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the kids who chose themselves

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Because Voldemort wasn't gone, because there was not a sudden flood of peace--they didn't send enough Aurors to take down Sirius Black. 

Instead of standing laughing in the street when they came to arrest him, Sirius ran. He Apparated away and went to find Remus, because they still had work to do.

That first meeting, after Remus got the news of Peter's "death," of everyone's, was a difficult one. It was outside the wreck and ruin of the little cottage in Godric's Hollow and that only made it worse. It had been the only place Sirius had been sure Remus would go that night. 

"What a Halloween, eh, Moony?" he said from the bushes and Remus almost cursed him right there, until Sirius managed to shout and dodge and wave his hands enough to explain that they'd switched the Secret Keeper. Sirius started laughing when he saw Remus start to believe him, and it wasn't the mad laughter of a man who had lost everything, because Sirius hadn't, not quite. 

When Remus buried his head into Sirius's shoulder, outside the slightly smoking shell of Lily and James's home, they both cried like the children they were. 

In a different world, they would have had this reunion in the scarred confines of the Shrieking Shack, thirteen years too late. In a different world, Sirius would have been gaunt, grimy, gasping with demented fury. Remus would have been washed out, threadbare. They would both have looked far too old for their ages, but there would have been a boy with messy hair and his mother's green eyes staring accusingly out at them. In a different world, Harry would have hated Sirius until he understood, and then he would have loved his godfather for the rest of his life. 

If you asked them, the boys crying on Lily and James's doorstep, or the skeleton of a wanted man and the wan ghost with the beast living under his skin-- if you asked them which world they preferred, they'd have an easy answer for you. 

But what did happen, in this story where they buried the Chosen Ones too early and there was no love to bring them back? They kept fighting. The war did not end. Voldemort had seven Horcruxes and he thought he was immortal. For now, he was. 

In this world, there was no prophesied boy. Love was not magic; it was only soft touches and quiet words, promises they could not promise to keep. An extra piece of chocolate tucked into a packed lunch. A mother's favorite earrings passed down and down, hand to hand. Love was not magic. It did not resurrect. 

Halloween Night 1981 was one more night in a long fight, to almost everyone. This was not the first time whole families had been lost. This was not the last time they would bury children. 

But that night, Augusta Longbottom withered. Peter Pettigrew shivered, somewhere, welcomed into plush halls with open arms. Petunia Dursley found only the milk on her doorstep in the morning. 

When Remus took Sirius back to one of his safe houses, Remus drank the same way he had in that other reality--in mourning and not any kind of celebration. But this time, he did not drink alone. 

Only Dumbledore curled in on himself over lost opportunity, knowing exactly how much hope they'd lost in those two houses, now empty, now cold. He knew about the prophecies, Sybil Trelawney's hoarse forgotten promises. He knew how powerful Tom had become and he knew how much weight they had been hoping to put on the shoulders of those two lost boys. He knew Harry had had his mother's eyes. 

(Albus did not know, however, about Neville's first word or that Harry had refused new, magical toys to instead chew and slobber on Lily's favorite, soft old doll, which she had carried from a Muggle world to a magical one.

Dumbledore thought about the war that night. It would save lives, this old man and his tired soul, that this was how he mourned. But there were more opportunities lost here than a war one day won; there was a grief here that had nothing to do with strategy.) 

"We are lost, Minerva," Dumbledore said. 

Professor McGonagall was trembling, thin and severe with it. "You don't think that," she said and she was right. But it was a night to believe thoughts like that. In the morning, there would be new plans, new hopes, but not on this Halloween. Dumbledore took out a lemon drop and sucked on it. Minerva found the fire whiskey. The sun rose, eventually. They called a meeting of the Order the next day. 

There was no prophesied boy, but there was still this--dozens of shadowed young faces looking up at Albus and not running, even at the very end of the world. Dumbledore looked out at his chess pieces, pawns and queens; his children and his friends; his collateral damage. He had the beginnings of a plan swelling in his chest. 

It would take them decades to get their hands, quietly, on every Horcrux. Tom Riddle had to think they were secret. He had to think he was safe. It would take them almost decades, but one day he would be mortal again. 

These dozens of faces--they were mortal now. Alastor Moody could feel mortality in the aches of old broken bones; Andromeda rewrote her own last name, refused to fear sea serpents, and refused to pretend that the serpents could not swallow any one of them whole. Remus and Sirius felt empty, gaping holes in the seats around them, and they made crude, expansive, joyous toasts to friends' memories. 

When Molly first reached over and held Arthur's hand, they knew this was something that could not last. That was why they held hands, held on, held tight. 

In both worlds, Molly Prewett married Arthur Weasley in a fast, fervent little ceremony overshadowed by darker things, and they had their first six children before the war would ever have ended. But in this world, Ginny Weasley was not the first Weasley child born in peacetime. None of them were born to peace. 

The wizarding world was terrified, not complacent. Tom Riddle and his Death Eaters were young upstarts, cruel and powerful, but his followers had not yet had years to insinuate themselves through all the Ministry's ranks. It took the Ministry years to fall to him. 

Voldemort took the Ministry on Ginny's second birthday. Molly and Arthur talked late into the night, the way they had for months, while their children slept off birthday cake. (The sprinkles had changed color, had danced, and they hadn't been able to afford them, but that didn't matter tonight.) 

That night, the Burrow burned to the ground. The fire was not at enemy hands. 

Arthur stood in the backyard and wept. Bill held Ron's small hand and Percy clutched a stack of library books to his chest, the only thing he'd saved. When neighbors and authorities came to investigate, Arthur told them Molly had gone back in for Charlie, the twins, and their only girl. 

He did not tell them she had taken those four children and Apparated away. Five Weasley lives were recorded that night as lost, in the official Ministry records. Arthur did not have to pretend to weep. 

Charlie, his parents had decided, was too kind for the world that was coming. Charlie felt things harder; he picked things up slower but picked them up deeper. Reading had eluded him for years, but once he got it, he fell directly into stacks and stacks of books on dragons. 

