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Septimus swallowed back the scream he could feel bubbling up in his throat. It was Sweet, and he knew it was Sweet, but even so, he could hardly bear to look. It was an image that would haunt his nightmares for years, decades to come—if he even had that long left.
Because it was wrong. Every inch of him, every part of him that could react, was reacting. His body crawled with a rejection of the sight in a way it hadn’t even done in the corridor—maybe because whatever was there had hidden in darkness, instead of in plain sight the way this was.
Don’t look at me, Sweet whispered, the sound brushing against Septimus’s exposed cheeks. Please don’t look at me. I didn’t want you to see me like this—
Septimus closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.
Then he opened them again and stepped closer. “Hi,” he said weakly. “I missed you. I, uh, I got worried, so I came.”
Don’t look / don’t look / don’t look, Sep, don’t /
“It’s not so bad,” Septimus lied. He was sure Sweet could feel the lie, but he said it anyway. He stepped closer again, then again, until he was within arm’s length. “I mean, I’m not sure how I could kiss you with an eye for a mouth, but, I mean, you’re still you.”
You don’t want / don’t lie, you don’t want to!
“I mean, in general,” Septimus clarified. He reached out and touched Sweet’s arms, fingertips curling into the void where some of Sweet’s flesh had come away. It felt like a brush against eternity, ice cold and hopeless, but he kept himself from flinching. “Can you come down from there?”
I don’t know—
“Come on,” he rephrased. “We’re getting you down from there.”
Moving incredibly slowly to keep himself from pulling away, Septimus moved his hands along what remained of Sweet’s arms, tugging him into a gentle embrace and pulling against whatever force held him up. There was a moment’s resistance, and then Sweet was collapsing like a wing pushing down, a gyrating wave that didn’t match what his body should be doing as he folded into Septimus’s arms, radiating ice cold and wrongness.
“That’s right,” Septimus said through chattering teeth. “I’ve got you.”
He managed to shrug off his backpack and get it open despite numb fingers that didn’t want to obey him after the things he’d been asking of them, tugging the comforter out. He wrapped that around Sweet’s shoulders, cocooning him, keeping the blanket between the two of them as he did it. It seemed to help a little, as did the way Sweet kept his face lowered, his hair falling forward. It made him seem human except for the tiny eyes open along the back of his neck.
“Better?” Septimus asked.
“Mm—” Sweet was trying to talk, and it grated against reality the same way touching him had. He gave up a moment later, falling back into that horrible mental whisper. It wasn’t much of an improvement. Thank you / you shouldn’t have come. What did you give up?
“Just that necklace,” Septimus said. “Though I still don’t know what it was.”
Some part of him / I think, Sweet admitted. Something he gave my mother a long time ago. In return for whatever she lost.
Septimus ran a careful hand over the back of Sweet’s hair. “Was she the girl in your story?”
It was… a fictionalization / you told me to make one up. But…
“But essentially yes,” Septimus said softly. “Some time ago, something woke him up, but only partially. And when she found him half-awake, however much later that was, he acted on her in that state.”
Yes / yes that’s what happened / yes, that’s correct.
“How did it end?” Septimus asked, though he thought he knew.
Ten months later I was born, Sweet said against Septimus’s mind. Her little demon, conceived in the basement of her childhood home. And he feeds on me every year / I only just learned why / he needs me, though / he does need me.
Septimus repressed a shiver. “Wait here for a second,” he said.
Sweet’s head jerked up to look at him, and Septimus really wished it hadn’t. But he smiled as reassuringly as he could.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he added. “I just… I brought some things, and I thought they might… help?”
It was maybe a silly thought, but at this point, every bit of symbolism he could muster felt important. He walked around the basement, careful of the debris, putting candles down to form a rough circle and lighting them with matches. As the darkness began to withdraw from the room, he saw, unexpectedly, the end of the bandage-thread he’d made hanging off the end of the stairs.
