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Wicked Boys

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Credence had lost count around the seventh or eighth stroke and Ma had started again. The buckle whipped around his ribs and cut into the skin below his right armpit, and he cried out, trying desperately to turn it into a three. He wasn’t sure he would be able to make it to ten if he couldn’t take his rightful punishment.

“Four,” he whimpered as the belt lashed around his waist.

The world started to narrow down to the starbursts of pain while everything else blurred and his ears rang. He tried to concentrate on swallowing down the devil inside him. He was in enough trouble for making eyes at the beautiful man outside the church, for smiling at him - if the demon got out too, Ma would see how truly irredeemable he was. She would have to kill him, and, selfish creature, he wanted to live.

He was dizzy, trying to hold himself up, count the blows, let his perversion be lashed out of him while keeping the demon locked safely away. When the shout came, the blast, he thought he’d failed, and he sank to the floor.

***

He came round to pain, but that was nothing new. There were also gentle fingers in his hair, a cool sensation on his back, a low, urgent voice. Then a new one, a man’s voice calling someone’s name, and the person near him moved.

“She was killing him, Mr Graves! Look at the kid…oh, Salem, and I attacked her, and—but she was going to kill him, I couldn’t let her, Graves, I couldn’t.”

Footsteps approached, and a shape intake of breath. “Mercy Lewis. She did this? With a belt?”

“Yeah. You’re better than me at healing, Mr Graves, c’mon. Please.”

“S-sure, OK.”

The cool feeling intensified, and felt so blissful on his aching back he choked out a groan.

“Shh, it’s OK, Credence, it’ll be over in a moment. I got you, buddy.”

“I’m gonna go obliviate that…that woman.”

“And then what?” the man asked. Whatever he was doing to Credence’s back was nearly finished, and he felt like he was floating. When the man’s strong fingers scratched Credence’s scalp gently he knew he must surely be dreaming. He sighed. He’d wake up soon, and he’d have lost count, and Ma would have to start again.

“We can’t leave him here,” the man said.

The woman sighed, the sound getting closer as if she slumped down next to him. “He’s a no-maj, Graves. We have to obliviate him too.” She brushed a bit of dust off his cheek, and he pressed his eyes shut. He didn’t want to wake up from this dream. “I’ll just have to keep a closer eye on him, that’s all.”

“You know that won’t be enough. You can’t be here all the time.”

“What do you want me to say, Graves? You know MACUSA will have my wand for doing even this much!”

“Our wands, now you’ve dragged me into it, thank you very much. Honestly, blasting a no-maj clear across the room? I thought I’d trained you better than that, Goldstein.”

“You’d have done the same if you’d seen her beat him,” she said, iron in her voice.

“She’ll kill him next time, Tina.”

The woman was silent.

“You know it’s true. And how long before she starts on the little girl? The older one doesn’t live here any more, does she?”

“What can we do, though?”

Credence let himself drift while they crouched by him, his dream angels, keeping him safe from the real world. He wished they were true.

“We could…do a heavier obliviate,” said the man.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying a woman like this shouldn’t be anywhere near children,” he said, his voice low and fierce. “I’m saying we make her forget she ever had any children, and we make sure she never gets any more. We make these poor kids forget they ever knew her and we get them out of here.”

“Graves, we can’t! What are we going to do with two no-maj kids?”

“I don’t know, Tina, but we can’t…you can’t just do half a job! You can’t step in like this and rescue him, and then leave him to deal with it the next time.”

“I can’t…”

“Tina. What were you expecting when you sent me that patronus? What did you think I was gonna do? Just patch the kid up and send him back into war? We are aurors!”

“Yes, and that means we have to uphold the law!”

“Fuck the law!”

For a moment the tension crackled around them, and Credence shifted. The dream was becoming a lot less peaceful all of a sudden.

“Why did you become an auror?”

“You know why, Graves.”

“Yeah, damn right I know. I want to make sure you know. Why did you become an auror?”

“To protect people, OK? Are you happy now?”

“And why,” he said, a triumphant smile creeping into his voice, “would you not want to protect these people?”

She sighed. “Because they’re not under our jurisdiction.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it, Goldstein. You didn’t believe that when you sent a stupefy flying at a no-maj, and you don’t believe it now.”

She forced a sharp breath out her nose. “You know if anyone ever finds out we’re going down so hard for this.”

“That’s my girl.” He stood, his fingers leaving Credence’s hair, and Credence squirmed involuntarily, wanting the sensation back. “You get the woman, I’ll get the little girl.”

Credence frowned. The floorboards under his head vibrated with footsteps, heavy boots heading towards Modesty’s room. He didn’t like this dream any more. The demon twisted in his chest, stirred by his fear, his anger. Even in a dream no-one was allowed to touch Modesty. Doors were opening down the hallway, getting closer and closer to little boot room at the end where Modesty always felt safest. He pulled at his eyelids, hauling himself out of sleep.

“I’ve found her,” the man’s voice called, and Credence’s eyes snapped open.

Chapter Text

Credence woke to muted light and soft sheets, a warm spice smell and a man sitting on a chair by the bed. The man who’d tried to hurt Modesty.

He sat up too quickly and flopped against the wall. “Easy there,” said the man, holding out both hands. No wand. But he was still a witch, he thought, and he hunched back, the bedclothes pooling at his feet.

“Modesty…”

“Modesty? That’s your sister, right?”

Credence nodded.

“She’s fine, I swear. I didn’t hurt her. I wouldn’t. I can take you to see her if you like? Later?”

Credence relaxed in increments and the man let out a breath and sat back down. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Credence.”

“Nice to meet you, Credence. Are you feeling OK?”

He nodded.

“Great. That’s good.” He chuckled. “Don’t want you going all smoke-cloud again, do we?” His lips twitched awkwardly.

Credence frowned. “Smoke-cloud?”

“Uh. What do you remember?”

“I… I remember a lady. A witch. She did something to Ma…”

The man’s face darkened. “You never have to worry about her again, you hear? You never have to go back to your Ma if you don’t want to.”

Credence blinked. The concept was too surreal, so he returned to the original question. “I remember you… did you heal me?”

“With pleasure. I’m only sorry I couldn’t do anything about those scars.”

Credence looked down at his hands, clear of red marks, only scar tissue on the palms. He had deserved the beatings. He still did, the way his heart was fluttering faced with this beautiful, elegant man. But then he frowned. “I remember you pointing a wand at my sister.”

“Uh, yeah. OK, so here’s the thing, it’s illegal for no-majes - non-magical people like your mother and sisters - to know about us, but I swear, all I was going to do was change her memory, it wouldn’t have harmed her, I swear.”

He looked nervous - nervous of Credence, he realised, but why would a powerful man like that be afraid of a teenage boy? “Why haven’t you taken my memory?” he whispered.

“Because you’re one of us.”

“What? How can I…”

The man ran his hand over his slicked back hair, forehead crinkling up. “When I pointed my wand at your sister, you just… erupted. Smoke coming out of your skin, eyes all white - you damn near tore the building down around us until Tina threw my wand down and convinced you we wouldn’t harm her.”

“I don’t… I don’t remember…” Credence whispered. But there were flashes, a fury, a power screaming through his veins, a voice whispering in his ears to take a step back, let the power handle it, let it destroy.

Credence put his hand over his mouth and his vision blurred with tears. “What am I?”

“Well, we don’t know,” said the man apologetically. “We’re trying to find out, but we have to do so quietly. There’s no precedence for someone like you - your magic should have been spotted years ago and you’d have been placed with a wizarding family, not left in that… that hellhole.” He shook his head. “No-one should be left there, wizard or not. We were gonna find you somewhere else to be safe. We’ve already found a place for your sisters, and the no-maj police have had an anonymous tip-off about your Mom. She won’t be able to hurt anyone else, not if we can help it.”

“We?”

“Oh! Me and Tina. I’m Graves. Well, Percival Graves, only I’m really not too keen on the Percival, so leave it out, if you don’t mind.” He held out his hand to shake.

“What’s gonna happen to me?”

Mr Graves rubbed both hands down his face. “That’s the dilemma. Because all this we’ve done so far is some real vigilante shit, wizards aren’t meant to get involved in no-maj issues in any way. If MACUSA found out what we’ve done we’d be fired at best. More likely imprisoned.”

“MACUSA?”

“Uh, like wizard... cops? Tina and I work there. I’m her boss, actually. Anyway, we don’t know what they’d do about you. Because your name isn’t appearing on any magical register, but you are clearly not a no-maj. We just… we don’t want to risk taking you in when we don’t know… well…what you are. Excuse the expression.”

Credence was silent for a long time, his head spinning with all this new information, all the uncertainty. He was used to not knowing where the next meal and punishment would come from, but not even knowing what he was?

Mr Graves stood and smiled sympathetically at him. “You look like you could use some dinner, kid. Chicken soup OK?”

“Y-yes, sir,” he said, scrambling out of bed. “I don’t know if I can make it very well, but I’ll do my best.”

“Hey, no, that’s not what I meant.” Mr Graves put his hand on Credence’s shoulder and he flinched. “Sorry, shit, sorry. No, come on, you’re not doing the cooking. You’re my guest.”

“Your guest?”

“Yeah. Tina couldn’t take you in, as much as she wanted to take care of you. Her lodgings are women only. So you’re stuck with Casa del Graves. My cooking’s nowhere near Queenie’s level - she’s Tina’s sister - and it’s not as homey but—“

“It’s wonderful,” said Credence, startling himself with his cheek, interrupting the man. “Thank you Mr Graves. I know I’m an awful bother, and I don’t deserve such kindness, but—“

“Aw, kid, no.” Mr Graves turned to face him, stopping dead in the living area of his lovely apartment. He had his hands raised, and pulled them back, eyes soft and sad. “Can I touch your shoulder or something? You’re breaking my heart here, I just want to give you a hug.”

Credence stared at him open mouthed and only just had the presence of mind to nod violently. Mr Graves gave him a little half smile and lowered both hands slowly to his shoulders. Credence almost gasped at the contact, the warmth that spread from the skin under those strong palms right down to his heart.

“You do deserve this, Credence. Hell, you deserve so much more than whatever half-assed comfort I can give, and I’m sure I’m gonna mess things up, but Tina and I, we’re going to find somewhere you can be safe and free. OK? And enough of the mister,” he grinned. “You’ll make me feel old.”

He ducked his head slightly, squeezing Credence’s shoulders, and Credence looked up through his lashes to meet the gentle gaze. How did this happen? How did a wicked boy like him get such kindness and effort, why were these incredible people risking so much for him? He nodded just so that Mr Graves would smile and turn away, leading him towards the kitchen, and giving Credence space to wipe the tears away with shaking hands.

Chapter Text

The weeks that followed were an odd combination of overwhelming new information, and oppressive silence whenever Mr Graves had to go into work. Credence would wander around the warm brownstone apartment, afraid to touch anything in case it inconvenienced or annoyed Mr Graves to find it out of place. He would perch anxiously on the edge of the leather couch and feel the quiet pressing down on him, the heat of an early New York summer leeching in through the heavy curtains. He spent all day desperate for the sound of Mr Graves’ wards clicking aside, and when he heard them, his heart would hammer desperately, and he’d look around, frantic, in case he’d done something to mess the place up somehow. But Mr Graves would always look up and smile at him, the skin by his eyes crinkling, and call out cheerful greetings, ask what he fancied for dinner, and Credence’s chest would warm from the inside, his fears of the day melting in the face of Mr Graves’ kindness and beauty.

After a while he started taking out books for Credence to read. He’d long ago offered him the bookcase, but Credence hadn’t known where to start. Mr Graves pursed his lips one day and handed him a thick volume. “I was thinking about this story the other day, thought you’d like it.” He frowned for a moment. “You, um… you read OK, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, surprised. “I went to school - I did pretty well, actually.” He frowned. He missed learning.

Mr Graves bit his lip. “I’m sorry we couldn’t let you go back,” he said.

“Oh! No, that’s… that’s not your fault.” He took the book before Mr Graves could feel anything approaching guilt on Credence’s account. “Jane Eyre,” he said, stroking the leather cover.

Mr Graves smiled and nodded. “Yeah. I think you’ll like Jane. She’s a kid who’s been through some hard times too. But she’s got a core of steel. Just like you. You’re survivors.”

Credence blushed and ducked his head. He didn’t have a core of steel. Mr Graves thought too kindly of him. He had a core of violence and smoke, if that. The only reason he survived was by cowardice.

He read the book the next day. And the day after, so engrossed in Jane’s story that he found himself curling into the couch, his feet tucked under him. As he read her confrontation with StJohn, his heart thumping, he felt fingers ruffle into his hair and jumped violently.

“Sorry!” Mr Graves stepped back, hands up. “I’m sorry, I just… you looked so sweet there.” He laughed and gripped the back of his own neck. “God, sorry.”

Credence blushed and felt his lips twist into a half grimace, half smile. “I looked sweet?

Mr Graves laughed again. “Yeah, not what a teenage boy wants to hear, I’m sure, but you were all scrunched up in the corner of the couch, completely engrossed - it was adorable.”

Credence laughed as well, shaking his head, and something between them, some tension in his belly, seemed to uncurl and relax.

***

Ms Goldstein - Tina, she insisted - came over from work one day with her sister Queenie, an angelic cloud of dimples and honey perfume who could read his mind and smiled tearfully at him embarrassingly often. Tina stood up after finishing her coffee. “Credence, I’ve got something to show you. May I?” She held out her arm for him to take, and the two of them snapped out of Mr Graves’ living room and into a quiet alley in the city. Credence gasped and staggered, leaning on one of the walls. “Sorry. That was apparition, are you OK?”

He nodded, and she gave him a half smile and jerked her head towards the street. She leaned on a plane tree and crossed her arms, gesturing towards a group of children in a big front yard outside a slightly run-down suburban house. And there was Modesty, splashing water at a red-haired boy her age, being picked up and spun around by a tall black girl, shrieking and laughing. A slim woman with a cascade of brown curls sat on the stoop with a toddler on her lap, smiling down at the children.

All the air left Credence’s lungs and he leaned against the tree as well, his eyes prickling. “She looks…”

“Yeah,” said Tina. “Rebekah’s been looking after foster children for years. They don’t have much money but she’s always had more than enough love to make up for it.” She cleared her throat. “She’s a squib.”

“Squib?” he asked, not taking his eyes off his sister.

“Yeah. Born to a wizarding family, but she has no magic. Many squibs choose to live as no-majes when they come of age, but if they do, they have to be obliviated.”

Credence had always thought Tina’s face looked sad, as if it was built for melancholy. Now even her soul looked sad. “You knew her?”

“She was my friend, when we were children. We had Pesach at her house every year until Rebekah decided to leave. Her parents moved to Israel after that.” She took a deep breath. “I’m not allowed to have any contact with her but… well, they can’t stop me keeping track and, uh, giving Modesty’s paperwork a little nudge in the right direction.”

They watched the children play for hours. Tina cast a disillusionment charm over them, she said it would look like nothing more than a heat haze, and Credence took advantage of the fact that they were invisible to each other to let the tears meander down his cheeks as Modesty squeezed the older girl around her waist, or tickled the little toddler who appeared, or smiled up at Rebekah when she came out with a jug of juice, curls bouncing around her face. When Tina reached out and touched his arm, patting the air a couple of times before she made contact properly, he was smiling through his tears.

“Thank you, Tina. I just… there aren’t words for how grateful I am, for all you guys have done for me. I wish I could repay you somehow, I just…”

“Hey, hey, Credence! We didn’t pull you out of there for any repayment. That’s not what this is. You don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to earn your keep or anything. Just… live. Live this life that you deserve, because you sure as hell didn’t deserve any of what you had before.”

He smiled, his chin wobbling again, and let her apparate back to Mr Graves’ house.

***

Queenie came by herself one day, her eyes lighting up when Credence stood, The Secret Garden dangling from his hand. “Hey, honey,” she said. “Mr Graves kindly said I could come over and do something with your hair.”

His hand flew up to his head and he tugged on the awful bowl cut. “Do something?”

She grinned. “You don’t have to let it grow out by itself any more, not with this here potion.” She waved a delicate glass vial, the liquid inside glimmering like pearl. “Now, is there a mirror we can use?”

They ended up taking one of the breakfast bar stools into the bathroom, and Queenie cast a charm on his shirt to make it smooth enough that water and strands of hair would just drift off. “You ready?”

He nodded, and Queenie poured the potion into her hands, rubbing her fingers through his hair and onto his scalp. He closed his eyes in bliss, then quickly snapped them open and blushed. Queenie giggled. “That’s OK, honey, you enjoy the feeling of having your head rubbed. You’re like a little cat, you are.”

He raised an eyebrow at her in the mirror and she laughed again. He was beginning to lose the battle against the smile that sound wanted to call forwards. “Don’t stop yourself smiling, honey,” she said. “Life gives us plenty enough excuses to be sad. No point fighting the ones that make you happy.”

It was stupid that such an unrelated thing made him think of Mr Graves, and how his very presence made Credence happy. But then, everything good made him think of Mr Graves, and a little smile brushed across his lips.

In horror he looked up at Queenie. Shit. Shit, she’d know, she’d know and then he’d be thrown out and he was evil and—

“Hey. Hey, Credence! Breathe. Just breathe, honey, you’re OK. Oh, honey, no. No, there’s no way we could ever think that of you!”

“But… but I’m…”

She smiled and shrugged. “You’ve got a crush. It’s nothing, honey, you wouldn’t be the first. Wouldn’t be the first to have a crush on Mr Graves, either.”

“But he’s a man… and I…”

She stared. “Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry. I know some people can be a bit funny about same sex relationships, none of us round here cares one little bit. And that… that woman, she’s never going to get her hands on you again, you hear? She’ll have to go through me, and all the rest of us.”

He gaped at her in the mirror. “But… but it’s evil.”

She immediately wrapped her arms around his shoulders, her small hands clenched in his shirt, her hair pressed agains his ear. “Credence Barebone, you are not evil. You hear me? You couldn’t possibly be evil. There is so much good in you, sweetheart, so much kindness. You like who you like, male, female, both and neither and everyone in between, we’re all just the same when it comes to our hearts.”

He put his hands over hers and stared at her. Was this real? Did she truly believe he wasn’t going to go to hell for his perversion? His head was spinning, and she kept squeezing him tight every time a new thought flashed through his head. Ma had always said… but then Ma said that magic was the work of the devil, and yet these people, these witches, they were the kindest, most generous people he’d ever known. Was it possible she was wrong about… about everything?

He squeezed her hands and pressed a kiss to her arm. “Thank you,” he whispered.

She sniffled and hugged him tight again. “Look at the pair of us,” she said, standing up and wiping tears off her cheeks. “I think we need a cup of tea while that potion gets to work.”

She touched up her makeup while Credence boiled the kettle and poured the hot water into the mugs. “Is it really OK? How I feel about Mr Graves?”

She smiled and cupped his cheek. “Oh, sweetheart. I guess… it is and it isn’t. There isn’t a problem with you both being male, not for most civilised people. But he’s in his thirties and you’re, what, fifteen?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I didn’t… I would never think anything would come of it. I mean… why would he look at me?”

She didn’t answer, just looked at him with concern in every curve of her cheeks. He held out a cup of sweet tea and they sat next to each other on the couch. She still looked so sad. It wasn’t right for Queenie to be sad. She smiled up at him, and it didn’t reach her eyes. “We really are a pair,” she sighed. “You’ve got a crush on an older man, and I… I’m in love with a no-maj.”

Credence smiled. “That’s lovely, Queenie. He’s the luckiest man in the world.”

To his horror her lower lip trembled. “No, honey, no, he’s not. We’re not allowed to… to fraternise with no-majes. They can’t know anything about us. I thought I could keep it separate, I thought I could keep it a secret but he… he saw me doing magic.”

She started sobbing for real, and Credence quickly took her cup away, placing it on the table so he could wrap his arms around her and rock her, hushing gently.

“I thought I would have to obliviate him… I’d been preparing for it, and it would have broken my heart but… but his eyes just lit up! He… he was so happy about it, said he always knew there was something magical about me and I just… I couldn’t. I was so selfish but, Credence, I love him so, so much and… and he loves me too. I know, and it blows my mind every time I see how much he loves me. I just… I can’t give it up. And it’s going to get us into so much trouble. He’ll be obliviated, I’ll be thrown in jail… maybe even Teenie too, because she knows, and all because… because I’m so very selfish.”

Credence held her tight and pressed her head close to his shoulder, wishing he could take all the pain away, keep her safe, where she could be as happy and loved and loving as she deserved.

Chapter Text

Mr Graves looked slightly manic when he arrived home one Wednesday night. “I’ve got a present for you,” he said, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Credence’s chest warmed through. “You didn’t have to, Mr Graves,” he said, his now long curls falling over his face and hiding the blush.

“Well,” he said, tilting his head from side to side. “It’s not really a very good present. I mean, I didn’t buy it for you or anything. It’s just…” he huffed and brought out a plain brown wand. “This has been sitting in lost and found for months. And I thought… well, you’ve never tried to use one before, have you? But we know you’ve got magic, and lots of it, so… why not?”

Credence’s breath caught in his throat and his hands shook as he reached for the wand. If this worked, he might be able to join wizarding society for real one day, as more than just the squib relative no-one had ever heard of. He might be able to do real magic himself, rather than just staring in wonder as Mr Graves and Queenie and Tina made graceful arcs with their wands, conjuring things into being, turning something into something else, performing miracles with an ease and nonchalance he couldn’t even imagine.

The wood felt warm from Mr Graves’ hand, and as he touched it he could almost feel the power in it trembling to spring free. Maybe he could be a wizard, rather than a secret unknown creature, a risk to his saviours. He might even be able to go back to school.

Mr Graves grinned at him. “You ready? Now, if we were going to shop for a wand just for you, you’d know just by touching it that it was going to work for you. But this wand’s been bonded to someone else, so, just to warn you, it might take a little bit of effort for this to work. Sometimes wands just don’t suit a person. And some wands don’t like to change hands either. But…” he shrugged. “Shall we give it a go?”

Credence nodded vigorously, still unable to tear his eyes away from the wand.

“Great,” he said. “OK.” He took a deep breath and took his own wand out of its holster up his sleeve. “Right, now, let’s try to make that book levitate. You need to swish and flick, and at the same time, call out wingardium leviosa. You’ve got to have the intent there, as well, let the energy flow down your arm and into the wand. Really concentrate on the book levitating. OK?”

“Swish and flick, wingardium leviosa, book levitating. Got it.” He narrowed his eyes at the book and held his (his!) wand out in front of him. Took a deep breath and imagined power from inside his chest flowing into his arm, out of the pleasantly grained wood in his hand. “Wingardium leviosa!” he shouted.

The wand exploded in a cloud of black smoke. Splinters hurled across the room with a spark and a crack, and Credence cried out in pain.

“Credence!”

Mr Graves was murmuring softly, his wand no longer in his hand. Had he lost it? Credence could barely see through the thick black smoke, couldn’t hear quite what Mr Graves was saying. Why couldn’t he hear? He could feel blood dripping down his wrist, taste metal on his tongue. His head felt funny, all thick and hazy, like the fog or smoke was inside him as well as out.

And then it was clearing, sinking away. Mr Graves must have done something, cast a spell to make the smoke disappear. But it looked like it was whirling around Credence, making him dizzy, making his chest feel cold. He pressed his uninjured hand to his ribs and groaned.

“Credence, speak to me. Are you OK?”

Mr Graves was bent over him, one arm around his shoulder holding him up where he was slumped, the other hand stroking Credence’s cheek, and he couldn’t help leaning into the touch. “M’fine.”

“Oh, thank Merlin,” he gasped. “Kid, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not a kid,” he muttered.

“No, no, you’re not, Credence, I’m so sorry. Are you OK?”

He blinked up at him, trying to focus properly. “You’re hurt.”

He frowned. “No, I’m fine. Let’s take a look at that hand, yeah?”

But he wasn’t fine. He had cuts all over one side of his face, holes in his dress shirt with blood trailing down his chest. “I did this.”

“No, no, Credence, it’s fine. Let me see that hand.” He winced and started casting quiet spells to pull the splinters of wood out of Credence’s skin, healing the wounds and rubbing his hand when he was done. “All done. OK?”

Credence couldn’t return his smile. He’d hurt Mr Graves. Mr Graves had brought him such a precious gift, and he’d repaid him by hurting him. He reached up and brushed his fingers along one deep cut on his chin. If this had been just a little lower…

Mr Graves inhaled and gently took Credence’s hand away. “Hey. Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure something out, OK?”

But it wasn’t OK.

***

Credence could hardly even bear to look at Mr Graves for days afterwards. How could he still treat him with kindness after everything he’d done? All he ever brought the man was pain and danger, but if anything Mr Graves was looking at him with even more concern, even fondness, his glance lingering even as Credence turned away. It made guilt pulse in Credence’s chest with every beat of his heart.

They shared another almost silent dinner that weekend, the shame pressing down on Credence’s shoulders so he was almost hunched over his food. Mr Graves put his coffee cup down so it rattled. “Right. That’s it.”

Credence startled and stared up at him, wide eyed. Mr Graves did a double take and put both hands on Credence’s shoulders. “Oh. No, it’s nothing bad, Credence. I just…” he sighed. “You’ve been really down ever since the fiasco with the wand and I’m worried about you.”

He smiled slightly and looked down. “You don’t have to worry about me, Mr Graves.”

“Of course I do,” he said, and something echoed in his voice that made Credence look back up into serious brown eyes. “I’ll always worry about you, Credence.”

He stared at him, wishing, wishing, until Mr Graves stood in one quick motion, flicking his wand at the lamps so that they split into hundreds of points of light and fluttered around the room like butterflies or stars. The couch, armchair and coffee table retreated back against the wall, and jaunty piano music started playing. Mr Graves turned back with a grin as a soft-voiced man started singing. “C’mon, Credence. We both need to loosen up. Let’s dance.”

Credence startled a laugh. “You’re joking.”

“Absolutely not,” he said, doing a ridiculous two step move, then kicking one heel up and snapping his fingers. “Come on. Music is a magic even no-majes can enjoy, so I’d say a young man with a cloud of smoke in his chest is no exception.”

The piano played a flickering scale and he did a little spin, making Credence laugh out loud and shake his head. “I’m not taking no for an answer, Credence. Come and dance.”

His smile was so wide it squeezed his eyes almost shut, and he looked up at the beautiful man who’d helped to save his life and then made it so much more than just the pathetic existence it had been. He knew if he really refused that Mr Graves would take no for an answer. He would carry on dancing himself and leave Credence to watch and smile all evening, but he found his legs lifting him.

“That’s the way, Credence!” He reached out with both hands and grabbed his fingers, spinning him around and clapping in time to the music, flinging his arms and legs in all directions with more enthusiasm than was decent for a highly respected auror. Credence tipped his head back and laughed open mouthed, and danced.

One song turned into another, and Mr Graves laughed and twirled and spun Credence under his arm, and they kicked their legs up with no thought for how ridiculous they looked in the living room of a New York brownstone, dancing to songs about love and loss and being late for everything.

And then, as they chucked breathlessly at the end of one song, another started up, slow and melancholy, the piano pulling all the hurt out of Credence’s chest so inexorably that he felt his eyes prickling, even though the words meant nothing to him. Mr Graves was right there, his breath still coming fast, his eyes wide and clouded with something.

He lifted Credence’s hand, linked their fingers, then placed his other hand on his waist. Credence put his own on Mr Graves’ shoulder like he’d seen in pictures, his mind finally silent and waiting. And they danced around the carpet as the music rose, their eyes locked on to one another, and not a word was said.

As the song faded away, they slowed, and they could have been dancing in the night sky for all Credence saw of the world around him. Mr Graves quirked a soft smile at him and the hand that rested on his waist came up and cupped his cheek. He couldn’t stop himself from leaning into it. “Goodnight, kid,” he said, and he was gone, taking all the heat and all the air in the room with him.

Chapter Text

Credence had been with Mr Graves for almost six weeks in total, and only now had the smiles faded. Now he caught Mr Graves looking at him in sadness, almost horror in his eyes when he turned away. It broke Credence’s heart. He knew his crush had been wrong, but, wicked boy that he was, he’d hoped to keep admiring the man without any consequences. But obviously he’d ruined everything once again.

So when Tina came around one day leading a red haired English man who said he might know what Credence was, and how to remove the parasite that fed on his magic, he was almost relieved. He’d brought too much trouble to Mr Graves’ life already.

“I’ve spoken to the headmaster of Hogwarts,” said Mr Scamander. “I’m due to start as the Care of Magical Creatures professor while the current teachers is… uh, on assignment in France. He said he’d be delighted to welcome you to fifth year, if we can remove the obscurus, and if you can use magic after that.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Well,” said Queenie with a shy smile, “perhaps you’d like to live with me and Jacob?”

“You…?” Credence’s voice failed him. The idea that he might go back to being a no-maj had been too much to bear, especially if… if they dumped him back with Ma. But to live with Queenie and her sweet smile and happy laugh? That was magic itself.

Queenie giggled. “You are such a sweetie.”

“So if I can’t use magic I’ll just come back to New York?” He couldn’t stop his eyes drifting over to Mr Graves.

Queenie’s eyes softened and her smile became sad. “I’m afraid not, honey. We’re moving to England too. The laws about relationships between wixen and no-majes are so much more permissive there.”

“I still think you’re rushing into this,” snapped Tina, her arms crossed and a line deep between her eyebrows.

Queenie held her by her upper arms. “I’ll miss you too, Teenie. So, so much. But this is… I know he’s it for me, honey, and I couldn’t bear the thought of his memories being taken. He’s right for me.”

Tina slumped her shoulders and glanced at Mr Scamander a moment before shuffling closer to her sister and squeezing her tight.

“Credence,” said Mr Scamander. “Before you make your decision, you should know that there are risks involved in trying to remove the obscurus. You’re unique, no-one’s ever met an obscurial older than ten and it’s… it’s quite possible you could die.”

“What?” snapped Mr Graves, who’d been silent for so long. “Nobody told me — you never said this was a risk, you said you could help him!”

“I’m sure I can, Mr Graves,” he said, his hands up. “But there’s so much we don’t know.”

“Well, then why are we even considering this? Credence,” he said, turning to him with fevered eyes. “I know it’s no life for a young man, trapped in this house with me, but we can figure something else out, we can… we can—“

“But I’m a danger, Mr Graves,” said Credence, his voice barely above a whisper.

“And not just that,” Mr Scamander added gently. “As Credence grows, the obscurus will too. And if his magic isn’t enough to feed it, it might go after his life force. It could kill him - no, eventually it will kill him. It’s a miracle it hasn’t done so already.”

Mr Graves made a sound like the air had been punched out of him, and he put a hand over his mouth. Credence’s head spun, more from seeing Mr Graves’ reaction than hearing his own fate. He never expected to live long anyway. But the way Mr Graves was acting… he must actually care for Credence.

Queenie put her hand on Mr Graves’ shoulder and patted him tentatively, looking between him and Credence as if she wasn’t sure which broke her heart more. Even Tina looked distraught, and Credence’s mind was short circuiting. All these people really cared about him.

“It’s your choice,” Mr Scamander continued, holding Credence’s gaze for once. “What do you want to do, Credence?”

He’d never had such control over any aspect of his life, and for a moment he floundered, panicking. What if he chose wrong? What if someone was angry with his choice? What if it insulted or hurt one of them, these people who cared so mind-blowingly much about him?

“It’s OK,” said Queenie softly. “Don’t think about us. What feels like the right thing to do?”

He closed his eyes and thought, following the two possible paths in his mind and allowing himself to selfishly ignore everyone else. In the end there was really only one answer. “If I go with Mr Scamander,” he said, “then at least there’s a chance. If I stay, then I know I’m just a ticking clock.”

***

Jacob looked like a man made to smile, and Credence liked him immediately. He arrived clutching Queenie’s hand, his eyes sparkling with wonder as he watched Mr Graves set the kettle boiling and mugs filling themselves with instant coffee. “I swear I’ll never get bored of watching magic happen,” he murmured to Credence as Mr Scamander and Queenie went through a last minute inventory. He had a khaki army knapsack which he shifted off his shoulders with a grunt. “Been a long time since I had to carry that around. So. I hear you’re an obscurial, is it?”

Credence nodded. “So they say. I didn’t know until six or seven weeks ago.”

“Tough break,” he said, nodding. “You OK with this whole thing?”

“I have to be.”

Jacob nodded and patted him on the shoulder.

Mr Graves was monosyllabic. He’d been in a bad mood for the whole week, and Credence wished he could make it right. He hoped once he was gone Mr Graves could relax a little bit. He must have been getting irritated with him taking up so much space all the time. The apartment was a good size, but Mr Graves hadn’t really been able to get away for the last couple of months, after all.

“I think it really would be best if the three of you stay in the suitcase until we arrive in England. I’ll take you out as soon as I can when we get to my hotel room in London, but it’ll still be the best part of a full day of travelling, once muggle customs and the wait in the airport are taken into consideration.”

“Why don’t you just take a long distance portkey?” Mr Graves asked, though it sounded more like a demand, with his arms crossed and his shoulders hunched.

“The undetectable extension charms are too unstable for magical travel,” he said. “I could probably apparate with them for a short distance but the spells on the case are quite complex, and I’d rather not risk it.”