(Two of the library books Percy clutched to his adolescent chest were Charlie's. "Turn these back in for me?" he'd said, a hand on his little brother's thin shoulder. Charlie knew Percy handled things best when he had a responsibility to cling to.) 

Ginny was so small, her parents had decided, and the twins could not be separated. George, who was the better at following, might be able to survive the world they saw brimming, but Fred would break himself against it. 

Molly Apparated to Andromeda Tonks's basement, where four small beds and one bigger one had been conjured. "We'll only stay a few days," she told Andromeda. "I don't want to put you at risk." 

Nymphadora ("Tonks," she would later tell Charlie haughtily, and Charlie would nod) let go of her mother's hand to go ask the twins why they had the same face because that was weird

"At least a few weeks," said Andromeda. "They already look tired."

They stayed at the Bones's after that, then. Molly and hers lived for three memorable months in the passage between Aberforth's pub and Hogwarts. It was one of the safest places Molly knew, so they snuck back there for Christmas every year, conjured a tree and lights in that narrow, beaten tunnel. 

Sometimes Arthur managed to sneak away to them, too, for the holiday. He brought cheap sweets for each kid and kissed them all on the cheeks. He was whiskered and sniffly; the twins squealed protest and clung to him; Ginny hid behind Molly. She didn't reliably recognize her father until she was six. 

Percy brought books on dragons, worn from the library, and tucked them under the tree. "But I won't be able to get them back to you," said Charlie, when he had unwrapped them. 

Percy was slighter than him, his limbs gangly and sharp where Charlie was even now filling out. "I'll say I lost them," said Percy. 

Some shell company of Lucius Malfoy's seized the remains of the Burrow and demolished it. Arthur and his boys had moved to a little flat, lightless and drab. Ron had nightmares that he might forget what his mother's face looked like. 

Arthur's Muggle Artifacts office was closed and they moved him to Transportation. Mr. Weasley had apologized and groveled enough, the Ministry supposed, and he was a pureblood after all. If you want to keep the next generation as pure as possible, you can't go about offing good genetic material when it's offered. 

Molly and her four settled down in a series of abandoned old hunting cabins. They Apparated into random towns for supplies, and grew vegetable gardens and scrubbed down floors. They kept in contact with the Order. Sirius Black taught the twins pranks spells while Molly chewed him out for corrupting her children. Remus taught them prank spells, too, but at least he had the wherewithal to look vaguely ashamed about it. Sirius just grinned. 

The children played upstairs or in empty pantries while the Order circled each other, reporting on missions, laying out theories on Horcrux locations and Death Eater movements. They found the locket Regulus had stolen when Ginny was eight, the first time Sirius went back to 12 Grimmauld Place. It took them another year to figure out how to destroy it, but they left the Horcrux alive. Better to kill them all at once, and make Voldemort mortal in one fell blow. 

Albus worked at tracking down Tom Riddle's past, quietly, the places he might have thought worthy to hide pieces of his soul, but this time Albus had people like Kingsley Shacklebolt and Remus Lupin and Andromeda Tonks to go investigate as well. 

Ginny screamed "CONSTANT VIGILANCE" delightedly every time she saw Alastor Moody and he picked her up and threw her little frame in the air. It was the first kind of flying Ginny ever met. 

Molly did not go on Order missions unless they desperately needed her, but she often watched the others' children--Susan Bones, once her aunt had left the Ministry and gone into hiding; little Dean Thomas, whose Muggle mom had gotten pulled into the war when his name came up on the list for Hogwarts. Mrs. Thomas had tea with Mrs. Weasley, taught Molly how to use a telephone while Molly taught her how to use a Floo. 

Hermione Granger never came to Hogwarts. Muggleborns did not get letters from Hogwarts these days. Their houses, which were the exact same size inside as they were outside, got visits from Ministry officials with snakes tattooed over the veins of their forearms. 

The houses were almost always empty when the Death Eaters arrived. However it was that Voldemort's Ministry was able to track down Muggleborns, so could the Order. These empty shells of old homes had been visited first by a short wizard with a high voice and a willingness for preventative kidnapping. 

Professor Flitwick had vanished when Dumbledore had. He spent more than a decade snatching up children like he was a Pied Piper, taking whole families to safe spaces, new lives. 

Some of the Muggleborn families took their magical children and ran, to Australia and New York and Amsterdam. Flitwick gave them cards for private, honorable tutors in every place they fled to and books on magic for self-study. But others stayed. 

Their school was held in the basements of sweet shops and the attics of old Hufflepuff families and bespelled rooms in the backs of public libraries. Flitwick taught Charms; Molly taught Potions, Remus taught Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Sirius taught Transfiguration. Members of the Order cycled in as visiting lecturers. They all taught Silencing Spells and how to make Polyjuice Potion, how to lie, hide, run, and how to pretend to be wizardborn. 

When Mr. Goldstein found out that wizarding curriculum did not include an education in mathematics, he was horrified; he had been an accountant with his own firm, before Death Eaters had come for his youngest son, Anthony. 

"They never learn how to balance checkbooks?" Mrs. Creevey asked, shocked. 

"I'm not sure they learn to add," said Mr. Goldstein, concerned. 

"We learn how to add," said Mrs. Cohen-Goldstein, who had graduated Gryffindor before marrying Muggle. Her husband looked relieved, but he insisted on joining the teaching staff anyway and introducing the kids to fractions. 

The wizarding staff taught the parents and the siblings how to slink through Magical Britain, how to navigate Knockturn and avoid Muggle turns of phrase. The Muggle parents taught the wizards how to drive a car, dress Muggle, how to slip out between the worlds and lose Death Eaters in the bright lights of a supermarket. 

The children levitated tea cups, played Exploding Snap and gin rummy, read Diana Wynne Jones and Roald Dahl alongside Beedle the Bard. Watching Muggle children run and whisper with Muggleborn wizards, at-risk halfbloods, and blood traitors, you couldn't tell them apart. 

