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Azoth

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Azoth is the essential agent of transformation in alchemy—the name given by ancient alchemists to mercury, the animating spirit hidden in all matter that makes transmutation possible.


 

01. Purgation
The purification or cleansing of someone or something

Christmas, 1998

 

-x-

It was at Christmas hols that Harry first recognised his platonic marriage to Ron Weasley was in the final, anticlimactic, throes of death. The realisation sent him reeling like a bludger to the face.

Seven years and this is how it ends? he thought. His brow furrowed as he tried to understand what the loss of a best mate would mean to his life. The Weasleys were ignorant of this sudden bout of inner hysteria, and as happy as they could be, short one member. He and Hermione, fresh off a portkey from Australia, sat at one end of the Burrow dinner table and felt distinctly out of place.

“I passed the last character assessment on Friday,” Ron was saying, a fork of Christmas goose poised halfway to his mouth. “Can you believe it? I'm a real Auror trainee now! Just two years to go. The class is pretty small actually, you’d never think so with it being such a brill job, but…”

Hermione leaned into Harry. Her shoulder pressed against his, warm and solid. “No second thoughts?” she whispered.

Harry shook his head a fraction, and made a show of shovelling peas into his mouth before Ron noticed their side conversation. “Not without NEWTs.”

They’d had this conversation before, the first time after Kingsley suggested letting all three of them into the Auror program on their names alone, and Ron had immediately said ‘Brilliant!’ before either Hermione or Harry could get a word in.

He was happy for Ron, happy he would be first of the three of them to be an Auror. The early start would give him a chance to make friends and prove himself without being in Harry’s shadow, which was all to the good in Harry’s opinion. Let Ron have his gushing. It was just that…he’d never been apart from Ron for so long. And Ron was doing well in the program. Really well. Without Harry. Without Hermione, even.

What did that mean?

“And I’ll find out who my training partner is at the new year. I hope it’s not Michael Corner.”

“Michael Corner’s in the Auror program?” Ginny asked, rather too interestedly in Harry’s opinion, but then again, it wasn’t like it was his business anymore. He’d lost that privilege the moment he told her he didn't want to try again, and she’d frowned at him, and said ‘I figured this would happen.’ He was still trying to figure out what she’d meant by that.

“Unfortunately,” Ron said around a mouthful of mash. “And his mate Goldstein. What a prick.”

“Ronald!” Mrs Weasley said.

“Sorry, Mum. But he really is,” Ron added to Harry and Hermione. As if they’d never met Goldstein before or had classes with him for six years.

“Oh, hey, how’re your parents?”

Hermione froze. Harry reached beneath the table and clenched her hand in what he hoped was a comforting manner. Of course this topic would come up, it was just that neither of them had expected it to come up at the dinner table only thirty minutes after their arrival. In hindsight, they should’ve known better.

The swearing would come any minute now. Harry tensed in anticipation. It had been eight months since the final battle, and eight months since her vocabulary shifted, but he still wasn’t accustomed to hearing swear words from Hermione’s mouth.

“They seemed…fine.” Hermione stared at her plate. The silence around the table was tense enough to make Harry’s skin crawl. Ron didn’t notice. Harry wasn’t sure he’d even noticed the swearing yet, actually.

“When are they coming home?”

“Ron…” Mr Weasley said, picking up on clues his son had not.

“They aren’t, as it happens.” Hermione’s voice had risen slightly in pitch, but she still didn’t look up from her food. She took a sip of water and avoided looking at anyone.

“So, who else is in the Auror program?” Harry asked desperately.

Anything to get them off the subject of Hermione’s parents. It had taken her six months just to find them, and then with being back at Hogwarts, she hadn’t had a chance to go fix their memories until Christmas hols. Ron might’ve known this already, but he’d had Auror training and couldn’t take the time off to come with.

“Why not?” Auror training that apparently didn’t extend to perception training.

Hermione slammed her glass down, spilling water all along the frayed tablecloth. George winced, but said nothing. “Because they don’t remember me, you oblivious git!”

There it was, the swearing.