Mr Graves just made a ‘hmpf’ noise and drank the rest of his coffee.

At last, Mr Scamander clapped his hands together. “Well, shall we make a move? The flight leaves in a few hours, and I imagine muggle traffic will take some navigating. Is everyone ready?”

Tina leaped down into the suitcase to help Jacob with the luggage, and Queenie followed, chattering to Mr Scamander. Credence turned to say his final thank you to Mr Graves.

“Credence,” he said, and Credence blinked, finding him closer than he’d been in weeks. He bit his lip, eyes focused on Credence’s shoulder, and dusted a piece of lint off his blazer. It was one of Mr Graves’, one he’d resized with magic to fit him.

“Mr Graves, I don’t know how to thank you,” he said.

Mr Graves chucked, but it didn’t sound happy at all. “I really hoped you’d have stopped with the mister by now, Credence. Really. Just Graves. Everyone else calls me that.” He sighed, and finally looked up, holding Credence’s gaze. His eyes were wide and sad. “Be safe, won’t you?”

Credence’s words had all deserted him. He nodded. Mr Graves… just Graves. He looked desperate for a moment, and he lifted his hand to cup Credence’s cheek. It was like a brand, burning into his heart, and he turned his face into the cradle of it, closing his eyes and absorbing its comfort, wishing, wishing. Neither of them said anything, and suddenly it was gone. Credence nearly staggered after the sensation, wanting more, and knowing he couldn’t have it.

He turned and made his way to the suitcase, climbing down the ladder into Mr Scamander’s little hut, his eyes prickling with tears. He had to clutch the rough wooden bench and lean on it, clenching his fingernails into the splinters and breathe carefully, holding the tears back, pressing them down inside him until he could see again and walk with his head up.

***

Mr Scamander’s suitcase was a wonderland, a magical Eden with a list of miracles a mile long. Credence and Jacob spent hours wandering around even after Mr Scamander - Newt, he said - had to leave for the airport. Tina had offered to accompany him, and Newt had flushed with pleasure and stuttered that she didn’t have to. It made Credence’s chest hurt. Thank God for Jacob, who’d dragged him back out into the habitats to make friends with the occamies. Now he was cuddled up with the snake-bird thing and the rocks in his throat felt like they might just be about to subside and let him smile again.

Queenie found them together half an hour later and sat between them, stroking Credence’s curls. “How you feeling, sweetie?”

He couldn’t, he just couldn’t talk about it. It hurt like a knife through his throat to think about Mr… about Graves, and he couldn’t bear it. He didn’t know what he was to him, what he ever could have been, and he just…

“OK, honey,” she whispered, kissing his cheek. She turned to Jacob, who was watching them with a sympathetically furrowed brow, and asked him to tell her all he’d learned about the creatures.

He expected to feel trapped in the suitcase, knowing there would be almost a full day ahead of them while Newt travelled from New York to London and settled into his hotel room, but when the lid of the case opened and Newt pushed the door of the hut out, Credence looked up in surprise. He’d been completely occupied by the mooncalves which were falling over themselves to get closer to him. He even had a smile on his face, which Newt matched as he approached. “Thank you for caring for my creatures so well, Credence."

“Oh, it’s… it’s no trouble, sir.”

“Newt, please, Credence. You will have to call me Professor Scamander at school, but I’d rather just be Newt.” The mooncalves leaned against his legs and his cheeks crinkled up into curved dimples as he rubbed behind their ears. “I’ve been working on the plane and I think I’ve developed a set of equations that should help us isolate the obscurus’ energy from yours. I’ll need a few supplies, so it might be a good idea to get your textbooks and school things at the same time, if you like? Diagon alley can be overwhelming, especially at this time of the year, but it’ll be a good introduction to magical Britain for you.”

Credence blinked at him. “But what if it doesn’t work? You’ll have spent all that money for no reason.”

Newt’s eyebrows shot up, and he opened his mouth to deny it. But he had to turn away. Credence concentrated on the soft feeling of a mooncalf’s ear between his fingers. “If you don’t mind, si- Newt, I’d rather not see the magical word until I know I’m going to be a part of it.”

He cast a glance at Newt out of the corner of his eye, worrying that he’d insulted him by refusing his offer, but Newt just smiled sadly. “Of course, Credence. I understand completely.”

Chapter Text

“Are you ready, Credence?”

Newt’s voice was soft and calm, but Credence was lying on his back on a transfigured hospital bed in a zoo inside a suitcase, and he was actually starting to freak out. He felt a hand squeeze his ankle and jumped.

“Hey,” said Queenie, her face tilted to one side. “It’ll be OK. Newt knows more about your obscurus than anyone else in the world. You’re in safe hands.”

Credence lay his head back and nodded, clenching his fists at his sides anyway. Newt smiled down at him upside down at the head of the bed. “You’re being very brave, Credence,” he said softly. It wasn’t reassuring. He took a deep breath and nodded anyway, closing his eyes.

“I’m going to have Queenie cast a set of stasis spells now,” Newt continued, his voice still calm, the way it was around the nundu. “You won’t be able to move your arms, head and legs at all, which I understand will feel very unnerving, but it’s important for me to know exactly where every part of you is at all times if I’m to extract the obscurus. Queenie will be able to hear you, but I’m afraid I don’t know how much you’ll be able to hear, Credence. So much of this is theoretical.”

“That’s OK,” he heard himself say. His own voice seemed to come from very far away, his skin vibrating with nerves. He took a few deep breaths and let them out slowly until he brought himself back into focus. “I’m ready.”

Newt smiled. “Excellent. Queenie, if you would?”

The stasis spells wrapped around him like a blanket, and Credence wondered if the caring, honey warmth of it was to do with Queenie’s magic, or whether it was the nature of the spell itself. As kind as it felt, Newt was right. It was very disconcerting. He felt like his entire body had been encased in something warm but very solid. As an experiment he tried to move his finger and found that he couldn’t. He could send the messages to his muscles, but they didn’t respond - the blanket of stillness wasn’t just over the top of him, but sent tendrils down through to his bones, holding him absolutely where he lay.

Instantly panic raced through him and he felt his heart speeding up. A coffin came to mind, or a strait jacket, but he could hammer his fists or squirm and scream against those, while here he was entirely hidden, all his emotions and fears and desires. He probably looked like he was lying calmly on the bed, perfectly at peace, but inside he was ripping and tearing, trying to escape.

“Credence, sweetie, I can hear you. I know you don’t like it, I know honey. I’m sorry.” Queenie’s voice sounded like it was sinking in through layers of cotton wool over his ears, but it was there, and Credence would have closed his eyes in blessed relief if they’d been open. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax into the constrictive body bind. It should have felt like he was leaning against the magic that encased him, but he couldn’t even move enough to do that. The distaste rose in him again, not enough to make him panic, but still.

Queenie’s soft laugh came through. “I know, honey. I wouldn’t be doing this unless I absolutely had to.”

I know, he thought, and felt his stomach unclench just that little more.

Newt’s voice now sounded closer to his ear. Almost as if it was buzzing against his skull. “Credence, I’m going to send my magic into yours now. Is that OK?”

He deliberately thought ‘OK’, and heard Queenie speaking softly to Newt, passing on his permission, and then a tendril touched his temple. He would have twitched if he’d been able to, and the strand of Newt’s magic approached delicately, like a wild cat exploring a new environment.

He felt the moment it sank into his head, past his skull and into his mind. It itched, though not unbearably. It felt wrong, like a pebble in his shoe, or the time he’d put his jeans on and realised there was a sock from the laundry trapped in one of the legs. He’d walked around feeling not quite right for a good half hour before he realised what it was and pulled it out, laughing.

Newt’s magic skittered over his mind, probing behind his eye, down his throat… and then it slowed. It approached his chest carefully, a predator stalking its prey, or a rabbit walking past a fox’s den. It squirmed under his ribs, and all of a sudden he felt a great whirlpool start up just under his solar plexus, a roiling mass of terror and pain and fury and he panicked again, thrashing against the bonds that refused to let him thrash, screaming against the spell that kept his voice contained and his face blankly calm. His mind howled and scrambled, hardly listening to Newt’s gentle voice, fighting the four other tendrils that joined the first, the alien magic invading his blood and pouncing, twisting themselves around the shield, the monster, the creature that burst from his skin like smoke.

The golden magic twisted and tightened, a wolf pack, a constrictor snake, a leopard clutching its prey. Every movement the obscurus made was matched and beaten by Newt’s spell, trapping the smoke-creature in a net of implacable strength.

And then it began to pull. Not hard, not violently. As much as Credence panicked and fought and screamed, it wasn’t tearing him to pieces. There was an unbearable pressure, a constant, consistent force, and then an unhooking. Credence could have sworn he heard a sound from inside his body, a stringed instrument twanging hard, on the edge of being broken, and something started to tingle through his stomach. Then another note, and another, like thorns plucked out of material, leaving holes but not tearing it further. And with each step that same feeling intensified. Credence felt like his entire body had pins and needles, like flakes of mica were being poured into his blood and pumped around his body, tingling in every tissue. It made him want to scream even more, fighting against the absolute perfect agony of it.

At last there was one last grating rip, a pop, and Credence swore he did scream aloud, because his body was torn apart with the fire and ice flooding through it. He screamed, and screamed, and opened his eyes to the air crackling with sparks of gunpowder.

“Credence! Credence, sweetie, come on, breathe. Breathe in, now, honey, you’re going to black out like that. Come on, Credence, you can do it.”

But he couldn’t, he couldn’t bear it, it hurt! It blazed in his blood and set fire to the air around him, burning out, taking all the oxygen from the air in his lungs and demanding more, now. His back arched, the top of his head pressed to the bed as his muscles contracted in rebellion now that they could.

Then there were strong arms around him, hauling him upright, slapping him between the shoulder blades. “Breathe, kid!” snapped a sharp voice, and the surprise made him gulp in air, and then more, because he’d been starved of it.

And then there was no more energy to scream again, nothing to make his back arch and his arms clench, and Credence slumped against the arms that held him. He pushed against them weakly, just to prove to himself that he wasn’t back in that hateful stasis spell again, and shuddered as someone shifted him with a grunt. “I got him,” Jacob’s voice said somewhere above him. “God, he’s drenched. Poor kid. You two OK?”

“Yeah,” said Queenie weakly, and the hospital bed moved as she sat down and rubbed his feet. He moved his toes under her fingers to acknowledge her and she pinched them gently. “Thanks, Jacob. He was gonna fall off there.”

“What happened?” Credence slurred, flickering his eyes open.

Newt bent down in front of him, pinching his eyes open and flicking a light from side to side to test his pupil reflexes. “It worked,” he said, his sweet smile curving his cheeks. “We removed the obscurus. Credence, you’ve got magic.”

“Yeah,” Queenie laughed. “Enough magic to throw Newt and I half way across the suitcase.”

Chapter Text

Credence took a deep breath and looked straight at the glowing ball full of whirling smoke. He didn’t know if it was his imagination or if it seemed to be stretching towards him, trying to get back in, to claw its way into his soul and feed of his magic again. He shuddered and looked away.

“Hello, Oliver,” said Newt with a smile, waving his wand towards the orb so that it followed him over to the trees. “Come and meet Dougal, that’s it. You’ll be safe here, now.”

“I can’t believe he called the obscurus Oliver,” chuckled Jacob sitting on the bench next to Credence. “Well, no, that’s not true. I can believe it. Newt’s got a thing for the more dangerous critters, hasn’t he?”

“I think that’s an understatement,” Credence said, watching him disappear into the jungle habitat with the swirling orb of death and destruction.

“So,” said Jacob, nudging him with his shoulder. “You feel magical then, kid?”

He smiled up at him. For some reason he didn’t hate it as much when Jacob called him kid. “I guess so,” he said. He rubbed his elbow. “I’m just… all those sparkles around me when Newt first took the obscurus out—“

“And the magical blast.”

“Yeah, that.” He hesitated. “What if… what if that’s all there was? What if it’s all gone now?”

Jacob scratched the back of his head. “Uh, I’m not exactly the right person for asking about magic, Credence. But I don’t think it works that way. I get the impression it’s like a sort of energy. You can refill the reservoirs. Newt and Queenie certainly didn’t seem worried, did they?”

“We’re not,” said Queenie, coming up behind him and kissing Credence’s cheek before wrapping her arms around Jacob’s shoulders and leaning on him. He put his hands over hers, a fond smile creeping across his cheeks. “Jacob’s right, magic is like any other kind of energy. You eat healthy, get some rest, your reservoirs will fill back up again. You might find you’re hungrier than usual though. Wixen metabolism is higher than no-majes, because we still have to do everything they do, and make magical energy as well.”

“Damn,” said Jacob, patting his belly. “I’m gonna have to watch my portion sizes around you guys, aren’t I?”

She kissed his cheek and dimpled at him, and Credence smiled at the two of them. He couldn’t imagine a time when Queenie hadn’t been with Jacob. It must have looked wrong, like half of a picture missing. “Come on, you two. Time to explore Diagon Alley.”

Newt arrived back in time to join them, leading them down the strangely crooked stairs of the Leaky Cauldron pub and into the courtyard at the back. He tapped his wand on the brick wall and stepped back, and the whole thing creaked and shifted and drew aside, leaving Credence’s jaw to drop.

He thought watching Graves, Newt and the Goldsteins doing magic was a miracle, but this intense concentration of magic users in one place, shops crowding together that sold potions ingredients and brooms and cauldrons to the bustling crowd of wixen, was overwhelming. The cobbled street was crammed with parents and children in the muggy heat of late summer, families pushing past each other and shouting and arguing and haggling. Credence’s head spun with all the new sights and sounds, and he tugged at his hair, with no idea where to start.

Queenie’s hand slipped into the crook of his arm. “How about we take a look at that list Newt got from the headmaster, hmm?”

He nodded gratefully and Queenie said a quick spell that tugged it out of Newt’s pocket. He turned with his eyebrows raised and smiled as he saw the paper drifting over to her. “Right. Here’s your list of textbooks - well, we don’t need most of those, Newt says you can borrow his. Potions ingredients, this looks quite extensive, do they really need all this?”

“Oh, yes,” said Newt’s soft voice. “Professor Snape is said to be quite a harsh taskmaster, best to not scrimp on his requirements. The robes will also need to be made for you.”

“I really… I just can’t accept all this,” he said, almost breathless with horror. “You can’t possibly buy all of this for me.”

Newt smiled, flickering his gaze up at Credence, and absently stroking Picket as he crawled out from behind the lapel of that brilliant turquoise coat. “It’s no trouble at all, really. You’ll be having so many of these things from my own old school supplies, my mother insists on keeping everything. If it makes you feel better the removal and study of your obscurus will inform most of my next book.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to have the opportunity to understand a real obscurus, and one living freely at that!”

“It’s not as if I wanted to keep it,” he said weakly. “You saved my life and you’re thanking me for the privilege?”

“Yes,” he said with a grin. “I am. Now, I don’t believe you’ll be refusing the opportunity to get your very own wand, will you?”

Credence almost hyperventilated. This was it. This was the moment of truth, when he’d know whether he had any magical ability left at all, or whether the obscurus had drained it. Queenie’s arm tightened around his, but he was barely aware of anything beyond the beating of his own heart as they walked towards the ancient shop.

Jacob and Queenie excused themselves to wander the street and find supplies for their new life in England when they saw how cramped the wand seller’s front room was. Newt smiled and looked around at the dusty stacks of boxes. “I remember coming here at eleven to buy my first wand too,” he said, his voice soft to match the cushioned darkness of the shop.

“Newton Scamander,” said a dry voice from the shadows, and Credence whipped around to see a thin old man emerge, his piercing eyes fixed on Newt. “Yes, I remember. Ash and unicorn hair with a belemnite accent, thirteen inches exactly, somewhat flexible. And this,” he said, whipping his eyes to peer at Credence. “Hmm, a bit old for your first wand. Broken yours already, young man?”

“N-no, sir,” he stammered, thinking about the shattered lost property wand. That didn’t count, did it?”

“Credence here is coming for his first wand, Mr Ollivander,” said Newt. “He’s had a, uh, non-traditional upbringing.”

“Nice to meet you, sir,” said Credence. Anything to distract himself from the little tape measure that was currently wrapping itself around the middle knuckle of his right ring finger for some reason.

“American,” huffed Ollivander. “Not taking him to Jonkers, then, Mr Scamander?”

Newt smiled but didn’t reply, and Ollivander hummed some more. “Very well. Let’s try… ah, I know, elm and dragon heartstring, twelve inches, whippy.”

Credence took the wand, his heart beating harder again. It reminded him of the one Graves had brought for him, pretty grains running along it, and fit snugly in his hand. He smiled at it. Was this his?

“No,” Mr Ollivander said, whipping it out of his hand. Credence frowned up at him as he ran off to the back of the shop.

Newt laughed. “Don’t worry, Credence. You don’t get to choose the wand yourself. When you hold your wand for the first time it’ll do something, send out sparks or some sort of magic. Mr Ollivander had to search through at least thirty wands before he finally settled on this one, but it’s worth the wait.

Credence nodded and bit his lip. What if they got to thirty, and then forty, and there was still no response? When would Mr Ollivander and Newt realise that Credence wasn’t magical enough to have a wand? At least, he thought desperately, he’d have Queenie and Jacob. He wouldn’t be alone in his powerlessness. And they’d still get to see magic every day as Queenie made her incredible pies and pastries.

“Cedar and dragon heartstring, twelve and a half inches, rigid,” said Mr Ollivander, handing Credence a reddish wand with tactile knots on the handle. A hissing spark flew from the wand and landed on the counter, and Credence yelped.

“Newt! Look, did you see? It sparked! Was that —?“

But Ollivander snatched it back and raced off down the corridor. “But I did magic! Wasn’t that magic?” Credence asked, eyes wide as he gaped at Newt.

Newt laughed. “Yes, he does that sometimes. I don’t know what he looks for. One of the wands I tried produced a stream of glitter, but he shook his head and tutted and took it away. This one was very different, just a rushing wind and the smell of the sea. On the face of it, much less dramatic. But he clapped his hands and said it was right for me. And I can’t imagine any companion more perfect for me.”

Mr Ollivander came racing back to the front and handed Credence another wand, painted black this time. “Red oak and unicorn hair, nine and three quarter inches - no, no, definitely not.” He snatched it back before it had even touched Credence’s fingers. He was quite relieved, he hadn’t liked that one for some reason. “Here,” he said, holding out his other hand. “Larch and unicorn tail hair, eleven inches, flexible.”

He stared at Credence intently as he reached for it, a dark wood with warm swirling grains and a twisted helix pattern carved into the handle. As he touched it, smoke poured from the end, and for a horrifying moment he thought the obscurus had come back. But this smoke was silvery, almost glittery, and reminded him of the sparkling sensation that had flooded his veins as the obscurus was removed. He stared up at the twisting cloud around him, mouth open in wonder, and ran his thumb along the carving.

“Yes, yes, young man, this is the one for you,” said Mr Ollivander, his voice thick with satisfaction. “I believe it will serve you well. A faithful wand, which will bring out hidden talents and courage. And if I’m not much mistaken, you have plenty of both those things.”

Chapter Text

Credence stood at the doorway of the little building and gazed out at the tiny Scottish village. Hogwarts was somewhere in the mountains along the little road past the pub, but Newt had told him he’d never see it, not shrouded as it was with unplottable spells. Not until September the first, when he and Newt would walk together up to the school and meet the rest of his classmates.

First of September. It was only a week away, and Credence bit the cuticle around his fingernails as he thought of all the new people, all the lessons, all the teachers, a whole new bed in a whole new building, in a new country and a new world.

Queenie and Jacob had announced their engagement when they were still back in London, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. But they’d had another announcement that delighted Credence just as much, and for more selfish reasons. They’d decided to move to Hogsmeade to be closer to Credence - it’s not like either of them had ties to London any more than they did to the Scottish Highlands, and Queenie had said both she and Jacob felt protective of Credence, and wanted to look after him, and the thought now made his chest warm. He had people who wanted to look after him! It was still miraculous.

Jacob joined him at the doorway and patted his shoulder. “How you doing, kid?”

“Fine, thanks,” he said. “Need any help with the bakery?”

“Will do in a bit. There’s a delivery coming up in an hour or so, we could use some muscle bringing it in. Once that’s done you can help me with some taste testing.”

“Sounds like my kind of work,” Credence said with a laugh. “What are you going to make first?”

“Gingerbread,” he said, pursing his lips. “I kinda want to make a gingerbread suitcase, rather than a house, but I tried to sketch out a map of that thing and my head got all turned around. So I’m going to make gingerbread nundus instead.”

“That sounds amazing.”

“You finished all the enrolment paperwork?”

He pursed his lips. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Hey,” said Jacob. “What’s up?”

He shrugged. “It’s kind of silly.”

“Have you met me recently?”

Credence smiled at him as he waggled his eyebrows. “I just mean… well, after all you guys have done for me, I still have to put Ma’s name on my forms.” He shook his head. “I dunno, it makes me…”

“Angry?”

He stared at the purple-brown hills. Angry. That was a thing he was allowed to be now. Before it would have got him beaten. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Maybe.”

“Well, you should be angry,” he said. “She did everything she could to keep you from this life. She made it possible for a crazy smoke parasite to grab onto your magic and suck it out of you. I’m not surprised you don’t want her to have any part of your life any more.” He squinted at Credence for a little while. “Hey, will you excuse me a moment? I need to talk to Queenie about something. Be back in a bit.”

Credence nodded. “I’m gonna walk down the road and back,” he called as Jacob hurried off. He needed to get the nervous tingles out of his skin somehow.

The sky domed high above him as he strolled down the cobbled streets, the steep eaves of the roofs piercing the bright blue. Heat rolled off the stones and up his jeans and stifled him until it seemed to be itching at his lungs. He wanted to tear at the nerves under his skin.

When he passed Dervish and Banges at the end of the main street, the air seemed to open out more, and he breathed more deeply. It was only a short walk before the village lay comfortably behind him, swallowed up by the hills. A bend in the road led him to an old barn, weathered and hardly used, and he stepped onto the grass, and lowered himself to the ground under a sprawling beech tree. Heat haze shimmered up over the brownish yellow grass and he leaned his head back, smiling as a breeze skated over his skin. He could be happy here, magic or not. In fact, the way he felt, his nerves about starting Hogwarts, he was almost tempted to give up on the magic entirely and beg Jacob and Queenie to let him stay with them, in their little flat above the bakery. He was much stronger now, and used to hard work. He knew he wouldn’t mind waking up early to turn on the ovens, knead the dough for the bread, and mix batters, the smell of cinnamon and yeast and baking sinking into his skin. On summer evenings he could come up here and sit under this beech tree and remember that his life had turned to peace even starting the way it did.

But he missed school. He missed learning. And at fifteen, he only had three more school years before he could turn around and say ‘I tried it, and I want that peace anyway.’ And then he could work in the bakery, but with magic. And there was no way he’d waste all the effort everyone had gone to for him. Tina and Mr Graves didn’t put their job on the line to have him hide from his powers. Newt didn’t put all that work in removing his obscurus just for him to reject his magic anyway. And Jacob would have loved to have half the power Credence did.

He pushed himself back up to his feet and walked back down the road into Hogsmeade. The houses still held the stifling air close, but he thought he could get used to it. He pushed the door to the bakery open and swiped sweat off his forehead.

“Hey, honey,” called Queenie, smiling at him. Her hands were tangled together in front of her, and Credence tilted his head on one side, wondering if she was OK. “Oh, here, you’re roasting.” She cast a cooling charm over him and he shivered in delight as the sweat cleared off his skin and left him tingling.

“Is he back?” called Jacob, appearing in the doorway. “Oh, hey. Uh. Credence. You’re here. Want a drink?”

“Are you guys OK?” Credence asked. “You seem kind of twitchy.”

Queenie bit her lips, like she was trying to hold in a smile or trying to control some sort of manic energy. “We had a question for you.”

“Let the boy sit down, Queenie,” Jacob grinned. “C’mon, kid, let’s use this cafe furniture.”

He followed them over to a round table and pulled up an armchair. Queenie had found all the mismatched, comfy chairs in a no-maj (no, muggle) antique shop in London and she and Jacob had gone into paroxysms of delight. The heavy armchairs and sofas had lightening charms so they could be pulled easily into new arrangements, but still felt like a whole body hug when you sank into them.

“We’ve been talking,” said Queenie. “Jacob said you were thinking about putting Mary-Lou’s name on all your registration paperwork, and how, well…”

“We both thought that wasn’t right. That woman did nothing good for you, Credence, she doesn’t deserve to have any part of your new life.”

“Unless you say she does, of course, honey,” said Queenie quickly. “Everything’s your choice, you know that, right?”

Credence nodded, frowning. “Sure.”

“But, uh… well, I was thinking,” Jacob said slowly, darting glances to Queenie. “I was thinking maybe you’d like to have a different name, leave that life behind you?”

Credence blinked. “What, you mean… like I wouldn’t be called Credence any more?”

“Oh. Uh, no, not that name. Unless you want to change it?”

“No,” he said slowly. “I think I’m OK with Credence. But… yeah, maybe I don’t want to be a Barebone any more. But what would I call myself? I can’t just choose a new surname, can I?”

“Well, you can,” said Jacob. “We certainly could as a no-maj, anyway, it’s just paperwork. But… well, I don’t know what you’d think about it, but… I was wondering if you’d maybe want to call yourself Kowalski?”

Jacob’s hand immediately went to his hair, tugging on the curls as if he wanted to take the words back. Credence just blinked at him, and he grimaced. “Uh, I won’t be offended if—“

“Yes!”

“Yes?”

“Oh my God, yes,” Credence laughed. “Are you serious? You really—?”

Queenie giggled, her hands coming up to cover her mouth. “You’ll be part of our family, Credence.”

His eyes filled with tears so fast he felt dizzy. Family… to be part of Queenie and Jacob’s family. To share their name - he wasn’t nearly young enough to be their son - Queenie was only twenty four - but he could call them his family, call people he loved family. He’d always thought of that word as fear, obligation and responsibility, and he adored Modesty, but Queenie and Jacob would be the big brother and sister who looked after him, and… and it wasn’t something he’d ever dreamed of, hadn’t ever realised how desperately he’d wanted it.

Queenie wiped her own tears away as she moved over to his seat and hugged him tight, his sobs muffled in her shoulder. “It’s OK sweetie,” she said, her voice wobbling, both sadness and joy obvious in her words. “We’re so happy to have you.”

That evening Queenie helped to magically erase some of the writing he’d done earlier. Credence Kowalski, he wrote at the top of his enrolment form. Jacob smiled as he filled in his details to be his emergency contact, Queenie stroked his hair, sitting on the arm of his chair. And Credence smiled, and felt the warmth of his family soak into his bones.

Chapter Text

“Kowalski, Credence.”

The entire hall of faces stared at him, and Credence concentrated harden putting one foot in front of the other as he walked over to the stool and the floppy brown hat.

“What have we here then?” a voice hummed in his ears. “Hard to get a read on you, boy. What do you want?”

“I don’t… I don’t know what you mean.”

“You’re at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, there must be something you want to get out of the experience. Come on, boy, what do you want to be?”

Credence thought of Tina attacking his mother, possibly saving his life. Of Newt casually smuggling people and animals in danger all over the world, no matter the risk to himself. Of Jacob and Queenie who had given their lives up for love and another country. Of Mr Graves convincing Tina not to trust MACUSA. Putting his job on the line for a boy he believed to have no magic at all, because he thought it was the right thing to do.

“I want to be brave.”

“Well, then, was that so hard? Gryffindor!”

Credence stumbled to his feet with roars and cheers in his ears. One of the four long tables was making the most noise, so he walked towards them, but where should he sit? His heart beat faster as he saw a complete lack of obvious spaces. Would they even accept him? Was he going to be left standing until everyone realised he was a fraud, not brave, not good and deserving?

He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A boy with dark messy hair, glasses and green eyes shoved his friend along and beckoned to Credence to sit beside him. “Hi,” he said quietly as the first years continued with the sorting. “I’m Harry. This is Ron and Hermione. Welcome to Gryffindor.”

“Thanks.” Credence tried to speak above a whisper. “Credence Ba- uh, Kowalski.”

“That’s a weird name,” mumbled the red-haired boy on his other side. The girl elbowed him hard in the ribs. “What?”

“Your face is weird, Ron,” said Harry.

“And your middle name is Bilious, you really have no room to speak,” Hermione hissed.

Ron opened his mouth to bicker, but the headmaster rose to his feet just then and was making an address.

“I am pleased to welcome Professor Scamander, who will be taking Hagrid’s place teaching Care of Magical Creatures until such time as he returns.”

Harry and Ron both narrowed their eyes and snapped their attention to the teachers’ table, and Credence flinched at their ferocity. He felt shame flood him as Newt stood and gave his awkward little wave. He should stand up for Newt!

“Oh, down, boys,” said Hermione, glancing at their expressions. “You know teaching has never been Hagrid’s… strong point.”

“He wasn’t that bad. And this new guy looks like the flobberworms could eat him for breakfast.”

“Professor Scamander is an excellent teacher.” Credence forced the words out, his heart hammering. “And a gr- a great man.”

Harry’s eyebrows disappeared into his fringe, and Credence’s back crawled imagining the sneering, or even the physical retaliation for daring to speak against someone he’d just met. But Harry’s voice was polite, almost gentle. “Sorry. Do you know him?”

Credence nodded jerkily, but he forced himself to sit up straight. “He’s one of my guardians.”

Before Harry or the others could ask more questions, the second new teacher stood and made a speech. Credence curled into himself once more, relieved to be hidden, exhausted by the attention and hyperawareness of being surrounded by so many people his own age. But the worst thing was, Professor Umbridge reminded him of Ma.

He listened to her every word, terrified of missing some vital clue that might end in punishment, but it was hard to parse her meaning when she seemed to speak in allusions and innuendo that angered some of his new housemates. The references were all but meaningless to him. By the time she sat he was dizzy.

Dinner was an issue itself. Queenie and Jacob had done their best but he still felt like he would be punished if he took too much food. Ma had often tested his restraint, laying out food until Credence could hardly bear the temptation. And even if he resisted, she’d sometimes beat him just for looking at it, for covetousness. How could he decide? What if this was a test of some sort?

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first got here either,” said Harry, spotting his empty plate. “Are you from a muggle family too? Some of these wizarding families have no idea how spoilt they are. Ron’s mum puts on a feast like this for every meal!”

“That’s only ‘cause she’s got six to ten mouths to feed each time,” grinned Ron around a mouthful of food. “The sausages are my favourite.”

“Don’t worry if you can’t finish,” added Hermione, leaning over so her wild curls almost dipped in the gravy. “The leftovers are used again, the house elves have a clever recycling charm.”

Credence’s nerves were beginning to settle down by the time Ron and Hermione left for prefect duty. Then a hand clutched his shoulder and he startled hard, his heart catapulted into panic.

“Mr Kowalski, whatever is the matter?”

Credence struggled to control his breathing under the scrutiny of Harry and one of the elderly witches, and probably the entire dining hall. What had Newt told him to do? He closed his eyes and listed the five puffskein species, the four uses for dragon scales, the procedure for ethical harvesting of unicorn hair. “S- sorry, ma’am,” he said after shamefully long. He saw a white-haired boy walk past, sniggering and shaking his head, and he dropped his gaze to the floor.

“Professor McGonagall will do, Mr Kowalski,” the teacher replied. “Now, I just came to introduce myself as your head of house. You will be sharing a dormitory with Mr Potter here. Potter, I trust I can leave you in charge of showing Mr Kowalski the ropes and welcoming him to Hogwarts? If you can keep Mr Potter from any acts of reckless stupidity for at least a few weeks I shall consider that a bonus.”

“Thanks, Professor,” said Harry sarcastically. Credence flinched as Professor McGonagall raised her hand to Harry for his attitude, but all she did was tap him on the back of the head affectionately.

Harry led Credence up to their sumptuous room, draped in red and gold. He threw him calculating looks, but to Credence’s relief, didn’t mention any of his cowardly behaviour, not even his breakdown. He collapsed onto his bed, almost crying at how comfortable it was. Perhaps tonight, he would sleep without nightmares.

He missed the start of the fight. Stupid, stupid Credence, letting his guard down. Before he knew it his new friend Harry, who Professor McGonagall had told Credence to keep from trouble, was shouting at another boy and weak, pathetic Credence was scrambling to sit on his bed, trembling, confused and terrified and the worst Gryffindor in history. When Ron burst in and broke it up, the other boys went straight to sleep.

As exhausted as he was, Credence couldn’t even lie down.

Chapter Text

The first day of lessons was, if possible, more stressful than the first day at Hogwarts. If Newt hadn’t removed the obscurus, Credence would have burst into a cloud of destructive black smoke by lunch time - even as it was, he had to hold tight to the furious maelstrom of emotions.

The first lesson, history of magic, had been a balm. The monotonous voice reminded him of church, and he knew how to behave in church. The quiet atmosphere was soporific, but the subject so fascinating he found it easy to keep notes, and couldn’t understand how Harry and Ron fell asleep within minutes.

“Well, I don’t know how you can stay awake and listen to Binns droning on like that,” Ron marvelled. “Hermione, you’ve got competition for most conscientious student award.”