Justin Finch-Fletchley's family kept running off and coming back, frightened and twitchy and exasperated. "He was on the list for Eton," his mother said, mournfully, while Justin learned Charms in the narrow attic of an apothecary's shop on Knockturn Alley. On the bench beside him, Dennis Creevey was clinging to his big brother's hand, eyes wide. Colin's eyes were just as big; Professor Flitwick was conjuring songbirds out the tip of his wand. 

Mrs. Creevey got Mrs. Finch-Fletchley a cup of tea and said, smiling, "Yes, but there's magic in the world."

Dumbledore had found Severus Snape crying over Lily Potter's body in this world, too. He talked about making amends, not about saving what little was left of Lily, because Lily had left nothing behind. 

(Lily had left the sorrow in Remus and Sirius's chests, and something warm for them to cling to and remember on hard days. She had left a certainty in Minerva McGonagall's spine, as she looked over new bright faces, that she would save every child she could.) 

Snape became a spy for the Order, but he did not become a teacher. Voldemort put other professors in place at Hogwarts and used Snape's quick wits in fields more important than children. When Dumbledore brought Severus to the hidden school, offering a Potions master like a gift, Flitwick said no. 

"I trust Severus," said Dumbledore. 

"I know," said Flitwick, voice high and certain. "But this isn't your school, sir." 

The Potter fortune had gotten tied up, due to lack of heirs, so Sirius and Remus had snuck in to steal all of James and Lily's money to help fund the covert school. They thought Prongs and his lady would have approved. (This, too, the food in these schoolchildren's mouths, was something Lily and James had left behind-- they had left the money, and friends to make sure it went where it should go.)

The school lived off those savings and secretive, sympathetic donations for almost a year before Mrs. Cohen-Goldstein and Mrs. Creevey sat Flitwick down and sternly took over. Using the known but not ancient wizarding name of Cohen, they started a mail order potions business. The wolfsbane potions deliveries ("no questions asked!") were particularly lucrative, especially with Greyback lose in the world. 

In Arthur Weasley's little flat in the city, Ron still learned chess early. Bill taught him, but it was Percy who played with him every day, like clockwork. Ron tried playing with Arthur, sometimes, but Arthur had a tendency to get distracted mid-game or to forget the rules. Percy never forgot a rule. 

They had chosen Ron to stay with Arthur because he was their smallest boy, the one who fit into the places left to fill. He was the one you didn't have to worry about; he'd be alright. Bill was responsible and steady, unruffled and flexible. Percy learned systems and social codes like he was going to be tested on them; Percy could learn this new world and build himself a place in it (and he did). But Ron, they thought, could manage. He would adapt (and he did). 

Molly had not wanted Arthur to be alone, and they had not been sure whether running or staying would be safer. Just different kinds of danger, perhaps. 

This was not a world that asked for bravery, where Arthur and his three sons lived, so Ron adapted. This was not a world where Weasleys were allowed to be proud of being Gryffindors. Ron spent his childhood lying, playing chess with Percy, and sneaking away to have hidden holidays with four siblings the world thought were dead. He squirmed and complained when his mother made him corned beef sandwiches over Christmastime, but he missed hers for the rest of the year; Dad's weren't as good. 

When the Sorting Hat went on Ron Weasley's head, it dithered. It chewed over things, dwelling, while Ron counted the freckles on his pale, clenched hands. Everyone was staring, and his family had spent his whole life trying to keep out of sight. He would always be a hero, but in this world he would have to be a different kind.

The Death Eaters had not tampered with the Hat. It was a part of Hogwarts, the culture, the tradition. Voldemort was the same teenaged boy still in so many ways, self-centered and cruel, heady with his own power, jealously nostalgic. Hogwarts had been a promise to that orphaned child. Tom stroked the old customs of the castle fondly now, House Cups and Sortings, Christmas decorations, and dismissed the quieter history of it-- friendship, kindness, learning, safety. 

But the Hat, at least, didn't lie, not even now. In this world, Ron was not a lion. He was a haunted brother, a beloved liar, and quiet child. He kept his own counsel. 

From the top of Ron Weasley's head, the Hat shouted, "RAVENCLAW!" There was a polite applause from the table done up in bronze and blue. At Gryffindor, Percy clapped loud, stubbornly, face set. (Bill had graduated, vanished, disappeared into the ranks of the Order and his mother's side of the family.)

Ron's year was even smaller than it had once been. He climbed up the steps to Ravenclaw Tower, his first night as Hogwarts, and the world got colder and colder. 

There was only one filled bed in the Gryffindor boys' dormitory for that year. Four stood empty. Seamus Finnegan (half blood; his Muggle parent was in hiding) covered the empty four posters in old robes, crumpled essays, and borrowed Quaffles. 

Seamus spent most of his time in the Common Room, befriending the girls (Lavender, Parvati, both pureblood). Their dormitory had an empty bed where a girl named Granger would once have cried herself to sleep over bullies and the end of the world. 

They were eleven, excited and uncertain; they did not think about what empty beds meant. They did not know how very wrong it was that they flinched away when they passed some teachers in the hall. They did not know how much brighter Hogwarts had once been. 

Professor McGonagall watched them, watched them all. She had watched them for years, as Albus was deposed and sent to hiding, as vultures and bullies descended on the sacred halls of her school. She looked older, here, the same way Sirius looked so much younger. She let herself wither back into wrinkles and silence, curb her tongue, comfort children only when there was no one to see. 

Ron had grown up in a drab grey flat in a city with no broom sheds or open orchards for miles. He had never been taught how to fly. On his first week at Hogwarts, he told that to an older girl who'd caught him staring while she polished her broom handle in the Ravenclaw Common Room. "Well, c'mon," she said, pushing herself to her feet and pulling him up after. "Want to learn how?"

"I'm Ron," he said, hurrying after her. "Weasley."

"Cho Chang," she said. Cho paused, as they went down the stairs. "What?" said Ron. Hesitation meant something, in your chess opponents, and he bet it meant something in friends, too. 

"Did you know you have dirt on your nose?"