She shoved back from the table and ran from the house, so quickly that she’d almost made it to the door before her chair finally hit the floor. A rush of cold wind whirled past them as the door slammed shut. For a beat, silence. Then Ginny ran after, and the cold air sailed over them a second time. Harry tipped his head back, and wondered if he believed in God, and if so, would God give him the strength to bear the things he could not change et cetera et cetera.

He looked back to find every assembled Weasley staring at him. He sighed. “It didn’t work, Ron. That’s why she’s here.” And not, you know, home with her Mum and Dad. “We couldn’t reverse the spell, and then the Wilkinses called the police on us.”

“The what?”

“The Aurors,” Harry bit out, and shoved his own chair back from the table. It remained upright. “May I be excused,” he said to Mrs Weasley, but it wasn’t really a question. The door slammed behind him as he left.

 

-x-

Ron did manage to see them to the station on the day they were to return to Hogwarts. He’d apologized, and felt ruddy awful about hurting Hermione’s feelings, and she’d accepted it, as she always did.

Things were fine, if stilted, between them. But ‘fine’ was a long way off from before, and the change in their relationship was something Harry still wasn't sure how to deal with. Was he allowed to be sad if the dissolution was such a slow, quiet thing? It wasn’t yet at the point of no return, was it? Could he save it, somehow?

He didn’t think so. He didn’t know how such a change in their relationship could have happened without anyone seeing it. Or maybe someone had. Maybe Hermione had, and just hadn’t said. She’d starting doing that sort of thing after she and Ron broke up, when the three of them didn’t have anything but the past cementing them together anymore.

On the train, they took a cabin with Susan, Neville, and Millicent, who Hermione had—bizarrely—befriended after McGonagall roomed them together back in September. Harry had never been more pleased to room with Neville, as the only other boys who’d returned for eighth year were Malfoy, Goyle, Zabini, and that overly-happy Ravenclaw, Boot.

It wasn’t that Harry didn’t want to room with Slytherins…it was just that he didn’t want to room with them. This year, the whole lot of them had been cordial and polite, and when Malfoy did that sort of thing, it made Harry think of how shit it would have been to have accidentally killed him in sixth year. And the expression he’d worn when Harry returned his wand. And what his sweat smelled like when brought forth by the heat of Fiendfyre and terror.

Sometimes he replayed that moment in his head, and tried to figure out if the ghost memories of Malfoy’s fingertips pressing against his sides were real or imagined. It felt like everything between them had lead to that one moment, that their entire history was distilled into the sound of Malfoy panicking against Harry’s neck.

When he compared that feeling to the thought of his tired, fading best-mateness with Ron, he wasn’t sure if the changes originated in himself or in Ron and Malfoy.

While he and Hermione had only grown closer in their belated seventh year, Ron now seemed like an entirely different person. Maybe he was a different person. Was this what he would have been like all along if he hadn’t been friends with Harry? Confident and self-assured and happy?

The thought disturbed him. Beside him, Hermione and Millicent took up a heated debate that included basilisk-quick repartees and repetitive utterances of Euclid and Elements and, once the volume of their argument had risen: Twelve-fucking-fold Way and Set Theory and Asymptotic Arithmantic Analysis for Merlin’s sake.

Neville and Susan, pointedly ignoring the discussion, were sharing a letter from Hannah Abbott, which made Harry nauseous just to look at. He couldn’t even think of reading on the train without getting motion sick. No help from that corner then.

Thus adrift, he leaned against the window, and determinedly did not think of whether his friendship with Ron had been detrimental to Ron’s life.

Or whether he could define the entirety of his acquaintance with Draco Malfoy with a single broom ride.

 

-x-

“Eighth years,” said McGonagall that evening, “will be meeting monthly with their former Heads of House for a final career preparation session. As Professor Switch is only Acting Head of Gryffindor, I will see to you three myself.”

She eyed the three Gryffindors and there was a warning in there somewhere. Probably to be prepared and not make her life difficult by having no idea what they wanted to do with their lives. Hermione was practically falling off the couch in her excitement. She was good at compartmentalizing in a way that Harry truly envied. He was still miffed about the Ron-events over hols, and she was already throwing herself into Life Beyond Permanently Erasing Yourself From Your Parents’ Memories.

If only he could do that. Then maybe he’d be able to look at Malfoy without wondering if he’d really not recognized him that night at Malfoy Manor, or if Harry had just made that up on the witness stand because his subconscious wanted to believe that the world wasn’t black and white.

