evidence about how he’s violated the Code of Conduct. That’s often difficult with werewolves, Alessandro. There’s no way he’ll escape a sentence to Azkaban.’

‘It won’t get that far,’ he said darkly. I knew what he meant. For Alessandro, at least for the past thirteen lunar months, justice for Freki Greyback had become death administered slowly. I didn’t want to think what that would do to his soul. I hoped, and was even almost sure, that mercy would stay his hand. Mercy for himself as much as for the other.

Rather than fret over this, I tried to focus on a different aspect of the same subject. ‘I still don’t understand – You know, it’s very rare for a werewolf to kill or injure sheep in the way that Greyback does. Werewolves generally focus on people. I mean, you’ve never felt the urge to attack an animal, have you?’

Alessandro shrugged uncomfortably, and avoided my gaze. Eventually he muttered, ‘He has a taste for fresh, raw meat. And we are not hunting a civilised creature.’

‘Oh, of course. He is not the sort to visit a restaurant and order a rare steak. He’s been running, and running alone, for a long time now, with no potions or charms to curb him.’ I nodded to myself, carefully considering. ‘He’s probably gone a bit mad.’

When I lifted my head, I saw that poor Alessandro was looking at me with a hint of horror on his face.

‘Do not worry,’ I said, firmly reassuring him. ‘I will be with you. Always. I promised you that. I’ll make sure you never harm anyone.’

The horror flickered and started to die away. ‘What if you tire of me?’

I shook my head. ‘I won’t.’ Though it occurred to me to ask, ‘What if you tire of me?’

He just looked at me. And his mouth quirked a little, as if he’d almost been ambushed by a grin. ‘Idiot,’ he said dismissively. ‘Daft, odd little idiot.’ And he came over, and he kissed me.

 

We set off down the road. Alessandro still wore the same old overalls, shirt and boots that he’d worn on his father’s farm, while I looked smart in grey velvet. We were an odd pair, no doubt, but then neither one of us had ever quite fit in with anyone else. We fit together, though, Alessandro and I. Smiling, I lengthened my stride to keep up.

We walked about five or six miles to the next village. Of course I could have apparated the pair of us there in an instant, but Alessandro thought it lazy or somehow self–defeating to rely on magic except in emergencies, and I didn’t entirely disagree with him. As it turned out, I was happy enough to have deferred the bad news by a few hours.

A family had been under siege the previous night, by what they’d assumed was an eerily persistent wolf. Alessandro cast me the darkest look when we first heard of it, then he turned away to silently castigate himself. We’d been so near, and yet too utterly involved in each other to carry out even the most cursory search for our quarry.

When we reached the farmhouse, we saw claw marks gouged into the strong oak of the front door. I knocked, and asked the old woman who answered the door if we might come in and hear the story. And so we sat in the family’s kitchen, and listened to them describe a hellish night, a story made three times longer by my fractured French, their broken English, and our shared hand gestures.

It must have been Greyback. I wondered how I could have let this situation remain unresolved for so long.

 

Of some things, Alessandro and I never spoke.

I would never dare to suggest there were benefits in his condition, for example, even though his senses were heightened, his strength and stamina increased. And in truth, much as I loved the wild, uninhibited nights we shared as the moon waxed towards full, I also desperately missed Alessandro’s merriness, his irrepressible smile, the sheer ease of him. The lover he’d been for those first ten wonderful nights. Before the wolf soured him.

If he blamed me for forcing him to transform that first and only time, he never said so. But I couldn’t help suspect he’d be happier now without that ghastly memory, that terrible pain. He’d be anxious, perhaps. Anxious, and forever wondering. No, we’d had to know. We had to know for sure.

There was something else of which we never spoke, and that was the notion that the two of us were not enough – not enough, at least, to deal with Greyback alone. And yet here we were, a year later, and I had to admit (to myself at least) that my optimism was wearing thin.

Despite all this unspoken tension, we’d never once argued. I wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not. On one hand, I could see that most couples need to clear the air every now and then, and are no doubt better for it. On the other, I felt that all the petty annoyances caused by living in each other’s pockets for all of every day and every night, were as nothing compared to the real problems in our shared life. In fact, I had a theory that if I remained a gentleman even with my lover, and therefore never criticised unnecessarily or succumbed to tempers without need, I stood a very good chance of never losing him. I trusted that proving this theory would take my entire life.