Ron tagged along at Cho's heels for the first part of that year, and walked next to her for the rest of it, once he knew his way around. Cho was bright but not brilliant. Ron taught her the finer points of chess and played easy until she snapped at him to stop. 

Cho was not Ravenclaw because things came easy to her; she would dig her teeth and heels and hands into anything she thought was worth learning. It was a colder world; things were not handed to you. (This was one of the reasons Percy kept collecting books on dragons, chess manuals for Ron, books on Impressionist paintings for Bill--he wanted something to hand to them. He wanted to give them something they could hold onto.)

Cho taught Ron how to fly--to dive, to soar, to do a barrel roll and maneuver around Bludgers. He taught her how to play a pawn's gambit, a queen's ruse. Cho beat him once at chess, after three months of afternoon matches. He never got on the Quidditch team. When he got detentions, they gave him nightmares for weeks afterward. 

They met Luna Lovegood the next year, when she came drifting in with a bush of blonde hair (the right length for tugging) and wide eyes, delicate features (the right fragility for breaking). 

Neither Cho nor Ron were much for pity, and Luna would have just blinked at them and wandered away, anyway. The thing about Luna was this: she looked more fragile than anyone Ron had ever met, but she wasn't. She scarred like they did, ached and slept, but she didn't break. 

Luna looked around with those bulging blue eyes, that spiderweb hair, and smiled at things she shouldn't. Luna said weird things, but she meant them. So few of the people in Ron's life ever precisely meant all the things they said. 

Ron became her friend the moment she made him laugh on a bad day. Cho became her friend when Luna took them out to see thestrals, because Cho liked nothing better than learning something she'd never known before. Ron wasn't sure when Luna decided to be their friend; he just woke up, one day, to a cold morning and an ugly world, and knew that she was. 

Ron had two brothers (or five of them and one sister, some days). After years of class and detention, nightmares and late nights, he would know Luna's laugh (hiccuping, odd) better than he would ever know Ginny's. He would not know Cho's as well, but that was because her laughs were rare. She seemed to think they could be stolen. 

In this Hogwarts, Ron never saw Cho cry, not once. This was not strength--or, it was. But it was also a tragedy. There were detentions here that scarred. There were kids who left for summer and never came back except as somber newspaper headlines. Cho did not cry. She read books, played chess with Ron, and flew so high that cold and thin air bit at her cheeks. Crying was for children, and this was not a place for children.

Luna cried for fun sometimes, just curled up in a window seat and let the tears go. When Ron wanted to try it, he just balled his fists, counted freckles, or asked Cho to go out flying with him. It was hard to be as strong as Luna. 

Luna still crafted, made little gifts of bottlecap necklaces and radish earrings. Ron asked for one, and then bundled it up and gave it to his mother the next time they managed to find each other for Christmas. Molly and her four moved with the hidden school and their families now, wreathed in Confunding Charms and other protections. 

The school that lived in the basements, the attics, the backrooms, and the shadows had started teaching the children younger than Hogwarts did. It took them not at eleven, but whenever they were found, whenever they were threatened, and kept them as long as they would stay. 

Flitwick counted heads like breathing, drafted teachers, listened for the muffled sounds of nightmares and tears. He didn't sleep much, but these were children who had had so much taken from them. He would give them the best possible world he could. There was a weight on his shoulders and it was made of all his students' names. 

(Finances were the area Flitwick didn't have to dwell on. The hidden school's mail-order potions business was booming, though not always though strictly legal lanes. Mrs. Creevey ordered cheap, mass-produced glass vials from Muggle manufacturers to cut down on overhead costs. The promotional material talked up their Innovative New Spell for Vial Creation! to assuage suspicion. Their biggest breakthrough was signing a long-term supplier's contract with St. Mungo's.)

Anthony Goldstein was particularly good at flying, though they rarely had the space and safety at it. The Creevey brothers did everything together, even more than Fred and George did, and followed Ginny Weasley around like she was a will o th' wisp. The Grangers used a mix of borrowed spells and borrowed equipment to take care of everyone's teeth. 

At age twelve, Ginny stole a pair of her mother's sewing scissors and cut off all her long red hair. Hermione Granger watched the parents squeal and mourn the locks, watched Ginny never brush her hair again, and decided it was worth it. Ginny grinned at her when she first caught sight of Hermione's hair cut and gave her a thumbs-up. 

This was a Hermione in exile. Hermione had always been as ruthless as her hair was bushy; she had learned how to hide it better with age, and she had learned to write her own rules. But in this world, her first rules weren't curfews and forbidden corridors, or no magic over the holidays and eight inches on wolfsbane by Monday. She never read Hogwarts, A History. She read about wizard crusades and Muggle guerrilla war tactics, and she slept as easy at night as she ever would have at Hogwarts. 

The rules were these: hide, survive, be wary but never afraid.

Hermione was a rule follower. She was the very best in class. During an evacuation, she saw Fred and George lingering at the back of a classroom (a grocer's basement), dripping rudimentary magic from their wands. "What are you doing?" she asked and they grinned, cheeks pulled, creased tight, in almost the same way (but not quite). 

"Leaving a surprise for the Aurors," said Fred. Auror meant Death Eater, now. If they ever re-captured the Ministry, these children would rename the division. 

"The ones who're planning to clean us out," said George. 

"Can I help?" said Hermione. 

When the twins started inventing, Hermione was just behind them, taking notes. She hemmed them in, bolstered them up, and brought out Muggle primers on empiricism. She corrected their pronunciation and Fred tugged on her hair. 

When the twins started inventing, it wasn't pranks; it was materiel of war; ways to hide, ways to hurt, ways to defend. They didn't tell the adults, whose first priorities were protection. They packed up little kits for every kid in their transient school--Muggle, Muggleborn, and blood traitor--and taught them how to use darkness powder or throw a bottled hex.

This Ginny had never met a diary. But she had still died once, though in a flaming home and not a cold, damp castle basement. She had still been reborn into something her mother would always love and never fully understand. 