Hermione patted his arm. “Don’t let them sweet-talk you into giving out your notes, Credence.”

“That’s OK,” he said. “I don’t mind.”

Ron whooped. “I might just pass my OWLs after all.”

Potions was more stressful. He picked up on the tension between Harry and Professor Snape immediately, and his partner’s indignant vibrating on the other side of the bench set him on edge. He could have used some of their peace potion himself, he thought. He tried desperately to follow all the instructions, his hands trembling on his scales every time the Professor passed. When he vanished Harry’s potion with scathing words, Credence bit his lip, certain his own potion, with its lumpy texture, would be next.

Snape peered into the cauldron and Credence saw the other students eye him as subtly as they could. “Too much aspidistra,” he snapped. “Potion making calls for focus and a steady hand. Not trembling.”

And he was gone. Credence let out a breath, but his hands were still vibrating with tension.

At the end of class, the blonde boy he’d seen at dinner yesterday pushed past their table on the way out. “Gryffindors get more impressive every year,” he sniggered. “They’re meant to be a bit thick, but really, Potter, where did you get this pathetic mouse? He’s worse than Longbottom.”

“Sod off, Malfoy,” said Harry through gritted teeth.

Malfoy made a fake lunge at Credence, and he flinched, to his shame. Malfoy and his friends burst out laughing. “It’s supposed to be courage, not cowardice, Kowalski,” he crowed.

“And Slytherin’s supposed to be cunning, not bullying, not that you’d know,” snapped Harry. “C’mon Credence, let’s go to lunch.”

“I’m sorry,” he murmured as they walked through the stone corridors.

“For what?”

He shrugged, hunched over. “Being a coward. Being weak.”

Harry shook his head. “You’re not weak. Or a coward. Don’t listen to Malfoy, he’s always been a dick.”

Credence forced a smile for his friend, but he couldn’t help worrying. Newt and Queenie both said the obscurus removal shouldn’t have affected the strength of his magic, that it should be as strong as it was before. They said he must have been powerful to be able to survive so long with the obscurus feeding off him. But really, what did they know? He was the first of his kind.

Maybe he’d just survived it for so long because he’d always been a weakling.

***

Nothing, however, compared to the tension of defence against the dark arts with Professor Umbridge. Credence found it difficult to look at her. Her superficial sweetness reminded him of Ma’s piety. He didn’t think any of the other students were taken in by her either, and it made him wonder what they would think if they met Mary-Lou Barebone.

The trouble started at register. “Credence Barebone?” she called in her sugar voice.

A murmur ran through the class, and Credence’s blood turned to ice. “M- Ma’am, my name’s Kowalski.”

“Oh, dear me, no,” she said with a smile. “Your legal name is Barebone. I’ve checked with the DMLE, and your paperwork, since your entry in the UK, is registered as Credence Barebone.”

“But…” He swallowed and clenched his fist. “We filed the paperwork to change my name to Kowalski a couple of days ago.”

She consulted her clipboard again, and Credence felt a flare of pure rage. Like anything would have changed on her paper since last she looked. “Well, dear,” she said, “the paperwork must not have gone through. Perhaps you misfiled it. Now. Let’s try that again. Credence Barebone.”

“Oh, come on, Professor, just use the name he wants,” said Seamus.

“Hand up, if you want to speak, Mr Finnegan,” she said sweetly, and blinked at Credence.

He could feel his shoulders hunching up again, his body curling inwards. “Here, ma’am,” he said, his eyes firmly fixed on the paper in front of him.

“I didn’t hear you, Mr Barebone. Look at me when you speak to me, please.”

He looked up at her, and hated her. Not nearly as much as he hated himself, though. “Here. Ma’am,” he said, soft and submissive. A coward.

He still had his shoulders up by his ears when the argument about Voldemort started. He wanted to beg them, don’t piss her off. He knew people like her. That river of menace, hidden beneath sweet smiles and reason, ran deep and clear in its viciousness. When she goaded Harry, got her claws into him, and softly said ‘detention,’ Credence closed his eyes in despair, his fists clenched.

***

He saw the marks on Harry’s hand by the third day of his detention. Even though he’d been looking for something like that, it still made him feel physically sick. But it was fury, not fear, and it gave him the nerve to grab Harry’s arm in the empty dorm room one morning as they were getting ready to visit Newt.

Harry froze. Credence couldn’t find the right words. He pushed Harry’s sleeve up to show the red line of writing and clenched his free hand into a fist.

“It’s OK,” said Harry. “I’ve had worse.”

“So have I,” said Credence, gritting his teeth. “But that wasn’t the point. You were only telling the truth.”

Harry looked up sharply. “How do you know I’m telling the truth?”

He dropped Harry’s hand. “I don’t. I just… I trust you. You remind me of… of him.”

“Who?” Harry laughed. “Professor Scamander?”

He shook his head, his face hot under the shaggy ends of his hair, and made his escape.

***

“They don’t get it,” said Harry, passing the bag of every flavour beans to Credence as they walked by the lake early that Saturday. “They think I should tell McGonagall or Dumbledore, but it feels like… that’s how she wins.” He shook his head. “I dunno. I’m lying to myself, aren’t I? They always win.” He looked at Credence, walking silently beside him. “Bet you think I should tell someone too.”

“I told someone once,” said Credence softly. “They approached my ma about it. She just beat me twice as hard that evening.”

Harry stopped and looked at him, nodding in understanding. “Your mum?” Credence nodded back. Harry stared across the lake. “I was raised by my aunt and uncle. I got a few slaps across the face, that kind of thing. Stopped when I was around ten though.”

“Why?”

Harry pulled his jumper and t-shirt down, showing a scar of parallel white dots on his shoulder. “Uncle Vernon hit me with a golf shoe here. I was so fucking angry all of a sudden, so sick of it. I stood back up and told him it didn’t hurt, he should hit me again.”

The very idea made something inside Credence cringe. “What happened?”

Harry laughed. “He hit me again! But I just kept doing it until he got all purple in the face and stomped off. And that was the last time it happened. ‘Course,” he shrugged. “My cousin Dudley didn’t get the memo ’til he thought I could turn him into a pig like Hagrid did.”

Credence laughed, short and sharp. It took him by surprise. Then he sobered again. “I don’t know why I’m even in Gryffindor,” he sighed. “I want to be brave, but Malfoy’s right. I’m a coward. I’d never dare to do anything like that.”

“The sorting hat wanted to put me in Slytherin,” Harry admitted. He didn’t look pleased about that at all. “I’m only in Gryffindor because I asked to be here, and that’s the thing about bravery. You have to choose it.”

“Maybe,” said Credence. “But it sure looks like practice helps.”

Harry laughed and held out the packet of sweets to him.

Chapter Text

Harry told Credence his whole life history with Voldemort one night, pacing and grinding the words out. In return, Credence told him about his escape from New York, and how Newt had removed his obscurus. They stayed up late into the night, the curtains drawn around Credence’s bed, sitting cross legged across from each other and talking down to their hands. Credence wondered if Harry had also glossed over certain details, as much as he had.

It was a few days after Ron and Hermione tried to convince him to teach secret DADA lessons, and Credence felt shame permeate every inch of his body. Harry had been through so much and come out fighting every single time, and Credence still couldn’t even look Professor Snape in the eye. He wondered why Harry bothered giving him the time of day. Why did any of these courageous people let him near them, when he was so broken and pathetic.

Hermione caught up with him on their way to ancient runes the following Monday. It was the only class they shared without the others. “Hey,” she said, slightly breathy. Nervous. “How’s Harry doing?”

“He’s fine,” said Credence, confused. “I think you’d know better than me, though. He’s more your friend than mine.”

She looked so sad he wanted to kick himself. “I don’t know about that any more. He’s not really talking to Ron or I.”

“I’m… I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” she said, shaking her head so her bushy hair flew into her face. “I’m… glad he’s got you to talk to, Credence.” She pulled him to one side and stopped so she could look at him. “He’s having an awful time, ever since… well. I just think he needs someone to listen to him, and,” she smiled ruefully, “Ron and I don’t seem to be getting it right.”

She smiled again, still sad, and set off towards Professor Babbling’s classroom. Credence followed, her words sinking into him. He forced himself to stand straighter. Maybe he could help, just a little.

Once Hermione had mentioned it, Credence noticed Harry’s silence towards his friends, the tension in the muscles of his arms, his clenched fists. He didn’t know what Harry had been like the years before, but from the concerned glances of the other Gryffindors, he must have been quite different. He supposed seeing another boy die would do that to you.

He allowed Credence’s company where he shunned everyone else’s, and Credence watched him, trying to find patterns, to learn what made the twitch in his jaw subside, the line between his brows disappear. He considered it his most important study, and secretly, at night, imagined he could do the same thing for Mr Graves one day. Be there for the man who’d stolen freedom for him, who’d smiled at him and hidden his worry behind kind eyes. The warmth of his hand against Credence’s cheek still burned months after it was felt, and Credence curled into himself in shame as he felt his wicked body respond to the memory.

To use the memory of an innocent action by a brave, kind man was surely the worst of insults. He pushed his perversion down, down, and hoped it wouldn’t turn into another obscurus. But magic was different. Magic wasn’t wicked like Mary-Lou always said, and homosexuality was. Even the bible said so. Credence had tried to listen to Queenie, but that was before he heard some of the other students joke about it. Because it was strange and wrong. Only Queenie was so kind and loving that she could see beyond it. She forgave him for it because she forgave everyone.

***

He usually rose early, like Harry. It seemed they had both been expected to prepare breakfast for the family from a young age, and the habit seemed to have stuck. But after several nights of shame and poor sleep, Credence woke late one morning to Harry shaking his shoulder.

“Hey, wake up, you’re going to miss breakfast.”

Credence jerked upright, panic flooding his veins as his half-asleep brain conjured up images of Ma finding him still in bed, and the beating he’d get for the sin of sloth. When he registered Harry chuckling at him and the other empty beds, he slumped in relief.

Without much thought, he pulled his pyjama shirt over his head, and froze at Harry’s gasp. “What the hell, Credence?”

He hunched his shoulders as Harry’s footsteps approached, glancing up at his friend’s horror from under his lashes. Harry’s hand against his scars was like a brand, like shame, but it raised goosebumps across his skin. “Who…?”

“My ma,” said Credence softly.

Harry gave a breathless, humourless laugh and sat on Credence’s bed, still staring at his scarred back in horror. “And I moaned at you about that stupid golf shoe thing - Jesus, Credence, I’m so sorry.”

Credence turned, shaking his head firmly. It wasn’t right for fierce, powerful Harry to look so ashamed over him, it wasn’t…

It was time to tell him, he realised. He couldn’t let his brave friend feel like this when the scars were Credence’s own fault. Harry would never speak to him again, certainly never touch him affectionately. He might even tell Newt, and Credence would lose everything. Mr Graves would find out, and Tina, and they’d be so angry that he’d fooled them into saving some filthy little pervert.

But he’d still be free. He was only free because all these people had thought saving him was the right thing to do, they hadn’t known the whole truth. So he could repay them just a little, make amends, by telling the truth now, because it was the right thing to do.

He sat beside Harry heavily, his hands shaking. “It’s not… I mean, I deserved it. She was trying to… for my own good.” He took a deep breath. “I mean, some of it was for stupid little things, and I know she was wrong. But this… most of it…”

Harry frowned. “You mean the obscurus? That wasn’t your fault.”

Credence wiped away the tears that were now dripping down his cheeks. “It’s… it’s worse. I… I’m gay, I- I’ve tried to stop, I did, but… so she beat me, if she saw me looking, I’m so sorry, Harry.”

Harry made a wounded noise and wrapped both arms around Credence’s shoulders. The shock of it was enough to force his sobs out loud and ugly. “You idiot, Credence. Jesus, I want to kill your mum for telling you those things!”

“You… you’re not…?”

“My godfather’s gay, Credence.” He sat back to look at him, leaving one arm still around his neck. “It’s not wrong at all, or bad, it’s just a part of you.”

“But…” He could barely whisper. “But people use it as an insult…”

“Ugh,” said Harry, rolling his eyes and shifting so he could pull Credence in to rest his head on Harry’s shoulder. “I know. I hate it. It’s a stupid thing. I’m so sorry, I don’t know why they do it. I’ve heard Dean say it, and I’m pretty sure he fancies Seamus! I think it’s a lot more common in wizarding families than in muggle ones, though - Padma and Pavarti have two mums, for example. Apparently there’s a special type of IVF magic that can combine two eggs or two sperm. I dunno how.” He squeezed his shoulders. “I’ll have a word with the guys, though, OK? I know they’ll be gutted they’ve hurt you. Everyone likes you, mate.”

Credence wrapped his arms around Harry’s waist and wept onto his shoulder.

Harry had to change his shirt afterwards, and neither of them got to breakfast. Credence’s head throbbed with crying, his eyes swollen and his nose blocked, but there was light shining through the cracks around his frightened, jailed heart. He had been brave. He had done what he thought was the right thing at the time. It had hurt, but it was healing things he thought had long scarred over, and most important of all, he still had his best friend.

Chapter Text

At the end of September, Credence was startled at breakfast by a large tawny owl swooping down and dropping a parcel in front of his breakfast plate. “Ooh, mate, what’ve you got?” Ron asked, leaning over.

“I don’t know,” he said, frowning. He picked up the large parcel with a frown.

“There’s a card on this side,” said Hermione, stretching across the table to pluck it off.

Credence took it and opened it. Then smiled, amazed. “It’s… it’s a birthday present.”

“What?” demanded Harry. “It’s your birthday?”

Credence couldn’t keep the delighted smile off his face as he nodded, fiddling with the strings. “I’d forgotten. I’ve never celebrated before, never…” he paused, stroking the knots. “I’ve never had a birthday present.”

Harry grinned like the sunshine. “Oh mate, it’s the best. Go on, see what you’ve got!”

Credence managed to stave off the prickling in his eyes long enough to undo the ties. The brown paper fell away, and the tears were back to threatening.

Queenie had sent him a soft denim jacket, a thick red flannel lining making it heavier and warm enough, if not for winter, then at least the rest of autumn. For the rest of his life, he thought fiercely as he picked it up, feeling the material shift under his fingers.

“Nice,” said Ron, nodding, his mouth full of toast. “But I’m more interested in that promising looking bakery box in there.”

Credence put the jacket on his lap, still clutching it close, and found the pink and black cardboard box still in the parcel. He laughed as he saw the logo. “The Occamy,” he said, stroking the serpentine creature that made up the Y. The O was a cupcake. He pushed the lid open and his grin widened.

“Oh, my god, is that an occamy pretzel?” asked Hermione, nearly knocking her pumpkin juice over as she stood up.

He held it out to her. “Yup. There’s also a demiguise iced bun, an erumpent cream puff, and… what is this?” He frowned, looking at a total mess of a brownie. It looked like a marble cake gone horribly wrong.

Harry picked up the note from the lid and snorted his tea. “Credence,” he choked. “It’s an obscurus brownie.”

The four of them dissolved into giggles. The other Gryffindors gathered around them, exclaiming over the pastries, frowning in confusion over the brownie. He broke every pastry into tiny pieces, wanting to share his good fortune and happiness with as many people as possible, and felt more full of love and luck than he ever had before.

After the crush died down, after the Gryffindors and a few from the other houses had dispersed, Newt walked up to him. He tapped his fingers lightly on the table rather than touching his shoulder for attention like everyone else did. “Happy birthday, Credence,” he said softly, and handed him a gift wrapped in shiny blue paper. “Have a lovely day.”

“Thank you, Newt,” he said, stumbling to his feet before he could escape. “I mean… Professor. You didn’t have to, this is so—“

“I wanted to,” he said, with his sweet, flickering smile. “Professor Babbling tells me you’re doing so well in runes, I thought you might be interested in Sanskrit. I’ve always thought it was a travesty that it’s not on the syllabus.”

Credence peeled the paper back off the shiny new book on the translation of Sanskrit in magical texts, and beamed up at Newt. “Thank you so much. I can’t wait to read it.”

As he turned back to his breakfast, Harry, Ron and Hermione moved away from each other quickly, sitting all too straight in their seats, with all too innocent looks on their faces. Credence narrowed his eyes at all of them. “What?”

“Nothing,” said Harry, blinking at him.

“Nothing at all,” said Hermione, eyes wide.

Ron snorted. “You two are so obvious,” he muttered.

But none of them would say a word more.

***

Harry agreed to teach extra DADA classes. Hermione immediately turned her considerable organisational skills to spreading the news, inviting any interested parties to meet with them in Hogsmeade. She was thrilled when Credence told her Queenie and Jacob would host the meeting at the bakery.

“That’ll be perfect! I was going to suggest the Hog’s Head, but it’s a bit too obvious, don’t you think? If we were under suspicion in the first place, meeting in that dodgy old pub is just asking to be followed by spies.”

“And Jacob now makes amazing baklava in the shape of an occamy nest. But to be honest I think that’s just him being lazy.”

Hermione stared at him, then laughed. “Credence Kowalski, I do believe that’s the first joke I’ve ever heard you make.”

They arrived in Hogsmeade early that weekend, Credence snuggled into his new jacket and feeling like he was wrapped in a warm hug. He walked through the drizzle, chatting with Harry, (Ron and Hermione had gone on ahead for some reason), and he felt like he might never stop smiling. School was still stressful, sometimes terrifying. He was still a refugee trying desperately to catch up with a completely different culture. There was still a war around the corner. But right at that point, Credence was with his best friend, going to meet two other best friends, and his adopted family, where he would eat delicious food, and then return to learn magic. He had never been happier in his life.

Harry waved at Ron and Hermione as they got to the village, and they ran over, grinning and nudging each other. Harry whispered in Ron’s ear, Hermione looked like she was almost bouncing up and down, and Credence laughed at the three of them. “What’s up with you guys? You're really that excited to be out of the castle?”

Hermione actually giggled. “Credence,” she said, nudging the two boys. He suddenly noticed the three of them were standing in a line, smiling at him. “We know it’s a few days late, but…” she dug her hand into her bag and pulled out a neatly wrapped parcel. “Happy birthday!”

“Happy birthday!” yelled the boys, handing another gift over. Credence’s mouth dropped open and he stared between the parcels and the three of them. “Go on,” said Ron, waggling the lumpy package. “Take it, open it, you know you want to.”

“You… you didn’t have to…”

“Of course we didn’t,” said Hermione, reaching up to hug him tight and kiss him on the cheek. “But we wanted to. You’re our friend.”

Credence knew they could all see the tears welling up in his eyes. He didn’t care. They were still smiling at him, still his friends. He opened two presents from the first people his own age that had wanted to give him the time of day. Hermione had got him a planner and a set of colourful quills, and Harry and Ron had pitched in together to get him a beautiful set of obsidian runestones. He cradled them in his hands. “Thank you,” he said, smiling up at them through the prickling behind his eyes.

Harry and Ron glanced at each other, then pulled him and Hermione together into a big, messy group hug.

***

He led them into the bakery, eager to introduce them to Jacob and Queenie. He felt himself flush with pride as he introduced him to his family, the snug little cafe warm and humid around loud laughter, the sweet smell of yeast and caramel heavy in their noses. Queenie hustled them over to a large table by the window, promising to listen out for any spies, and left them to market their DADA group.

Credence sat quietly to the side, watching their schoolmates gather. The people who’d come to gawp at the freak show, the people who were angry, the people who didn’t want to fail their exams, and those who knew what was coming. He wished he could do something to help Harry as he watched him tense up, stand in front of a roomful of his peers and stare at them each with a fierce intensity that made him feel like he could be that fierce too. Made him think he could follow this boy to war.

Made him wish he didn’t have to.

Queenie waved goodbye to the new soldiers as they left, then tugged Credence to the side as Jacob chatted to the others.

“That new friend of yours,” she said, dropping her voice.

“Harry?”

“Yeah, him. Honey, he’s hurting something awful, and you’re a good boy to take such good care of him—“

“I don’t really, Queenie,” he insisted, blushing. “If anything he takes care of me.”

“That’s not how he sees it,” she smiled, tilting her head at him. “But please don’t feel like you have to take responsibility for his pain.”

“If I can help him shoulder some of it…”

“That’s admirable. And he appreciates you being there for him. But listen, honey. Don’t you take it hard if he’s still angry and lashing out.”

“I really don’t know what there is to appreciate,” he mumbled.

“You don’t judge him. You’re just quiet, and you listen, and you let him be. And right now, that’s exactly what he needs.”

Credence felt a pleased warmth rise up his neck and Queenie smiled, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “You’re good for each other, I think,” she said. “But don’t let that become an obligation. Just be you. And yes, sweetie. That is enough.”

He smiled and ducked his head as she kissed him on the cheek, then handed him a pink box of takeaway pastries and waved the four of them out.

“Oh, honey,” she called, as they were one foot out of the door. “I nearly forgot, wait there! Where is it?” She bustled around the counter, then ran up to him. “Here it is! Tina sent you a letter.” She gave him one last kiss, then waved once more. “Bye, all of you. Come back any time!”

Credence noticed Ron making eyes at the takeaway box before they were even half way back to Hogwarts. He laughed and handed it over.

“Ron!” said Hermione. “I can’t believe you - after all those thunderbird tartlets as well!”

“I’m a growing boy,” he frowned, then made delighted noises at the cakes.

She rolled her eyes. “Pass me one of those demiguise petit fours, then, will you?”

Credence chuckled at them and cracked the seal on Tina’s letter.

Then froze in the middle of the path.

“Credence?” said Harry. “You OK?”

“Yeah,” he said, but his heart was beating high in the back of his throat. “It’s just… they’re coming here for Christmas.”

“Who’s coming?” he demanded, and Credence felt a flash of guilt for setting off Harry’s hypervigilance.

“Tina and Mr Graves. The ones who… who got me out.”

“OK,” said Harry, relaxing slightly. “What does that mean?”

“Nothing bad, I don’t think. I just…” he bit his lip. “What if I’m a disappointment?”

He could feel himself hunching, blinking up at Harry through his fringe. Harry frowned. “Why would you…” He sighed, his eyebrows crinkling and put his hand on Credence’s shoulder. “Look,” he said after a moment. “It’s not like they had any specific aims in saving you, did they? In fact, they thought you were a muggle at first, right?”

Credence nodded, still miserable. He didn’t know if he should feel better that Mr Graves expected him to be useless. “I still… I don’t want them to feel like they made such an effort, risked so much… just for me.”

Ron snorted, and Credence jumped. He hadn’t noticed him and Hermione walking back to them. “That’s not going to happen, mate. First of all, you’re a bloody brilliant wizard. I think McGonagall wants to keep you in every transfiguration class. You’ve caught up so fast it’s making us all look useless. Well, maybe not Hermione.”

“I’m at the bottom of all my classes!”

“No you’re not. You're not at the top, sure, but no way are you still at the bottom any more. And anyway, you’re also trying to catch up on four years of work.”

“And besides all that,” said Hermione, linking her arm with his. “You’re worth it for just being you. Just for being Credence.”

“Really?” he almost whispered.

“We’re quite fond of just-Credence,” grinned Harry, and they walked back to school in the fading light.

Chapter Text

Credence sat at the edge of the lake with his hands clenched so tightly his knuckles ached. He almost missed the obscurus, the way it would billow out of him when the pain and fear got too much, the way it filled the room with its darkness. One day he knew it would have broken its bounds and torn through the city, ripping, tearing, expressing his fear as fury the way he never could.

DADA lessons were getting harder, not easier. It seemed like he spent every moment in the presence of that woman with his heart thundering, his teeth clenched so hard he thought they might shatter. Every time someone got a detention he would flinch as if it was his own indiscretion being punished, as if Umbridge would turn that toad-like gaze on him and in Mary-Lou’s voice say “belt now, Credence.”

“Credence? Is that you?”

He jumped violently and looked up at Newt, emerging from the forest with tattered robes and hair sprinkled with twigs and leaves. “Are you alright?” Newt asked, approaching him the way he did his most dangerous animals. It was a compliment, he knew. Those were Newt’s favourites. “May I sit?”

Credence nodded and shifted on the stone unnecessarily. Newt sat next to him and looked out over the lake, flicking debris out of his hair. Credence smiled and brushed off the back of his black robes

“How’s Hogwarts treating you?” he asked, stroking a finger over Picket who slipped out from behind his collar.

“Well, thank you.”

“I see you’ve made a good group of friends. I’m glad you’ve found your place here. Are you enjoying your lessons?”

Credence hadn't realised he was smiling until it fell from his face. Newt looked directly at him. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s… nothing, it’s fine. School is good - wonderful. Thank you so much for bringing me here.”

“If there’s a problem, I won’t think you ungrateful,” Newt said.

Credence sighed and hunched over his knees. “It’s… DADA is… uh… stressful.”

Newt squeezed Credence’s hand with a sigh. “Ah. Yes. I suppose… just keep your head down in her class, and she won’t pay you any mind?” He huffed and looked over the lake. “After all, what’s the worst she can do to you?”

Credence walked slowly back up to Gryffindor tower afterwards, Newt’s words buzzing in his head. What was the worst she could do? Give him detention. Make him cut words into the back of his own hand. Perhaps beat him some other way. Would she really ever be as bad as Mary-Lou Barebone? Credence had scars littering his back and arms, and he’d survived.

The idea that he had survived before, and that, perhaps, it had made him stronger as opposed to weak and a victim, lit a fire in his blood. It throbbed with his heartbeat, hot where the obscurus had been cold and fearful. When his classmates - his friends - raised their hands in class, he was afraid for them still, but now the fear was limned with anger at the injustice of it all.

It didn’t feel like a change was happening until he put his hand up in potions class to ask for help, and realised as Professor Snape walked away, that he wasn’t shaking. Until he’d corrected Professor Babbling on reading ansuz as uruz, and then laughed along with the rest of the class when the teacher joked about his deliberate mistake.

And then Padma Patil put her hand up in DADA and asked how they were expected to learn the wand movements for finite incantatem if they were never going to practice.

“I’ve told you before, dear, you’re never going to need to use counter curses in my classroom.”

“But what about in real life?”

“Hand, Mr Finnegan.”

Three hands shot up into the air and Umbridge sighed. “Really, year five. This paranoia is most unbecoming. No-one is going to attack children.”

Credence slammed his hands on the desk and stood, his heart thundering in his ears, ignoring the gasps around him and Harry trying to pull him back down. “You are deluding yourself if you think our age is going to keep us safe. There are people out there who don’t care how old we are, and there are people who will target us because of our age.”

Umbridge turned to him and a smile insinuated itself over her face. She looked as if someone had just given her an unexpected gift. “Detention, Mr Barebone.”

“It’s Kowalski.”

“My office. Six pm tonight.”

“Why did you do that?” hissed Harry as he sat back down. Credence gave him a flat glare, and Harry rolled his eyes and went back to designing a DADA syllabus under the cover of his textbook.

***

Credence had worked himself up into frantic anxiety by the time six pm rolled around. No matter how often he told himself that she couldn’t be as bad as Mary Lou.

But what if she was worse?

His hands shook. Umbridge noticed, and her bulging eyes gleamed. “You will write the words ‘I must not tell lies’ over and over until I’m satisfied you have learned your lesson. Do we understand each other, my pet?”

Credence sat in silence and picked up the quill. He flinched as the first letter scratched itself onto the back of his hand, and suppressed a shudder as Umbridge’s tongue flicked out to wet her lips. He wondered if playing up the pain would be enough to satisfy her, or if his weakness would infuriate her, like it did Ma - Mary Lou. The shame burned under his ribs, and he grit his teeth in anger. I must not tell lies, he wrote, and the letters took a little longer to fade.

But he hadn’t lied. The letters squirmed over scars and skin permanently discoloured by years of beatings.

Credence very rarely lied. Not because it was amoral, or a sin, but because Mary-Lou almost always found out, and then the punishment would be ten times worse. Instead, he stayed silent so he never had to lie. He watched the patronising imperative bloom and flare time and time again, and the roar of his heartbeat ignited the anger in his chest again.

He clenched his fingers around the quill.

I did not tell lies

I did not tell lies

I did not tell lies

I did not tell lies

Every line fuelled the furnace in his chest, and the quill skittered across the page, drawing his own blood to the surface of his skin.

At nine, Umbridge held out her hand for his, a cruel little smile playing around the corners of her mouth. He held his arm out, like he had done for Mary-Lou, only this time he squared his shoulders, looked her in the eye and told himself the muscle clenching in his jaw was from anger, not fear.

“This is not what I told you to write, Mr Barebone.”

“It’s Kowalski.”

“You haven’t been taking this punishment very seriously, have you, Mr Barebone?” She tutted sadly, her powder scented curls shaking. “I suppose you’d better come back tomorrow night, too.”

“It’s Kowalski.”

“Off you go then, dear. Try to pay better attention if you want your free time.”

Yes, thought Credence. The loss of his free time was the real issue here. He rubbed the back of his hand, and clenched his fists to stop them shaking. It looked like this battle was going to last longer than he’d hoped.

He thought of Harry, standing up to his uncle and asking to be hit again, daring him to try and break his spirit. He thought of Tina and Graves, risking their jobs because of him, because they believed they were doing the right thing. He thought of the sorting hat putting him in Gryffindor just because he’d wanted to be brave.

Chapter Text

Credence didn’t mention his second detention to anyone, just wandered off after dinner and stood at Umbridge’s door, his chin up.

“Do come in, Mr Barebone.”

“It’s Kowalski.” Muggle solders were restricted to three pieces of information under enemy questioning. Credence clung to his response like a life raft.

“Sit down,” she said, stirring three sugars into her tea. “Now, remember, your sentence is ‘I must not tell lies’.”

Credence picked up the quill and tried to steady his breathing, tried to take in a deeper breath without showing such weakness.

I did not tell lies

“No, dear, that’s not what I said, now, is it?” Umbridge asked, a sharp trace seeping into the syrupy sweetness of her tone. “I must, not I did. Try again.”

I did not tell lies

“You are not listening to me, Mr Barebone.”

“It’s Kowalski.”

I did not tell lies

“Now wait—“

I did not tell lies

It’s ‘I must’, not—“

I did not tell lies

She slammed her hand flat on the table. Credence jumped, the quill trembling in his hand. Kittens meowed softly in their frames.

Credence touched the point of the quill to the paper and tried to overlook the three taps of metal on paper before he gained enough control to write.

I did not tell lies

“Very well,” she said softly. “If that’s how we’re playing, so be it. You will continue to attend detention with me from six to nine every night until you write the correct sentence, do you understand, Mr Barebone?”

“It’s Kowalski.”

I did not tell lies

***

His friends noticed the following morning. “Haven’t those scars faded?” Harry asked. “Mine were gone the morning after that first detention.”

Credence just shrugged, and Ron narrowed his eyes at him. “Where were you last night, Credence?”

Harry’s gaze snapped up to him, and Credence sighed. “I got a second night’s detention.”

“What?” said Hermione, her mouth full of toast. “What for?”

He held his hand out to her. “Oh, Credence,” she said. “What were you thinking?”

He shook his head. “I’m tired of being told what to think. I didn’t lie, and she can’t make me believe that.”

“But what are you going to do? She won’t give up, you know that.”

“Neither will I,” he said softly. “I’ve had worse.”

He tried to tell himself that on the fourth day, when the skin broke and blood dripped onto the paper, smudged as he slid his hand along to write. Remembered blood trickling down his hands from Mary Lou’s discipline. That had been worse, he told himself, because he hadn’t had friends waiting for him. He’d been alone. Even if she kicked him out of Hogwarts, he still had Newt and the Kowalskis. He pressed the nib to the paper and wrote another line.

The story started to spread. The Weasley twins took to saluting him whenever they saw him. A group of third years wrote ‘I did not tell lies’ on the backs of their own hands and the trend spread quickly and quietly.

And then there was Snape.

“Kowalski, I hope you have an excuse for the catastrophic mess you call handwriting on this homework. Ten points from Gryffindor.”

“Sorry, Professor,” he said, and held out his hand for the parchment.

Snape grabbed his wrist. Credence flinched and tried to pull back. His hands were still somewhat of a trigger, perhaps even more so now. For a moment, panic flared in his chest, but Snape released him almost immediately, his face expressionless.

He took steadying breaths and pressed a hanky to the words, which had split open again when he tried to pull away. He was going to have to start wearing bandages in the daytime as well, soon.

Snape walked to the front of the class, flicking his wand at the board. “We will be working on an advanced potion not on the syllabus today,” he said. “The haemaecorpus elixir reduces pain and bleeding, and while it can be produced from readily accessible ingredients the method is exact and almost certainly beyond the skill set of this class.” He turned, his cloak rippling, his lip curled in the usual sneer. “Consider it a challenge to see if you can manage to get more than two fo the eight steps right.”

The class stared at him in silence.

“Get on with it.”

Credence had never been in such a dedicated potions lesson. Even Harry set to his task with a focus usually reserved for Quidditch. Credence stared round the class and felt warmth bloom in his throat.

“Mr Kowalski, if you are expecting a silver plated invitation to begin, you are doomed to certain disappointment,” snapped Snape, but Credence was smiling when he bent his head to grind the bloodstone.

At the end of the lesson he walked out with a vial of potion not completely the wrong colour. Hermione dropped her own sample in his hand where it shimmered a perfect green. “I copied it down off the board and checked it twice. I know I can make as much as you need.”