The only argument that Alessandro and I ever had (if such it could be called), came when I finally raised the idea that we needed help. It was time for me to reconnect with the wizarding world.

Alessandro stared at me with furious distrust. ‘What about your promise to me?’ he ground out.

‘My vow stands. I have no intention of ever breaking it.’

A dark look, and he turned away, walked a few paces. We were in a wood that night, amidst a great deal of undergrowth, so I could barely even see his silhouette once he’d left our fire’s glow.

‘But what does my vow have to do with this?’ I asked, a little louder than I would have liked for the sake of reaching him.

When he came back again into the firelight and I could clearly see his expression, it was all I could do not to flinch. A year’s worth of frustrations was etched there. Finally he burst out, ‘You don’t love me, Cillian. Not me! You love who I used to be.’

Something within me broke – but even though I sorrowed, I was also abruptly enveloped in a fury to match his. ‘And you only love me because you think me beautiful. Well, I know absolutely that I am not, so what basis is that for a relationship?’

‘You’ll end up hating what I become.’

‘You’ll open your eyes one day, and you’ll see me for the weird–looking thing that I am.’

‘You’ll go back to them, to your friends.’

‘You’ll lose your heart to the first real beauty you meet.’

We glared at each other. These things were and are true. It was all true.

And yet it wasn’t the whole truth, nor even the most important part, and none of these things were anything either of us would act on. They weren’t even possibilities, really, let alone probabilities.

I could see that his anger was draining away despite himself, just as mine was, so I offered him a wry smile. ‘And yet here we are, Alessandro, together still. And I love you.’

‘Yes, here we are,’ he muttered. And he said nothing more, and he didn’t kiss me, but he held me all the long night through.

 

We stood outside Le Chaudron Perméable in Paris, and even though I had finally enabled Alessandro to actually see past the masking charm to the pub itself, he looked more doubtful than ever. ‘There’ll be lots of my sort in there,’ I said. ‘I don’t mean our sort, my love,’ I continued on a cheeky whim. ‘There might be one or two of your sort, but it will be mostly my sort.’

‘If you’re sure …’

‘I’m sure. We might discover some useful information. We might find some help.’

His doubts only increased, but he followed me inside. And I was immediately rewarded, for I spied my old Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, sitting all alone in a corner booth. A smile ambushed me as Dumbledore acknowledged me with a nod, and I turned to explain who he was to Alessandro – which was when I realised that my lover’s hackles were up, and he was sniffing suspiciously in the direction of a man sitting at the bar.

‘He’s one,’ Alessandro said shortly. ‘My sort.’

‘Well, go and talk to him about Greyback,’ I said, as if all this were the most reasonable thing in the world. Which it was. Or should have been. ‘See if he knows anything. And remember that no doubt he’s just as nice a person as you.’ When Alessandro cast me a look, I couldn’t resist adding, ‘Probably nicer.’

A last glint from my lover’s dark eyes caught me, before he headed for the bar, shrugging and resettling his shoulders as he went, as if deliberately trying to lower his hackles. I watched for a moment as they warily greeted each other, before deciding I could safely leave them to it.

I walked over to the corner booth instead. ‘Professor Dumbledore, sir, I’m sure you don’t remember me, but –’

‘My dear Cillian, how could I forget the best Defence Against the Dark Arts student Hogwarts has seen in twenty years?’ We shook hands, with the old man smiling kindly at me as I beamed brightly at him. ‘I would have recognised you anywhere. Though I must say,’ he added, while thoughtfully considering me from top to toe over his half–moon glasses, ‘your wardrobe is somewhat sober these days.’

I looked down at my grey velvet suit and pale lavender shirt, which really were nothing compared to Dumbledore’s purple robes and bottle green trousers. I felt as if I’d lost something important without even noticing.

‘Come and sit with me, Cillian, if you have a few minutes.’

‘Of course. Thank you.’ I slid onto the bench opposite him, and ordered two butterbeers from the waiter.

