Oddly, I thought of you, moonlitwoods, when I got the plot bunny for this fic. I knew the mere thought of it would make your head explode so, of course, I had to write it. :oD
Title: Skin Deep
Rating: possibly NC-17
Summary: She needs something. He needs something. It was to be a simple trade.
Author's notes: Many thanks to abigail89 -- the wind beneath my wings. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.
It was to be a simple trade.
She was a Metamorphmagus whose only love gave his life to save hers. A woman looking for a way to keep a promise made on a Ministry room floor turned deathbed.
Late at night, when the moon was at its highest she'd hear him call to her. Echoes of his last words lulling her to sleep at night and forcing her out of bed each morning. "Look after the little ones, my love," he said with one last breath and a small splatter of blood that left a crooked trail of crimson on the arm that encircled him.
The little ones were orphaned children who were purposely bitten by a werewolf so they might one day become an army. A regiment of dark creatures, trained from infancy to kill and destroy. Looking after them meant making sure they were tucked into warm beds. Making sure they were held. That they felt loved and wanted and needed in a world that felt nothing of the sort. It also meant making sure they had a steady supply of Wolfsbane potion…or someone who could teach her how to brew it.
He was a pariah. A man with no home whose name was synonymous with traitor, murderer, outcast, and scum.
“Not guilty,” they claimed after a trial that lasted almost as long as the whole blasted war. But not guilty was far from innocent, and the angry mob that called for his head on a spike would neither forgive nor forget his past indiscretions. He had survived, not his choice but his quandary nonetheless, and for that privilege he was spat upon as he walked the street. No one would employ him despite his being known as the foremost Potions master of three lifetimes. His meager finances, and his sanity, were quickly running out.
He remembered his days of spying with nostalgia. How easy it was to blend into the surroundings, to melt into the walls so that no one even knew he was there. To be like the mist over the horizon, utterly untouchable. But the face of the Ministry's most wanted criminal adorned a thousand wanted posters for years. His greatest enemy was now his own skin. If he was to continue this charade of a life he needed to be someone else, at least part of the time.
She sought him out.
She asked for his help but he turned a deaf ear; he hadn't time for charity. She called upon his sense of honor; he said it had been bought and paid for well before she was born and he hadn't any left to spare. She demanded. She begged. She cried. He laughed.
She was about to leave the squalid room he rented when he stopped her. He stared at her for a moment as she stood in the doorway, her small, pretty face surrounded by walls covered in chipped paint and gapping holes that revealed the skeletal framework beneath the rotting plaster. He wondered, only briefly, where all the color went. Why this girl who was once a walking rainbow now looked as drab as his walls. But he caught her scent in the air; the faded perfume that clung to her skin tore through the smell of decay and musk that had begun to symbolize his life, and he thought of her dullness no longer.
“There is something,” he began slowly. “Something you can offer me in exchange for my…services.”
“What?” she asked nervously, her face going pale.
He only smiled.
He needed to work quickly; there wasn't much time for research and development, for trial and error. The funds needed to set up a laboratory nearly depleted his Gringotts' account and if he didn't get out of that vermin infested hovel soon, he'd surely go mad.
Every night she came, not a second before or after her appointed time, and they would work until she nearly fell over from exhaustion. Every night she left payment: one vial of blood.
A small fee, he called it. An insubstantial token. A paltry compensation for being allowed the honor of being personally taught by him. She should be grateful. It was all he asked for.
He demanded a small vial every time she came to him; he wanted it fresh. He gave her a strict diet to follow; he wanted it pure. He would only take a carefully measured amount; a dead body wouldn't be of much use to him.
They said Metamorphmagi were born not created; he would prove them wrong.
“It can't be done,” she'd say. “You think you're the first to think of this? You think you're the first who's tried?”
He looked at her coolly. “I'm the first to have a constant supply of the key component. Judging by your progress with the wolfsbane, it will be an endless supply as well.”