“Thank you, Hermione.”

She smiled and patted his shoulder before catching up with Ron. Credence turned to talk to Harry, but he wasn’t there. He walked back to the potions class, his feet slowing as he approached the door.

“What are you still lingering for, Mr Potter?”

“I… I wanted to say… thank you, sir.”

Snape snorted. “I assure you, it was not for your benefit.”

“No, I know that,” said Harry, and Credence could visualise the eye roll. “I just… Credence doesn’t deserve her shit.”

Credence was surprised and warmed by Harry’s vehemence, and slightly embarrassed. He smiled down at his shoes and his fingers tightened on the strap of his bag. He was so lucky to have friends like these.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Snape replied. “Now get out of my sight before I take points for loitering.”

“OK,” said Harry. “Thanks anyway.”

***

Credence continued to get detentions with Umbridge, and continued to write the wrong thing. His hand bled sluggishly even though a thick layer of Hermione’s potion (and Parvarti’s, and Terry Boot’s). But he wasn’t sure which had the greatest painkilling effect, the potion, or the power he started to feel swelling in his bones every time he saw Umbridge grit her teeth and fail to intimidate him.

Dumbledore’s Army was meeting now, and Harry trained a roomful of his peers. Credence saw him stand taller every time one of them succeeded in casting a shield or disarming an opponent.

Professor Snape taught them how to brew chameleon draughts and the magical equivalent of molotov cocktails. He flaunted his strengthening draught during one of Umbridge’s observations, and Harry didn’t even grit his teeth too hard when he had his tar-like concoction vanished again. The other teachers seemed to have caught on, too. McGonagall taught them to transfigure branches into swords and spectacles into foe-glasses, while Flitwick spent a few minutes each lesson describing various hexes ‘for hypothetical purposes only, of course.’ Notes were never taken for those.

Credence wasn't sure how well aware Umbridge was of her colleagues’ subtle rebellion, but every evening at detention the edge of menace in her voice became more brittle. She snapped quicker and struck the desk sooner. Credence still had to take deep breaths every time he rose from dinner to face the pain that was starting to overpower even the strongest potion, but he felt the soul of his fellow students at his back, pushing him on, moving his hand in the right wrong sentence.

And then, without any warning, it was over. Umbridge hurled the quill and parchment across her office one night a month after the first punishment. “That is enough, Mr Barebone! Never, in all my years, have I had the displeasure of dealing with such an intractable child! I refuse to teach you a moment longer - you shall take your lessons in the library and see how far that gets you when you have to face the OWL examiners. You… you wicked boy! Get out of my sight!”

Credence flinched at the first movement, and his heart was still hammering when he stood on weak knees and left the office in silence. His blood fizzed like champagne as he walked back to the common room, but there was a strange trace of something new under the well worn anxiety. This was what victory tasted like. This was how power felt.

Like magic.

Chapter Text

Winter crept across Hogwarts, bringing a biting wind that forced itself between bones and drove snow into the corridors around the courtyard. Credence spent his DADA lessons researching new spells for Harry to teach in the room of requirement, or catching up on his homework for other classes.

Umbridge seemed to have stopped giving out lines for detention. She’d probably figured out that ninety percent of Gryffindor at least were eager to throw themselves on a sword just so they emulate Credence’s act of defiance. This was never a situation he’d ever dreamed he’d be in.

One afternoon, as Credence and Hermione walked Harry and Ron back from a rare Quiddich practice, Newt called across the field for them. “Credence,” he said, his eyes alight with excitement. “They’re here - with Queenie and Jacob. Tina and Graves, they arrived this morning!”

His stomach did a flip-flop. “They’re here? But… but they’re early, why?”

“I’m sure we’ll find out on Saturday,” he smiled. “We’ve been invited to dinner.” He turned to the others. “Queenie said your friends are welcome too.”

“Oh, that’s too kind of her,” said Hermione, flustered. “We don’t want to intrude.”

“Speak for yourself,” Ron said, elbowing her. “I’ll intrude if it means I get more of those pastries.”

“Ronald!”

“What? You’ve tried them!”

Newt did his nervous little half smile, flickering glances between them from under his fringe. “They’ll be delighted to have you. Meet me at Hagrid’s hut at noon?”

“You’re still in Hagrid’s hut?” Harry frowned. “Where’s Hagrid living now he’s back?”

“Oh, he still has his hut,” Newt assured him. “But he’s kindly let me leave my suitcase in a corner, and I sleep there with the animals.”

“Wait,” said Hermione. “You sleep on the suitcase?”

“No, no, I sleep in my suitcase.” He smiled, bright and rapid, and trotted off with the English kids gaping after him.

Credence snorted at their expressions. “Undetectable extension charm,” he explained.

“Oh,” said Hermione with a relieved smile. The boys just looked blank. They spent the walk back explaining it to them.

***

Credence tried to at least act unconcerned for the rest of the week. Like he didn’t drift off into daydreams about Tina smiling proudly at him when he demonstrated that bubblehead charm he’d been struggling with for weeks, or showing her how well he could defend himself now. About Graves smiling to see him, of Graves telling him how brave he was for standing up to Umbridge. Of the pride in his eyes when he told him he’d learned to do the right thing from him and Tina.

Of Grave’s hand on his face like that day back in New York. Imagining Graves leaning forward when Credence had, their lips meeting, his blunt fingers moving into Credence’s hair, cradling his face as their tongues touched.

Credence blushed and tore his gaze away from the open window and back to the bullrush he was trying to transfigure into a gramophone. Why a gramophone anyway? What was wrong with a radio, honestly?

By the time Saturday arrived Credence was in a state of euphoric anxiety. He changed his clothes about fifteen times that morning. Harry proved what an amazing friend he was once again by not laughing out loud at him, and talking Dean into lending him one of his t-shirts when he spilled ketchup all over the one he had finally chosen.

He was vibrating as he walked into Jacob and Queenie’s bakery. The usually mouth-watering smell just made him feel sick. “Oh, honey,” said Queenie, giving him a kiss and a sly smile. Credence blushed and tried to think of anything but Graves’ smile. “C’mon,” Queenie said, tilting her head towards the living room.

He was torn between racing to the door and rooting his feet to the floor. The room emerged around the corner and Credence’s heart beat out of his chest as Graves stood and turned. The black hair of his undercut was freckled with a single patch of premature white, and warm brown eyes crinkled into a smile. “Credence,” he said, his voice warm, so warm Credence could feel his heart melting.

“You’re looking great,” said Tina, jumping up to give him a hug. “It’s so good to see you!”

Graves followed her up to him, and for one glorious moment he thought he was going to get a hug from him too, but Graves just squeezed his shoulder. “How’s school going?”

“Good,” he breathed. The warmth of Graves’ hand on his upper arm burned through his borrowed t-shirt and heated his blood. “Uh, these are my friends. Harry, Hermione and Ron.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Graves, moving his hand away to shake theirs. Credence felt himself sway towards him, chasing that touch.

This lunch was going to be painful.

Newt and Tina approached each other shyly, almost sideways, and Credence distracted himself from his own pining by mentally cooing over Newt’s blush when Tina pulled him into a hug. Hermione nudged Credence and grinned. Ron and Harry were too busy worshiping the occamy palmiers.

“Come and sit, everyone,” called Queenie, and Credence found himself facing Graves across the table as potatoes and parsnips roasted themselves over their head, and a rack of lamb browned and sizzled.

Jacob smiled at Credence, shaking his head. “I will never get tired of watching that.”

“Merlin’s balls,” Ron breathed. “How come my mum’s cooking never looked like that?”

“Your mum’s cooking is amazing,” said Harry.

“Aww,” Queenie grinned. “My food charms are pretty showy,” she admitted. “Looks like your mom favours efficiency.”

“Hardly surprising with seven of you,” said Hermione.

“How long are you guys in England for?” Jacob asked Tina and Graves once he’d carved the meat and handed the plates around the table.

The aurors looked at each other. “Well, that might be a permanent thing,” Tina said.

Queenie dropped her cutlery and gaped at her sister. “You quit your jobs?”

Tina rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Queenie, I was gonna break it a little easier than that, but yeah.”

“What happened?” Newt asked, looking from one to the other.

Graves shook his head. “It wasn’t any one big thing. Just… this whole last year, it’s just highlighted all the things wrong with our system. I used to think I could change it from within, but now… I’m just tired of failing people who need help.”

“You didn’t fail,” blurted Credence, and immediately blushed. This was probably absolutely nothing to do with him, and now everyone was going to be disgusted with his self-centredness.

But Graves’ face softened into a fond smile. “Thanks, Credence. But right from the beginning Tina and I were breaking our own laws by helping you. We’re aurors, we got into this job to help people. But we’re expected to turn our backs on a fifteen year old kid being beaten bloody just because everyone thought you were a no-maj? If someone else had found Tina that day she’d have been demoted! Or, if they’d seen your obscurus… well, that would have been even worse. You could have been taken into custody, or…” he shook his head, looking down at his plate. “We were breaking the laws we swore to uphold, because the law is wrong.”

Tina nodded. “It’s the same thing with Queenie and Jacob. By MACUSA law I was obliged to throw my little sister into prison and obliviate the love of her life.”

Jacob’s eyes went all puppy-wide. “I’m the love of your life?”

Queenie looked surprised and took his hand. “Of course. I’ve never felt anywhere near what I feel when I’m with you.” She stroked his cheek and kissed him. Hermione leaned on her hand and smiled dreamily at them, and Credence didn’t think he was in a much better state.

“Ugh, get a room, you two,” snorted Tina.

“Anyway,” said Graves, picking the story back up. “Theseus floo-called me a few weeks back, telling me all about your situation,” he nodded at Harry, “and the ministry’s reaction. Or lack thereof.”

“It just felt like we could be more use here,” Tina finished.

Credence looked at Harry’s shocked expression and felt his heart swell again. These people… these were the best people. They’d saved his life, given him everything, and now they’d uprooted themselves to travel thousands of miles to fight a war they had no need to, all because it felt like the right thing to do.”

“So you’re joining the order too, then?” asked Newt.

Harry’s head whipped around to him. “You know about the order, professor?”

Newt nodded. “My brother Theseus was in the original order. He was the year below your parents, actually, Harry.” He turned back to Graves. “But how do you know Thes?”

Graves shifted awkwardly and glanced at Credence. “He came over to the states on an auror exchange. We, uh… we dated for a while.”

Newt stared, then banged his hand on the table and pointed. “You’re that Percy!”

Graves flushed red all the way up to the short hairs on the back of his head. “I told him not to call me that,” he muttered into his dinner.

Credence gripped his knife and decided he hated Theseus Scamander. Just because he embarrassed Graves, that was all. He caught Hermione frowning at him and forced his grip to relax.

“Yes,” said Tina. “We’re joining the order. We’re heading to HQ to get our tasks over Christmas.”

Newt smiled. “Credence and I will meet you there, then.”

Credence’s heart stuttered and he barely heard Harry excitedly telling them about Sirius. He was going to see Graves every day over the Christmas holiday. A whole month of opportunities to talk to him and earn one of his deep laughs, maybe even a pat on the shoulder, or… or maybe he would put his hand on his cheek once more. That was all he could think of. He had to keep it plausible, had to keep his expectations low, because that’s the most he could ever have from someone like Graves. Someone as amazing as him could never even look twice at a silly kid like Credence. Look at him. He was so beautiful, the deep almost-black of his eyes, the crinkles in his forehead whenever he looked up or raised his eyebrows, the impossibly perfect shape of his face…
Credence jumped and turned to Hermione. He could have sworn she had just kicked him, but she was looking away and talking to Jacob about somewhere they’d both been. He frowned, and went back to his neglected food.

***

It was dark by the time they walked back to school, Newt leading the way and telling Harry and Ron about his niffler befriending a unicorn in the forbidden forrest. Apparently it was so shiny that Henry had fallen instantly in love and kept cuddling it. Newt had given up tempting him away and was, instead, thinking of naming the unicorn Patrick.

“Credence,” said Hermione, and he jumped. She moved so quietly! “Sorry,” she gasped. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s OK,” he smiled. “I’ve always been jumpy.” He frowned to see her biting her lip. He recognised that expression from most of her recent conversations with Harry. “Is everything alright?”

“It’s just… do you…” She huffed in frustration and looked at him properly. “You have a… a thing with Mr Graves, don’t you?”

Credence immediately flamed red, but still attempted to deny it. “What? That’s ridiculous.”

“Oh, Credence,” she sighed. “He’s too old for you.”

“He’s not old! He’s thirty two.”

“Which is more than twice your age, Credence, and you look at him the way Harry looks at Cho.”

He hunched his shoulders and shoved his hands in his pocket. Hermione slipped her arm into his and leaned her head against his shoulder. “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“Graves would never hurt me. He saved me. Him and Tina.”

“Exactly,” she said. “So you’re grateful to him, and—“

“I can tell the difference between love and gratitude, Hermione.”

Her fingers tightened on his arm. “Love?”

His heart shrank back away from the involuntary confession, but he forced himself to stand tall and nod.

“This is… illegal,” she said, her voice softer than before. “And amoral. There’s such a power imbalance, Credence, it’s—“

“I know,” he almost snapped. “I know. But don’t worry, it’s unrequited.”

“Is it?” She sounded surprised. “I thought… I was sure the two of you were in a secret relationship, the way you look at each other and carefully don’t sit together, but always know where the other is, like, all the time.”

Credence laughed. “You’re reading way too much into things.”

She just frowned, but more thoughtful now than unhappy. “Well, good,” she said at last. “I mean, not good about the whole unrequited love thing, sorry. But I’m glad you’re not in some creepy secret relationship with someone so much older than you. The power dynamic is just totally wrong.”

Credence didn’t say anything. Didn’t say that he wouldn’t care how much more power Graves had. He would have taken anything Graves wanted to offer.

Chapter Text

Then came the morning the fifth year boys woke to shouts, to Harry writhing and screaming on his bed, Ron and McGonagall hauling him to Dumbledore’s office. Dean, Seamus, Neville and Credence looked nervously at each other, too shocked to fall back to sleep.

Hermione came running over to him in the common room when it was finally a socially acceptable time to get up. “Credence, what’s going on? Harry and all the Weasleys are gone.”

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice lowered. “Harry had some sort of nightmare or vision about Ron’s dad, and Professor McGonagall took them both away.”

She chewed on her bottom lip. “It’ll be fine. I’m sure it will. It was… probably just a precaution.”

But Harry and the Weasleys stayed conspicuous in their absence. They took heart from Umbridge’s foul mood, at least they hadn’t been expelled or put in some sort of chintz torture chamber. But it wasn’t until transfiguration that they got some answers.

“Professor?” said Credence, approaching her desk once the rest of the class had left. “We were wondering if there’s any news…” Hermione leaned in, nodding.

McGonagall looked from face to face, then finally let out a small sigh. “Mr Potter is fine. But his… vision was unfortunately proven correct.”

Hermione sucked in a sharp breath and covered her mouth. “Mr Weasley… is he—”

“He’s in St Mungo’s,” she interrupted kindly. “Thankfully the order were able to find him in time. The Weasleys have decided to stay in London over Christmas with Harry and Sirius, so you, Mr Kowalski, will be seeing them in a few days. Please try not to worry. Everything is in hand, I assure you.”

They walked to the library, talking quietly, speculating. “I think I’m going to call my parents,” Hermione said, tucking an uncooperative lock of hair behind her ear. “Do you think I could travel to London with you?”

“Are you sure?” he asked, eyebrows up in his hairline. “You’ve been looking forward to skiing all term.”

She flapped her hand dismissively. “I can ski any time. But this…” she frowned and sank down onto a windowsill. “You know Harry, Credence. You know he’ll blame himself for this somehow. And ever since Cedric died he’s been… unpredictable. He just gets so angry all the time, and defensive. I’m… I’m worried about him. He’s my best friend, and he’s such a kind and loyal person, he’d literally do anything for anyone no matter how much it took from him, and I’m scared that kindness is going to get stomped out of him because he just can’t seem to catch a break.”

She thumped her fists down on her knees and looked away, her chin dimpling and wobbling as she held back tears. Credence sat next to her and slid one arm around her shoulder. They sat like that while the castle clattered with life around them, and Hermione wiped away the tears that wouldn’t stop falling.

***

As soon as school finished that Friday, Hermione and Credence met Newt at Hagrid’s hut. “Are you ready to go?” he asked, slinging his turquoise coat over his shoulders and chucking his balled up professor’s robes into the suitcase. He watched the black fabric land on the floor of his little workshop with a small smile. “I hate those things,” he said. “They just get in the way.”

Hermione gazed wistfully into the suitcase. “I wish I knew how he did that,” she murmured to Credence. “I’ve been reading up on the spell but I’ve only managed to enlarge my pockets around twenty percent and it doesn’t seem to work on anything larger than a little bag.”

“I can show you the modifications I made to the charm if you like,” said Newt, and Hermione jumped, flushing as she realised he’d heard every word. “It’s really just a case of making the movements proportionally larger on both the upsweep and the flick, while keeping all the other motions the same size around the central axis.”

Her eyes grew wide. “Really? I was experiment with changes in the incantation’s volume, but it didn’t have any effect.”

He shook his head and led the way out, suitcase swinging lightly at his side, no hint that there was an entire sanctuary inside. “I’ve never tried anything to do with the spell itself. I was so used to non-verbal magic by the time I learned it that it never really occurred to me. This is really a very advanced charm, Ms Granger, where did you learn it?”

Credence grinned and nudged his blinking friend. “She read up on it when she found out about your suitcase.”

Newt nodded as if it wasn’t the most dedicated thing in the world. “I learned a lot of my favourite spells outside of the classroom. Have you read Vishnu Saramaltharanan’s work on imbibing otherwise unmagical objects with power so that they act as a conduit? It’s incredibly useful if you tend to break your wand.”

Hermione looked at Newt like he’d hung the moon and stars, and by the time they had arrived at The Occamy she had taken a little quill and a pice of paper out of her pocket and was frantically making a reading list.

Queenie hugged everyone at the door, hustling them inside to meet Jacob, Tina and Graves. Credence’s heart did a little flip to see the man wearing his long black coat with the white lining, the same one he used to wear to work in New York. It sent a pang of almost homesickness though him, a longing for the peace of that old Brownstone apartment.

“You sure you don’t want to stay here for the holidays, Credence?” said Jacob, with his hand on his shoulder.

Credence liked the warm weight of it. It was paternal, safe. But he smiled and shook his head. “I’m worried about Harry and the others,” he admitted. “But I’ll come stay for Passover, if that’s OK? If I’m allowed as a goy?”

“Of course, honey!” Queenie’s eyes glittered suspiciously and she hugged him tight.

Tina grinned at him as well. “She’ll have you converting before you know it. Enjoy Christmas while you still can.”

Jacob’s head snapped up. “Wait, we’re still having turkey on the twenty fifth, right?”

Queenie smacked his arm playfully. “You’re a terrible Jew.”

“Hey, shush, you. I’m just open minded. Especially when it comes to food. Remember those Diwali sweets we made in November? And I’ve got an idea for some date and rose-glazed pastries ready for Idd-ul-Fitr.”

“I’ll have to send you my mum’s mince pie recipe,” laughed Hermione.

Credence just shrugged. “It’ll be my first Christmas,” he admitted. “We didn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays.”

Everyone was silent for a beat, and he felt guilty for ruining the mood. “Well,” said Graves, squeezing his shoulder and sparking through his heart. “We’ll have to make sure we make it a good one, won’t we?”

They said their last goodbyes. Tina, with a blush, even stepped forward to kiss Newt on the cheek! The others hid their smiles and turned away to let Newt’s brain reset itself.

Once he’d recovered, he put his hand on Hermione’s shoulder and nodded to Graves. “Know where we’re going?”

Graves nodded back, and held onto Credence once more. Credence tried not to turn his body towards him so obviously, but he was sure he was failing. And then, with a crack, they disapparated, and Credence stumbled onto tarmac, his stomach swirling. Graves put his other hand on Credence’s chest to stop him falling. “You OK?”

He nodded and straightened up. They had moved hundreds of miles in that instant, and were standing in a dingy London street. The two men looked around before walking forward to the space between eleven and thirteen Grimmauld Place, and as Credence followed, number twelve appeared, pushing its neighbours apart and insinuating itself between them.

Graves went to ring the doorbell, but Hermione squeaked and stopped him. “Sorry, Mr Graves, but one of the portraits wakes up every time we make too much noise and it takes ages to settle her down.”

She knocked softly instead, and after a few moments a thin man with wild black hair opened the door and looked blankly at them. “Hi, Sirius.” Hermione waved.

“Oh, it’s you, Hermione.”

“This is Professor Scamander and Mr Graves, and Credence.”

He nodded. “Dumbledore did mention you. Come on in, the more the merrier.”

They kept as quiet as possible through the hallway, and turned into a large kitchen, warm and fragrant with tea and platters piled high with sandwiches. “Hermione!” cried Ginny, running over to give her a hug. The other Weasleys were quick to follow, and Credence felt like he was being passed from person to person until eventually the tide subsided, leaving just Hermione, Ron, Ginny and himself behind.

“Where’s Harry?” asked Hermione.

Ron and Ginny exchanged glances. “He’s upstairs,” said Ron.

“He’s sulking,” Ginny snapped. “He won’t talk to any of us, won’t even come down to eat - ever since that bloody extendable ear.”

Hermione rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath about Fred and George. “What did you hear?”

“Something about a weapon that the Order’s been guarding,” said Ron. “And… and they’re wondering how You-Know-Who got into Harry’s head.”

“He thinks he’s been possessed,” said Ginny angrily. “And he won’t give us a chance to talk to him about it.”

“Right,” sighed Hermione. “Come on. Let’s go sort the idiot out.”

Chapter Text

Once Ginny had assured Harry he couldn’t have been possessed, he looked as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Almost instantly, the energy in the house lightened, and everyone exhaled.

It was strange that a secret, creepy old building, surrounded by people preparing for war, could be so warm and full of laughter. Credence was overwhelmed by the fact that people had bought him more gifts, and so close to his birthday as well! Mrs Weasley was determined to feed him and Harry constantly, and they both wore warm jumpers with their first initial knitted on the front, grins so wide their cheeks ached.

Harry told his godfather about the DA, and Sirius’ eyes lit up with glee. “Just like your father,” he grinned.

“We should ask some of the adults if they can teach us some good spells,” said Credence, and Hermione, who’d been practicing the undetectable extension charm with Newt, nodded eagerly.

They didn’t expect the opposition from quite so many of the adults, though. Mrs Weasley was the most vocal opponent, which Credence could have predicted by then. But even Tonks and Newt were uncertain about teaching them DADA. Snape just sneered, of course.

“Leave it to us,” said Tonks kindly. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Harry threw up his hands. “It’s not like we just go looking for trouble,” he said. Credence noticed a couple of people raising their eyebrows. “OK, fine, sometimes we do, but a lot of the time we’re being attacked. OK, some of the time. My point is, we find ourselves in these situations for whatever reason, and we need to know how to protect ourselves and each other.”

“I’ll teach you,” said Graves.

Mrs Weasley spluttered. “You’re only encouraging them!”

Graves shook his head. “Sounds to me like they’re going to get into trouble no matter what. Surely it’s better that they can handle themselves in any situation?”

Mrs Weasley stomped off, and Credence beamed at Graves.

They found a large room on the second floor and gathered as Graves and Sirius discussed which spells to teach. It was like the DA, only Credence’s hands trembled with proximity to Graves, and his stomach fizzed in anticipation. He was trying so hard to impress him that sweat broke out on his forehead. He wondered if this is how Cho Chang felt when Harry taught, after he fudged a simple protego every time Graves came near.

“Just relax,” Graves said, standing in front of him and cupping both shoulder in his broad palms. “You’re doing great, Credence.”

“I promise I’m usually better than this,” he said ruefully, glancing up at him.

Graves smiled. “I have no doubt. Now, take a deep breath and try again?”

Credence deliberately lowered his shoulders and lifted his wand arm. He was about to cast the shield when he remembered something Harry had shown them last term. Nobody had been able to do it for long, but surely now, with Graves standing beside him, smiling at him…

“Protego maxima!” he shouted, and a green dome swelled to fill the room, gathering all of his friends under a glittering umbrella.

“Woah!” yelled Ron. “Good one, Credence!”

A bright grin burst across his face, and he chanced a look at Graves, hoping to see some satisfaction, maybe a little pride, validation that his sacrifices hadn’t been for nothing. Instead, Graves was staring in wonder at the shield, his mouth open in amazement. “Credence,” he murmured. “You really are amazing.” His hand slipped from his shoulder to the back of his neck, and he turned awestruck brown eyes to him. Credence couldn’t resist leaning into the touch, angling his head towards him, just wanting to be close and soak up this admiration.

The hand vanished from his neck and Graves took a stumbling step back, clearing his throat. “I mean. That’s excellent, kid. Great… uh, great spellwork." He gave him a crooked smile and a thumbs up, and spent the rest of the lesson at the opposite end of the room.

***

Harry nudged him at the end of the lesson. “C’mon, let’s go see if we can find the grindylow in the pond.”

Credence gave him a weak smile. “OK, I”ll just go get my coat from upstairs.”

“What’s it doing up there?”

He shrugged. “I forgot to take it off when I came in yesterday. See you down there?”

He slipped his wand in his pocket as he ran back up the stairs, but Sirius’ voice made him jump as he went past the practice room. “…just a kid, he’s the same age as Harry, for Merlin’s sake!”

“I know.”

It was Graves. Credence flung himself against the wall, ears straining.

“And you’re how old?”

“Sirius, I know,” Graves growled.

“You’re almost old enough to be his father, but the way you look at him, it’s… it’s disgusting.”

There was a creaking of floorboards and a rustle of material. “I fucking know, OK, Sirius? Why do you think I sent him away?”

The two men were silent for a moment, and even without seeing their faces Credence could taste the tension in the air. Then Sirius let out a long breath. “Just stay away from him, Graves.”

Footsteps started towards the door and Credence, panic flaring up in his stomach, raced up the stairs as fast as he could. His head was spinning. He could only assume they’d been talking about him, but he couldn’t be sure what it meant.

But he could hope.

***

He and the others spent the rest of the day in the overgrown garden playing chicken with the grindylow, driving hopes and wishes to the back of his mind. The little creature seemed to enjoy it too - Credence saw it waving a boneless arm as they left for dinner.

He started nodding off in the living room afterwards, the warmth of the fire wrapping him in a security blanket as Harry chattered with Sirius and Lupin, and Hermione demonstrated how to use a magnetic compass to Mr Weasley.

“Credence, dear, why don’t you go up to bed? Percival said he’d deal with that boggart in the room above yours so you boys should get a better nights’ sleep.” Mrs Weasley squeezed his shoulder and smiled kindly at him, and in his daze he wondered if his real mother had been as loving as Mrs Weasley and Queenie.

Their room was chilly, and the sudden shivers chased sleep cobwebs out of his brain. Suddenly wide awake, he burrowed into a blanket and stared out the window at the mood-bathed garden and the city beyond.

A sudden thump overhead startled him and he frowned, straining his ears. It sounded like someone was sobbing.

For a moment the blood froze in his veins, giving him instant pins and needles across his skin. He remembered nights in the draughty old church when he and his sisters froze in their beds at every sudden sound, trying to remember if they’d done something obviously wrong, if Ma had any reason to be angry with them.

He shook it off and gripped his wand so hard his joints ached. He was a wizard now, no longer powerless. He set his jaw and marched up the stairs, trying to channel Harry and Tina and Graves.

Graves. Shit! The boggart. He ran up the last few stairs and into the attic room.

Graves was on his knees, tears falling in a steady stream down his face, as he held a trembling hand out to… to… Credence frowned and cocked his head on one side. It looked like him, but much younger, naked and curled into a foetal position. The child Credence was sobbing and glaring hatred at Graves. “You hurt me. How could you, Mr Graves, how could you?”

“Credence, I swear…” Graves’ voice was so soft, broken. He struck the tears away from his cheeks. “I would never touch you, Credence, I swear, now please let me help you.”

“I trusted you. I’m just a child. What you want from me is sick and wrong.”

Graves sobbed and shuffled forwards, hand still held out in supplication. “I don’t - I don’t want anything from you, my boy, I just want you to be safe, please… oh God.”

Credence saw the wicked glint of triumph in the creature’s eyes as Graves clutched his head. He felt a surge of fury, and stepped in between it and Graves’ prone form. In a whirl of images it was upright, his mother, every sign of anger visible on her round face. His heart beat double time and his shoulders rose as her jaw twitched, her eyes narrowed, and she held out her hand for his belt.

But Graves was behind him, under his protection, and Credence lifted his head and looked her in the eye. “Riddikulus!” he snapped, and in an instant she was lashed, arms pinned to her sides with three belts. Credence grinned at the wide eyed shock on her face as she wriggled. “Riddikulus,” he said again, and with a crack, three more belts tied her legs together. She wobbled for a moment, then fell like a tree, slowly and solidly, to thump on the floor.

Credence burst out laughing as she bounced lightly, and with another crack, the boggart whipped itself into the container Graves had laid out for it in place of the wardrobe.

He sealed the box, then turned to Graves, who had his face turned away, wiping his cheeks with trembling hands. Credence bent down to him and put his hand on his shoulder. Graves forced a smile, but didn’t look at him. “Well done, Credence. That was masterfully done.”

“You know,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “I’m not that young.”

Graves slumped, defeated. “You’re still a child, Credence.”

“I’m sixteen,” he said. “That boggart showed me at, like, ten years old. Is that really how you see me?”

“What? No! Of course not. You’re an incredible young man.”

“So what was all that about?” He sat cross legged in front of the man, glaring at him.

Graves sighed and rubbed his temples. “I… I’m sorry.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and groaned. “I don’t want to admit this, but… you have a right to know. I… at first I was just protective of you. Like an older brother, and so, so proud. But as you started to come out of your shell, and I got to know the funny, brave, kind boy you really are, I… I started to feel less like your brother. More like… like you were someone I wanted to kiss, or dance with, or…” He buried his face in his hands. “That’s why I wanted to send you away. It was just lucky that Newt came around then. And then we ended up back here, and you were involved in all this… and it hasn’t gone away! I can’t stop thinking about you, and it’s so wrong, I’m so, so sorry.”

Credence’s heart thundered in his chest as he tried to believe this was possible. “What if… what if I feel the same way?”

Graves let out a harsh breath, like he’d been punched. “It’s not… oh, God, Credence, don’t say that. You’re still a child, it’s wrong.”

He frowned. “So if I was just two years older it would be OK?”

Graves almost laughed. “I don’t know about that, but it would be legal.”

“So… so what I feel doesn’t count because I’m sixteen? I can’t know that… that all I want in my life is for you to be with me, for you to… to love me like I love you?”

He gasped and slapped his hand over his mouth, and Graves’ face shot up to stare at him. For a moment, unguarded, he looked like the sun had broken the clouds, but he squeezed his eyes shut and turned away. “That’s not what I meant, Credence,” he sighed. “What you feel isn’t… invalid, it’s just… when you’re sixteen everything seems so… so extreme. All black and white. You say you lo— you love me, but you’re only just learning all the things people can be to each other. You think you couldn’t feel more high than this, more low than this, more hurt and more cared for, but you just haven’t had the time to learn what love should be.”

“And should I learn that from someone my own age?” he snapped. “Someone as green, as… as lost as I am? Wouldn’t it be better to learn it from someone I trust? Someone I know cares for me?” He held Graves’ hands between his own, trying to get him to look up, but Graves bowed his head over their hands.

“You don’t know how much I want to take care of you, protect you…” He looked up under his brows at last. “To love you. But it’s just selfishness. I remember how I felt at sixteen, how… how strongly I could love. How I could fall for the wrong person and trust someone who’s treated me wrong. I won’t be that person to you, Credence. I won’t take advantage of a teenage infatuation and—“

“It’s not an infatuation,” he said firmly. “I’ll… I’ll prove it to you. I’ll wait for you.”

“You’ll… what?”

He nodded to himself. “I’ll wait for you. When I’m eighteen I’ll be an adult, right? So if I come to you the day after I turn eighteen, kiss you and tell you I still love you, will you believe me then?”

“Credence…”

“I don’t expect anything, then or now,” he assured him hurriedly. “If you don’t want me then, I’ll understand, but—“

“Twenty one,” he said. “And you need to date other people. Don’t just wait for me. Find someone who deserves you.”

“Graves,” he groaned. “I’m not gonna date anyone else. And eighteen, damnit!”

“But—“

“There’s a war coming, Graves.” He cupped his cheek in his hand, the way he’d wanted Graves to do to him again. “I don’t want to waste time like this when I know what I feel. I’m always going to be sixteen years younger than you. Me being eighteen or twenty one isn’t going to change that.”

“Two years is a blink of an eye,” sighed Graves, his eyes closing slightly as he pressed into Credence’s touch.

He laughed. “It feels like forever for me. But I’m certain I’ll feel like this forever. I’ll compromise,” he said. “I’ll wait until I’ve finished Hogwarts, I’ll be nearly nineteen by then. Is that good enough?”

Graves looked at him, then sighed and nodded, a sad little smile curling his cheek. “Just… you shouldn’t wait for me at all. Find someone else, sweet Credence.”