“We did career prep in fifth year,” Susan said. She was the only Hufflepuff, the others having been proactive and Hufflepuff enough to secure apprenticeships or positions last year. While there was a war on.

McGonagall pursed her lips. “I’d not forgotten Ms Bones. Thank you. Remember that you will be competing with the entirety of the seventh year class for positions. As your circumstances are somewhat different from other students, we’ve decided that in addition to NEWTs studies, extra help would not go amiss.”

“I heard Professor Slughorn was going to host networking parties,” said Daphne. “Even for students who weren’t in the Slug Club. Is that true?”

“Quite true,” McGonagall said. Daphne and Pansy grinned at one another. And there went Boot being happy about something.

“I’ve already been asked by Ms Granger, so I will remind you that Hogwarts’ Masters do take on apprentices but we generally require that prospectives engage in a gap year between Hogwarts and apprenticeship, to ensure that students are knowledgeable of worldly affairs.”

She paused, eyed them shrewdly. “I suspect that you all have enough knowledge of worldly affairs to be going on with. Therefore, the Board has agreed to relax the requirements for eighth years. Any of you who wishes to apply for apprenticeship at Hogwarts must submit your proposal in writing by no later than 1 May.”

“As if there will be any apprenticeships left open for us,” Zabini muttered, but the room was quiet enough that McGonagall heard it.

“Things change, Mr Zabini,” she said. “I would remind you to remember that. Now, I’ll say goodnight.”

The portrait creaked as it closed behind her. Then it was just the twelve of them, alone in the common room together, as if they’d never been in four different houses—or, in Harry and Malfoy’s case, never tried to both kill and rescue each other.

Neville scooted in, his mouth stretched with a grin. “Do you think Professor Sprout’d take me on?”

“Obviously,” Malfoy drawled.

Hermione and Neville turned to him, mouths parted. And, too surprised by the veiled compliment to remember he didn’t do so well looking at Malfoy, Harry followed. Next to him, Zabini had his head leant back against the bricks, an expression of exasperation on his face. Harry could well understand that. He was waiting for the punch line himself. It didn’t come.

“Really?” Neville said, probably before he could catch himself.

“Really, Longbottom,” Millicent said, brusquely, not looking up from her Arithmancy book. “Honestly. One would think you didn’t slay a twenty foot snake with a sodding mythical sword.”

Neville smirked as he picked himself up from the couch. “True. Well—I’m off to the greenhouses. Ta.”

With no Ron to distract him with more entertaining pursuits, Harry worked steadily through his Charms homework. Yet McGonagall’s pronouncement about additional career counselling nagged at him. She would ask him if he was still on track to be an Auror, and he would talk about his improved marks in Potions, especially now that he was under his second year with Slughorn. And then there would be an awkward silence where she expected the meeting was over, and Harry refused to leave because he was bursting to scream, ‘I don’t want to be an Auror!’ but was too chickenshit to actually say it.

The common room had cleared save for the Slytherins still huddled together in their protective formation by the fire. They seemed to negotiate homework help like prize Abraxans, and tonight was no different. Millicent was driving a hard bargain with Goyle that involved things Harry’d rather not think on.

They were far enough away that Harry could voice his thoughts to Hermione and not worry about sniggers from them at least. He watched her calculating out some horrific-looking mathematical expression and tried to decide whether or not to bother her. He was sure it was a stupid question, but it just wouldn’t leave him.

“What sort of career do you think I might’ve done? If there hadn’t been Voldemort?” he finally asked.

It was a credit to Hermione that it didn’t even faze her enough to look up from the Arithmancy.

“I don’t know, Harry. So much of you—” She broke off, looking horrified.

“What?”

The Slytherins started cackling across the room, and Harry’s face turned red, even though he knew they couldn’t hear him. That meant maybe it was Hermione’s reaction that was causing it—he had no idea why she’d stopped talking, but the look on her face told him that she’d just realised something horrid. Something where he was found wanting.

Hermione shook her head, set her parchment aside. “What did you love before Hogwarts?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know. Not much. Going to the play park. Science. Maths, a bit. There was a spider I quite liked.”