She hadn't known the meaning of hate until she began coming to his lair, to the putrid filth-ridden slum in which he eked out an existence. Hate was more than a mere emotion she came to realize. Hate, real hate, can consume and destroy leaving nothing but ash in its wake. Hate can finish one who was already three quarters dead and make her beg for it to end.
Her life was hate. It was the way her skin crawled when his fingers grazed it as he was taking the blood. It was the wave of nausea that hit every time she saw the hungry way he stared at the ruddy fluid. It was the wanton pleasure she felt when she learned that he failed time and again. She didn't wish him dead; that would be too merciful, she wished him pain and defeat and anguish. She hoped he'd live a hundred years and suffer in wretchedness every vile minute.
She knew he wanted the same for her.
It shown in the way his thin lips curled when she made an error, or his black eyes glimmered when he told her she was useless. He knew nothing of mercy or pity, of compassion.
He gave his instructions and left to do his own work. Their workspace was cramped so he was never very far, but she was saved the farce of having to keep up a conversation. She wasn't forced to be polite or cordial. His indifference was his only palatable quality.
It had been nearly eight months since she first walked into this room and began the sordid partnership that would become the focal point of her life. It had taken time but she was finally nearly as proficient at making the potion as he was. It gave her immense joy to know that soon she'd be free of him and that he was no closer to achieving the task he had set for himself. It was this joy that gave her the confidence to speak openly and ask the things she had wanted to since this whole ordeal began.
“Why don't you just leave?” He looked at her with dark narrowed eyes that glinted even in the dim lighting of the room. She continued unfazed. “You've lived with Muggles before, you could go there again. No one would know you there. You'd be just as anonymous as you think you'll be by doing this.”
She expected him to start shouting and hex her. To throw her out. To insult her intelligence or her sense as he did almost every other day.
“I'm not giving them the satisfaction of driving me out,” he said, his voice thick with loathing. “I plan on staying around for a very long time. Ingraining myself in their lives. Going to their dinner parties. Despoiling their daughters. I'll be free to do anything I want and they can do nothing about it.” He stopped to log something on a yellowed piece of parchment. “And I thank you for that,” he added coldly.
He was inspecting her work, holding the clear goblet up to the light and examining the thick fluid it held from all angles. He swirled it gently and brought it to his nose where he took a deep breath. He dipped finger in to check the consistency and finally he tasted it.
“Adequate,” he pronounced. “You can leave now.”
She looked at him unblinkingly for a moment. “What?”
“You've done it,” he informed her. “You can go and save the world now. You needn't return.”
“I'm…it's done.” The thought that she was finally free nearly made her weep, but it was nothing compared to joy she felt knowing that he failed. “I'll be leaving then and taking my blood with me. Sorry about your potion,” she said disingenuously.
“My potion?” he said with a leer. “There's nothing to be sorry about. It works perfectly.”
She froze. “What do you mean?”
He gave her a twisted smile. “I did my final test today. I'm done. And thanks to nearly a year's worth of leaching I have enough of a supply of it to last two lifetimes.”
Her stomach churned violently. “We had a deal. You've got to teach me to make the Wolfsbane potion.”
He turned and began to clear the space where she had been working. “I have. The terms of our arrangement have been met.”
“Are you telling me that both you and I have finished our potions on the same day? How do I know you're not just saying that because you're done with yours?”
“We didn't finish our potions the same day.” The twisted smile curled even more. “You were ready weeks ago.”
“I was…” She felt her whole body begin to shake. “I was ready weeks ago? You've been stringing me along?”
“If you thought I'd enter into this without being assured of success than you are more of a fool than I dare imagine.”
“That wasn't the bargain,” she shouted indignantly. “You got one vial of blood for each day I was here. We never said anything about you finishing your blasted potion.”
He pulled back his shoulders and stood tall next to her. “You wanted to learn to make the Wolfsbane and you have. You also had a few extra weeks' worth of practice and the assurance that you won't poison any of the little whelps as you treat them. You got everything you wanted and more. Your presence in my home is no longer needed nor wanted, and if you don't leave of your own volition soon I will escort you out myself. I've no further use for you.”