To Molly, this quiet, frenetic world of backrooms and late night evacuations was an aberration. It was the product of a long war and a darkening world. But this was Ginny's childhood and she grew into its dark corners and hushed sounds. They were always on the run, even when they were sitting still, and that grafted itself into her young bones. 

Ginny tagged at the heels of the active Order members--shadowed Lupin and shoved bony elbows into Sirius's space, stepped on Ted Tonks's toes and tugged at Amelia Bones's perfect suit pants. They taught her curses, taught her shield spells, taught her healing, or sometimes they just sent her back to her mother. Mrs. Thomas gave her cookies and taught her how to hold a gun. 

"Treat this like you would treat an avada kedavra," Mrs. Thomas said, stern. "Never point it at anyone you aren't willing to kill."

Ginny thought about this. Mrs. Thomas put her handgun back in her purse and taught Ginny how to pick locks. The other children gathered close, a step behind Ginny. The Creevey brothers, who still hadn't grown, looked in danger of being trod on by Dean so Ginny moved them out of the way. 

"Even when they spell against Alohomora," Mrs. Thomas said, "I find they rarely include an anti-picking charm. Here, you try."

Tonks and Charlie Weasley raced each other for the head of the hushed school-- Tonks studied combatively, glaring at textbooks and Potions ingredients. Charlie studied like it was love, falling for every subject he touched. 

When he graduated, Charlie teamed up with Hagrid, trying to recruit creatures to their side and occasionally getting distracted rescuing them instead. Tonks tagged on Moody's heels, grinning at his grumbles and paranoias. "You can't scare me," she told him. "Haven't you met my mum?" 

Tom Riddle had seven Horcruxes: a locket, a ring, a diadem, a cup, a diary, a snake, and himself. The Order did not know about all of them, but they suspected there were seven--many more and the soul starts to fracture. They kept notes, investigated, inventing spells for tracking and for destruction. 

They had found the locket early, thanks to Regulus Black (though they never found the note in the cave, so they never knew for sure it was him). 

Kingsley Shacklebolt, who was working with the Aurors, discovered that the cup was in Bellatrix Lestrange's Gringotts vault. (Kingsley was pureblood, and had been in Slytherin with Andromeda Black. He wore a badge with a snake and skull on it, and they believed him.) 

It was Charlie Weasley, Sirius Black, and Rubeus Hagrid who broke in and got the cup out of the vault; if Hagrid released a dragon on the way, too, no one could really fault him. This world was too ugly to begrudge a man for wanting to set even a monster free. 

They put the cup in 12 Grimmauld Place with the locket, and the whole house went darker. Amelia Bones and Filius Flitwick went to talk with the Gringotts goblins and convinced them not to report the robbery. 

When Percy graduated, he joined the Ministry, again, but he joined the Order first. Percy worked hard, kept lists and spreadsheets and careful stacks. He passed information out, the way his father had been doing for years. 

Arthur was sweet, brave, and kind, but Percy was good at this. He moved up through the ranks. Percy knew how to listen, how to parrot others' words, how to acquiesce without surrendering anything, how to flatter. He got better and better at lifting his nose in the air, twisting his mouth in polite disgust, dressing well out of second-hand bins. He ignored his father in the corridors. He bought books on dragons and kept them in boxes under his bed. 

It was Percy who discovered the location of the diary in Lucius Malfoy's house. Everyone in the Order had spent personal time with the locket in Sirius's house (the house that Remus refused to let Sirius stay in, with its screaming portraits and dark memories, and which the Order now used as an occasional base). They had tossed the locket hand to hand, felt chilled and cranky, snapped. They all knew the heady weight of suspicious whispers and dark things dredging up from the pits of their stomachs. 

So when Percy got invited (a honor) to a Malfoy gala, as an obsequious and efficient young undersecretary should, he felt that pit rise up in his stomach. When someone made a joke about his father's bumbling, his enthusiasm and his lack of subtlety, Percy twisted his nose in disdain and meant it. 

Oh, he thought to himself, that's not right. Percy did a very quiet grid search of the manor until he found the place where he felt the most disrespect for his loud, dirty, poor, inefficient, clumsy-- ah, there it is

Percy left the gala when precisely half the guests had already gone, with a battered little book tucked under his robes. Lucius was much too terrified to tell the Dark Lord it was missing. It was just an old blank diary, right? A whim. No reason to upset the Dark Lord with trivialities. 

Soon after, Albus found the Gaunt ring and brought it home, to nestle in place with the locket, the cup, and the diary. Even just walking by the room, now, people could feel the dark objects pulse everything in them they least wanted to admit to, and a few things that weren't even in them. Jealousy curdled and rage simmered. They stopped holding any of the school sessions in 12 Grimmauld Place, no matter how spacious the rooms were. The war carried on, quiet, slow, careful. 

This was a story of a boy with a scar and a boy without, except they were lost. There was no prophecy to save them. Love was not magic; it did not resurrect. 

This was the story of so many children with scars. Cho did not cry, just went stiller and stiller, colder, flew higher, and wondered what it would be like if she just never came down. Seamus was the only kid in his dormitory; he set up shield spells at night and told himself he wasn't allowed to be afraid of shadows and empty beds. 

Ginny had a fire in her that would never go out, feet that would never know how to stay still, to feel safe. All of Fred and George's mischief was pointed towards war, all their play and all their sharpest grins turned vicious. Hermione kept in step behind them, some days an enabler, some days a general. The Creevey brothers grew paler and paler, pressed closer together, like that might save them. 

Anthony Goldstein and Dean Thomas took turns holding watches in the night, curled up in the tent with the younger children. There were wards and warning spells, adult sentries, but they had lived in this world too long to trust other people to keep them safe. 

This was a story of children with scars, and they were lost. Ron had nightmares about the Burrow burning down, and woke to Luna leaning over him. "Nargles," she said wisely and he took her hand, held it, held tight. 