So it had done some good after all, at least. But he didn’t think that leaving would be as simple as just going up the stairs.
That was two symbols down: light in dark places, a guide home. Three, maybe, since he’d put the blanket around Sweet to warm him. He swallowed, taking the medical kit out of his bag and bringing it over, picking one of Sweet’s hands up and kissing the fingertips before starting to wrap the eyes on that arm in the tenser bandage.
At the sound of Sweet’s voice, Septimus’s head jerked up; Sweet’s mouth had returned, and his face was almost back to normal, although everything below it still winked and twinkled with the strain of a foreign sky trying to pour through.
“Hey,” Septimus said, voice coming out wobbly. “I’m, uh, out of bandages now, but I thought it would help? I could… I could try putting Neosporin on, but I’m not sure you want that in your eyes.”
Sweet let out a weird, anxious laugh and shook his head. “No,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Septimus said. He swallowed. “It’s okay, you know. I mean some guys would probably give their left arm to date an, um—” the phrase devil’s child came to mind and he wished he could think of a better one.
“Horrorterror?” Sweet suggested. An eye opened on his cheek, then closed again, as if through a force of will.
“Half,” Septimus said. “On your father’s side.”
Sweet groaned. “I guess he told you that,” he said, and pulled the blanket more tightly around himself. “I’m sorry. It’s never been this bad. I wouldn’t have invited you if I thought—”
“It’s okay, Sweet.”
“I’ve never understood what he needed before,” Sweet whispered. It fell out of sound again a moment later. He wants to eat my heart. The human half of my heart. Once that’s gone, he can wake up by wearing me. My flesh is designed to hold / what I am, what he is / but my human blood keeps me myself.
“Why didn’t it happen before now?”
“He’s been working on me” year after year. I guess this is just the year that it “got far enough.”
Septimus rubbed his brow, aching inside and out from the feel of those words against himself. Half to keep Sweet quiet for a few moments, he carefully explained what had happened to him when he’d come down here, the things that Sweet’s father had said—then looped back around to his memories of Seven, abruptly remembering that he hadn’t had the chance to tell Sweet about them before.
For a little while after he’d finished, Sweet remained silent. Then he let out a choked laugh.
“You could eat my heart,” he said, in a very small voice. “Then I’ll at least know he won’t get it.”
“No,” Septimus said quickly. The memory of Seven’s temptation rose up in him. “No, Sweet.”
“Then what?” Sweet asked roughly. “He’s not letting go this time and he’s… he’s stronger. I thought I might be able to go when you started to light this place up but he’s become stronger really fast. The necklace, the thing you sacrificed to him—”
“I’m sorry,” Septimus said. “I didn’t know how else to get to you.”
Sweet closed his eyes—all of them. I don’t know what to do, his essence breathed. I understand now that if we sacrifice anything to him / he’ll get stronger. He won’t let me leave this time, and he’ll eat me empty /so he can become me. But without a sacrifice /
He didn’t finish the thought.
“Well, do… do we have to sacrifice to him? If we have to give something up, can we find something to give up that’ll make him weaker, or make you stronger?” Septimus asked. “Five had thought Seven could try to take the power for himself, or… something. And Seven sacrificed the wrong thing. He said something about the heart being a symbol, right, but… I mean, the trouble is, I don’t know how right or wrong they were about any of it.”
But what would we sacrifice and to whom? Sweet hesitated, then reached out his bandaged hand and put it in Septimus’s, squeezing. … and even if we find something, what if it hurts him? He’s still my father, even if…
“He wants to eat your heart and wear your skin!”
“But…” I don’t know what to do, Sep!
[Please offer actions, thoughts, or concerns for Septimus in the Comments.]
[Instructions | Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9 | Day 10 | Day 11 | Day 12 | Day 13 | Day 14 | Day 15 | Day 16 | Day 17 | Day 18 | Day 19 | Day 20 | Day 21 | Day 22 | Day 23 | Day 24 | Day 25 | Conclusion | Author’s Notes]