She looked defiantly into his dark eyes for a few moments before she grabbed her things. She walked to the entryway and opened the door. She paused for a moment in the doorway as she had on the first day she went to him.
“It doesn't matter, you know,” she said through tears, her chin held high. “It doesn't matter what you look like, it doesn't change who you are under your skin. You may fool some people for a short while but everyone knows you are a hateful, vile person and no potion in the world will ever change that. “ She slammed the door behind her, causing bits of plaster to fall to the floor.
He looked at the spot where she stood for some time after she left. Without a word he went over to bubbling cauldron, dipped in a ladle, and drank.
It took a long time for him to learn how to work it. He could change his eye color readily, as well as alter the length of his hair, but progress was slow and he had never been a patient man. It needn't be perfect; he wasn't trying to be handsome; he had already lived a life with crooked and stained teeth, sallow skin, greasy hair, a beakish nose. He merely wanted to look like someone else. To leave behind this life and start another. That goal was within his grasp but the brass rings merely grazed his fingertips.
He found he could make small physical changes but quickly realized that he had no idea how to replicate any effect he was able to achieve. This would never do. For this to work the way he envisioned he'd have to replicate the same face everyday. It would need to be perfect. Simply being able to change wasn't enough; he'd have to learn to better control his new ability. To master it.
When he able to change his appearance enough to leave his quarters he ventured to the orphanage she ran out of number 12, Grimmauld Place. She was less than pleased to see him.
“You aren't welcome here.”
“I never asked to be welcome.”
“What do you want?
He only smiled. “Another trade.”
She didn't go to him right away. She spent weeks mulling over his proposal. Weeks replaying the words that he so carefully outlined for her. What he was proposing was ludicrous, not to mention unnatural, but…. but she wasn't able to dismiss it right away. She hated herself for even considering it.
Day after day passed. Night after night. The emptiness that everyone promised would go away never did. The pain they all swore would ease only escalated. The words that used to force her out of bed in the morning grew fainter and were replaced by the words of another.
Without really remembering how she got there, she knocked on his door.
“It takes more than just simple concentration,” she began. “You didn't have the benefit of a lifetime spent being aware of your own skin: how it moves over your muscles, how it contracts in the cold, how it feels when you sweat, how it flexes at the joints. Controlling the changes means understanding your own skin and you've no idea that how it's done.”
He stared at her for a moment, letting her words wash over him. She suddenly didn't sound like the girl he remembered from the Order meetings, the clumsy chit who sounded like she belonged on a street corner and not at the Aurors Bureau. Perhaps years spend in the company of werewolves had matured her a bit. Perhaps it was years of dealing with death and destruction that killed that other person off entirely and left this one behind. Whatever the reason he found himself grateful; it meant she might pass off as a tolerable teacher.
“So how am I to do that?” he asked as any student might ask.
She was struck mute for a moment, not quite knowing what to make of this reversal of roles. Part of her wanted to manipulate him as he did her. To pull on his strings and see if he'd dance for her in order to get what he so desperately wanted. But she knew all that would achieve would be to stretch this out for longer than she could tolerate, and no price, no matter how tempting, would be worth it.
“You need to feel,” she finally answered. “You need to lie perfectly still until you can feel the air around you vibrate off your skin. You need to move very slowly and study the way your body moves, how it reacts.”
“How will I know when I'm done?”
He seemed so eager she almost smiled. “You'll be able to make changes with such ease that they will be fluid. Like water flowing into and out of a bottle. It won't feel like anything at all.”
Weeks passed and he practiced. One day, he'd levitate his naked form for hours on end so that he might feel they way air circulated around it. Another day, he'd stand in the center of the room, twisting and contorting his body, cataloguing how each part felt as it moved. He had never been so aware of his own being before. Never aware that he could actually feel the Earth revolve on its axis or gravity pull his body down to the ground. He could feel the blood travel through his veins. He could feel his hair grow at the roots. It was extraordinary.