He stood slowly and dusted off his knees, then left with the boggart in its container. Credence clenched his hands in his lap. “I won’t,” he smiled, not sure if Graves could even hear him. “There’s no-one else.”

Chapter Text

Harry fell backwards on his bed, eyes shut and fingers rubbing his temples. Credence looked up from his rune stones and raised an eyebrow. “Snape?”

Harry nodded.

“Do you think you’re getting any better?”

“No,” he sighed. “I still keep getting these flashes, the corridor in the department of mysteries. Snape’s just…” He sighed. “I was beginning to think he was less of an arsehole, you know, with the potion and all. But it looks like he used up his full ‘reasonable human being’ quota for the year.”

Credence twisted his lips in sympathy. Harry stared at the draperies for a moment. “I know Hermione hates the thought of me having this link with Voldemort, but I just feel like if I could get through that door I’d… I dunno, I’d learn something.”

“Like what?” he asked softly, voice low to match Harry’s.

“I dunno,” he said again. “But it was helpful before, wasn’t it? With Arthur. And now I know I’m not possessed, surely we should use every advantage we have?”

Credence frowned down at his hands. “What if it’s not Voldemort this time?”

“What?” Harry leant up on his elbows and squinted at him. “Who else would it be?”

“No, I mean… what if it’s you? A memory, or something subconscious. I mean, all the Voldemort stuff has been, like, a one time only thing, right?” He turned and swung his legs over the side of his bed, facing Harry properly. “This one’s the same scene that just keeps happening, right? Well, what if it’s actually you trying to remember something but the… I dunno, the scenery for it is the department of mysteries because that’s what’s been on your mind?”

Harry frowned at him, then turned his face to stare off into the middle distance. “That… makes sense.”

“You gonna ask Snape about it?”

He slumped back onto his bed and flung his arms over his face. Credence’s lips twitched. “That bad, huh?”

“I hate him so much.”

“Why don’t you ask Queenie then? I mean, she’s a natural legilimens, so maybe she’s not so hot on occlumency, but—“

“You think she’d help me?” He sat up, his eyes wide behind the smudged glasses.

Credence laughed. “Well, yeah, you have met Queenie, right?”

“Oh, mate, if I could learn from her rather than Snape…” He trailed off, but Credence could see the hope shining in those green eyes.

“Let’s ask her when we go into Hogsmeade next.”

Harry’s face split with a grin so bright Credence almost blinked. He wasn’t sure if he’d seen Harry so young before, and his heart hurt. He hoped Queenie would be able to do something to make Harry’s life just a little easier.

***

Queenie squeezed him tight, casting a quick drying spell on the group to banish the pervasive drizzle. Credence smiled into her warmth. “Now, hot chocolate and demiguise muffins all round, I think. Heavens, darlin’, you’ve grown an inch since I saw you before the holidays,” she said to Harry, kissing his red cheek as well. “Sorry, honey,” she laughed, patting him. “But seeing young people change so much reminds the rest of us that we’re just stagnating. I don’t really think you’re a child.”

Harry blushed harder and ducked his head, muttering an apology.

“That’s actually why we’re here,” Hermione laughed. “Your legilimency, I mean. Harry needs occlumency lessons. Show her, Harry?”

They’d discussed this on the walk down. Harry gave Hermione a reluctant glare, then squeezed his eyes shut and brought forward the memories of his occlumency lessons for Queenie to see.

“Oh my.” She looked a little dizzy, and Credence stepped forward in concern. “No, I’m fine, honey, but you don’t have to push your thoughts out like that. It’s a little like shouting.”

“Sorry," Harry said, his eyes widening.

Queenie flapped him off with a smile. “Sit yourselves down and I’ll get your drinks. Jacob’s down in the village talking to an agency about hirin’ some house elves - it’s all right, honey,” she turned to Hermione, who’d started to bristle. “Free elves who receive a salary, and some who still want binding in the old ways but have a union to protect their rights. You should meet with their representative some time.”

“Really? That would be fascinating, I have so many ideas about getting a wider patronage for SPEW…”

“Perhaps you’d better find out a little more about what they need, and direct your energies that way?” she said gently, her expression bright and non-judgemental. Credence narrowed his eyes and wondered how hard she had to work to hide that brilliant manipulative mind behind sweetness and innocence. She cast him a quick wink.

“Do you think they’d talk to me? The elves in Hogwarts wont.” Hermione was almost pouting.

“It’s always difficult when people from different cultures come together. Both have to hold back from projecting their own experiences. But Cubby’s had a lot of practice working with all sorts of wizards. He’d keep an open mind. And if you come to him asking to learn about house elf history and culture, you’ll have a friend for life, ‘cause he sure does love to talk.”

Hermione’s face lit up at the thought of a source of untapped knowledge, and Credence smiled and shook his head at Queenie. She winked again. “I’d make a great Slytherin, huh?”

“The best,” he whispered back.

“Why would you want to be Slytherin?” Ron scowled.

“There are good and bad sides to all the house traits,” she said kindly. “It’s what you choose to do with your power that matters.”

“Just seems like all the bad choices are made in Slytherin. Voldemort, Snape, Malfoy, Umbridge—“

She shook her head. “Umbridge was a Hufflepuff.”

“What?!”

She nodded. “Oh yeah, Newt told me. And, well, just look at her. Loyal to the hilt to Fudge and the system, she just wants everyone to abide by the rules. I’m not saying she ain’t a psychopath who probably used to pull the wings off flies, but you can’t say Slytherin has the monopoly on cruelty. Their trait is ambition, not unkindness.”

Harry frowned down at his food and Queenie patted his hand. “So. Occlumency lessons?”

He looked up and nodded. Then frowned again. “Hey, why does it hurt when Snape does legilimency, but not when you do it?”

“I’m a natural legilimens,” she said. “It’s very rare, most people have to study and cast a verbal spell to read a mind.” She sat back with her coffee. “I’ve heard that a legilimens spell allows someone to see thoughts and memories like a pensieve. I just hear voices in the back of my head, but I don’t have to make any effort with it.”

“So it is different,” he said dully.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t help you. I know Professor Snape is harsh, but it’s probably good practice. If Voldemort had the chance, he’d do it like that, I think.”

“But he’s not teaching him how to put up his defences,” said Ron, angry on Harry’s behalf. “He’s just yelling at him when he gets it wrong.”

Queenie’s eyes narrowed for a moment before she smiled at Harry. “In that case, I think I can definitely help. If I put some effort in, I think I’ll be able to get into your head like a legilimens spell, but I should also be able to tell you what to do to raise the defences. The spell is violent by nature, but my legilimency is passive, so maybe it won’t be rejected so instinctively.”

“There were... some times when I pushed back and… and I think I went into Snape’s mind,” Harry said.

Queenie giggled. “I gotta say, having someone read my thoughts would be a change up for the books.”

“But when can you help Harry?” Hermione asked. “We can’t come down here every weekend, and he’s got to see Snape twice a week.”

“Well, then,” said Queenie, clapping her hands together daintily. “We’d best make good use of the time we have. Are you busy right now, sugar? Can you spare a coupl’a hours?”

“Yes, that would be great. Thanks, Queenie.”

“No problem. We should probably go somewhere a bit quieter so I can concentrate, though. I’m a bit rusty. That’s what comes of relying on your natural gifts! I don’t suppose you two could watch the shop, huh? And Credence, will you come with us in case we need anything?” She looked around at the group. “You never know, if this works out, maybe I can teach all of you.”

“That would be amazing,” breathed Hermione.

Ron nodded, his face uncharacteristically fierce. “We’re all going to need it, aren’t we, Queenie?”

She smiled sadly. “I hope not. But I think so.”

Chapter Text

“What’s that?” asked Ron as a tawny owl dropped a letter on Credence’s plate.

“I don’t—“ He froze picking the envelope up, because he recognised the handwriting from his first ever magic lessons in New York. His heart turned somersaults. “‘Scuse me, I’ve got to go.”

He abandoned his breakfast and took the stairs up to Gryffindor tower two at a time. It was probably nothing. Probably just a list of spells Credence should be practicing, or a reminder to keep his head down around Umbridge.

But if Graves was going to tell Credence he’d made a terrible mistake and he never wanted to see such a presumptuous child ever again, Credence wanted his heart to break in private.
He turned it over, noticing with a flare of indignation that the seal was broken. Bloody Umbridge and her totalitarian regime.

Hey kid, the letter began, and Credence’s heart sank. Graves hadn’t called him kid since his first week at the apartment. He forced himself to finish the bland words.

Great to see you over the holidays. Southampton sure is pretty. Credence frowned and mouthed ‘Southampton’ to himself. I’m back at work in Washington, going to put this company on the map this year. It was great to meet your friends - say hi to Edward and Emily for me. Yours, Tina.

Credence stared at the letter, read it three times. He checked the name on the front - definitely addressed to Credence Kowalski. Maybe they put the wrong letter back in the envelope after snooping. Credence’s gut churned at the idea of someone reading Graves’ words meant for his eyes only. But it couldn’t be - this was definitely Graves’ writing. He always ended up joining the crossbar of a ’t’ to the vertical line because he never lifted the quill high enough off the paper. And both envelope and letter were headed with the same hotel crest of a large black wolf.

“Credence?”

“Up here,” he called, and Harry, Ron and Hermione poked their heads round his half-drawn curtains.

“Can we come in?”

He nodded. "Maybe you can make sense of this.”

Hermione took the letter and crossed her legs on the foot of his bed next to Ron. Harry nudged Credence up along the headboard and passed him a croissant. “It’s from Tina,” said Ron. “What’s she on about? Who are Edward and Emily?”

“That’s just it,” said Credence. “It’s Graves’ writing. Tina’s looks like muggle printing it’s so even, and she presses so hard she almost cuts through the parchment. Queenie buys her a bulk pack of quills every birthday.”

Hermione’s eyes lit up and she grinned at Credence. “I bet it’s in code!”

Credence’s eyes widened and he almost snatched it back to try and crack the code, but the bell went before they had a chance to read it again.

Credence wasn’t sure a single thing actually got into his brain that day - every moment was spent running through the meaningless words. The names obviously meant something, maybe Tina was returning to the states? Maybe Graves would be going to Southampton. But worry curdled his stomach. What if he had to decipher the code quickly? What if Graves needed help?

Harry snorted at him when he said that. “Since when has an adult ever trusted you with anything that important? I’ve faced Voldemort three times since I started school and not a single person over eighteen trusts me with any new information that might help me face him next time.”

Credence grimaced and fiddled with the envelope. “I guess.”

“Hey,” said Harry, peering over his shoulder. “That crest looks like Si—“ he glanced around. “I mean Snuffles.”

“Huh,” he said, looking again. “It does.”

“I bet he had something to do with this. And it can’t be that serious or he’d have just used the two-way mirror.”

Credence cheered up a bit at that, and it took a bit of pressure off, knowing he could always ask Sirius how to break the code. Not that he was going to. Even he had too much pride for that!

“So,” said Hermione, jumping on his bed after she and Ron had finished prefect duties. “What parts of the letter make no sense?”

Credence spread the letter out between the four of them. “All the names,” he said. “The places as well - it says she’s back at work in Washington but as far as I know Tina’s never been out of New York state - until now - and Graves has no business in Washington. They both quit work anyway.”

“Could it be something for the order?”

“If it is they wouldn’t risk putting the real place names in, would they?”

Hermione hummed and started making lists of possible ciphers. The words themselves made too much sense to be anagrams, and the initial letters of every word didn’t spell anything sensible.

“I wonder if it’s like the marauder’s map,” said Harry suddenly. “I mean, it mentions a map - for no real reason - and there’s that picture of Sirius.” He held his wand over the text. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

He frowned when the words remained, but Ron flapped wildly. “Mate, it rippled, I swear. Maybe it’s just a different password.” He looked at Credence. “It should be something the two of you know.”

Credence took his own wand out and held the larch wand against the parchment. “New York,” he said.

“It flickered again, I’m sure,” Ron said.

“I think I saw it too - try something else,” said Hermione, leaning forward.

They tried names, dates and places, but the most they got out of the letter was a flicker. By the time Hermione retreated to her dorm, yawning, Credence’s excitement had deflated to a sullen frustration.

“We’ll figure it out,” said Harry, ruffling his hair as he pushed off the bed.

“Yeah,” Ron yawned and stretched, then crinkled his nose up. “I think we’re not being personal enough either. If it was me, I’d want to make it something obscure, something only the two of you know about.” He shrugged. “Sleep on it, though.”

Credence slumped back as his friends pulled the curtains shut around him. He cast a lumos and read the letter again. Its blandness irritated him, knowing there was something much more important under the meaningless words and wrong names.

He touched all the names, all the glaringly wrong words. Apart from the names it would have made a lot of sense. He fiddled with the words and letters, trying out some of the ciphers Hermione had suggested.

Southampton. Washington. Edward. Emily.

Tina?

Credence sat up suddenly, blinking at the words that made no sense. He fumbled his wand out from where it had fallen in the folds of his duvet and pressed the end to the parchment. “Sweet,” he muttered.

The letters flared, swirling slightly like a vortex before settling back again. Credence slumped back against the headboard. So close!

The word drifted back to mind, and he thought of the last thing Graves said at Grimmauld Place. Not the faux cheerful “goodbye, keep safe, study hard.”

He held the wand tip to the paper, his hand steady, his heart not so much. “Find someone else, sweet Credence.”

The words swirled, faster and faster until the paper was fluttering like birds wings. He held the parchment on his bent knees and felt his heart hammer against the cage of his ribs so hard he could almost see it through his thin t-shirt. At last the ink slowed and reformed, the writing smaller and more cramped. He leaned over it, greedy.

Dear Credence, he read, and just the greeting made his eyes fall shut in gratitude. I couldn’t resist writing this, especially when Sirius showed me the password charm. But I meant what I said when I told you to find someone else. Sweet Credence, I’m not good enough for you. The fact that I can’t stop thinking about a sixteen year old boy makes that clear.

Dumbledore has given me a job to do for the order. I won’t tell you where I’m going, or when I’m coming back. Sirius has come with me - he couldn’t stay in that prison another day or he’d go mad. Please tell Harry I’m so sorry for putting him in danger, but he wasn’t doing well there. I swear I’ll look after him, and if I can’t, I’ll make sure he comes home.

I’m so sorry, Credence. Maybe we’ll find each other in a few years’ time. And when we do, maybe there’ll be a wonderful man or woman standing by your side, and I will smile to see you happy. Just let them be kind, and love you.

The letter wasn’t signed, and beneath his hurt and anger Credence was relieved. He couldn’t have borne seeing the man he loved sign off formally as Mr Graves, and if he’d written ‘love from’ or ‘yours’ right now, he just wouldn’t believe it.

Chapter Text

Hermione found him sitting under the old rowan tree by the lake as the sun struggled through the late winter mist. She cast a warming charm over him as she sat down and he flexed his fingers, the blood tingling as it returned.

“I guess you worked out the code?”

He nodded.

“Can I see?” she asked tentatively.

He was quiet for a long time, trying to work out what he really wanted. He wasn’t sure if he was just too tired to think or if his frustration had burned out from overuse, but he couldn’t even verbalise his decisions in his own head any more.

The letter had returned to its bland origins when he’d folded it up. He pulled it out of his pocket and muttered the password phrase, ignoring Hermione’s raised eyebrows, then passed it over.

“He took Sirius? Are they crazy? Dumbledore told him to stay in Grimmauld place, he’s still a wanted criminal! I can’t believe he’d be so irresponsible!”

He blinked over at her. The Sirius thing had barely registered with him through the personal impacts of the letter. “You know he was going crazy in there. And the whole order’s in danger, it’s not like the Death Eaters aren’t after all of them anyway. I never understood why Dumbledore wanted him to stay in that house. Harry said he’s pretty good at sneaking around.”

“He’s not stable, though. And he was told to stay put!” She shook her head. “He’s going to give Harry ideas, ugh!”

Credence frowned down at his hands, feeling guilty, and annoyed that she’d missed the main point of the letter, and then guilty again for being so selfish.

“Oh, Credence,” she sighed, looking up at him. She put her warm hand on his arm and he felt the tendons shift under her skin as he clenched his fists. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I… I really do think this is for the best.”

“Come on, Hermione, you don’t buy into that whole age difference bull, do you? Jacob’s nearly ten years older than Queenie and their relationship is the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen.”

“He’s eight years older,” she corrected gently. “Whereas Mr Graves is, what, seventeen years your senior? But that’s not the point, Credence. It’s the power imbalance, not the age.”

“So because he’s older than me he’s more powerful?” Credence snorted. “I mean, as far as magic and physical strength go, sure, but that doesn’t always hold true. You three managed to get through an obstacle course built to deter death eaters when you were eleven!”

“Well, yeah…”

He shook his head. “Adults act like knowledge about the world turns up the day you turn seventeen and until then nothing you do or say counts. We’re not even people to them. They make all this noise about how children should be protected and yet they discount what little kids say and tell us what we feel is meaningless until we come of age. And just look at what’s happening here. We stand up to Umbridge while the other teachers let her get away with it, why, because we’re not people yet?”

“What do you expect them to do?”

“Nothing,” he said, clenching his hand, the scars standing out white on white. “I just hoped for a minute that Graves was different.”

He pushed himself to his feet and turned to the castle, but Hermione grabbed his hand. “Have you considered that it’s not just for you that he’s leaving?” she asked, and he bristled when he recognised the kind, gentle eyes she usually turned on an angry Harry. “For an adult to have feelings for someone underaged is considered wrong, Credence, and to be honest, it’s an opinion I still share. I know,” she held up her hand when he made to argue. “It doesn’t matter what I think. But Mr Graves… maybe he feels that way too. Maybe this is the only way he can cope with his guilt.”

“He doesn’t need to feel guilty.”

“But he does. And the fact is, other people will look on him like filth, never mind the fact that if he ever did anything about it he’d be breaking one of the most important child protection laws in wizard and muggle culture. I hear what you’re saying about the age thing, and how adults ignore us. But this law? I stand by it, Mr Graves stands by it, and you’re just going to have to respect his decision and see if you feel the same about him once you finish school.”

He stood facing over the lake for a moment, clenching and unclenching his fists. “How do you understand people so well?” he asked at last, sitting next to her.

She shrugged. “Ron would say it’s because I’m a girl,”

He laughed and hugged her. “My big sister was never like that. I think it’s just your inherent awesomeness.”

She shoved him playfully. Then looked at him with those sad eyes again. “I really am sorry, Credence.”

“Don’t be,” he said, trying to smile. “It’s not the end. I’ll graduate, and then I’ll find him, see if I don’t.”

“You really love him, don’t you?”

He leaned his head on her shoulder, slumping low over her smaller form. “Yeah,” he whispered.

She was still for a moment, then turned and hugged him tight.

***

Credence was exhausted through lessons that day, but not due to lack of sleep. He’d had plenty of practice on that, working full days pamphleting the neighbourhood after a night of chores or prayer for his sins. But after the letter he felt deflated, like he’d slipped down a mountainside one time too many and couldn’t gather the energy to haul himself back up the slippery gravel slope.

Harry was in a slump too, his head down and brooding after a disastrous Valentines date with Cho Chang. Ron and Hermione tried to cheer them both up, chattering about quidditch and Padma’s latest prank on Terry Boot, and how Seamus had set his Astronomy homework on fire in the library that morning just by glaring at it. Credence appreciated the effort, but he was relieved when they headed off on rounds.

Harry let out a long breath and sank into the armchair, raising his eyebrows at Credence. He tried to hold it in, but started giggling. “They’re trying.”

“Bless them.” Harry shook his head. “I wish they wouldn’t do that though,” he said, a frown creasing the skin between his eyebrows. “I’m not… fragile. They sometimes treat me like I’m going to explode, and, you know, that actually sets me on edge more. So then I actually do explode, and it all goes round in a vicious circle.” He rubbed his face, running his fingers into his hair and pulling hard. “I don’t know why I’m so angry all the time.”

Credence snorted loudly, and Harry looked up, surprised. “Sorry,” he laughed. “But you have a lot of good reasons to be angry.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again, clenching his teeth so the jaw bunched up under his skin. “What?” said Credence.

“Nothing.” He shook his head. “It’s just… well, I don’t have as many reasons to be angry as lots of other people. Like… OK, like you do. And you’re not mad all the time.”

“Of course I’m angry, Harry!”

“You are?”

He laughed, because there were tears prickling at his eyelids, threatening him. “I’m angry all the time. I have been for years, I just…”

He took a deep breath and lay back. This was something you couldn’t talk about while keeping eye contact. “I haven’t felt… able to express it. I’m still having trouble. I’m not quite as brave as you are.”

“You are, mate.” Harry laughed. “Listen to us, we could go round and round like this.” He sat up. “OK, let’s agree, we’ve both got a lot of shit to deal with, a lot of shit to be angry about.”

Credence nodded vigorously. “Exactly. It’s not a competition. You deserve to feel how you feel, OK?”

Harry smiled down at his hands and nodded, looking much younger all of a sudden, and in that moment Credence felt a fire start in his chest, a protective ferocity. He wanted to stand in front of his friend and painfully kill all the motherfuckers who’d hurt him. He stared up at the portraits moving sluggishly in their frames and relished the flames twisting around his blood. He wondered if people like Harry and Graves felt like this all the time, this vicious, almost violent need to shield.

Thinking of Graves reminded him of the letter, and he suddenly sat up with wide eyes, remembering the message for Harry. “Shit! I forgot to tell you, I’m so sorry.”

“What?” Harry was alert and upright, his muscles suddenly tense.

“The letter. There was a message for you,” he said, holding out his hands to placate him. He bit his lip a moment, wondering if he should just paraphrase. At last he sighed and muttered the password to the parchment and handed it over to Harry. “You can read the whole thing if you like.”

Harry raised his eyebrows, but didn’t say anything. He took the letter and sat back to read it. “Hermione’s angry with Graves,” Credence said as he watched Harry’s eyes flickering back and forth along the lines. “She says it was irresponsible of him to allow Sirius to come along with him.”

He waited for Harry’s expression, trying to read his face, figure out what he was thinking. Harry just passed the letter back to Credence. They were close enough together that he could see the intense green colour behind the glasses, the way he was squinting slightly back at Credence. Possibly trying to work out what he thought about the whole thing.

“I’m sorry about Graves,” Harry said at last. “You really care about him, don’t you?”

“I love him,” Credence said simply, fear and fire rising in his throat as the words came to the surface. But it was the truth, no matter how terrifying. “I think I always will.”

Harry raised his eyebrows, smiling at him. “I can’t imagine being that sure about someone.”

Credence blushed and looked away, brushing his fingertips over the words. “Are you OK with Sirius being out there again?”

He took a deep breath. “I dunno. It’s hard, because he hated being locked up in Grimmauld place. And Snape wasn’t helping, he kept winding him up about being useless.” Harry’s lips narrowed as he remembered the arguments over Christmas. “I think he would have gone nuts if he’d had to stay there much longer, but…” He took a deep breath. “I want him to be safe. He’s… he’s kind of… all the family I have.”

Credence watched him bury a hand in his hair, tugging again. He bit his lip a moment, then stood up and crossed over to his armchair. “You want a hug?”

Harry looked up, eyes wide. “Uh…”

“You don’t have to… I just… I would want a hug and—“

“Yeah,” he laughed, a slight tinge of hysteria in the sound. He moved up on the wide seat - Credence had seen both Patil twins and Lavender squashed up on it before. He sat next to Harry, lifted one foot onto the seat and put an arm around his best friend, pulling him tight to his shoulder. For a moment he was stiff, awkward, but Credence stayed still, just being there with him, and eventually he relaxed, slumping against him, his forehead pressed against Credence’s neck. “I think it’s the right thing for him,” he said at last. He nodded to himself. “You know he grew up in that house?”

Credence hummed, making it sound like a question.

“Yeah. I get the impression he had a pretty awful childhood. He ran away from home when he was still in school. My… my dad’s parents took him in.” He laughed. “My grandparents. Shit! That’s weird.”

“Huh,” Credence said. “No wonder he hated it so much. It would be like me having to live back in the old church.”

“Or me staying in the Dursley’s beyond my 17th.” Harry shuddered. His arm rested on Credence’s chest, returning the hug. “Merlin, that would be awful. I’ve been counting down the years to freedom, to have that ripped away…”

“Yeah.”

They sat in silence, listening to the crackling fire and the rain against the window, low chattering in the rest of the common room. Harry’s arm started to relax, slump sideways, and he figured he was falling asleep. The protective flame flared again slightly, satisfied to know he was good enough to look after his friend when he felt like shit.

Lavender Brown walked past from her dorm room, and stopped in front of them. “What are you two doing?” she snorted, her face twisted in half a smile.

Harry twitched awake. “Cuddling, what’s it look like?” he grunted.

Credence burst out laughing. “Are you jealous, Lavender? There’s plenty of space, join in.”

She waggled her eyebrows. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt anything.”

“Fuck’s sake, woman, you interrupted my sleep, now sit down.”

Credence held out his hand and straightened the leg he’d had bent up on the chair. Lavender laughed and flicked her hair over her shoulder, sitting half on Credence’s lap, her legs slung over the two of them. She snuggled down so her head was on his other shoulder. “He’s gone back to sleep,” she stage whispered.

“I would do if you would shut up,” he mumbled.

“Are you dating then?” she said, leaning back to look at Credence. “That’s cute.”

“No,” he laughed.

“See,” Harry said, still with his eyes shut. “This is why boys don’t cuddle more.”

Chapter Text

They spent every Hogsmeade weekend with Queenie guiding Harry through mental exercises and mediation while the others helped Jacob in the kitchen. One of them would always sit in the living room with Harry and Queenie, working in silence and just being there in case someone collapsed. It wasn’t nearly as common as in Snape’s lessons, according to Harry, but every now and then one of them would end up falling off the chair clutching their head.

“You’re getting really good at raising those shields, honey,” said Queenie one afternoon as Jacob and Ron served pistachio cream puffs. “Are you noticing a difference?”

Harry rubbed his forehead and squinted with the beginnings of a migraine. “I’m much better at locking Snape out. He nearly complimented me yesterday, before he remembered he hates me.”

“He’s less of an arsehole to you in potions too,” said Ron. “I think he’s just confused - he doesn’t know how to cope with a Potter who’s improving in his lessons.”

“I told him I’d been practicing and I swear he stopped sneering at me for almost five whole seconds,” grinned Harry. Then he frowned. “The dreams aren’t stopping though.”

“And you had another one of those fits where you got a direct line to Voldemort’s emotions,” said Hermione.

“There should be some change, though,” Queenie said, frowning. “Your thoughts are almost completely silent to me now. Even if they’re not actively up at night there should be residual protection.”

“Sorry.” Harry ducked his head and scowled down at the crumbs on his plate.

“Don’t be sorry, honey,” she said, patting his hand. “There must be something we’re missing, or coming at from the wrong angle. Harry,” she ducked her head to catch his eye. “It’s really important we have all the information. I’m so glad you told me.”

Harry’s returning smile was more of a grimace, and Queenie chuckled. “You’re not disappointing me, you know.”

“I thought you couldn’t read my thoughts any more,” he grumbled.

“I can still read your face, just like everyone else. But you don’t have to change that. Voldemort ain’t going to get close enough. He’ll have to get through me first.”

Harry’s face broke into a grin as Queenie bumped shoulders with him. “Come on, Harry, you up for one last exercise? Your head’s not hurting too much?”

He shook his head, but Credence raised an eyebrow at the tightening around his eyes. He had a sneaky suspicion that Harry would suffer a lot more than a pounding headache just to make Queenie proud. Quite possibly just to make any parental figure proud.

Queenie met Credence’s eyes, her brow crinkled, but she didn’t go back on her suggestion. “Credence, honey, will you sit with us this time?”

He followed them into the little parlour above the kitchen and settled himself on the sofa while Harry and Queenie took their usual spots on a pair of armchairs facing each other. He rest his chin on his knees and hugged his shins as his best friend and his surrogate mum closed their eyes and breathed calmly. The early afternoon sunlight gleamed through a high window, illuminating the dust motes swirling in the warm, quiet room, and Credence let his mind wander and his eyes drift shut.

He’d lost track of time when a heavy thump made his eyes fly open. Harry and Queenie were both on the floor, backs arched and screaming. “Ron! Hermione!” Credence yelled in a panic, starting toward Queenie, then Harry, then Queenie again. He clutched at his hair and forced himself to just do something. The door banged open and he fell to his knees by Queenie while Ron and Hermione rushed to Harry’s side.

“Queenie?” he begged, hating how weak he sounded. How could he help her if he was so pathetic? He clutched her shoulder, squeezed her arm, horrified by the pain she had to be in to be making that noise. She was hurting and he didn’t know what to do. He was vaguely aware, out of the tear blurred corners of his eyes, that Jacob had rushed in, crying for his fiancee, panicking almost as bad as Credence.

He grabbed her hand as it scrabbled on the floorboards, splintering her polished nails, and as he touched skin he had a blinding, excruciating flash of pure evil permeate his bones, his soul, his entire being. There was a high, cold laugh, a woman screaming, begging ‘not him’. A green flash, another, and another, and he was being torn apart, weak fabric disintegrating into pain and anger and vengeance.

Coming back was like a steel door had been shut on a hurricane raging outside. After the deafening, all-consuming of the vision, the room of panting, whimpering was church-silent.

“Bloody hell.”

“You said it, kid,” said Jacob shakily. What was that?”

“Harry?” Hermione asked, her voice unsteady with tears. “Are you OK?”

Queenie pushed herself up on trembling limbs and crawled across the floor to him. Credence and Jacob scurried after her, not willing to be separated from her after seeing her torn apart like that.

Harry was curled up in a foetal position, hands pressed against his scar. Queenie touched the back of them with her bloody fingers. “Harry?” Her voice crackled, damaged by the screams.

Harry gave a low grunt. “Hurts.”

“Yeah,” she breathed, and slumped against Jacob.

Credence pushed himself up on rubbery legs and found the first aid kit in the bathroom. When he got back, Ron was pulling the curtains shut, lifting the rings so they didn’t screech, and dipping the room in a cozy half-darkness. “Percy gets migraines,” he explained, voice soft. “Is there a flannel I can use?”

Credence pointed him towards the bathroom and knelt next to Queenie and Harry, placing the box down softly. He dredged up a brave smile for Hermione, who was stroking Harry’s hair and looking distraught. They managed to get a pain potion into Harry once Ron came back with a warm, damp flannel, and helped him and Queenie up onto the sofa.

“What happened?” asked Hermione, once Harry was opening an eye. “When we touched you it was like we got sucked into the vision as well.”

“What did you see?” asked Queenie. The sore throat pastilles had helped, but she still sounded exhausted.

“Green light,” said Jacob.

“I heard a laugh.”

“And screams.”

“A woman, screaming?”

“That was my mum,” croaked Harry.

The entire room turned to him in horror. “I hear it a lot,” he said, almost conversationally if it weren’t for the dull fatigue and the scream-roughened voice. “That’s all I remember of her.”

Queenie’s chin wobbled and tears fell unchecked down her already damp cheeks as she reached across the sofa and pulled him close, wrapping him up in her arms and kissing his head like a little child. Harry stiffened for a moment before sighing and burrowing closer. Ron put his arm around Hermione as she sniffed and wiped her cheeks on her sleeve.

Credence leaned his elbows on his knees and watched in pride and sorrow as his surrogate parents comforted his exhausted friend. Jacob looked up at him as he rubbed Harry’s back and held out a hand, calling him over to fall on his knees by the sofa and feel, even in that terrible situation, blessed.

Chapter Text

“We need to talk to your headmaster,” said Queenie once Jacob and Ron had filled them up with chocolate, coffee and pepper-up potion. “I’ve been concerned about that weak spot in your defences for a while and now I’m beginning to think it’s something more than just a weak spot.”

“If he’ll agree to see me at all,” muttered Harry.

Queenie raised an eyebrow. “As a guardian of one of his students I’m not sure he can refuse to see me.”

“I’ll drive you,” said Jacob. “I don’t think any of us are feeling up to that walk.”

The car was fitted with one of Newt’s undetectable extension charms, and Hermione looked like she was being torn apart between marvelling over spellwork and grumbling over the misuse of muggle artefacts laws. Credence just pressed himself against Queenie and spent the drive imagining that he was wrapping her in warm blankets and serving honeyed green tea.

“You’re a sweetheart, Credence,” she murmured, and he rested his head on her shoulder with a smile.”

Jacob pulled up on the side of the road a few metres away from the Hogwarts gate and mopped sweat off his face. “Are you guys sure it’s this way?”

“Yeah, Jacob,” Credence frowned. “The gate’s just up there.”

“All I see is an overgrown bridleway. How do you even get through those brambles?”

Hermione groaned. “The muggle repellent charms. I’m so sorry, Jacob, I don’t think you’ll be able to come in.”

“The what? But… aren’t your parents muggles?”

She nodded. “They can’t see it either. They had to get special exemption spells to take me to Diagon Alley in second year. Professor Flitwick took me by myself the first time.”

“You mean your parents never did school visits? How do they attend parents’ evenings?”

“What are parents’ evenings?” Ron asked.

Jacob just stared at Credence in horror. “I was looking forward to parents’ evening.”