‘If you were going to ask about the Dark Arts vacancy, I’m afraid I’ve just offered it to someone. She’s highly qualified, and I’m sure she’ll make an excellent teacher, but you never know.’ He smiled a little wistfully. ‘The position may be free again next year.’

‘You flatter me, Professor,’ I honestly replied, though I couldn’t help but grin with pride. ‘I wouldn’t presume …’ And then my gaze fell once more on Alessandro, who was now sitting at the bar deep in conversation with the other werewolf. ‘Besides,’ I explained, my grin fading, ‘I have made a vow.’ Turning back to Dumbledore, I said as lightly as I could, ‘I swore I would not part from my friend. And he has … other things on his mind. We could not stay at Hogwarts.’

‘Other things, indeed, yes. You are hunting a dangerous foe, Cillian.’

I smiled, remembering all too well Dumbledore’s uncanny ability to know everything that was going on.

‘And if you succeed, you will have a more dangerous enemy still. Is the one you seek not Fenrir Greyback’s son?’

‘Yes, he is.’

‘Then I wish you well, and I trust you’ll be very careful.’ He leaned in a little closer. ‘Remember that you are not alone, Cillian. Your companions back home have been worried about you. You do not need to fight this man – or his father – alone.’

‘I had indeed forgotten that for a while.’

Dumbledore indicated the bar. ‘Your friend is already talking to someone who can help. And I’ll give you the name of a witch here who’s very good with this sort of thing.’ With a flourish of his wand, Dumbledore produced a scrap of parchment with a name and address written in green ink. ‘It might be worth remembering that she has a penchant for Turkish Delight.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

He sat back, and took a long draught of butterbeer, and then an even longer look at me. ‘Now, what ails you, Cillian?’

‘Sir …’ I demurred.

‘You cannot fool an old man, my dear boy. Tell me what is troubling you.’

I took a moment to gather my thoughts, my courage. ‘Well, then, sir, I am wondering if there are things that can change a man’s life – for the worse – so much so that he can never regain what he’s lost.’

‘What is he lacking?’ Dumbledore asked.

‘Happiness. Peace of mind.’

‘I see.’

‘I am in mourning,’ I confessed in a whisper. ‘I grieve as if he were forever lost to me. I am talking of the man Alessandro was when first we met. And he knows it.’

‘Yes,’ came the perfectly sympathetic reply.

‘Sir,’ I said more fiercely, ‘you taught me that love is stronger than anything. Stronger than magic. And I believe that, I do.’

That much is perfectly obvious, Cillian.’

I blushed. I hadn’t done that for years. But whether he understood the exact nature of the love I shared with Alessandro, well, I was cowardly enough to leave that as a moot point. Instead I asked, ‘What if his pain and his shame are stronger than his love? What do I do then?’

‘Love him still. It is our strength and occasionally our tragedy. Love him for as long as there is hope, and then keep loving regardless.’ Dumbledore turned stern, as if a thunderstorm had suddenly darkened a summer day. ‘However, if he begins harming others –’

‘He won’t.’

‘If he does, then justice is called for. Justice tempered by charity, but justice nevertheless.’

‘Yes, sir. But he won’t. You haven’t seen how he struggles against the wolf within him.’

‘Good.’ The clouds evaporated and the sun shone again. ‘Then it seems that his love is strong indeed.’

I smiled. ‘Yes, sir.’

Those wise pale–blue eyes twinkled at me over the half–moon glasses. ‘It is always a pleasure to see my former students leading such very interesting lives …’

 

As we left the pub that night, Alessandro asked, ‘Are you tired, Cillian?’

‘No, not yet.’ I breathed in the fine cool air. ‘Do you want to hunt?’

Alessandro’s lips almost curved into a smile. ‘The moon has ten nights yet to wax full. There’s plenty of time for that. I thought, instead,’ he added lightly, ‘a stroll along the Seine …’

It took a moment to sink in, but eventually I was ambushed by the heady feeling that everything was going to be all right. I smiled up at my lover, and he held out his hand to clasp mine.

‘Come on, you daft peacock. If love is stronger than anything, stronger than curses, then we’d better –’

‘– love,’ I concluded. So that’s what we did.

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