There was no prophecy here to follow. Voldemort had already won; he was the one to live while the others failed to survive. But there was a boy curled up in Ravenclaw Tower holding hands with a girl who saw things no one else could. There were school children tucked in the back of sympathizers' home and shops, learning Cheering Charms, learning to jump-start cars, learning to laugh even after they'd had to evacuate three homes in five days. When little Dennis Creevey couldn't sleep, he'd get up, conjure two mugs of hot cocoa, and bring it to wherever Flitwick was pouring over the school's paperwork and protections. Dennis would sit and watch him work until he finally drifted off, and then he'd wake up tucked back into his own bed. 

There was no prophecy to follow, so they would tear up the roots of this evil one by one. This was a work of years; they would be cunning, be brave, be wise; they would be unafraid of toil. 

They found the diary, the cup, the locket, the ring. The snake stayed always at Voldemort's side. The last piece was Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem, tucked deep in the Room of Requirement among all the lost things. 

That was how they found it-- Cho looked like she was about to cry, if she was the kind of person who ever cried. Ron took one hand and Luna the other and they pulled Cho down the corridors. I want to get lost, thought Ron, I want us to get lost and for them to never find us

And a door guttered into existence. 

Three Ravenclaws stepped into the towering chaos of the place where all lost things go. Luna closed her eyes and listened for the things that might live there. Cho opened hers wide, clenched hands, wished for a broom to lift herself up on--there was so much here to see. The Room of Requirement gives you what you need. 

But Ron could feel something whispering in the pit of his stomach, about being the last, forgotten son; about how Cho was probably frozen all the way down to her core, that all those small smiles he'd learned to coax out of her were lies; that Luna would get bored, that she was crazy after all. 

Ron knew that feeling as well as his big brother did. That's not right, he thought, and started a grid search. 

He found the diadem sitting prettily on a pile (worthless, the Horcrux hummed at him, you worthless coward). He snatched a stray tea towel from the mound and picked the diadem up without touching it. 

Ron knew the count of Horcruxes. Order children grew up knowing it like nursery rhymes. The diadem lying in his hands, glinting, lovely, and chilled, was the last fragment of soul that they needed to find. "We need to get out of the castle," he said. 

"Do you know what they'll do to us when we come back?" said Cho, and even with the poison of the Horcrux whispering to him, Ron knew enough to know that that caution was not a "we can't."

"I'm not sure we're coming back," he said. 

Luna dragged them out to the greenhouses to strategize and regroup. "Professor Sprout lets me look for Whizgig Flys in her begonias," she told them. "She'll hide us while she can." 

Cho got brooms and Luna got her good-luck earrings and a few Stinkbombs. When they told Padma Patil, she got Parvati and Lavender to help make a ruckus; Ron told them about the Room so they would have somewhere to run to. Ernie Macmillian and Hannah Abbott, who Ron had never exchanged two words with, showed up to help them break the border wards around the Hogwarts perimeter, so they could get out. 

When green-trimmed robes flashed through the glass, Hannah put a hand over Ron's mouth. "Shh, it's okay," she said. "Jordan's alright; I called him in. And he vouched for her." Lee Jordan came around the bend with Daphne Greengrass slinking in behind him. (Ambition, cunning, and bravery are not exclusive. Harry Potter was never the only one to be offered two Houses, and this was a different world.)

"You think just because we're in green we don't hate this too?" Daphne asked Ron's suspicious glare. 

"Yes," said Ron, and Daphne stopped Lee from hauling out old detention scars. 

But Luna beamed at the Slytherins. "Can't have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without a knife," she said. "Or at least not without getting creative."

"Um?" said Lee. 

"She means we're glad to have you on our side," said Cho. 

History books would later claim that this was the beginning of the Battle of Hogwarts, that the first blows fell in this skirmish as the student body rose to get three Ravenclaws and their diadem out. 

But that was wrong-- hexes flew there, yes. Hexes shattered greenhouse glass and Ernie's right shoulder, scarred Padma's face for life ("Now they can tell us apart," she'd joke to Parvati, when they had retreated to the Room of Requirement). 

But these children all had scars that were years old--from punishments, lessons; from malice and petty boredom. This was the first time these young soldiers struck blows back--but it was not the beginning of their part in the war, these children. Survival had been their first act of war. Those old scars, called discipline by those who gave them, were just as much war wounds as the way Ernie would never regain full use of his right arm. 

Ron considered feeling guilty about the kids they left flinging curses on the ground. But he had the diadem tucked into his robes, its weight heavy on him, and Ron was a strategist at heart. They left Hogwarts behind. 

High in the air, the land a patchwork below them, Ron wished he could go see Percy, who always knew what to do, or Bill, who always made the world seem like a saner place. But instead, he went to find where the hidden school had gotten to lately--the place Ginny, Fred, George, and Charlie called home. 

They were out in an old abandoned ranch. Ron landed in a stumble. They had bound up Cho's arm mid flight, scrubbed hexes from Luna's skin. He pressed the diadem into Flitwick's small, steady hands. "It's the last one," Ron said, then turned to his mother. 

Molly had taken the Weasley family clock with her, before they had burned the Burrow down. She carried it with her, through every retreat and rout. Every clock hand had turned to "Mortal Peril" and stayed there. It was in her bag now, but she checked it every night. Molly opened her arms wide and stepped forward. "You got so tall," she said. 

Ron buried his face in his mother's plump shoulder. This was something he was pretty sure he'd never outgrow. 

"Oh," he said, pulling back. "Mum, this is Luna, and Cho."

Molly smiled at them, Luna's bulging eyes and Cho's careful ones. "Thank you for taking such good care of my boy." 

Seated nearby (his legs had given out), Flitwick stared at the diadem. "It's the end," he said. "It's time. Molly, we have to get Albus." 

"Time for what?" said Luna. Ron had said they needed to run, so they had. They hadn't asked for context or explanation. 

"Time to go to war."

Sirius, who taught Transfiguration when he wasn't hexing Aurors, flew the diadem to 12 Grimmauld Place. When Albus got the call, he Flooed in with Nymphadora Tonks and a bag of basilisk fangs, and told Sirius this would be his post for the last battle. It didn't go over well. 