Credence smiled and squeezed his hand. “Sorry, Jacob. If you want I’ll send Professor McGonagall to the cafe?”

He sighed and nodded. “OK, kid. I’ll wait here, shall I?”

Queenie leaned over and kissed him. “Nah, you better get back. Ziggy’ll need help closing up and I can floo back to Rosmerta’s when I’m done. I’m sorry, honey.”

“That’s OK,” he said, forcing a smile. “I’ll see you back at home. Give ‘em hell, you hear?”

Queenie and Harry looked exhausted on the trek up to the castle. Hermione cast quiet warming charms and Credence linked arms with Queenie and wished he could give her a piggy back or something. She chuckled lightly and elbowed him in the side. Her shoes tapped on the main staircase, echoing off the stone.

“Professor Dumbledore’s office is just up here,” said Harry, pointing up another staircase. “On the second floor and along to a gargoyle. I hope the password is the same.”

They were halfway up the staircase when Snape’s voice came from behind, startling Credence so hard he clenched his elbow around Queenie’s arm. “Where do you think you are going, Mr Potter?”

Harry was obviously really tired, he didn’t even have enough energy to summon up a scowl. “We need to see Professor Dumbledore, sir.”

Queenie stepped down. “I’m afraid it’s my fault, Professor…?”

“Snape. And you are?”

“Queenie Goldstein, hi. I’m Credence’s guardian.”

Snape’s eyebrow twitched. “I was under the impression Mr Kowalski had changed his name to match his new guardians.”

“Oh!” She flushed prettily. “Yeah, Kowalski’s my fiancé’s name.”

“Sir,” said Hermione, “we really need to see the headmaster. Something happened to Harry—“

“Hermione!” Harry snapped.

“But Harry, he’ll know about it. Sir, Queenie was helping Harry practice his occlumency, and they started fitting. And then when any of us touched them, we could… we could see it too. It was him, it was Voldemort. We heard him…” She glanced anxiously at Harry. “We saw him kill Harry’s parents. We have to see Professor Dumbledore right now! Uh… sir.”

Snape stared between them, his face carefully blank. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Professor Dumbledore has had to leave Hogwarts.”

“What?” yelled Harry and Ron at the same time.

Snape glanced up the stairs. “I suggest you keep your exclamations down to a dull roar, Mr Potter and Mr Weasley, unless you want to bring down the wrath of your new headmistress on all our heads.”

“Please tell me you’re talking about McGonagall,” Ron moaned.

Snape just raised his eyebrows. “Come with me.”

They glanced at each other, shrugged and followed Snape down to the potions classroom. He ran a spidery finger across the books in one of the ceiling high shelves at the back of the room and they creaked aside to reveal a surprisingly minimalist set of chambers. “I had wondered,” he said dryly, summoning chairs and a tea tray, “whether Potter was receiving help with his occlumency.”

“If you were so sure I couldn’t do it, why bother to try and teach me?” bristled Harry.

“It’s a war, Potter, we all do things we find distasteful.”

“Professor Snape,” said Queenie, settling in a wingback chair with her ankles crossed. “Have you noticed the strange nature of Harry’s shields?” He said nothing, just arched an eyebrow at her and distributed unsweetened green tea to all of them. Queenie twisted her fingers together and took a deep breath. “It feels like a dome to me. Not perfect, but I think it’s getting stronger. But it’s like… there’s a tunnel, or a doorway in it that leads directly to Voldemort. Like…”she glanced apologetically at Harry. “Like he’s got a key.”

Harry’s eyes widened and his skin took on a grey tint. “What?”

“I’m sorry, Harry,” she said, reaching for his hand. “I didn’t know until just this afternoon. I still don’t know what could be causing it.”

“So you see, sir,” said Hermione. “We need to talk to Professor Dumbledore.”

“If Voldemort’s got a back door to my brain, maybe it’s best I don’t see him,” said Harry, staring at the bare floorboards. He suddenly focused sharply and looked up at Snape. “That’s why he’s been keeping me away all year, isn’t it? He… he knows, doesn’t he? He fucking knows.

“Language, Mr Potter.”

Harry stood up, his eyes wide with panic and his trembling hands clenched into fists. “Why didn’t he… why didn’t he tell me? Wh- what is it? How’s he getting - what’s going to… I need to get out of here, he could be looking at all of you, what if he… what if he takes over—“

Credence leaped up and wrapped Harry tightly in his arms as he heaved shallow, panicky breaths. He clenched his fingers in Credence’s t-shirt, squeezing so tight he could swear he heard the finger joints creaking. He held Harry’s thin back tightly as the gasps turned to sobs.

Eventually he managed to manoeuvre him down to sit on an armchair, and they pressed themselves tightly together. As Harry’s sobs settled down he hunched his shoulders and pressed his face into Credence’s neck, obviously ashamed of his outburst. Credence curled his body around him, sheltering him from anyone who might look down on him. Snape, basically.

But when he turned to the potions master, Snape looked exhausted, his eyes shut and fine lines scored around his mouth. “You knew too,” Credence whispered.

Snape shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. “No,” he said. “But… I think Dumbledore suspected.”

“What? What did he suspect?” Ron ground out.

Snape pushed himself to his feet and stroked a bare wall. A vast bookshelf appeared and he searched through the titles for a moment before pulling out a book of sickly beige leather that looked like it had blood splattered down the front. Even Hermione crinkled her nose up at it. The whole thing just exuded dark magic.

“The headmaster had collected evidence over the past few years that the Dark Lord had made these,” he said, turning to a page covered in tiny, spiky writing. “A horcrux is a fragment of one’s soul stored in an artefact. As long as it exists one can never truly die.”

“A fragment of soul?” Hermione asked, leaning forward.

Snape nodded, and for once didn’t say anything about her questions. “To create a horcrux, one would have to tear one’s soul apart. The ritual is usually accompanied by murder.”

“Great,” muttered Ron. “So we have to destroy Voldemort’s horcrux as well as kill him, or he won’t stay dead?”

Credence felt Harry’s exhausted weight against his shoulder as he turned to get a better look. “How do we do that, sir?”

“Mr Potter has already destroyed one of them,” he said, eyes boring through Credence to try and meet Harry’s.

“The diary,” Harry said, clearing his throat and scrubbing at his face. He leant forward, shoulder to shoulder with Credence, and raised his chin, meeting Snapes’ gaze defiantly once more. The red rimmed eyes ruined the effect somewhat. Snape certainly looked less irritated with him than normal.

“Wait a moment,” said Queenie. “One of them? Professor Snape… just how many of these horcruxes are we dealing with?”

“Dumbledore believes that the Dark Lord would have at least attempted to make seven.”

The room descended into horrified uproar. “Harry nearly died destroying the first one,” Hermione cried. “I mean, do we even know what the others look like?”

Snape was still staring at Harry. “Sir,” said Harry softly. “Why are you telling us this now? What does this have to do with my occlumency?”

Queenie’s head snapped to Snape, her eyes wide. “No!” she gasped.

“What?” Ron looked from her to Harry to Snape and back. “What?!”

“I’m a horcrux, aren’t I, Professor?”

Snape’s eyes closed and his jaw clenched. Credence felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room and he clutched Harry’s arm like he could hold him tight enough to keep him safe. “We’ll get it out,” he hissed. “We’ll take it out like the obscurus. Newt can do it, can’t he, Queenie?”

“Mr Kowalski,” said Snape, sounding almost as old as Dumbledore. “You cannot remove a horcrux without destroying the vessel.”

“That’s what they said about the obscurus though, and Newt got that out of me.”

Snape’s eyebrows shot up in the biggest expression of surprise Credence had ever seen on him. “You’re an obscurial?”

“I was.”

“That shouldn’t be possible. You should have died in childhood.”

Credence stood up, still holding onto Harry’s wrist. “And if I can survive that, then the Boy Who Lived can survive a horcrux removal.”

Chapter Text

Queenie went ahead of them, her legilimency stretched to its full extent to ‘listen’ out for other minds. Harry pulled the invisibility cloak out of his bag and arranged it over the four students somehow. Snape rolled his eyes but simply walked beside Queenie in silence as they tried to synchronise their steps and cling together.

They knocked on the door of Hagrid’s hut, the soft sounds of his and Newt’s conversation drifting through the rickety door. Hagrid looked confused when he answered Snape’s sharp knock, even more so when the four of them slipped the cloak off in full view of their least favourite teacher.

“Professor Scamander,” said Snape in his deep drawl. “We have need of your… unique skills. Is it true that you removed an obscurus from Mr Kowalski here?”

“An obscurus?” gasped Hagrid. “Yeh never tol’ me that, Newt!”

“It wasn’t my story to tell,” he said, casting Credence a sweet little smile.

“Do you think it would be possible to adapt your method to a horcrux?”

“A horcrux?” he frowned. “I don’t know much about them - most things to do with humans remain beyond my understanding.”

“Aww, that’s not true and you know it,” Queenie said with a smile. “You understand my sister well enough.”

He blushed and looked at his feet, mumbling something about the exception to every rule.

“And Jacob,” Queenie smirked. “And Credence, and Hagrid.”

“If it makes a difference,” Hagrid said, raising one ham-sized hand, “I ain’t fully human.”

Newt smiled up at him, but Snape crossed his arms. “If we have quite finished stroking one another’s ego, shall we discuss the removal of a fragment of the Dark Lord’s soul from the brain of a fifteen year old boy?”

Newt’s eyebrows shot into his curls. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Uh, come down into the suitcase. More space.”

***

It didn’t really surprise Credence how quickly Newt took the whole situation on board, listening quietly to Snape’s sharp undertone as they climbed down into the suitcase.

Harry, Ron and Hermione all stared around at the menagerie in wonder. Credence was pretty sure Hermione was on the verge of tears. “How far do you think this goes?” she breathed.

“About half a mile in radius,” grinned Credence. “This is how I got to England. Newt had to suffer in British Airways economy class, while Jacob, Queenie and I fed the mooncalves over the Atlantic.”

To Harry’s confusion, Snape insisted they attempt the removal immediately.

“Don’t you think we should prepare a little more?” Newt asked mildly.

Snape shook his head. “The longer we leave it, the more likely the Dark Lord is to learn how to manipulate the link. He could easily possess Potter by using the horcrux as an access point.”

“Sir,” said Harry. “If Professor Dumbledore knew about my horcrux, why did he tell you to teach me Occlumency? I was never going to succeed.”

Snape’s lips narrowed. “I do not know if he did realise you were a horcrux. And if he did it is likely he was trying to minimise the effect.” He snorted, and Credence had to strain to hear his last sentence, muttered under his breath. “Perhaps he was hoping I would learn something of it and save him the trouble.”

Harry descended into a brooding silence while the three adults drew up plans and argued. Or rather, Snape argued. Newt and Queenie just smiled and either agreed or calmly explained their position, sending the professor’s hackles grudgingly back down.

It was nine o’clock by the time they straightened up and nodded to each other. “You’ll probably be best lying down, Harry,” said Newt, transfiguring a bench into the hospital style bed Credence recognised from his own removal. “This may take a while.”

“What about our prefect duties?” Hermione hissed at Ron.

Snape raised an eyebrow. “There is really no need for the three of you to be here.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “Leave Mr Potter here and return for him before breakfast.”

“Oh, ‘Mione,” groaned Ron. Hermione blushed, but grabbed the invisibility cloak.

“I’m staying,” said Credence. Snape raised an eyebrow and he swallowed down his fear and held his gaze. “I’m the only other person who’s been through this,” he said, waving at the arithmancy symbols Newt was engraving into the floor. “I want to be there for him.”

“Touching,” Snape sneered. “Do what you please, as long as you stay out of the way.”

Harry gave him a little smile. Credence shrugged at Ron and Hermione. “Sorry guys,” he whispered.

“Nah,” Ron said after one deep breath. “Hermione’s right. We’ll be noticed missing. Especially after we missed dinner. But someone needs to stay with Harry. Look after him, yeah?”

Credence smiled and nodded, and Hermione hugged them both before climbing the ladder back to Hagrid’s hut.

He took himself over to a second bench and let the niffler snuffle around in his pockets for shiny things, stroking the waxy fur as he grappled with the rivets on his jeans. He watched Queenie, Newt and Snape circle Harry’s bed, muttering softly and all but ignoring Harry in their focus.

He wasn’t sure whether Ron and Hermione had picked up on one aspect of the procedure. How hard had they been listening? How much did they, with their loving families and parents who made things better, still trust adults in that wholehearted way that most adults seemed to expect? How much had Harry noticed? Would Newt give him the same warning he’d given Credence?

“Harry,” said Newt softly, as if he was the legilimens, not Queenie. Credence closed his eyes and wished his friend didn’t have to hear this. Newt put his hand on Harry’s shoulder. “This process… I know I’ve done something similar before, but this is unique in its own way. I don’t know if a horcrux will react differently to the obscurus, and it’s possible the process itself could kill you.”

Harry just chuckled, and Credence felt angry on his friend’s behalf that there was no-one to leap up and protest for him like Graves had done for Credence.

“If this doesn’t work, Professor Snape’s going to kill me anyway,” Harry joked weakly. All the adults flinched, but Snape actually looked furious.

“I would have thought after almost five years you might have an understanding that I am somewhat invested in your continued existence, Potter.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he snorted, then looked down at his hands. “But if I’m a horcrux, you’re going to have to kill me, aren’t you?”

Snape clenched his jaw and stood in silence for a moment while Queenie rubbed Harry’s back. “Mr Potter,” said Snape, his voice surprisingly gentle. “Your father may have been an unmitigated bastard—“

“Oh, here we go,” groaned Harry, rolling his eyes.

Snape held up his hand. “He was. But… your mother was… she was… she was a good person. And I owe her a great deal. I would appreciate it if you would stay alive so I may fulfil some of the debt I owe her.”

Harry stared at him open mouthed. “Y-you knew my mum?” he whispered.

Snape turned away and crossed his arms. “Close your mouth, Potter,” he spat.

Nothing could stop Harry’s smile, though. “I guess you weren’t such an arse in school if you got along with her then,” he grinned cheekily, but his voice was soft, and he stared at the floor.

“No,” said Snape quietly. “I was, in fact, still an utter arse.”

Harry smiled and lay back on the bed with his hands crossed over his chest. Queenie took his glasses with a smile, patted his cheek and turned to hand them to Credence.

What is that,” Snape demanded, staring over Credence’s shoulder.

He turned and flinched violently as an inky swirl hovered above him, enclosed in a glassy blue ball. He stumbled off the bench and backed up, his heart pounding.

“Oh, that’s Oliver, Credence’s obscurus. Dougal must be somewhere nearby too.”

As Newt spoke, the huge eyed simian creature appeared, peering up at Credence and stroking his hand. He tried to smile as if it were succeeding in calming him.

“Dougal’s a demiguise,” Newt explained to Snape. “He’s selectively visible.”

“You keep an active obscurus loose in your…” he frowned at the vast interior of the suitcase. “Establishment?”

“He’s locked inside my suitcase, Severus, he’s hardly loose. And the globe keeps him safe and contained anyway. He doesn’t mean any harm.”

Credence just raised an eyebrow at the parasite that used to tear out of his skin and could strip the life out of someone. Trust Newt to make friends with a manifestation of fear and hatred.

Dougal tugged his hand gently until he sat back down on the bench, still keeping the obscurus in his peripheral vision. The parasite swirled in a strangely self-satisfied way, and seemed to turn its attention to the trio of wixen around Harry’s bed.

“Maybe we can put the horcrux in a globe too,” Newt said cheerfully. “I’m sure Oliver would show him the ropes.”

Snape stared at him. “You want to keep a fragment of the Dark Lord’s soul… never mind. Of course you do. Professor Scamander, this is not one of your beasts. This is not a parasite that formed to protect an abused child, or a creature attacked by ignorant humans for its heartstrings or tail feathers, this is a piece of one of the most heartless, vicious men alive, formed when he murdered a young couple and tried to kill an innocent baby for no reason other than a stupid boy told him part of a… a stupid prophecy. You are not keeping the fucking horcrux!”

The suitcase fell into a motionless silence broken only by Snape’s harsh breathing and a distant fwooper’s call.

“Oh, honey,” Queenie whispered and squeezed his arm. “You still love—“

Snape shook her hand off viciously and turned away, clenching and unclenching his fists. Harry stared between them, eyes slightly squinted without his glasses.

At last Newt cleared his throat. “Shall we get on, then?”

Harry lay back again. Snape straightened his back and raised his chin as he turned. “Severus, will you cast the stasis charms?” Newt asked, standing by the head of the bed. “Queenie, I need you to monitor him. I’ll do the extraction. Harry, if you would relax your occlumency shields, that would make this easier, and hopefully,” he glanced at Credence, “less painful.”

Harry nodded, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Snape cast a silvery network of spells which insinuated themselves over Harry, keeping him still and silent no matter what. Credence shuddered slightly, remembering the trapped feeling of being unable to control his own muscles even as he felt Newt’s magic swirling, tickling under his skin as it sought out the obscurus. Queenie sat near Harry’s head, murmuring comfortingly to him and basically conducting a semi-psychic conversation in an undertone.

Newt held his wand loosely and cast the complex spells he’d worked out on the journey over from New York. Credence hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but now he knew a bit more about the exactitudes and nature of magic he wondered if this unassuming, quiet man was actually a genius.

For a long time nothing seemed to be happening. Credence pulled his feet up onto the bench and fiddled with his laces, leaning his chin on his knees. He listened to the soft animal noises and Queenie quietly chatting to Harry, trapped in a corner of his own mind. He wondered how different the process was for Newt. While the obscurus had been wrapped around his magical core, somewhere in the vicinity of his solar plexus, Harry’s horcrux was probably in his head, judging by that scar. Newt certainly seemed to be working hard, sweat dripping down his temples he muttered to himself or the soul fragment. With Newt, it could be either.

At last Newt made a soft sound of triumph and a gentle motion of his wand, like drawing in a very delicate and flighty fish. His crooning increased until he was muttering a constant stream of encouragement.

A grey mass started to coalesce over Harry’s head, oily where the obscurus was smoky. A shrivelled creature, the size of a house elf, started to form, its face twisted in fury. As it became more solid it started squirming and fighting.

“Newt,” said Queenie, her voice soft but lined with worry.

“I know, Queenie,” he said, still in the same calm tones. “Come on, now, out you come. Look at you, you’re unique in all the world. Wouldn’t you like to be free? Let him go and we’ll see about getting you a globe just like Oliver’s.”

Snape’s eyes sharpened but he held his tongue. The horcrux though, looked like it was calming down, turning towards Newt, its head on one side. Then its eyes narrowed and a cruel smile twisted up one side of its face. It held out one hand, and clenched the fingers into a fist.

“No!” Newt cried. Harry’s body arched off the bed, jerking like a rag doll being shaken.

Credence cried out wordlessly and ran forwards. Queenie started screaming, begging, “oh, God, help him, he’s dying, please stop!”

Credence stood at the edge of the stasis spell, wanting to tear through it and drag Harry’s limp body away from the vicious little creature making grasping, pulling motions with its hand, fishing in a sick parody of Newt’s gentle tugs. “Do something,” he screamed at Snape, his fingers tearing at his hair.

Snape’s eyes were wide and horrified. “I don’t—“

A white light was rising from Harry’s slack mouth, and the horcrux cackled, beckoning to it. Credence pushed forwards, pressing against the repulsion of the stasis spells. He didn’t know what would happen if he physically pushed that little spark back into his friend, but it couldn’t possibly be worse than this.

“Dougal, no!” Newt shouted, and suddenly Credence was engulfed in black smoke. It twisted and chittered and screamed around him, roaring like a hurricane while Credence stood unaffected in the centre. He caught glimpses of a shrivelled grey arm, a mouth with pointed teeth open in a scream, all surrounded by the furious black cloud that ripped and tore until—

The crack was less a sound than the sudden, deafening absence of sound, followed by a deathly stillness. The obscurus calmed, the smoke becoming soft edged and slow, and even without the creature having eyes or any sort of orientation at all, Credence knew it had turned its attention to him. His heart hammered, seemed almost to creep up through his chest and into his throat, but he stood still. The obscurus reached out a tendril and caressed his cheek. He could swear he heard it crooning.

“What do you want?” he whispered.

The obscurus just purred and fluttered his hair, but when it made no move to enter his eyes and nose and mouth he relaxed just the tiniest bit. “Is Harry OK?”

The black smoke cleared a path and Credence stepped right up to the bed. Snape’s stasis spell was gone, and Harry lay flopped on the sheet. Blood trickled sluggishly from his nose, and even his ears, but his chest rose and fell. Credence clutched the mattress and sagged in relief. Above him the tattered shape of the horcrux drifted, bloodless pieces scattered around the outside of the bed like a macabre fairy ring.

Credence turned back to the obscurus. “Thank you,” he breathed.

The creature swirled up his body, twisting around his legs and torso, and panic rose in him once more. But the smoke simply brushed his har and rubbed his cheeks before falling back.

It seemed to shrink, as if it were once again in the floating sphere, but instead it draped itself along Dougal’s shoulders. The furry little creature’s tiny mouth curved up in a smile and he turned and walked off towards the occamy nest.

Credence suddenly remembered the three adults and turned to look at each one. They all wore matching expressions of horror, mouths open, eyes wide.

“Is it gone?” Snape asked at last.

Newt laid a hand on Harry’s head and nodded.

Chapter Text

Snape carried Harry up to the medical room just after dawn. They decided it would be better to pretend they’d found him unconscious by the lake during an early remedial potions lesson collecting Ravenning Bluebell bulbs, rather than inviting speculation about Harry's disappearance coinciding with Dumbledore’s. Credence was relieved there weren’t many people around so early, but typically one of them had to be Draco Malfoy. He did a double take at the limp figure in Snape’s arms. “Is that Potter, sir?”

“Do you truly have nothing better to do than ask inane questions, Draco?” he drawled. “Dear, dear, one would have thought your new... appointment to the Inquisitorial squad would keep you much more stimulated than that.”

He dragged out the name of Umbridge’s brownshirts like it stank in his mouth. Malfoy blushed and scowled, muttering something as he shoved past Credence. Credence was too delighted to let it bother him. Until he caught sight of Harry again, and remembered why he was even walking near Snape at all.

Madam Pomfrey gave an exasperated sigh when she saw who it was, and Credence sat by the bed while Snape explained the situation to her in hushed tones. He slumped, his head pressed against the firm mattress, and tried to let the tension drain out of his bones. He suspected he might be built on a scaffold of tension by now, and it was a bit of a losing battle.

He turned his head as Snape approached. The man barely made a sound as he walked, but Credence had always had an awareness of where other people were that seemed to have nothing to do with the obscurus. Snape peered down at Harry dispassionately. “There’s not much point you staying here, Mr Kowalski.”

“Why do you hate Harry so much, sir?” he blurted. Snape’s eyes flared with anger and Credence sat up, horrified. “I didn’t… I’m sorry, sir, I never—“

“Do not presume to know anything about me, Mr Kowalski,” he snapped.

“I- I know, I’m s-sorry, sir, I don’t know… sorry, sir.” He tangled his fingers together, trying to stop them from shaking, trying to stop his shoulders from hunching up around his ears. Snape just turned and stalked to the door and Credence let out a long, relieved breath.

“Mr Kowalski.”

He jumped. “Yes, sir?”

Snape tapped one finger against the door jamb and didn’t look at him. “It was never about him.”

Credence took a deep breath, clenching his fingers and his courage. “With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s ever been clear to Harry.”

Snape’s eyes snapped to him, and he wanted nothing more than to curl up and protect himself. He forced his eyes to stay steady on his teachers’. And then Snape turned and was gone in a flare of black robes.

***

Credence, Ron and Hermione took it in turns to sit with Harry every change they got, and they weren’t the only ones. Most of the DA spent some time watching over his sleeping form, pretending they weren’t terrified by his lack of responsiveness, reading class notes to him (Hermione), congratulating him for missing some essay or other (Ron, Seamus and Dean), and passing on the rumours of what Dumbledore was doing now (Credence).

Cho Chang visited once while Credence was there. She hesitated at the door, but came to stand closer when he smiled at her. “What is it about me?” she whispered. “Am I bringing them bad luck?”

Credence frowned. “What are you talking about?”

She took a deep, shaky breath. “I was dating C-Cedric last year. We… we broke up before the last task. It wasn’t… there wasn’t a fight or anything. He just… said it would be easier with him leaving school. We were going to t-try again when I finished, if we both still wanted it. But then he… and now Harry…” She trailed off, her shoulders hunching, both hands covering her face as she sobbed. Credence reached out tentatively and patted her back, and she instantly turned and burrowed into his shoulder, tears working through his shirt. He looked over at Harry’s sleeping form and felt an awful urge to giggle bubbling up in his throat. He had a feeling that if Harry woke up right then he’d be mouthing ‘see what I mean about the crying?’ over poor Cho’s shoulder.

Eventually she settled down and sat back more solidly in her own chair. “I’m sorry about that, Credence. It’s just… everything’s just been too much, you know? Half the school doesn’t believe Cedric was k-killed by Voldemort. Then there’s people who call me a slut because I dated Harry.” She clenched her hands into fists and spat the words, but the little spark went out almost as soon as it flared up. “I don’t know. I thought the…” she looked around and lowered her voice. “The DA understood at least. But then Marietta went and told Umbridge and everyone’s been so awful to her! I mean, how’s she supposed to choose between her family and her friends? But everyone acts like she’s more to blame than Umbridge!”

“They want to blame someone they can actually fight,” Credence shrugged. “I mean, we all know it’s Voldemort and Umbridge who are the real villains, but… they just feel too big for some people.”

“But that’s—“

“I never said it was fair. It’s awful. But for what it’s worth, no matter what I think of what Marietta’s done, I think you’re a good friend for sticking with her.”

Cho smiled at him and wiped the tears off her cheeks. “Thanks, Credence,” she said. She looked at Harry’s sleeping form again and took a deep breath, then leaned over to kiss his forehead, then Credence’s cheek, and then slipped quietly from the room.

***

While Harry slept, the DA members developed a new method of practicing. Hermione designed a complicated network of names, where every time a member learned a new spell, they had to teach it to two other members, who in turn had to pass it on to two more. If someone at the bottom of the hierarchy found a new piece of information, they came straight to her or Ron at the head, which avoided suspicion because they were prefects. That way the whole group stayed informed without breaking any of the decrees. Learning new spells was still hit and miss. Most of the information passed around turned out to be new ways to use various charms, but at least people felt like they were doing something.

That illusion of function was particularly important when the news filtered through that there had been another escape from Azkhaban, like Sirius’ success a couple of years ago had somehow spurred the rest of them on. The faces of the Lestranges, the Carrows, Dolohov and Grindelwald were plastered in all their gaunt insanity over the covers of the Daily Prophet, and the students walked around in a state of wide eyed fear, even the Slytherin students showing a brittle edge. Those related to the escapees pretended to be delighted, but Credence could see the suppressed hysteria screaming under their smirks and snide comments. You can believe what you like, agree with your crazy relatives as much as you need to, but no matter your political affiliations, some people are just terrifying.

When Harry first woke up, the excitement that rustled through the school felt like bubbles appearing in a soda bottle. People expected him to leap out of the medical wing hurling curses left and right, and when it turned out he could barely keep his eyes open for a few minutes at a time, a low level grumbling remained like the sticky heat before a storm. Even Malfoy seemed bored without Harry to torment.

People started setting pranks and traps for Umbridge and the Inquisitorial Squad, leaving graffiti and starting flash mobs. Fred and George were beside themselves with glee, and by the time Harry was released from the medical wing the school had descended into a surreal sort of chaos that all the other teachers seemed to ignore.

Chapter Text

“Does it feel different?” Credence asked one evening. They were meant to be studying, but someone had set off yet more fireworks which were curling in hypnotic fractals around the castle.

Harry nodded. "I was out for three weeks, it feels like I missed all the interesting stuff.”

“No,” he laughed. “I meant with the horcrux gone. Can you feel the difference?”

He was quiet for a long time, staring out into the darkening sky. “I hoped it would,” he admitted at last. “I was hoping all this… anger would be the horcrux, and I could blame every stupid decision I’ve ever made on Voldemort. But it isn’t. That’s all me.” He took a deep breath and forced a smile. “The headaches and visions are all gone, at least.”

“And your scar never hurts any more?”

He nodded, a peaceful smile breaking over his face. "We'll have to go down to Hogsmeade this weekend to thank Queenie."

Credence nodded. “I sent her owls to keep her updated—“

“Do you hear that?” Harry interrupted with a frown.

Credence fell silent and still at once, listening for anything odd. Harry jumped off the window seat and started digging through his trunk, throwing clothes across the floor until he found a scarf-wrapped parcel that seemed to be shouting Harry’s name.

“Sirius?” he laughed, tearing the cover off the mirror.

“Where the bloody hell have you been keeping that thing, Harry?” Sirius grumbled. “I’ve been yelling into it for days.”

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s been in my trunk, I didn’t want anyone to find it. And then I- uh, I sort of forgot about it.”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “I see how important my presents are to you.”

“I’m am sorry, Sirius—“

“No, no,” he said, draping his arm over his forehead. “I can see I mean nothing — nah, I’m joking, Harry. How are you? Hello, Credence.”

Harry laughed and Credence waved over his shoulder. “You should really make this into a messaging system,” he said. “Write on the glass so it doesn’t matter if you miss each other.”

“It’d come out backwards, Credence,” said Sirius, raising one eyebrow. “It’s a mirror.”

“Then write backwards,” he said, matching the sarcastic tone back.

“I think we could make it work,” Harry added. “If we keep it simple.”

Sirius shrugged. “Worth a try. Now, how’s your head?”

“Voldemort free, as far as we know,” he grinned.

Sirius shook his head, his expression darkening. “I never thought I’d agree with Snivellus about anything, but I swear, the two of us damn near killed Dumbledore that night—“

“What?”

“Snape came down to London while you were still out of it. Dumbledore had arrived the night before, after the ministry tried to arrest him on those jumped up DA charges, Remus sent a patronus and Graves and I got back a few hours later, you know, wanted to see if there was any change in our orders. We were just sitting down to a meeting when Snivellus turns up and started laying into him for preparing you like a lamb for sacrifice.”

Harry frowned. “I don’t think—“

“He’s been pretty sure about the Horcrux for years, Harry,” said Sirius. His voice was somewhere between furious and sympathetic, and Credence wasn’t sure either one was helping his friend, as his hero was torn down. “He was angry with Snape for removing it from you, you know? He said having it trapped in your head, behind the love magic that… that Lily and James left… he said it made you perfect to find and destroy the others. And when…” Sirius broke off and rubbed his mouth, shaking his head. “When I asked what would happen when all the others were gone… well… he couldn’t answer me.”

Harry’s hands clenched around the mirror. “What if he’s right?”

“What?”

“What if… I was the best hope for destroying those other Horcruxes and now—“

“Don’t say that, Harry.”

Harry dropped the mirror on the bed and stumbled out of the room. Credence glanced down. Sirius’ eyes were wide, and slightly mad. “Well? Go after him, for Merlin’s sake, Yankee! I bloody can’t!”

He nodded and shoved the mirror under the sheets, then raced out of the portrait hall after Harry. Luckily the castle was quiet enough that he could hear the clattering footsteps just a turn or two ahead, and he caught up with him by the dungeons. “Harry!”

He didn’t even turn to acknowledge him, and Credence skidded to a stop behind him as he hammered on Snape’s door.

“What is the meaning of this?”

“Sir… have we… was I… what…”

“Potter, as usual you speak a language known only to gibbons and the intellectually impaired. What. Do. You. Want?”

Harry took a deep breath, and another, but no words came. He looked off to the side, his hands clenched into trembling fists by his side, and even Snape’s frown became concerned.

“Sir,” said Credence, putting his hands on Harry’s shoulders. “We just heard from… from Padfoot. He told us about your fight with Dumbledore.”

Snape stared at him, his face expressionless, then stepped aside and jerked his head to call them into the room. “Sit,” he said, once they’d passed through the secret entrance to his private chambers. With a flick of his wand, mugs of milky tea appeared in front of both of them.

Credence cast a glance over at Harry. He was still shaking, his face tilted away from them, his shoulders hunched up around his ears. Snape eyed him dispassionately, then raised an eyebrow at Credence.

“Um… well, Harry was asking… what if he was the best hope at destroying the other horcruxes and now we’re in trouble because we got rid of the one in his head?”

Snape’s jaw clenched and he sipped his tea. “Mr Potter,” he said. “Do you think that your mother gave you that protection - do you think she gave her life for you, only for you to be killed at the right time?”

Harry’s head hung down between his shoulders, his elbows on his knees. He shook his head jerkily.

“Lily would have wanted you to live, Harry,” said Snape, and Credence wasn’t sure if it was the use of his first name, or the passionate fury in Snape’s voice that made Harry look up. “She would have wanted you to live not because you are a tool, or a child soldier, or a secret weapon, but because you are her son. I have made countless mistakes when it came to your mother, but I will never regret taking that… that thing out of your head. Strategy be damned. We are an order of powerful adult wizards, we do not need to send children to war for us.”

Credence and Snape pretended not to see Harry push his glasses up to wipe his eyes. “Thank you sir,” he said at last.