After nearly three months he found himself standing in front of a mirror. With a steady breath he willed his face to change, for his cheeks to fill out and his nose to shrink, for his chin to shorten and his eyes to spread further apart, and an old face melted into a new one.
He contacted her again, requesting another meeting.
She was surprised at his progress; she'd expected it to take much longer, or him to die trying, though she knew that was probably too much to hope for. In a very short time he had learned to alter his features with great skill. He seemed to dissolve right in front of her with an ease she herself had never managed. Despite herself, she was impressed.
“To replicate a face, exactly, over and over, you need to be able to visualize what you want to look like down to the very pores on your skin.” She took out a stack of photographs. “Look at his nose,” she said pointedly. “Study it. Look at the lines of the bridge, the texture of the skin, the shape of the nostrils, the coloring.”
He examined the picture for several minutes. “Turn sideways,” he ordered the figure that looked up at him from the photo. The figure complied but not before he looked up at him with a scowl.
After some time she took the photo away. “Now close your eyes and imagine it. Only imagine it, don't try to change your face.” She was surprised at how willingly he took her commands. “Now let it happen naturally. Don't force it.”
She watched his nose begin to change. It became smaller, smoother, and lighter than the rest of his face. It was exactly like it was in the photograph. “Look in the mirror,” she said.
He looked from the mirror to the photograph and back again. “Now what?” he asked turning to her.
She took the picture from him. “I come back in three days and you do it again.”
She came back in three days as she said she would, and he wasn't able to replicate the effect. The nose was too big and a shade too dark. She gave him another photograph with another nose and told him to try again. And so it went for several more months. Noses, brow lines, shoulders, hands-- she tested and retested him until he stopped making mistakes, until he could create the same effect over and over again. Finally, she proclaimed in a voice so small he wondered if she'd said it all, “Adequate.”
It was a full moon when she said it and he found that a bit ironic. “I suppose it's time for payment, then.”
She started and looked away, and he wondered if she lost her nerve, if she'd changed her mind. It was likely. The payment she'd agreed to nearly seven months ago might not seem as tempting now. Might even frighten her. But to not pay would put him in her debt, and he would die before he found himself owing another debt to anyone.
Allow me,” he said. He paused and closed his eyes, taking several minutes to compose himself until very slowly, he began to change.
The modifications were measured, deliberate, as if he were piecing a complex puzzle. His frame became slighter shorter, his shoulders broadened, his hair became coarser; his eyes, brighter.
She watched each change with fascination and horror. Then she began screaming for him to stop, but the words never quite made it into the air. When he had finally finished, he looked like a distorted, almost warped, image of a man she once loved and she felt a vice crush her heart, just as it did when she last said goodbye. “No,” she whispered. “It's wrong. It's all wrong.”
He walked over to a mirror to examine himself turning his head from side to side, viewing his handiwork. “It's how I remember him,” he said plainly. “But I've not studied him as extensively as you.” He turned to face her. “Perhaps you should give me some details.”
“No,” she repeated before collapsing on a nearby chair. She was trembling and the color seemed to leach from her body, from her skin and her hair, until she looked almost gray. “It's all wrong, you're not…”
“Not him,” he finished as she trailed off. “Because under the skin I'm still a vile, hateful man.” He looked like he might laugh, but he didn't. “Perhaps. But if an illusion looks real, and feels real it can become real, whether we know the truth or not. Sometimes, skin deep is enough.”
“It isn't enough,” she said through tears. “He's not just skin over bones. He's ….”
“Dead,” he finished for her, stopping her before what was sure to be a tiring litany of the dearly departed's most virtuous qualities. “It's been over for several years now. It hasn't changed and it isn't going to.”
“So why do this? What's the point of getting your heart's desire if the price is your heart?” she asked in an odd mixture of sorrow and hope, as if asking him to make it all right.
He looked at her for a moment, contemplating her question, contemplating her, picturing her framed against the doorway of his broken down life. “I have no answers, none that will make it seem noble or justified. It is by its very nature perverse. But there isn't much nobility left anymore, and what was once justified is now all perverse.”