"I want to fight," hissed Sirius, Tonks a breath behind him. 

"This is the fight," said Albus, a hand on their shoulders. In the face of the two Black glares, he wished he had Andromeda with him, or Molly; they knew the many sides of battlefields. Sometimes it took burping a baby to win a war. Sometimes it took burning down your own home. 

"Destroy these," Dumbledore said. Five Horcruxes were laid out at their feet and the light almost puckered around them. "We will take the snake, and then Tom Riddle will be just a man."

"Less than," said Tonks, as haughtily as she would have at eight, correcting people who called her Nymphadora. 

Dumbledore's next fight was at the latest grounds of the transient school (Aberforth's basement, among kegs of butterbeer). He had come to pick up Flitwick, Lupin, Molly Weasley, and found a student body standing ready for him, armed to the teeth. 

"We've watched you prepare for this chance all our lives," said Hermione, who'd they chosen as their spokesman because she had the best enunciation. "This is our world, too, and we want to fight for it."

"You're children," said Molly Weasley, shrill; the fight had begun a long time before Dumbledore popped into bemused existence. Ron stared back at his mother stubbornly, dirt smudged on his nose. 

"We're not much younger than you were, back then, mum," said Fred. 

Ginny had her arms crossed. "And we're a hell of a lot more prepared than you ever were." 

"Ginevra! Language!"

"At least the Muggles should stay here," said Dumbledore, kindly, half-moon spectacles glinting. "This will be a magical fight." 

"It's a magical world," said Mrs. Creevey. "But we live here too." Justin Finch-Fletchley's big brothers, who had not inherited magic, had bottled hexes hanging from their belts. 

"Always bring a gun to a wand fight," said Mr. Granger cheerfully. 

Dumbledore looked askance at Flitwick, who was sitting calmly to the side. Flitwick smiled and shrugged. "They convinced me years ago. I Charmed the Muggle weapons to keep working even within the wards." 

"You can't stop us from coming," said Mr. Goldstein. Anthony and Mrs. Cohen-Goldstein bobbed at his side, wands out. "And you shouldn't even try." 

Dumbledore sighed. 

 

Back at 12 Grimmauld Place, Sirius and his cousin Tonks got to work. The locket shrieked at them; showed visions of Andromeda twisted in pain, of Remus going feral and bloody. The diadem writhed, as if in pain. The cup crumpled in on itself. The diary bled ink on the floor that would never wash out. Sirius had never liked this carpet anyway. 

Tonks had bright crimson hair and a beaky nose. She'd graduated their roving school years before, been working beside Moody in the Order--rough, ugly, quiet work. But she looked so young there, kneeling beside these writhing pieces of soul, and something in Sirius's stomach was turning over and over. 

He had been that young before, been fighting battles at that age, losing friends. Lily had been that young when she died. 

The ring caught the light, and ate it. Something was not right. 

"I'll take that one," said Sirius. He took the basilisk fang from Tonks's fine-boned hand. 

The diadem and the locket had been hidden; the cup and the diary given to trusted protectors; Voldemort kept Nagini the snake at his side.

But the ring, alone among them, had been cursed. 

Regulus had died, stealing one part of Voldemort's soul. Sirius died killing another. There were Malfoys and Tonks who would survive the war, the blood living on, but the name of House Black died with their oldest son. 

 

The battlefield was Hogwarts, once again. For Voldemort, still eleven and awe-struck, still fifteen and arrogant, Hogwarts would always be the seat of everything that mattered. And, fled or not, Dumbledore was still Headmaster. The stones of the castle would answer to his call. 

Flitwick and McGonagall met in battle, exchanged nods across carnage that they both knew meant, thank you for looking after the children.

Hermione charged in with George at one shoulder, Justin Finch-Fletchley guarding her flank. George grinned at Justin. "Almost as cool as Eton?" 

Curses flew, but so did bullets. Parents and siblings had inherited this world the day threat stepped darkly into their homes. They could not bear wands, but they could throw bottled hexes. Mrs. Thomas had patiently taught gun safety and skills to anyone who wanted to learn. Ginny Weasley got on the wrong end of an Expelliarmus, and then just pulled a lady's grip handgun out.  

The Hogwarts kids had charged out of the Room of Requirement and into the fray. They were not unafraid. They were all brave, all wise, all fair. They were cunning, too, quick-witted and resourceful, and they had made true friends under those darkening halls. 

Percy and Kingsley Apparated in with Voldemort's Auror troops, to the outskirts of Hogwarts, and hiked in. Arthur had not been invited to the fight and had been locked up when he enthusiastically volunteered. Percy, though, they believed. He could wear those sneers too easy on his face to not mean them. Percy could sell the story of the upstart, ambitious son. 

When the battle hit, Percy and Kingsley slipped to the back of the group and started taking aim. Percy's first curse got Rodolphus, from behind. His second got Crabbe Sr.; Kingsley got Lucius Malfoy. 

There were only two of them, though, and a whole squad of hardened Aurors, but they had known their chances when they started. In Molly Weasley's cluttered bag, the clock hand labeled Percy moved. 

The middle of Arthur Weasley's three surviving sons was the first Order casualty of the battle. Kingsley was the second. Mad-Eye Moody, taking on Bellatrix in the Great Hall, was the third. 

There were two Horcruxes left: the snake and the visage of the man. 

It was bullets that slammed through Nagini's serpentine spine, not a sword, but by the end of the night Voldemort was once more a mortal man. 

Albus Dumbledore had once taught Tom Riddle Transfiguration in the hallowed halls of Hogwarts. Those halls were hushed now, defiled with the fears of students who should have been safe there above all else. In the main Hogwarts courtyard, surrounded by beautiful old stone, Dumbledore hit Voldemort with a Killing Curse. 

Albus was too tired to mourn even the child Tom had once been. He was thinking of Grindelwald, of another war. He was too tired to divert the curse Bellatrix screamed at him; Dumbledore hit the ground beside Riddle, both of them just crumpled bodies in the end. 