“Yes, well. If you’re quite finished disturbing me?” He waved towards the door.

Harry’s lip twitched as he stood. He turned, then stopped. “Oh, sir… one more thing?”

Snape rolled his eyes but gestured to allow him to carry on.

“Why don’t I feel different? Why didn’t Voldemort’s soul have more of an effect on me?”

“Professor Scamander believes it’s the love protection your mother left you. We always knew it was stronger, and more ancient than the Dark Lord’s magic. It must have sealed it away from the rest of your mind. Either that or the fact that it was an accidental horcrux made it weaker.

Harry nodded and smiled. “Thanks, sir,” he said again, and led Credence out.

***

The pranks around school escalated as Credence, Harry, Ron and Hermione kept their heads down and revised for their OWLs. Snape and Queenie both tested Harry’s occlumency shields - it only took a couple of lessons to repair the damage done in the horcrux removal and build them back up, and Harry didn’t have nightmares after either of them. Queenie turned her attentions to the others instead, giving them lessons in turns.

Snape told Harry after a couple of sessions that he needn’t go back. Harry was relieved. “He’s loads better now,” he admitted to Credence, “but he still sometimes looks at me like I’m something he’s trodden in.”

“Maybe that's just his face,” Credence grinned.

Hagrid disappeared one night a few weeks before the exams, leaving Newt in charge of lessons again. “He’s found a forest up in Aberdeenshire where he thinks he can settle his little brother,” said Newt.

“Wait,” Harry frowned. “Hagrid has a brother?”

“Oh, yes, half-brother,” Newt said. “He’s a full-blooded giant by the name of Grawp. Hagrid was keeping him in the forbidden forest, we were teaching him English, actually. But after that nastiness with the centaurs, he thought he’d be safer elsewhere. More tea?”

They just blinked at each other, shrugged and held out their cups. Credence was beginning to think he was developing an immunity to weird stuff.

Exams came and went, and when the History of Magic papers had been collected, the entire school seemed to sag in relief.

“I am so bloody glad that’s over,” Ron groaned as they fell onto their beds. “Honestly, it felt like there was this massive catastrophe hanging over all our heads that whole time - I feel like I’ve come through one of Peeves’ booby trapped corridors unscathed.”

Harry laughed. “I know what you mean. I thought tomorrow’s Hogsmeade trip was never going to come.” He rolled and wriggled on the duvet until he could dig the mirror out from under his pillow. He frowned. “Sirius left a message. Says to shout for him.”

Ron cast a silencio and they all climbed onto Harry’s bed to paper over his shoulder. “Sirius!” Harry yelled.

There was a thumping noise, the sound of a buckle being undone, and a sickening view of material sliding, the world shifting sideways and blurring until his face appeared. “Hi, Harry, how were the exams?”

“Sirius!” he gasped. “What happened to your face?”

“Oh, that.” He grinned viciously. “My dear cousin Bella found us. It was quite an enjoyable fight, might have to do it again.”

“Are you OK?” Harry’s knuckles were white on the frame as he pored over his godfather’s bruised and bloodied face.

“Of course, Harry, nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“Sirius, this is why you were supposed to stay at Grimmauld Place,” said Hermione. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Oh, don’t you start that again,” he said in disgust. “I thought you would have stopped being Dumbledore’s little echo after his stunt with Harry.”

“Sirius, please… just stay safe, OK?” Harry begged.

Sirius’ face softened and he let out a long breath. “I will, Harry. But I’m not going to stay wrapped in cotton wool. It’s not just me they’re looking after these days. It’s OK, Pup - I’m on my way to the rendezvous point, Graves and I will take stock, and—“

“Graves isn’t with you?” Credence blurted, his heart stuttering. If Sirius looked like this…

Sirius narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. “It’s OK, Yankee. Graves is tough as old boots, he can handle himself. We just split up to mess with the Death Eaters, it’s all planned out.” He almost looked like he was about to say something else, but shook his head slightly, and turned back to Harry. “I’ll be fine. We all will. Trust us, OK?”

Harry gave a wobbly sort of smile. “Yeah, I do.”

***

Ron woke up before the rest of them the following morning, the thought of Jacob’s pastries enough to get him out of bed even before Hermione. Credence grumbled about it, but if he was honest, being out in the pin-drop quiet of the early morning with three people who liked him well enough to harass him out of bed… well, that was worth a few lie-ins. It was worth all the lie-ins, really. The summer sun was already high in the sky, bumble bees droned in the roadside heather, and if there was such a thing as perfect in this life, Credence thought he might have found it.

And then Queenie gave him another letter from Graves.

Chapter Text

Credence knew it was ridiculous, and immature, and selfish, but he couldn’t enjoy the rest of the day in Hogsmeade. The letter he’d taken with trembling fingers, occluding like mad to keep Queenie out, seemed to crackle abnormally loud in his pocket. It felt heavier than it should have, and seemed to have a heat all of its own, so powerful was its draw on his attention. His knee bounced under the table at the Three Broomsticks where some of the other fifth years gathered. Conversations seemed to go on forever, and he was starting to absolutely hate Dean Thomas for his endless argument about soccer - oh, sorry, football - against quidditch.

Eventually, Credence’s need for Graves’ words overcame his good manners. He muttered some excuse that probably didn’t even make sense and almost ran all the way back to the dorm. By the time he threw himself onto his bed and pulled the parchment out of his pocket, his hands were trembling and he was almost hysterical. He took a deep breath. He’d waited this long. He forced himself to take his time, savour every part of it.

The seal was different on this one - and there was no envelope. But that made sense because the last ones had been hints to the code. This time the parchment unwound at his touch and he bent low over the paper. There was no code this time. No need, he guessed, if it didn’t have to get through Umbridge’s vetting system.

Sweet Credence, he read, and joy exploded in his chest to see those words in that handwriting again. I’ve thought about you, constantly, keeping the memories of you close to my heart as I travel. I know I said we should wait, but I can’t resist being close to you.

But more than that, I’ve found something. It concerns Harry, and I think this could turn the tide of this whole war, Credence, I truly do. Will the two of you meet me at the Shrieking Shack at midnight tonight? And once business is out of the way I’m all

yours

Percival.

Credence couldn’t hold onto the whirlwind of emotions tearing through him. Graves was back. He’d changed his mind.

He’d said ‘I’m all yours.’

But he also wanted Credence to bring Harry along to their first meeting and a selfish part of him pouted at that, like a spoilt child. Ma would have felt so damn vindicated.

“What does it say?”

Credence leaped out of his skin as Hermione sat cross legged on his bed. “Hermione, I think you have even less respect for privacy than Ron.”

She shrugged and tried to smirk, but he could see the worry in her eyes. He sighed and passed the letter over. It’s not like she’d worry less if he hid it from her. But the deepening frown as she read it made his skin itch with irritation. “Look, Hermione, I know what you’re going to say—“

“This doesn’t sound like him.”

“—what?”

“Something’s not right. Let’s see the old one again.” She held out her hand without looking, and even snapped her fingers slightly.

Credence frowned and shoved her hand away. “I know what you’re trying to do.”

“Huh?” She looked up, a furrow between her eyebrows.

“I know you don’t approve, Hermione, but it's not really any of your business.” He held out his own hand for the letter and ignored Harry and Ron as they walked in, laughing. The happy sound cut off the instant they saw Credence and Hermione glaring at each other.

“What’s up?” asked Ron cautiously.

“I’m not making it up, Credence, I really do think there’s something strange about this letter. Ask Harry and Ron.”

“Ask us what?” said Harry, and before Credence could grab it she’d passed his letter, his private letter over, when he hadn’t even decided what he wanted to do about Harry’s invitation tonight. He glowered at her, and she lifted her chin and crossed her arms.

“There’s just too many inconsistencies,” she insisted.

“I dunno, Hermione,” said Ron, reading over Harry’s shoulder. “The writing’s the same. I mean, it’s a bit… soppy, I guess.” He looked up at Credence. “Sorry, mate.”

He shrugged, embarrassed. “Well… I guess you could say the secret message was, too. And he called me the same nickname.”

“Credence,” she said, and the gentle pity was even worse. “That’s just it. That’s the biggest difference, don’t you see? Graves sent you a coded love letter to tell you to find someone better, that he’s not good enough for you. Then three months down the line he’s back and it’s like he never said those things? That makes no sense!”

“He says ‘I know we said we’d wait’.”

She snorted. “Lip service, barely. That last letter sounded like it had torn his heart out to write it.”

“What does he want with Harry?” Ron frowned.

“Exactly!” she said, pointing at him in triumph. “What would he need to see Harry about? I mean, obviously you’re not going to sneak off to the Shrieking Shack in the middle of the night just to see your boyfriend, but to take Harry—“

“Why the hell not?” he snapped. “Why wouldn’t I go and see him? I trust Graves. He saved my life, and if he tells me he’s got information for Harry, then I know that’s the truth!”

“But mate, if he’s got something for the war, why doesn’t he go to the Order? For that matter, why isn’t Sirius with him? They were meant to meet up last night, weren’t they, Sirius said he was going to the rendezvous point.”

“Maybe they just missed each other,” said Harry, and Credence could have kissed him. He knew Harry would understand. “We can call Sirius on the mirror and find out.” He looked up at Credence, handing him the letter back. “And I’ll go with you if you like.”

“What?” Ron and Hermione shrieked at the same pitch.

“Come on, I’m always dragging you two along on ridiculous things like this,” he laughed. “And Credence says he trusts Graves.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust Graves,” Hermione began.

“No, it is. It’s exactly that,” Credence snapped. “You never have trusted him. Look, I know you find this whole age difference thing icky or whatever, but the power imbalance you think there is? It just doesn’t exist for us. I love him, and he’d never do anything to hurt me, and I’m sorry that doesn’t fit into your nice little parameters of what’s acceptable.” He crammed his feet into his trainers and stormed down the stairs, ignoring their calls and almost knocking Neville over on the way out of the portrait hole.

For a long time he wandered around the lake, his fists clenched in his pockets and his head bent over as he marched. His temper still hadn’t cooled properly by the time the small groups of students started drifting back to the castle for curfew. He slumped onto a large flat rock, still warm from direct sunlight, and pressed his fingers to his eyelids. He couldn’t face going back up to the tower just yet.

As the air cooled, with wisps of mist rising from the lake and bats swooping low to catch insects in the dusk, he finally started to relax. He looked over his shoulder. He couldn’t see the whomping willow from there, and it wasn’t nearly time to set off yet.

His heart stuttered as he realised what he'd just decided. He was really going to do this. Hermione was wrong, and he was going to see Graves.

He started to shiver. It had been such a warm day he’d been out in just a long sleeved t-shirt. He rested his chin on his knees. He could cope with the cold - if he went back to the dorms now, Hermione, and probably Ron too, would be watching him and body-bind him to his bed before they let him leave.

But there wasn’t anything stopping him from going to the shack early.

His eyes widened as the idea hit, and he scrambled to his feet, his heart pounding. It was almost completely dark now, but he kept close to the tree line as he ran anyway. Harry had told him about the whomping willow, the knot you had to poke with a levitated stick, the tunnel at its roots which led to the haunted house outside Hogsmeade. The one that wasn’t haunted at all.

The willow was by itself on a little rise, and Credence crouched close to the ground as he fiddled with the spell. Finally, after much cursing and tearing at the grass in frustration, the chunky piece of wood clunked home and the willow sagged. With one last look around him, he was in.

The long walk was probably just what he needed, he told himself, wiping his sweaty palms against his jeans and feeling the letter crackle in his pocket. He was going to see Graves. He was going to be in the same room as him for the first time since Christmas, he was…

He was right there.

“Graves,” he said, and hated how pathetic his voice sounded, how breathy.

The man whirled to face him, his black coat flaring out around him, and did he have any idea how sexy that was? “Credence. You’re early.”

He pushed the door open and walked right into the room, so close he could smell him. “Yeah,” he said. “Sorry, it’s been… I couldn’t wait,” he blurted, and almost fell the last step into Graves’ arms. Oh, God, it felt so good to press his face into his neck, clench his fists in the material of his jacket and feel him pull his body close.

“Where’s Harry?” he asked, pulling back a little and cupping Credence’s face in both hands. He’d dreamed of that hand against his cheek, but this… it made him feel younger, more vulnerable. “Credence, where’s Harry?”

“I couldn’t,” he said, shaking his head a little. As much as he could with those thumbs pressed against his cheeks. “Hermione started getting paranoid, she wouldn’t—“

“Hermione?” he asked sharply, and Credence’s mouth closed with a snap. “Who else did you tell about this, Credence?”

“I… just my friends…” He eyed Graves’ face, a slight frown forming.

Graves pulled his head down to his collarbone again, and Credence started to relax. “Oh, my boy,” he sighed. “This was really important, you know. Do you think you could get him to come tomorrow?”

Credence’s frown deepened. “I don’t — why don’t I just… pass the message on?”

“No, this is vital Harry hear it for himself. I need you to do this for me, Credence, do you hear? And when that’s all out of the way, it’ll just be you and me, yeah?”

Credence’s heart was beating faster, faster even than Graves’. He could feel his pulse against his forehead as a strong hand kept his head pressed against his neck. A creeping fear was rising through him and he wished… he wished…

“Percy?” he said softly.

“Yes, sweet Credence?”

He felt ill. “I thought you hated that name.”

The man’s body stilled under his touch. Credence wanted to pull away, but it was like he’d been thrown back into that church again. The man’s fingers ran through Credence’s curls. Clenched tight.

“Ah, Credence,” he sighed, and all the warmth, all the paper models the man had built to simulate Graves fell away. It was still his voice, his face, but nothing was left of the man he loved. He pulled Credence’s head away by his hair as he tried to calm his breathing, tried not to look quite so much like a terrified bird. “This could have been so easy,” not-Graves sighed.

Credence closed his eyes as the wand came up. He wondered if all the people he worshipped would have kept theirs open. Harry would, he knew. And before the world disappeared, all he could feel was overwhelming relief that he hadn’t brought him along.

Chapter Text

“You got the wrong one, Gellert.”

“I know, you insufferable harpy.”

Credence blinked, then quickly squeezed his eyes shut when the light seared into his head, setting it throbbing.

“What do you think the Dark Lord is going to say when he returns to find the wrong brat?” a woman’s low voice drawled. She chuckled, and a shiver ran down Credence’s spine. “He’s going to be so… disappointed in you.”

He heard a sharp movement, a light slap, like someone’s hand had been batted away. The woman laughed again. “He’s only just been convinced you’re not a mutineer.”

“Oh, just me, is it, Bellatrix? Who was it who couldn’t even capture a dog?” Gellert tutted and Bellatrix hissed like some sort of cat. “All I did was pick up a replacement for Voldemort’s original plan.”

There was a scuffle. Credence wished fiercely that he could turn around. His back tingled with adrenaline, a hyper awareness of the danger behind him. “Show him some respect,” snarled Bellatrix. “He is your Lord!”

“Unlike you, I follow him because I believe he is the only one with the power to take us to the top.” Gellert’s voice was strained, and Credence thought Bellatrix’s hand might be round his throat. “He is not a god! He is Lord Voldemort, and when he ascends, we will take control of the shambles that has gripped this country.” Another scuffle, and Gellert’s breath came easier, and faster. “Wizards cowering in protected enclaves, hiding from those so far beneath them - we should be ruling! When the statute of secrecy is torn apart, when I see Voldemort on the throne, I will see my people back in their proper place, stretching their abilities without fear of these Muggle infants. All with power shall see the light.”

Bellatrix spat. “You speak some blood traitor bullshit, Gellert. 'All with power' - as if we need mudbloods. As if we need to govern! The filth shall fall at our feet!”

Gellert sighed. “You truly are a simple creature, aren’t you? What is blood without power? You only need to look at our halfbreed lord to—“

“You take that back!” Bellatrix screamed. The air was filled with curses, and Credence curled himself tight, clasping his hands over his head, waiting in terror for a stray spell to hit him. He wondered if it would hurt, or if he’d die instantly.

“Enough.” A voice reverberated around the room, thought it hardly seemed to have been raised. The spells ceased immediately.

“My Lord!” Bellatrix’s voice was breathless from exertion, and something else. “He dared - he dared to cast aspersions on your parentage!”

Gellert just spat, then laughed. “You did not get beaten up enough as a child for being a snitch, did you, Bella?”

Credence’s heart was hammering so hard he thought they must be able to hear it. He was in the same room as Voldemort. He was already dead, surely.

“I will kill him, my Lord,” said Bellatrix, and Credence wondered how long it would take for her to offer to kill a sixteen year old boy as well. “Let me kill him for your lack of respect.”

“Since when has dear Gellert shown me any sort of respect?” asked Voldemort in a soft, menacing voice.

Gellert’s grin could be heard in his voice. “I give you all the respect you deserve as our leader, and the most powerful wizard since Merlin himself. But I will not worship you, Voldemort. You already have a bitch in heat to rub herself on you.”

Another scuffle, and Credence scrunched himself up tight again. But Voldemort’s laughter rang out, high and clear, and the two stopped fighting. Credence breathed out harshly in relief.

“But what have we here?” asked Voldemort. His voice was coming closer, and Credence’s heart sank, like it was trying to escape his body. “Why is there a child lying awake and listening to our conversation?”

Heels clicked on the floor and Credence’s breathing sped up as a pair of dragon hide boots stopped level with his face. “Hello there, Sweet Credence.”

Out of some secret corner of his mind, Credence found the courage - or the stupidity - to glare up at the man. He was still wearing Graves’ clothes, but they hung loose on his true frame, wiry and white haired, surely as old as Dumbledore himself. He didn’t act his age, though, dragging Credence to his feet with one hand clawed in his t-shirt. “This,” he said pleasantly, gesturing between Credence and Voldemort like a host at a cocktail party, “is Credence Kowalski, close friend of Harry Potter. He will come for him as surely as he would have come for his godfather.”

Voldemort slipped his wand under Credence’s chin, tilting his head back so far his neck ached. He tried to get his breathing under control, but his chest rose and fell like a trapped bird. “Perhaps you can do more than squirm as bait on a hook, boy. Tell me, how fares our dear Mr Potter?”

Credence gathered his courage. He was going to die, he knew it. It was only a matter of time. He could only aim to die sooner, destroy any chance of being used as bait. Before he could talk himself out of it, he snorted loudly, reared back and spat phlegm at him, hitting him right on the cheekbone.

He allowed himself a bare instant of satisfaction seeing Voldemort flinch, his eyes widening for a microsecond, then narrowing. He hoped it would be quick, his inevitable death. But then Voldemort smiled, and Credence had to force himself not to close his eyes in apprehension.

The crucio hit him so hard he fell to his knees without even realising it. The pain was indescribable, explosive, his vision white, every muscle clenched tight. His head was thrown back in a scream, but his ears felt like they were being torn from his skull, and he couldn’t hear anything beyond the excruciating pain in every nerve.

He sobbed as it ended. It was almost worse, because waves of revulsion now flooded him and he could feel the effects of the spasms individually. His skull was splitting, throbbing where he’d smacked his temple on the floor, his teeth ached from gritting them, every joint in his body felt like it had crystals grinding in it. He’d bitten his tongue and his nose ran as he writhed, gasping at Voldemort’s feet.

Thin fingers dug into his hair and pulled him back to his feet. Bellatrix stabbed her wand into his cheek. “Let me cut out his tongue, see if he can spit in the face of his betters while drowning on his own blood.”

Credence fought to bring his breathing under control and curled his lip at her through tears and snot. He narrowed his eyes and put his anger and contempt for them ahead of his terror, that little part of himself begging to be excused any possibility of feeling pain like that ever again. He couldn’t be scared, not this time. He was going to die, he had to make them angry enough to kill him quickly.

“Patience, Bella,” said Voldemort. “Let’s give our guys the opportunity to make himself useful. Tell me, Credence,” he purred, staring down at him. “Why is it that Harry Potter no longer comes to visit? Oh, I’m sorry, child, did you not realise?” He tutted and Credence held his face in a rictus of hatred, putting up his shields just like Queenie taught him.

“Did you not realise?” Voldemort asked again, his voice mock sympathetic. “Your hero has been spending time in my mind. He understands me, Credence,” he said, pressing a skeletal hand to his own chest.

Credence allowed his uncertainty to seep through the edges of his mask. He didn’t know what to do, how much to show. Was he supposed to be angry? How would he have felt if this had been the first time he’d heard about the psychic link between Harry and Voldemort?

Whatever happened, he thought, shoring up his occlumency defences even more, he couldn’t let Voldemort know about the horcrux. Newt had told them it was an obscure branch of dark magic, they were barely known about in the wider world. Voldemort thought he was invincible. As soon as he found out that the Order knew about the horcruxes, and, worse, knew how to destroy them, they’d lose any advantage they had.

And if he found out that Snape had been involved in the destruction of Harry’s, well, Credence didn’t like the potions master, but he didn’t want him tortured and killed.

“He may not know this about himself yet,” Voldemort continued, and Credence allowed some revulsion to show on his face. “But I feel what he feels when he looks through my eyes. I feel his excitement when he watches me kill, watches me torture. He enjoys it. Do you think he would have liked watching you squirming at my feet? Do you think it made his heart beat faster?” He tutted. “I wonder if he’s been keeping his distance because he’s fighting his true nature, and that hurts.” His lip twitched into a poorly hidden smirk. “Tell me, have you noticed any changes in the boy your people worship? No? You will not tell me?” He sighed and lifted his wand. “I’ll have to see for myself, then.”

Chapter Text

Credence felt the tendrils of magic probe his awareness. Only where Queenie's had been butterfly wings, these became sharp edged, boring like a drill through his shield. Credence whimpered and closed his eyes under the pain. It was nothing compared to a crucio, but because it was localised on his skull he had no choice but to focus on the attempted invasion.

“You can’t keep me out, boy,” Voldemort said, but under his tears and pain Credence wondered if he was struggling, the slightest breathlessness seeping into his words.

He couldn’t let Voldemort see Snape helping Harry, he couldn’t learn that they’d destroyed the horcrux. He grit his teeth and forced himself to think of anything else, the meals in the great hall, the twins’ fireworks, Umbridge’s detentions, a dense wall of memories around the most important ones. And as stars started to flutter in his vision, prickle at the edges of every memory, he knew it was just a matter of time. For all his training with Queenie, she never would have tested him this far and hurt him so bad.

All of a sudden the intrusion vanished, and Credence was left crying on the concrete floor again, clutching his aching head and trying to curl into the smallest ball he could, his knees up to his forehead.

“Perhaps it is time for other method," Gellert’s gravelly voice cut through Credence’s haze, and he blinked up into the cold, wrinkled face in trepidation. Gellert raised an eyebrow. “Has Albus been teaching you, boy?” he asked.

Credence glanced at Voldemort. He wanted to feel triumphant that he was visibly affected, breathing hard, but he couldn't bring himself to hope for anything. Not when Gellert was smiling at him like that, so clearly thinking ‘my turn’. He let his head loll back against the floor and closed his eyes.

Gellert chuckled. “Bella, would you be so kind as to retrieve our other honoured guest?”

Bellatrix snorted, her voice coming from Voldermort’s side. “I'm not your servant, Grindelwald."

Gellert sighed. "This is why I have nothing to do with women.” He cupped Credence’s chin, and he squirmed weakly, feeling cold. “You understand, don’t you, Sweet Credence?”

He wrenched his face away, ignoring the pain, and gritted his teeth. Gellert just laughed. “Don’t be like that, boy. In fact,” he said, tapping his chin. “I think we have the same taste in men. Percy? Oh, Percy, will you come here, please?”

Credence’s heart sank further than he thought possible as slow, shuffling steps approached from the dark corner of the warehouse. Graves was stripped back to a filthy vest and boxer briefs, and his eyes were blank and staring. He walked straight to Gellert without glancing in Credence’s direction.

For a fleeting, shameful moment, Credence doubled him, wondered if he’d fooled them all. He shook that thought out and glared at Gellert, pouring all his hatred into the look, letting it fuel him and ease all his pains. But Gellert just laughed. “Give me a kiss, Percy. Show me how far gone you are.”

Graves leaned down immediately and kissed Gellert, who smirked and curled his body closer, gripping handfuls of Graves’ vest. Bellatrix cackled. “Look at his little face. Do you love him, baby? Want yourself a Sugar Daddy?”

Credence’s lip curled up, but he held it back, held his reactions firm. Bellatrix huffed. “Boring, Gellert. Is that really all you can think of using the imperius curse for, you pervert?”

Voldemort tutted. “We are wasting time,” he said. “If Potter and his little friend have been taking lessons in occlumency from Dumbledore, it may be time to put the plan aside and retrieve the prophecy with a show of force.”

Gellert pushed Graves aside so he stumbled slightly, and bowed. “I agree.” He raised his wand to Credence, then smirked and turned it on Graves, and Credence felt his eyes widen in horror.

“Wait.” Bellatrix licked her top lip. “Let’s have one more round. One more attempt to see what Percy knows of the Order.”

“The fidelius protects much of the Order, we know this already. He hasn’t given us anything helpful under imperius,” Gellert frowned.

“Ah, but now he has… a little more motivation.” Bellatrix bent down and petted Credence’s hair. “One can fight the imperius, but I’m sure he’ll reveal more when faced with his baby boy screaming in pain, don’t you think?” She patted his cheek and he spat at her too, hitting her in the eye. She sucked her teeth and kicked him in the ribs with her pointed boots, and he doubled over, coughing.

“I never thought I’d say this, Bella, but you might be right,” said Gellert, looking at Graves thoughtfully.

Voldemort chuckled and transfigured a crate into a throne for himself, patting his knee for Bellatrix to drape herself over. “Ah, love. That secret weapon of Dumbledore’s that does nothing but backfire on him.” He waved a hand. “Continue, Gellert. The prophecy can wait a moment more, while the others assemble.”

He let his sleeve slide up his arm and pressed his wand into the Dark Mark there. Within moments, Death Eaters were apparating into the warehouse, and Credence steeled himself. To do what, he didn’t know. Die quickly, somehow, he supposed.

Gellert ignored the cloaked figures appearing at odd intervals. “Tell me, Percy. What defences are there on the Ministry of Magic?”

“I don’t know,” said Graves, his voice dull. “I’m American.”

“Ah, but you’ve been working for the Order long enough. Tell me what you know of them.”

“I don’t know anything about them,” he said, his voice sounding a touch strained, like he was battling behind the monotone. Credence guessed he was.

Gellert tutted. “You need discipline, Percy. I’m sure we’ve discussed what happens when you lie to me, yes?”

Graves nodded, still staring into space. “Cruciatus,” he said, and it made Credence’s skin crawl, how he could say it with so little inflection.

Gellert nodded. “Yes, but today we’re going to have a little change. Every time you lie to me, you’re going to cast crucio on poor little Credence here. Look at him. Isn’t he a lamb, waiting so patiently for slaughter at your hands? Cast it now, Percy. Twice, I think. You lied to me twice, after all.”

He held out Graves’ ebony wand and Credence’s body went cold as the man he loved raised it and pointed it at him, not even shaking. “Cr… cru…”

“Have you forgotten?” asked Gellert, quite kindly. “Here, I’ll show you; crucio!”

Credence fell back to the ground as pain engulfed him, took up his past and future, tore screams from his throat and left him gasping, crying on the floor, sobbing and holding on to the please he was aching to release by the tips of his sanity.

He looked up at Graves as the curse receeded, still standing there with his wand out and his face blank, and for all that he loved him, to see him torn of his will didn’t hurt as much as that spell. Credence choked on a sob, knew he was breaking, knew he was coming to the end of his strength and he’d be begging Graves to tell them everything, telling them all they wanted to know himself, just to stop the pain. Just to have the promise of death instead.

“Cr…”

Credence took a deep breath that caught in his throat, tried to suck in another as Death Eaters kept appearing around him. He clung to his will. Tell them nothing.

“Cr…”

“Come now, Percy, I know you have it in you,” said Gellert, his voice mocking in its gentleness. “Shall I show you again?”

“Cr… Credence! Credence, run!”

Chapter Text

Graves turned his wand on Gellert and the man was thrown backwards under a barrage of wordless electricity. Credence ducked as Death Eaters started casting curses from every direction. Hopeless, he thought, his mind clear and almost emotionless. Graves was hurling spells around with power and grace even dirty and bedraggled, but he was outnumbered with laughable odds.

If this was a kamikaze mission, then he would make it count. Credence leaped up, snatching Gellert’s fallen wand, and raced, screaming childish hexes, at the greatest dark wizard the world had ever known.

He expected death to be quick and painful, but that was OK. He was surely going to be joined by Graves within minutes. He hoped to get off a few spells of his own, maybe even give Voldemort some bruises with a wingardium leviosa or something.

He didn’t expect to be surrounded by a green shield, and for the Goldstein sisters to leap in front of him.

Credence stared around him, breathing hard. The warehouse’s chaos was suddenly whirling in two directions. Death Eaters fought a stream of Order members. Sirius stood back to back with Graves, Snape took Bellatrix down before she and Malfoy senior regrouped and took him on together. Even Jacob fought, gunshots firing, wands splintering, blood flowing under a direct hit. If Credence hadn’t been so utterly terrified for Queenie and Tina facing down Voldemort, he would have raced to Jacob’s side and begged him to run for his life.

Voldemort laughed at the Goldsteins, and cast fiercely at them, effortlessly occupying their attention so Tina had to drop Credence’s shield just to concentrate on staying alive. Credence crouched low and did the best he could, casting protego and expeliarmus, stupefy and imobilus, tripping the black cloaked wizards and darting his attention from one duel to another, trying to help while staying out of the way.

Tina flew backwards, her body actually bouncing as it hit the floor. Credence cried out wordlessly and scrambled over to her, casting his green shield over them, his hands shaking as he patted at her face, grasping for evidence of her survival. When she groaned and frowned, he let out a shaky breath. She wasn’t conscious, but she was still alive.

The relief was short lived - now Queenie was out there facing Voldemort on her own. Credence tripped as he climbed to his feet, racing out of the green dome to… to what? Die by her side?

Then in a whirl of power, Dumbledore appeared, taking Queenie’s place just as her frantic magic stuttered and failed. She stumbled back, exhausted, as the headmaster faced Voldemort, speaking calmly in response to his rabid snarling, and then engaged.

For a moment Credence watched, captivated, as the two men did battle almost instinctively, tearing up the earth around them so much that duelists nearby had to dive for cover, abandoning their own fight. And then, wandless, Gellert Grindelwald was on Dumbledore, hurling him across the room, landing punches on him the muggle way, his face contorted in a passion Credence hadn’t thought him capable of, casting wandlessly when Dumbledore got his feet under him.

Now there was nothing between Credence and Voldemort. He felt the cold tendrils of magic gripping his neck, felt his throat squeezed shut as he was lifted off the floor…

Then a snarl, and Credence could swear a grizzly bear burst from his own chest and slammed into Voldemort. Credence fell, choking, to the concrete, and stared in horror.

Queenie stood with her eyes shut and her wand gripped tight by her side. Credence leaped up and rushed to protect her, but it was like a giant devil’s snare was holding him back. Voldemort stood across from her, and Credence wanted to scream, beg, tell them all everything they wanted to know if only he would leave Queenie alone.

But Voldemort’s eyes were also closed, and, one by one, as the magical tension built around them, the other duels ended. Death Eaters and Order members alike turned to stare at the surreal scene.

White, smoke-like tendrils drifted from both Queenie and Voldemort, twisting and curling as they grew into creatures. Voldemort’s were snakes, basilisks and mythical beasts, snapping and snarling as they strained against the bonds that still held them to their master. Queenie’s were bears and wolves, eagles and some vast sea creature, pressing against the same invisible boundaries that held Credence out.

Then Voldemort opened his eyes, snake-slitted, and smiled. The creatures exploded from his hands as he spread his fingers, blasting across the room. Credence was the first to go down under the snake’s fangs.

It felt like every worst memory he’d ever had was being torn to the surface. Ma, standing over him as a little boy, whipping him until the blood ran down his wrists, screaming at him, telling him he was worthless and filthy and he would never amount to anything. Credence felt himself curl into a ball on the floor under the weight of his own history.

And then he saw Harry, Graves and Tina. He saw Queenie and Jacob standing by his side, calling him their own, he saw Hermione and Ron and all the people who’d cared for him and taught him he was worthwhile. Under the fear and the pain he felt a warmth like molten iron bolstering up his veins, and he pushed himself to his feet with trembling hands. He wouldn’t let his family die. If there was any small thing he could do to keep those he loved safe, he was going to do it, somehow.

As the fear warred the determination inside him, he glanced up and saw one of Queenie’s wolves, tangled in snarling battle with Voldemort’s snake just over his head. But they weren’t alone. Beneath the snake, made of the same smoke, Credence recognised his own memories of Ma and Umbridge, his own child self being beaten, his own hand being scarred. And under Queenie’s wolf, he saw Tina fight for him, saw Harry resting against his shoulder, saw Graves with his hand on Credence’s cheek, Graves dancing with him in New York, teaching him magic…

He could barely hear the chaos around him over the chaos in his own mind. He stared around him, stunned and dazed, to see the rest of the warehouse all occupied with their own internal battles, all with dragons and basilisks in battle against bears and eagles. The only ones who hadn’t stopped their own duel were Grindelwald and Dumbledore, whose smoke-creatures seemed to be pulling the same memories out of both minds. The same worst fears and happiest moments, and all it did was make them more frantic and savage.