The expression on Hermione’s face remained pained. She said, carefully, “You are very…altered by your experiences with Voldemort. You were so young. And you didn’t have a lot of stimuli before Hogwarts.”

There was a pregnant silence. It took him a moment to parse the treacly words and find the meaning beneath. “So you’re saying that none of me is me. That I’m just what Voldemort made me.”

Hermione pulled her legs up beneath her bum. It was her we’ll be here a while pose. She shook her head a fraction. “I don’t know, Harry. Do you think you had a proper chance to learn to love different aspects of magic? You’ve always had to judge magic on how valuable it could be to you in a fight, not how much you liked doing it. But there’s so much more to magic than Defence. So many more amazing, transcending aspects to it…things you’d never get a chance to study without devoting years of your life to them. And you didn’t have that chance. You could only learn what you needed to learn. I don’t know what you might’ve liked if you’d had the chance. I don’t think you know, either.”

He frowned, staring down at a growing splotch of green ink on his Charms essay. “What kind of magic do you think is best?”

“All of it,” she said, with a wry grin. He supposed he should’ve guessed that. He gave her a tentative smile back and she added, “Arithmancy, I suppose. You can do so many brilliant things with it. Spell creation, curse breaking, ward setting…amazing, unlimited magic.”

Harry frowned. “I’m not particularly good at any one branch of magic.”

“You haven’t had time to get good at any.”

Seven years and no time. It seemed ludicrous. Of course he’d had time, it was just that he’d always placed more value on other things—on the war, on Ron. He couldn’t say that it had been a bad choice. Their friendship was fading now, but for seven years, it had been the brightest thing in Harry’s life. Now it was soft and worn, but where the knowledge of it had once made Harry warm, it now left him with a clammy, resigned feeling like he was developing a cold.

Maybe he could get good at one field of magic this year, one that would fill the hollow Ron’s presence had eroded into him. He still had a term left. Then he could decide what he wanted to do. It was never too late, and all that rot.

The door to Hermione and Millicent’s room swung open and Millicent’s white cat sped out, yowling. It had something red wrapped all around its face. Hermione made a pained noise.

“Are those your knickers, Mill?” Pansy asked, cackling.

Millicent had already jumped up and was trying to corner the cat. “No, they’re Granger’s.”

Hermione swore under her breath. Harry was, frankly, impressed with the variety of words and combinations thereof that Hermione could come up with when she put her mind to it. However Hermione wanted to deal, Harry was on board.

“How does Mill know what your knickers look like, Granger?” Zabini called.

“Peep!” Millicent bellowed. The cat dashed through her legs and tore out of the portrait hole as Neville was coming in, nearly knocking him flat on his bum.

“Someone’s knickers are on that cat,” Nev said, cocking a thumb over his shoulder as the portrait shut behind him. “Red ones.”

Hermione made that pained noise again. She jumped up. “I think I left my Arithmancy notes in the library.”

“Coming with,” Harry said quickly. The twelve of them did all right on their own, even considering their different houses, but he didn’t think it was looking good for the rest of the night.

“How bloody humiliating,” she said when they were out of the common room. “No doubt some enterprising Slytherin will find them on the Quidditch pitch in the morning. A Sticking Spell later and everyone will know my bum size.”

“We could check the map for Peep.” Merlin, what a stupid name.

Hermione snorted, but shook her head. The cat was long gone by now, probably in Slytherin territory. “I hate that bloody cat. He leaves white fur all over my robes and he’s afraid of everything. This morning, my wand alarm buzzed and he tore down one of the hangings from Millicent’s bed trying to escape. Crookshanks loves him, no idea why. I think they might be—well.”

“Friends?” Harry suggested hopefully.

She shrugged. “Crookshanks is an adult, and however he likes to spend his time is his concern.”

They trundled down the stairs, both skipping the trick stair out of hard-learned habit. Harry wasn't sure where they were heading, but he wasn’t in a hurry to get back. He liked the change of pace from always having something that needed his attention. Hermione wasn’t un-tensing though, so he supposed he was going to have to broach the forbidden subject, if only to get it out of the way. “Was that an owl from Ron I saw waiting when we got in?”

She pursed her lips, then gave it up and sighed instead. “You know it was, Harry.”

“What’s going on with…that?”