She hiccupped between sobs. “It isn't very comforting.”
“The truth seldom is. The only comfort we can expect is that which we create for ourselves. For me it is a new face; for you, an old one.”
They stood face to face, he in obvious discomfort and she in obvious distress. Her world was gone, and the one that was left to her was cold and hollow, much like the man who stood before her. When had she gotten so old? When had she gotten so serious? She used to laugh. She used to be loud and bawdy and irreverent. Was this empty shell all that remained of who she once was. And what of this pathetic creature who'd rather change his face than look upon it everyday? What ever else he was doing, however he chose to justify it, he was hiding. Is that what he was doomed to? When would it end?
There was only one thing for it, she decided. He needed to pay off a debt. She needed a chance to say goodbye.
“He was a bit softer around the face, not quite so angular,” she said softly, not daring to look at him.
He only nodded before he closed his eyes and his face changed yet again.
“His eyes…his eyes had specks of green and he….his hair was much shorter towards the end.”
Little by little he changed; one piece at a time. He wasn't sure how much was based in reality and how much was the romantic musing of a silly girl. He didn't care either way; with each change she seemed to calm; at one point he could have sworn she was enjoying it.
“I've never done this before,” she said after some time. “Watching someone else change, I mean,” she added with a flush upon her cheek. “Usually, I'm the one who is changing my face around on request. Make a new nose just to hear a laugh, that sort of thing. No one…no one's ever done it for me before.”
“I'm used to becoming someone else,” he said plainly. “It was just never this easy before.”
His words stung her slightly. She never thought about it, really. About how he'd been forced to live, and the things he's been made to do. Everyone used him, didn't they? And wasn't she doing that now? Wasn't she using him as well?
“I could change for you,” she said carefully. He stiffened and stood stone silent. She took a deep breath and continued. “This whole thing is…awkward for the both us and, frankly, I don't like forcing people to do things even if there was some sort of deal.”
He still didn't answer; he didn't even look at her. “I can make this better…. for the both of us,” she continued. “If you can pretend to be someone else for me, then I could do the same for you. It's just…. it's just another trade, isn't it? But no strings attached to this one. No new deals. No promises.”
When he still didn't answer she began to wonder if there ever was anyone. If there was someone he'd ever loved and lost, or simply wanted and couldn't have. It was hard to think that he'd never felt anything before, anything that might have been love. Until about a second ago she didn't even think of him as human.
“Her hair….” he began but quickly trailed off.
“Yes,” she said with a small smile. “Tell me.”
He seemed almost timid when he first spoke, but after a moment or two the words flowed freely. “Her hair was long, hung down her the length of her back. Thick and so black it shone blue. Her eyes were grey like at the sky just before a storm and they were almost always half closed, as if you were too worthless to warrant a full gaze. The cut of her jaw was sharp and her cheek bones were high and proud.”
He continued in his recollections of a girl he once knew, of a soul whose fire burned brightly until it set everything around it ablaze. She was the center around which all things revolved, and those who orbited around her were grateful to be allowed to do so.
That was before. Before the madness took her beauty and her youth. Before her loyalties changed and she only lived to serve a master who would eventually slit her throat just to watch her bleed to death.
Once she was just a girl, the only one to ever touch his heart. He was only a boy, foolish as all boys are. Both are now long gone, but now, just this one time….
It didn't take long before they stood across from each other. The ghosts of the past, the ones that never quite got buried, now suddenly resurrected. What was once vapor and memory was now blood and bone and life.
She reached out first, somehow knowing that he never would. Her hand cupped an unshaven cheek that she thought she'd never feel again. And while she knew - she knew - it wasn't him, it mattered little, her body reacted all the same. She grabbed him roughly pulling him by the collar toward her into an almost violent kiss, her fingernails running through his hair and scratching his scalp, while their lips locked and their tongues entwined.