There were no prophesied boys: just this. Just an old man and a lost soul; just Sirius taking the fang from his cousin's hand, dying for a chance at peace. 

There was just Percy Weasley living a cold life in Ministry grey, lying about everything except the dragons he sometimes doodled in the margins of his books; just Bill going straight to find Ron, in the ruckus, to guard his baby brother's back; Fred getting put out of it with a leg wound ten minutes in and spending the rest of the battle cracking jokes and helping guard the other injured. 

There were no Chosen Ones, just kids who chose themselves-- with wands or bottled hexes at their hips, who had run and hid all their lives, because they had been waiting for the fight to matter. Anthony and Dean fought shoulder to shoulder. Ginny stayed within three protective steps of the Creevey boys, the whole battle long. 

The Death Eaters fled, not long after Voldemort fell. The Order had retaken Hogwarts, but not the wizarding world--Voldemort's forces had had more than a decade to settle themselves in at the Ministry. But it was certainly a start. They buried the dead out on an island on the Lake and then got back to work. 

When they took the district with Arthur's little flat in it, the Weasley family went home, both halves of it. It wasn't the Burrow, but there were knit sweaters tossed over the backs of chairs. 

Underneath Percy's bed, Charlie found a box of books on dragons and he sat down heavily on the neatly-made bed, staring at it. He had handed his brother a pair of battered, borrowed old books once, to give the kid something to hold onto. Percy had been so good at holding onto things. 

"Hey," said Ron from the doorway. His voice cracked on the word. "Hey, I don't remember, Charlie--do you play chess?" 

Charlie lifted his head. "Why don't you teach me?" 

They took the wizarding world back, town by hidden town, Ministry floor by Ministry floor. The Department of Mysteries was a week-long battle, with a bit of minor time travel thrown in to boot. They lost Flitwick in that fight. When things had settled down, the student body and alumni of the hidden school all met up in the dim basement of Aberforth's pub. 

"I learned Wingardium Leviosa here," said Hermione, looking around at all the boxes and barrels. 

"Levi-OH-sah," said George fondly. Fred ruffled the stuck-up parts of Hermione's coarse haircut. 

"Flitwick turned up in my living room and talked Mom and Dad around," said Justin. "Had to conjure a flamingo and turn it green before they even considered believing him." 

"I thought he'd come out the fireplace," said Dean Thomas. "Thought Christmas had come early, and he was a very short Santa or elf or something." Anthony snorted. 

Flitwick had saved all their lives, and given them new ones, new chances. Dean summoned mugs from upstairs and filled them with butterbeer (they'd clean and put them away afterward). They all toasted to their Headmaster--a thank you, a good bye. 

Love is magic; it is magic in any universe. It remembers. It leaves things behind. 

Sirius had willed 12 Grimmauld Place to Remus. It took Remus a full year to summon the courage to go back to that home. It was not like going back to Godric's Hollow, where Remus had known every stone of James and Lily's house fondly. He could cry over that cottage, but stepping into Sirius's childhood home just made him angry. 

Mrs. Black's portrait shrieked from the walls, so the first thing Lupin did was cut out that whole section of wood, plaster, and crawl space and Apparate it somewhere out in the cold, deep waters of the Pacific. Next, he set about cleaning-- a big task, but people dropped by, Mrs. Thomas and Molly, the kids Lupin had taught in the hidden school, Hagrid, Mundungus (they checked his pockets for jewelry before he left), and Minerva McGonagall. Minerva wasn't much for scrubbing the floors these days, but her cleaning spells packed a wallop. 

"I think I'm going to turn it into a school," said Lupin. He smiled. "One that stays still." 

Ginny frowned, looking up from her scouring charm. "Why? They'll let the Muggleborn into Hogwarts now, once the repairs are finished." Her old classmates had all swarmed down on 12 Grimmauld, throwing open windows and filling the place with the sort of noise and clamor they were still learning to allow themselves to make. 

"But will they let the children who are werewolves?" said Lupin, and her mouth snapped shut. "Where will the Squibs go? Or halfbreeds--look at how quick they were to turn Hagrid out. I spent a lot of my life with no place to go, and now Sirius has left me one. I'm not going to waste it. Let's make this place a home again." 

"That's a wonderful idea," said Ginny, starting to smile. "You do that. And let us know if we could help. But also-- Hey Dean!" she hollered. "Anthony! Hermione! We might have to take over Hogwarts again!"

Dean scrambled down the stairs. Hermione poked her head in patiently behind him. "Or get some legislation passed," Ginny amended. 

Lupin was looking at her, so she grinned back. "We already won it once," said Ginny. 

The Weasleys built another Burrow on the old fallow bones of their first home. They told stories about Percy. Charlie gave old, worn, library-stamped copies of books on dragons to his nieces and nephews. Ron taught them chess and never let them win easy--well, not too easy. Ginny taught them all the curses she had learned at Sirius and Moody's knee. Cho taught them how to fly. 

When the first Weasley grandchildren turned ten, every single family and friend showed up on the platform to watch them board the Express. The engine was scarlet; the platform was loud; the train would take them to a beautiful castle beside a forest, not to cramped basements, not to the cold place where Ron, Bill, and Percy had learned to do magic, to cry quiet, and to hide. 

Molly hugged and kissed shockingly red hair; Ginny gave advice and lock picks, for those doors that had been spelled against Alohomora. 

All around them, all across the platform, children grinned and stepped onto the Express like there was nothing to be frightened of. Somewhere on that train, there could have been a messy-haired boy who hadn't known how to get through the platform walls alone. Maybe he was making friends with a boy with a smudge on his nose and corned beef sandwiches squished in his book bag. Maybe a kid had lost his toad and a bossy, heartfelt girl was helping him find it. 

Children leaned out the train windows and shrieked down at parents with something that sounded like joy. 

Cho leaned back against Luna's soft shoulder and cried so hard she couldn't see, because their world had come back to life. Ron took one of her hands, Luna the other, and they all held on, held tight, didn't let go. 

Love is magic. It remembers. It resurrects.