She gave him a wry grin, then made an abrupt change in their direction, down the corridor that led to the north wing and the disused Necromancy classroom. Peeves refused to go near it, which made it altogether more appealing to the upper years who weren’t afraid of residual haunting.

“Nothing, as usual. Another apology for being a berk at Christmas, an impassioned treatise on the value of hit wizards—no doubt a result of Alastor Gumboil’s brill target classes—and a closing reminder that he’s sorry we didn’t work out and he’s glad we’re still friends.”

Harry snorted. To say that Ron and Hermione didn’t work out was like saying Crookshanks and merpeople got on well enough. Somehow, despite their never-ending arguments while dating—and sometimes, Harry cringed to remember the particular nights at Grimmauld Place: during sex—their breakup had been swift, clean, and with minimal crying (all on Ron’s part).

“I just get the feeling that he’s apologizing for something he hasn’t done yet. It makes me twitchy.”

They were well past the old Necromancy classroom and very near the Merlin portrait gallery when Harry got the courage to bring up something Ron had told him over hols, in that dark silent time when they were both trying to fall asleep but couldn’t yet. Due, on Harry’s part, because the Chudley Cannons posters spellotaped to the ceiling were covered in Lumos-in-the-dark quaffles that zipped around in bright orange relief.

“Did you know Lavender applied for the Auror program?”

Hermione stopped. Her footsteps echoed a bit longer, probably due to the residual Necromancy classroom hauntings. “No.”

“I suppose you definitely didn’t know she was accepted then,” he added.

“No,” she said again, quieter this time. Her brow furrowed, as if she were taking this in and trying to process it. She exhaled heavily. “She fought really well in the final battle.”

“She took down that werewolf that—” He broke off, unsure of how to say it. Mauled her neck and half her face didn’t seem appropriate, nor did turned her. It was so bland as to be offensive because what the werewolf had really done was destroyed everything she’d ever valued. But then Lavender had got up and decided to value something different. If Ron saw something fierce and attractive in that, Harry couldn’t very well blame him. He saw it, too. He just didn’t want to sleep with her.

“Ron will be an exceptional Auror,” Hermione decided. “He’s very good at constant vagilance.”

Harry choked. “Hermione!” he said, but he was laughing.

She shrugged one shoulder, unrepentant, and they pressed their lips tightly together as they passed a glaring portrait of the Lady of the Lake. And then another, and by the time they’d cleared the gallery, he was pretty sure they were both back to wishing Ron was with them, even though they both knew he was better off with the Aurors.

Sometimes, it was just so unnatural to be without him. Like they’d all been made from the same molecules, and even when he was far away, they could sense him in the way that they were incomplete themselves.

“I don’t want to be an Auror,” Hermione said sometime later, and Harry knew it wasn’t because of Lavender or Ron or anything like that. Hermione was just tired of fighting all the time, and Harry could understand that. “I never did.”

“I know,” he said.

A scuffling sound caught their attention, and they jumped as if they were still third years, out with the Map and no common sense. Hermione giggled, and slapped her hand over her mouth, eyes wide. Why did things have to change? Harry wondered. In moments like this, he remembered the magic and novelty of Hogwarts, and how it had always felt like home. The only place that had felt like home.

He could close his eyes and hear Hermione giggle and it would be first year all over again. Or he could close them and see Malfoy’s wide, frightened eyes, and feel his knees digging into the outsides of Harry’s thighs as if he were the one controlling the broom, not Harry.

The scuffling came closer, followed by a harassed meow and just for the hell of it, Harry lifted an eyebrow at her, questioning. She nodded and they took off running as if Mrs Norris could actually get them in trouble these days.

They rushed down the back stairs, took lefts and rights without thought, no care whatsoever where they ended up, but enjoying the game of losing Mrs Norris. Up ahead there was a classroom door ajar, with a faint blue light seeping out into the hallway. He grabbed Hermione’s hand and tugged her in. They fell against the door, breathless, laughing.

She turned her head to him, a little smirk on her lips. “You silly bugger.”

He laughed. It came out breathy and exhausted and happy. If he didn’t look on his other side, he wouldn’t notice that it was just the two of them. “You followed.”

He remembered the blue light as he regained his breathing. Hermione was already looking around for the source of it.