But beside them he saw Lucius Malfoy on his knees as images of his son and wife smiled on one side and begged in terror on the other. He saw Bellatrix twitching as a dementor hovered over her, arms wrapped around herself as if she were shackled in prison again, the snake strangling a wolf, memory of her master holding her chin and smiling at her fading and shrinking. Sirius also had a dementor crowding him down, an image of a young man… was it Harry? holding a baby and singing, the memory flickering in and out of view as the smoke dragon sank its teeth into the smoke bear above him. It was like the angel and the devil on everyone’s shoulder had become visible and were trying to kill each other, and he felt buffeted by his own battle as he stared at the others, some struggling to their feet as Queenie’s beasts got the upper hand, others curling on the floor in despair as Voldemort’s creatures won.

Credence turned back to his own creatures. He dug deep into his own magic and willed it to help the wolf. He wondered if he was imagining the red and gold light that flickered in the wolf’s heart, if he was imagining the extra power in the wolf.

He stumbled slightly, but grit his teeth and stood tall. The fear and pain, the old injuries the snake was exacerbating, were all still there, but he could stand them. He turned back to Queenie and Voldemort, still standing in silence in the middle of the room, tearing memories out of each other and casting them into the air above their heads. Murder, pain, heartbreak and regret swirling around each other so fast he couldn’t differentiate one from the other. He tried to take a step forward, tried to will his legs to work, his wolf to win, so he could just help her somehow.

With a snarl, Voldemort raised his hands, and his animals released those around him with a rush, and returned to him. Credence almost blacked out. The sudden lack of pain felt like euphoria, like a drug, and he stumbled to one knee. The smoke swirled around Voldemort, coalescing into a single vast snake that towered over Queenie, rearing back to strike, and Credence couldn’t, he couldn’t bear it.

But she opened her eyes, totally calm, and shifted her stance to face him fully. She brought both hands together and gripped the air, and all the creatures stood still, watching, waiting. “It didn’t have to be like this,” she said softly, shaking her head.

Voldemort laughed, and his snake struck.

Queenie ripped her hands apart.

Her creatures leaped forwards, converging on the snake all at once and tearing it to fine shreds. An unbearably high keening noise began, and Credence covered his ears, crouching low and staring in terror as black streaks, a bit like the obscurus, started to pour out of Voldemort. Flashes of the past tumbled around them. Those he’d killed, all the terrible things he’d done, and normal things like laughing and eating and sleeping. The scream reached so high Credence doubled over in pain, clutching his ears, screaming himself.

And then nothing.

He raised his head, his vision blurry, and squinted through the haze of ripped up memories. Voldemort was gone, no more than a scorch mark on the floor. The remaining Death Eaters, stumbled to their feet in shock.

And Queenie lay still.

Credence ran to her, screaming in rage and grief and a refusal to accept she was dead. He skated the last few feet o her side on his knees, and pressed trembling fingers to her throat. Tina landed on her other side, her face half drenched in blood. “There’s no… Tina, tell me I’m wrong,” he begged, his eyes spilling over with tears. “Tell me she’s OK.”

Tina lifted Queenie onto her lap, cradling her head, her eyes lost. She shook her head. “She… she can’t… she faced down Voldemort, she can’t be… she can’t…”

“No! No, Queenie!” Jacob pushed Credence aside, and he’d never seen him look so furious. “Put her down, Tina,” he said sharply. She shook her head, tears dripping off her chin. “Now! Put her down, I’m not letting her go that easily!”

He lifted her limp body out of Tina’s arms, laying her flat on the floor. He tilted her head, and before anyone else could react, started doing chest compressions. “Credence, you know mouth to mouth?” Credence nodded, the faintest glimmer of hope glowing in his chest. “Great, kid. Get on with it.”

He wiped his face, pinched Queenie’s nose shut and held her chin, blowing into her lungs for a few breaths while Jacob paused, then leaned back and watched him count. “Again,” Jacob rapped, and he saw, for the first time, the man who’d gone to war.

It felt like an eternity, like Credence’s entire past, present and future had shrunk down to breathing for Queenie while Jacob kept her heart moving, while Tina rocked and murmured prayers and clutched at her wrist.

And then…

As he leaned forward, Tina gasped, so small, but the crowd that had gathered were so silent and aware of her they all heard, and gasped too. Jacob whimpered, almost collapsing forward onto Queenie as her eyelids fluttered, and she began to breathe by herself. Tina’s face crumpled and she pressed her forehead to Queenie’s shoulder and cried, whispering over and over how she loved her.

And Credence, the day pressing down on him, black stars and exhausting puckering at his vision, slumped sideways into someone’s arms, and slept.

Chapter Text

When Credence opened his eyes again, it was to Harry and Sirius talking quietly on a sofa. Thick red curtains were half open to let in a stream of light that fell across the room but left his bed in the shade. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, and Harry turned with a broad smile. “You’re awake!” he said, leaping onto Credence’s bed. “How d’you feel?”

“Um,” he croaked. “Where are we?”

“Back in Grimmauld Place. The holidays started yesterday.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I've been out that long?”

He nodded. “Snape and Professor Scamander wanted to keep you asleep while the healing magic worked. Mr Graves said you’d been crucioed.”

Credence nodded, pushing himself up on wobbly arms. “Yeah, a couple of times.” He shuddered. “It was…”

Harry and Sirius both nodded, eyes going distant. Sirius shook it off first and handed him a vial from the bedside table. “Nutrition potion,” he said. “Severus left strict instructions.”

Harry grinned at Credence’s wide-eyed look. “I know. They’re on a first name basis. Weird, isn’t it?”

Sirius grimaced. “Well, he did save Harry. And catch you three sneaking out of the castle to go after Credence by yourselves. And apparate all of us to the warehouse by side-along when his Dark Mark flared up. Oh, and knocked Bella out when she was about to curse me.

Credence shook his head. “What have I missed?” he laughed. Then his smile died away. “Queenie…”

“It’s OK,” soothed Sirius, putting his hands on Credence’s shoulders to stop him from leaping up. “She’ll be fine. She’s… still asleep, actually, but it’s a miracle she made it. If it wasn’t for you and Jacob knowing that muggle CRP thing—“

“CPR,” said Harry and Credence at the same time.

Sirius nodded. “That. Either way, she… she went up against Voldemort, Credence. And won.”

Credence shook his head, a wondering smile curling up his lips. “She did, didn’t she. So… that’s it then? He’s dead?”

Sirius grimaced and glanced at Harry. “No, but it’s like he was before last summer. Dumbledore finally came clean with all of us - he believes Voldemort, back when he was still Tom Riddle, learned how to make horcruxes, like the one in Harry’s scar. He thinks there were seven in total, including the diary Harry destroyed in second year. He’ll never truly die until they’re all gone.

“So we’re back to square one,” said Credence, his hope shrinking.

“Not at all. We just have to find the other horcruxes and destroy them. And when I say we, that does not include you two. That’s what the Order’s for,” he smiled, pulling Harry close.

Harry’s eyes lit up like Sirius hung the moon. “Credence, guess what? Sirius says because I’m not a horcrux any more, there’s no reason for me to keep going back to the Dursleys! You should have seen him, he stood up to Dumbledore and yelled at him about putting the greater good before anything else - and McGonagall and Mrs Weasley nearly cursed him when they found out that he’d known all along what they were like. I’m staying here… I’m going to live here, with Sirius.”

Credence felt the same warmth Queenie’s smoke-wolf had given him, that protective ferocity swelling in his veins when he looked at his friend’s smile, saw him stop speaking so he could swallow back the tears. It was about damn time some adults started taking some responsibility for his happiness, rather than putting all their demands on his shoulders. He narrowed his eyes at Sirius. “What about your missions?”

“Only the safest ones. And only during school terms,” he said firmly. “No more sneaking out for me, that was all Graves’ fault anyway. He’s a bad influence.”

“My ears are burning, Black,” said a dry voice from the doorway, and Credence whipped his head around so fast he felt his neck twinge. Graves leaned against the doorjamb, tired but smiling, his eyes alive and his clothes impeccable. “Glad you see you up,” he said to Credence.

“We’ll leave you two to talk,” sighed Sirius, nudging Harry. He slapped Graves’ shoulder as he passed him.

Harry leaned over to hug Credence tight before he followed. “I’m so glad you’re OK. We were so worried.”

Credence smiled and squeezed him back. “Sorry I didn’t take you along for the adventure.”

“Are you kidding? I only nearly died once this year, it was like some sort of reprieve!” He slipped off the bed and out of the room, nodding to Graves as he passed.

Graves ran his hand over his hair, sighing as he lowered himself into a chair by the bed. “I’m getting old, Credence,” he said. “I’ve got grey hairs on more than just my temples now.”

“I imagine that's got more to do with the kidnapping and torture,” Credence said, one eyebrow raised.

Graves’ weak smile fell away completely. “Are you OK?”

He nodded. “Nothing hurts at all. I just feel like I’ve been asleep for three days. Are you…”

He waved his hand. “Don’t worry about me, kid, this is my job.”

It stung a little, being called ‘kid’ again, but… it was deserved this time, wasn’t it? Credence looked down at his hands as the lead-up to the kidnapping came drifting back in all its humiliating glory. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“What for, Credence?”

“For being such an idiot. Hermione told me it didn’t sound like you, but I was just too excited, I… I wanted it to be true.”

“What are you talking about?”

His voice was gentle, his forehead creased in confusion, and Credence felt his heart sink when he realised he was going to have to explain his stupidity to Graves. The letter lay on his bedside table along with his wand, and he passed it silently to him. His lips thinned as he read it, and when he was done, he put his hand over his eyes. “Credence, I—“

“I’m sorry,” he blurted again. “I should have trusted your first promise, should have known it wasn’t you. I just… I wanted it.”

He shook his head. “You know I can’t… you know why.”

He nodded, eyes fixed on his hands as they fiddled with the blankets. “I do. And I…” He took a deep breath. “I get it. I agree.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I’m still too…”

“Young?”

“Naive,” he grumbled, glaring at Graves, who allowed a soft smirk to curl his lips. “I’ve got to stop being so damn innocent. And stupid. Otherwise I’m going to be a liability.”

Graves shook his head and sat forward, covering his hands with one calloused palm. “It’s not that,” he said. “Or… well, not just that. Maturity isn’t just down to age, like you said. And I… I do… like you the way you are.”

Credence’s stomach swooped like he was flying as Graves’ brown eyes met his, soft and warm under his eyelashes, but still guarded.

“I don’t want you to change,” Graves murmured.

“Good,” he whispered. “Because I’m starting to like who I am.”

Graves smiled more open and honest than Credence had ever seen him. “You should,” he said. “You are… an amazing young man, Credence. I remember how brave you were, facing down the greatest dark wizards of our generation like they were just something nasty you’d stepped in. And then,” he chuckled and shook his head. “You know when I said ‘run’, I meant away, not right towards goddamn Lord Voldemort with a stolen wand.”

Credence shrugged, face serious. “I didn’t think I’d be getting out of there either way, better to go down fighting.”

Graves shook his head, looking sad again. “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through so much. You’re still a kid, you shouldn’t even know what the Cruciatus is.”

Credence scrunched his face up. “Ideally, no-one would know. If things were how they should be, it wouldn’t exist, and neither would Voldemort or Gellert Grindelwald or Bellatrix Lestrange. Just the world we live in, isn’t it?” He looked down at his hands and wondered if he’d feel this old and jaded when he was in his fifties, or eighties, or when he was Dumbledore’s age. “What happened to them? The Death Eaters?”

Graves leaned back. “The Lestranges are dead, both of them. Rodolphus died in the battle, duelling Kingsley. Severus stunned Bellatrix for a bit, but she came round as the Order were doing clean up, once they’d got the aurors round—”

“I thought the Ministry didn’t believe us?”

“They didn’t really have a choice when we had twenty Death Eaters and pensieve evidence from so many respected sources of Voldemort being ripped into pieces.” He shuddered. “That Queenie… she’s something else, isn’t she? Anyway, they’re calling for Fudge’s resignation now.”

“If they can use pensieve evidence, why didn’t they just see Harry’s memories from last year?” Credence asked, frowning.

Graves looked awkward. “Age, mainly. He was fourteen, there was no-one else around to corroborate it, and they would’ve had to get parental permission to use a child’s memories like that.”

Credence snorted. “The Dursleys wouldn’t have cared, they just want any reminder that Harry exists to go away.”

“Yeah, but why would Fudge go to all that trouble when he doesn’t want it to be true? Easier to discount it as a child’s attention seeking lies.”

“That’s not fair!”

“Credence, I know. Anyway, there’s no way he can cover this up, the cat’s out of the bag now. But like I said, Bellatrix came round and went nuts. She died in the crossfire of about six different spells. I think she’d have done anything to avoid Azkhaban again.”

“And Grindelwald?”

Graves shifted and looked away. “Dumbledore captured him. They have… I think they have a history. You know, beyond being on opposite sides.”

“What do you mean?”

He sighed and pressed his forehead into one hand. “I mean, Dumbledore protected him. Not like— he fought him, fair enough, and he won, so it’s not like he was holding back. But…”

“Graves, what is it?”

“I don’t want you to think badly of me,” he mumbled.

Credence shifted to the edge of his bed and squeezed his shoulder until he looked up. “If I could,” he said, low and fierce, “I would tear his throat out for touching you.”

Graves’ eyebrows flickered minutely, and Credence couldn’t tell if that scared or pleased him. But it was true. Credence may not have had an actual cloud of rage living in him anymore, but he was pretty sure he could murder Gellert Grindelwald and not feel guilty. Maybe that made him a bad person, but he’d never claimed to be Hermione Granger.

“I went for him,” said Graves softly. “He… he winked at me as he was being dragged away.” He snorted and looked to the side. “Or maybe he was just blinking, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure he lost an eye in the fight with Dumbledore. But I didn’t care, I just… I was tired, my adrenaline was slumping, and I… I hurt. I wanted him to… to pay.”

Graves rubbed his face with both hands. “Dumbledore stunned me and… I’m not sure if it was for my benefit or his.” He shrugged listlessly. “It doesn’t matter. We’re all still working together trying to find these horcruxes, but Dumbledore’s fallen in a few people’s estimation, since Queenie found out about Harry.”

Credence leaned back against the pillow. “So you’re staying a bit longer?”

“Well… in England, yes. Sirius and I make a good team, but he’ll want to spend some more time here now he’s got his godson to look after.” Graves shook his head. “Never seen that kid look so happy, so much like a child as when he heard he didn’t have to go back to his old place.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered under his breath. “How do we fail you guys so badly?”

Credence didn’t really know what to say, and picked at the blankets again while Graves sat up straight again. “Anyway, Tina and I’ll be horcrux hunting for as long as it takes. Advantage of being a pureblood, I’ve got enough in my vaults that neither of us need to work.”

“So,” said Credence, a worrying wave of hope rising in him. “Not that I don’t want you guys to finish your mission and come home safe quickly, but does this mean you might be around England for a few years? Say, two?”

Graves suppressed a small smile. “And what’s special about two years?”

Credence held his gaze seriously. “I will still love you then, Graves.”

His breath hitched slightly before he breathed out hard, shaking his head and pressing his fingers to his forehead again. “Even after all this? Even after everything I did?”

“What, break the Imperius curse to keep me safe? I told you, sixteen, eighteen, a hundred and eighteen, I’ll still love you. I’ll wait til I finish Hogwarts, I’ll wait after that if you decide you don’t want me. Even if you never want me. But you’re it for me.”

He let out a strangled laugh. “Credence, that’s… don’t say that, OK? You can’t know—“

“I can,” he said calmly. “But I can see how it’d be hard to believe. So I’m fine with waiting for you, to prove it.”

He sighed and looked at him, brown eyes deep with sadness. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t waste your life waiting on an old man just to prove something. Don’t just try to skip these years. Just… live. And be happy.”

“Graves,” he started, his hands clenching into fists, but Graves shook his head as he stood. He leaned over and kissed Credence’s forehead.

“You owe me nothing,” he whispered, pressing their foreheads together. And then he was gone.

“That’s not…” Credence clenched his fists tighter, ground his teeth until they hurt, but the tears still fell hot against his cheeks. “That’s not it, you bastard,” he whispered, and pressed his hands to his face.

The room was quiet around his sobs. At last, face puffy and rubbed raw, he ran his fingers through his curls, set his jaw, and went to find Queenie.

Chapter Text

“Are you ready?” asked Credence.

Harry took a deep, shaky breath and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, this is… God, this is huge. Definitely about time.”

Credence nodded and squeezed his shoulder. “I got your back.”

Harry clenched and unclenched his fists, then stood, jerkily, and crossed the road to 4 Privet Drive. Credence followed him, his head bull-lowered and his jaw jutting.

Harry knocked on the door, then bounced slightly on the balls of his feet, unable to stay still. Credence wanted to put his hand on his shoulder again, but there wasn’t enough space on the step. And he didn’t want to undermine him by drawing some sort of attention to his nerves.

The door opened to a thin woman with a fake social smile that disappeared the moment she saw Harry. Credence swallowed. God, but she looked like Ma. He made a particular effort to straighten his back. These were Harry’s demons, not his, and he was going to be as silently hateful and obnoxious as he could. If Harry was anything like him, which, sure, he might not be, he was probably going to fall back into old habits. Credence glared up at the woman, making sure he was projecting as much disgust as he could. He was delighted when her eyes slightly widened at the sight of him behind Harry.

“Vernon!”

“What is it, Petunia, I’m watching the telly.”

“Vernon, come here, it’s… it’s him.”

“I just want my stuff,” said Harry, and Credence was so proud of how steady his voice was.

A man appeared behind Petunia, and he seemed to puff up when he saw Harry, his walrus moustache bristling. “Well! You’ve got a bloody nerve.” he hissed. “You didn’t show up at the train station, not a word of warning. We were stood about for a good half an hour in that… that freak show, waiting for you, and—“

“Look,” said Harry. “If you just let me get my stuff, you’ll be rid of me forever.”

Petunia narrowed her eyes. “What about that awful headmaster of yours?”

Harry hesitated. “The situation’s changed. I don’t need to come here every year, so my godfather’s offered to take me in.”

“Your godfather? The criminal, eh?” growled Vernon. “Where is he? You haven’t brought him here, have you?”

“No,” said Harry, through gritted teeth.

Credence turned his eyes on Vernon, and tried not to blink too often. Vernon frowned at him, but drew back slightly, which Credence counted as a win. “Who’s this little freak, then?”

“This is Credence,” snapped Harry. “And he just fought in a battle against the greatest dark wizard of the century and won. Now can I please get my stuff and leave?”

Vernon narrowed his eyes, but stepped back towards the doorway to the living room. Petunia took her cue from him and backed away as well, wringing her hands together. A boy about their age came to stand beside Vernon, looking between them all uncertainly. Harry walked to a cupboard below the stairs and glanced at Credence out of the corner of his eye before pulling it open.

Credence almost missed it, so busy making evil eyes at the family that had hurt his best friend. Harry’s eyes closed briefly before he crouched down, and Credence noticed his breath speeding up ever so slightly as he leaned forwards. The door slipped and bumped him on the side, and he flinched violently.

He remembered a throwaway comment, a joke, I lived in a literal cupboard for eleven years. Harry had a habit of making things that hurt into things that could make others laugh, but it wasn’t enough to take the hurt away from himself. Credence held the door, bent it backwards until the hinges creaked. Petunia winced, and Credence allowed the slightest smile as he creaked it even further backwards, away from Harry as he collected little knick-knacks and pictures, broken toys and torn books from under a floorboard.

“OK, done,” he said, standing and handing the stuff to Credence. Credence took it before he dropped it, Harry’s hands were shaking so hard. “Just the bedroom now.” He jerked his chin to the stairs, past Vernon.

Credence watched Harry’s back tense up as he walked past the big man. He remembered the scars on Harry’s shoulder blade, how Harry said he’d jumped back to his feet and told him it didn’t hurt. A big man like that, it must have hurt like hell. No wonder Harry had been able to defy Voldemort, Umbridge, Snape… but this time Credence was going to do it for him. Instead of following Harry all the way up the stairs, he turned on the fourth step and stood, his arms crossed, and stared at Vernon.

“Move, boy,” he grumbled.

Credence pretended to think about it, his adrenaline pumping hard. “Nah,” he said, and shook his head. The boy in the background raised his eyebrows.

“Who the bloody hell do you think you are?” Vernon snapped, starting up the stairs, his face reddening with anger.

Credence didn’t let himself think. He was riding high on fury and euphoria. It was almost as good as telling Ma to go fuck herself. He held out one hand, palm out, so that it stopped just over Vernon’s heart, and smiled at him. “I’m death itself, old man,” he whispered.

Vernon froze. Credence almost screamed with mingled panic and hysteria. This was working? It was utterly hilarious! “Wh- what are you talking about?” the man blustered. But he took a step back.

“Are you going to let my friend collect his stuff? Or are you going to test me?”

Vernon swallowed. Then he snorted and stepped back, waving his hand dismissively. “Get on with it. It’ll be good to get rid of that waste of space, anyway.” He raised his voice. “But don’t you even think you’re going to get away with stealing anything!”

“Are you so sure about that?” Credence asked, tilting his head to one side, just that little bit further than normal.

Vernon blinked a couple of times, said “pah!” and walked back to the television just as Harry walked down the stairs, a few old clothes tucked under his arm and a slightly battered photo album. He held it up and waggled it slightly at Credence, looking desperately relieved. Credence nodded, and they walked to the door together.

“Harry,” called the boy.

Harry and Credence both turned, Credence almost itching with a fight, high off his success with Vernon.

“I… I don’t think you’re a waste of space.”

Harry blinked several times. “Uh. Thanks, Dudley.”

Dudley held out his hand as his mother watched, eyes wide, mouth opening and closing. “You gonna be safe now? No more of those… ghost things?”

Harry laughed slightly hysterically as he shook his hand. “Uh, I don’t know. Dementors. They’re still… around? I don’t know.”

“He’s got people to look after him now,” said Credence.

Dudley looked at him and nodded. “Cool. Peace, Harry.”

“Y- yeah. Peace. Um… bye.”

He fumbled with the doorknob a moment, and then they were bursting through the doorway, into the July humidity. They walked together down the path, up the street, and through the playground to the bus stop. Then Harry looked at Credence. “Did… did my cousin just… say peace?”

Credence nodded.

“To me?”

He nodded again. He met his eye, and Harry collapsed, laughing so hard he cried. Credence started giggling too, and they leaned against each other in the bus shelter, letting out all the hysteria and the fear, and taking in Harry’s first taste of pure freedom.

After a bus to the train station, and a train into London, Sirius met them at Islington tube station. “You didn’t have to come get us,” said Harry, giving him a tight hug.

Sirius grinned. “I wanted to, though. I’m not going to live like a hermit any more, not now I’ve got my godson to raise. I’m staying out of wizarding spaces, but… now, I don’t want to get your hopes up, Harry, but there’s talk in the new wizengamot of some sort of pardon.”

“What? That’s amazing news!”

Sirius held his hands up. “Woah, woah, I said don’t get your hopes up. It’s just a rumour, but Kingsley said I need to ride the wave of positive attention or something, make sure it happens. But listen, if nothing comes of it, we’ll stick together, OK?”

Harry grinned so hard Credence thought his jaw must have ached. Sirius wrapped one arm over his shoulder and the three of them walked out into the sunlight.

“Credence, I’m… sorry about Graves,” he said, then crunched his nose up. “Well. I’m not… I didn’t think much of your relationship, but…”

“It was never a relationship, Sirius,” said Credence stiffly.

Sirius sighed. “He’s nearly as old as I am, kid.”

“I know, Sirius. Look, can we just leave it?”

He opened his mouth like he was going to say something else, then glanced at Harry and deflated. “Fine. Come on. I’ll get you something from that muggle place on Upper Street, the one with the giant meringues.”

***

Credence crept into the dark room, tapping on the door with one finger. “She’s awake,” Jacob called softly, and his face broke into a grin.

“Hey,” he whispered, coming close to the bed. “How’re you feeling?”

“Hey, sweetie,” she said in a croak. “I’m just dandy, as you can see.”

He laughed and handed Jacob the pastry box. “I got you something from the competition.”

“Thanks, kid,” he said, his eyes crinkling. “But I don’t think Yotam Ottolenghi counts as competition.”

“Inspiration, then.”

“That’s more like it.”

Queenie smiled, and Credence took her hand gently. She pulled. “Come here, honey, give me a hug. I ain’t gonna break.”

“No,” he snorted, kicking off his shoes and snuggling next to her. She wrapped a thin arm around him and pulled him close, kissing his head. “If even Voldemort couldn’t break you, I don’t think we’ve got anything to worry about.”

The three of them sat in the still room. Very little light got through the thick, velvet curtains, and the room was at the very top of the house, well away from loud sounds. “Any migraines today?” Credence asked.

“None at all,” she said, a smile in her voice. Credence watched Jacob lift her hand to kiss her fingers. “We’re gonna try taking Jacob’s circlet off tomorrow.”

Jacob touched the band of metal that muffled his thoughts. Credence’s occlumency was strong enough that he didn’t need one, but everyone else who came into the room had one fitted by Professor Flitwick. “Only for a few minutes or so, OK? No pushing yourself more than necessary.”

She cupped his cheek with her palm. “It is necessary, darlin’. I miss the sound of your thoughts.”

“Well, if it sends you off into another splitting headache you won’t be hearing anyone’s voice, let alone thoughts. Just take it easy.”

“How could I not, when I’ve got my two wonderful boys here to protect me?”

Credence smiled and pressed his face into her shoulder. His eyes prickled as he felt that sweet, overwhelming sensation of home rush over him. It didn’t matter that he’d known Queenie and Jacob for just over a year, or that they were in a strange room in a strange house in a strange city. They’d always feel like home to him. He hoped with all his heart that Harry would be able to feel this too, now he was living with Sirius. The only other place he’d ever felt this safe was in Graves’ brownstone apartment.

Jacob left to have a shower, leaving a kiss on Queenie’s forehead and a squeeze of Credence’s shoulder. For a moment there was silence in the dark room, peaceful and dreamlike.

“Do you wanna talk about Mr Graves, honey?” she asked.

“You’re not supposed to be reading my mind,” he scolded.

“I’m not,” she smiled. “But I know the person you love can’t ever be far from your thoughts.”

He sighed and felt his body sag, losing some of its hope. “Maybe he should be. I should stop thinking about him… or try to stop.”

“D’you really think you can?”

Her voice was perfectly neutral, and Credence paused before answering. “Well… I think I have to. He doesn’t want me.”

“I don’t think that’s the case.”

“He said I shouldn’t wait for him. He… I can’t just love someone hopelessly my entire life if he doesn’t want me back!”

They lapsed back into silence. Queenie ran her fingers through his hair over and over, and Credence allowed himself to feel miserable.

“I just… I can’t imagine loving anyone else, not like that,” he whispered.

“Then don’t,” she said, just as softly. “Nobody said you have to have a love like that.” She kissed him on the forehead. “There’s plenty of people who’ve got no romance in their lives, or even in their hearts. That doesn’t make their heart any less loving.”

He pulled back, resting his head on the pillow so Queenie could turn and hold his gaze. “You have so many people who love you, Credence. You’ve got me and Jacob, God, we love you so much. And you’ve got Harry. That boy would do anything for you, and I think you’d do the same for him. Hold onto him tight, now I’m no seer, but I bet you anything you’ll continue to pull each other through plenty of tough times. You’ve got Ron and Hermione, Newt and Tina. And you’ve got all those people in your school, too - you may not see them quite as much but they’re important too. Lavender, Neville, those twins and Ginny. Luna, Dean, Seamus and the Patils. Don’t you fall into the trap of thinking there’s only one sort of love that matters.”

She put her hand against his cheek, stroking his skin with her thumb. “You’ve had precious little love of any sort in your life up until last year. Now it’s your turn to take it all, and give it back to those who deserve it.”

Credence closed his eyes and pressed close to her again. She kissed him on the top of his head and petted his back, and didn’t say anything about the tears that soaked her pillow.

Chapter Text

“Nervous?” grinned Harry, neatening Credence’s robe.

Credence slapped his hand away and Harry snickered, cheeks crinkling under the neatly trimmed goatee that framed his mouth. He rolled his eyes at his friend and pushed his long black hair behind his ears, tugging it until his scalp tingled. “Yeah. Now fuck off.”

Harry snickered again. “Come on, Auror Kowalski. Let’s see what the famous Americans can teach us about long term field assignments.”

Credence snorted. “Field assignments my arse, that’s just MACUSA trying to take credit for the horcrux hunt retroactively.”

“Bloody Americans.” Harry shook his head and tutted, and Credence gave him a dead arm. “Oww, you bastard. Come on, before you get even more violent. Merlin, the things I put up with.”

Credence grinned at him, but it died on his cheeks as he followed him into the lecture theatre. “Hey, uh, Harry, can we sit at the back, do you think? I just…”

“Sure,” he said, giving him a lopsided smile. Credence returned it gratefully.

When Tina and Graves came on stage, Credence thought he’d lost his stomach through the concrete floor, leaving his body empty and vibrating with butterflies. His breath felt punched out of him and he clutched the desk so hard his finger joints ached.

Because Graves was still - after eight years, countless drunken nights, two other boyfriends and many, many claims to the contrary - the one for him.

Harry glanced at him out of the corner of his eye and smirked lightly, but didn’t say anything, just opened his notepad as Graves started talking. All around them people were writing furiously, but Credence was frozen, aching with eight years’ repressed pining. Didn’t matter how naive he told himself he had been back in school, Graves still had the power to make him feel like he could tell the future. He knew again, with the same certainty he’d always felt when faced with Graves, that he’d love him until the day he died.

The constriction in his throat eased as Graves stepped back to let Tina take the podium, explaining the methods they’d used to track down the Gaunt ring. But the pain didn’t die away completely, settling into a hard lump in his chest.

As the talk came to an end, through a long Q and A session, after the class began filing out leaving Robards to talk to Tina and Graves, Credence still sat as if petrified.

At last Harry squeezed his shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go talk to them.”

But Credence shook his head. “I can’t.”

“What? Why?”

“I just… what if…” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, looking up at Harry at last. I’d rather keep my dreams intact.”

Harry looked so painfully sympathetic that Credence turned away and busied himself with his unopened bag. “Let’s just go. Lunch at that muggle place again?”

Harry opened his mouth, then closed it again and shrugged. “Sure.”

They had to walk past the stage to get to the door. He kept his head down and trusted the dark, and Robards’ distraction, and eight years of silence.

Then Harry tripped, and fell with a yell. All eyes turned to them.

“Credence?” called a soft voice, almost breathless.

He froze, half way to pulling Harry to his feet. Harry leaped up, grinned, and ran off with a cheeky wave, and Credence plotted seven different ways to kill him and hide the body before turning. “Hi.”

Graves’ forehead was wrinkled, his head tilted slightly down so he was looking up at him through thick black lashes and honest to Merlin, Credence was actually just going to die.

“You look—“ Graves waved a hand at him, then snatched it back and rubbed his neck. “You look great.”

“So do you,” he muttered, because he did, with his waistcoat and his perfectly pressed trousers and his coat - Credence flushed almost the same colour as his robes and looked down.

Graves snorted. “Sure, kid.”

He glared up at him. “I’m not a kid any more,” he growled, and he’d never sounded more childish. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He should never have come.

“No,” said Graves softly. “You’re not a kid any more.”

“I waited,” said Credence. He just sounded tired now.

“I told you not to.”

He shrugged. “I know. So. Good speech. Well done on destroying the ring.”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks.”

“So what did you do for the other seven years after that?”

“Went back to MACUSA. Kingsley made some very public comment about how kind it was of them to send the UK their best aurors in a time of need, so Piquery couldn’t kick us out. So. You’re an auror now too?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s great.”

The conversation stilted, and it hurt worse than hearing he’d gone back to the States just after seventh year started, worse than the months after graduation when he still had some hope that he’d come back for him, or after he turned twenty-one and still heard nothing.

He nodded and turned to go, the lump in his throat aching so hard he couldn’t even say goodbye.

He took two steps before something made him turn back again. Graves looked like he’d shrunk in his great coat, his head low and his shoulders slumped. Something else joined the misery in his throat, something stupid, like hope.

“You know, I’m still waiting,” he said, his heart hammering.

Graves’ head whipped up, and Credence watched his poise fit back in place in an instant.

“I didn’t stop living,” he continued, walking back towards him, his hands clenched tight on the leather strap of his bag. “I dated, I worked, I lived and I laughed - I even loved someone else for a little while, I think. But I waited for you the whole time. I’ll always be waiting for you.”

“Credence…” His eyes were wide, and maybe there was the faintest hint of that stupid hope thing in them too.

Credence stopped less than a foot away from him. He’d overtaken him, he realised. He was one or even two inches taller than Graves. “I’m waiting,” he said softly, his heart hammering so hard he could barely hear his own voice, “for you to realise that it’s possible for me to love you the way you love me.”

Graves’ eyes fluttered shut and he took that last step forward, hands coming up to his shoulders, pulling him close so they were pressed together from chest to knee, and kissed him.