He clawed at her back and ran his hand down to her hips where his palm met the soft curve of her backside. He bent his head down and bit into the junction of neck and shoulder causing her to moan aloud. He nearly stopped when he heard her, the soft moan sounded foreign coming from this body he'd known so intimately.
She noticed his hesitation but it didn't stop her; she wouldn't let him change his mind now. She couldn't, she was undone and there was no turning back. It was easier being in this disguise, knowing that he was thinking of someone else, that she didn't have to be anything other than a warm body. Now he could use her as she was using him. They were even.
This body felt so much stronger than her own slender frame, so much more limber despite how tall she now was. Her long legs felt powerful and she found she liked the ease with which they wrapped around his body, how she could nearly crush him with her thighs.
The way her legs moved around him, how tightly they encircled his body, felt just as it had decades ago, and desire rushed through him and pulled the oxygen right out of his lungs. He pushed forward, slamming her body against the wall and pressing into her. She cried out but didn't let go; instead she ground her hips against him and urged him to do it again. She ran her tongue along the shell of his ear; he turned his head and craned his neck, giving her more access. She began to suck at his neck as he continued to grind against her.
His legs were begging to buckle and he knew he could stand it no longer. He threw her down to the bed and ripped at her clothes, pulling them off her body and exposing a full breast and long, sleek torso. It was different than he remembered, but it didn't matter. She was here and she was warm and there was no trace of vicious rage in her eyes. The madness was gone; there was only need and want, and he drank it down. He leaned forward and began to suck the soft skin of her neck just as he had before. His hands ran up and down her nakedness, over her ribs and back up to her chest.
She snaked a hand between them and slipped them inside his trousers, wrapping her fingers around the hardness that was digging into her abdomen. She was terrified that he might try to be sensitive or romantic and she wasn't sure she could handle either at the moment. She wanted him now and wanted it to be over and done with.
He seemed to understand what she needed. Perhaps he needed it as well. With haste they both removed the last bits of clothing that still clung to their bodies. She was murmuring softly when their bodies met again, incomprehensible words that he didn't want to hear, that he hoped he wouldn't understand. It was her hand that guided him inside her. Her hips that went to meet his.
She groaned and arched her back, he shuddered and gasped loudly. They were still for just a second and then they both began to move.
He thrust quickly, pushing into her as she bit her lip and pushed back. He buried his face in her neck and hair as he thrust, his lips grazing her ear. He wanted so badly to whisper all those inane endearments they had shared as adolescents first discovering each other, those words he heard repeated in a million dreams over his lifetime. But the words stuck in his throat and stayed there, and he knew that was where they belonged.
It wasn't long before his felt his own completion rushing, and had no means to stop it. He could only give himself up to oblivion and hope that this weakness would not damn her as it was surely to damn him.
They laid together for some time, on opposite edges of the bed, not touching. Neither speaking much. Both thinking of another place in time.
The orange haze of dusk trickled through the curtains of the small room. “Was it enough?” he asked.
She looked him, confused by the question, unsure if he was talking to her. “What?”
He kept his eyes firmly on the ceiling. “Was skin deep enough?”
She turned away from him . “Was it for you?” she replied.
The room slowly darkened until it was pitch black. She could hear his steady breaths over the dull hum of the street outside the window. “It was different,” she said after a long silence. “But that was as it should be, I suppose. If it were the same….exactly the same… I might never….” She didn't want to say it. She didn't want to think it. “What happens now?”
She didn't really expect an answer and was surprised when one came. “You go back to your children and your crusades. I leave this place and start somewhere else, just as I always planned to.”
“Where will you go?” she asked before she was able to stop herself.
“It doesn't matter,” he said almost sadly. “Somehow, I think you will always be able to find me.”
The tall blonde had been watching him all night, a stranger with wavy brown hair and blue eyes. He wasn't handsome but had a sweet smile, and she didn't want to be alone tonight.
They never called each other by any name. Not that night. Nor the nights before. Nor the ones to come.
She was looking for comfort from the one person she knew could grant it.
He needed a chance to remember who he was once.
With no strings attached.
It was, after all, a fair trade.