“Oh! This is where they used to teach Sympathetic Magic. Look there—the little wax dolls on that shelf over there. It hasn’t been taught in two hundred years, after some unfortunate incidents with muggles. I read about it in Hogwarts—Merlin’s beard, what is that?”

“A wardrobe.”

Hermione huffed. “The mirror, you twit.” It was reflecting the blue light from the wardrobe, making the whole room light up in a soft, eerie glow.

He followed her gaze and immediately recognised it. “Oh for fuck’s sake. This bloody mirror!”

“You recognise it? What does it do?” But she was already walking towards it.

Before he could pull her back, Hermione was in front of it, squinting up at the letters along the top. “I show not the truth but…what in the world?” She peered into it, and then took an involuntary step back, eyes wide. Her mouth trembled, and then she forced herself to look away.

Harry rushed over and enveloped her in a hug. “You saw them?” he asked.

He felt her head shake against his chest. “No. No, that’s what’s so awful. I just saw myself as a Master Arithmancer with a book deal. And I had a, a partner. And Crookshanks. And you were there, and Ron, too. I didn’t see them at all.”

“But they’re safe,” Harry reminded her. “You saved them. You love them enough for that. Just because they aren’t in one glimpse of your heart’s desire doesn’t mean you’re a bad daughter.”

“They don’t have a sodding daughter,” she muttered. He half-wished she would cry. She hadn’t done even once. But maybe she really didn’t need to. Wars changed people, as Hermione’s vocabulary would attest. “What do you see?”

He looked over her shoulder, stared in confusion. Hermione felt him stiffen, and pulled away to look, as if she would be able to see the same thing he was seeing. “Erm.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t think it’s working for me. I—don’t see anything.”

“Anything at all? It’s blank?”

“I just see…me. Right now. Like looking in a normal mirror.”

She elbowed his ribs a bit. “Something you’d like to share with the class, Mr Potter?”

He shuddered. “That sounded entirely too like McGonagall. Gross.”

Behind them, the wardrobe shook violently, and for the second time that night, Harry was startled by a ruddy creepy noise. He was a grown man, and he’d defeated Voldemort for Merlin’s sake. A rat in a wardrobe should not make him jump a foot in the air.

The wardrobe rattled again, and this time he could tell that it was definitely not a rat. “What do you suppose that is?” Hermione asked. She was already reaching for her wand up her sleeve.

“Hermione, really…” he said.

They were getting a bit old for this fools rush in sort of thing.

Although he couldn’t deny that he didn’t also have an Alohomora on his lips. Nothing like a good mystery. Hermione’s wand twitched, and the wardrobe door swung open. Something slumped onto the floor, and Hermione screamed, then slammed a hand over her mouth to dull it. The Grangers were on the floor, bloody and half-decayed. He gagged at the smell, covered his mouth, and pulled Hermione away.

“Boggart,” he gasped out. “Just a boggart.”

“At least they’re still my greatest fear, if not my heart’s desire,” she muttered, but she wouldn’t look back at the corpses even to dismiss it. He nudged her aside, and approached the boggart. But then it morphed and—

“Fucking hell.”

Hermione turned at his exclamation, but she was far enough away now that the boggart didn’t notice her attention. He heard her gasp. “Harry,” she whispered.

“Yeah.” That was pretty much the sum of it. Because his boggart was himself. Right now. Like looking in a normal mirror.

He stood there, frozen, heart pounding. His boggart self stared back.

Riddikilus!” said Hermione.

The boggart transformed into Harry and Malfoy snogging, and Hermione sniggered.

It should have been funny, Harry thought. It really should have. It was just that it sort of gave him a bit of an erection instead.

He was so wrong-footed by the unexpected reaction that it took him a moment longer to comprehend the enormity of what’d just happened. His heart’s desire and his greatest fear—

He swallowed. “What does that even mean?”

Hermione hesitated, swished her wand and dismissed the boggart Harry-Malfoy altogether. “I don’t know. The mirror and the boggart can show deep thoughts, but they can’t put them into context. Only you really know how to parse the images.”

“Right,” he said, nodding. “But how can I be both my own greatest fear and heart’s desire?”

She didn’t have an answer for that.

 

-x-