“Harry,” Hermione said firmly, and he had to resist the usual contriteness which threatened to bow his head. He was done bowing his head.
“Will,” Harry corrected, a familiar battle.
“Will,” Hermione’s echo wasn’t quite agreement, nor was it quite an apology, but it would do. “You can’t run away from your problems forever.”
Harry wanted to reply, “watch me,” a sentence akin to something he would have said to Draco Malfoy, years ago. But that would get them nowhere, so he bit back the words.
“I’m not running away, Hermione. But Britain is toxic for me right now.” Only a bit of lie, but Will couldn’t find it in himself to care. And anyway, Britain was toxic.
“What about Teddy?” Hermione asked, and the look on her face showed that she knew it was a low blow.
“He’s got Andromeda,” Will said. “And besides, I don’t think I’d be a great role model for him.” Hermione frowned, but even she could see the truth in that statement. Everyone had been having trouble coping, but it had been fourteen years since the end of the War, and most everyone was, if not fine, then much better than he was, now.
“I just don’t understand,” Hermione said finally, looking helpless. “You’ve been cursed before,” understatement, “so why is this one making you change your name and move halfway across the world?” There were tears in her eyes, and the unspoken words hung heavy between them. Why are you abandoning us?
“What happened, Hermione, was that this curse isn’t reversible. I feel everything. I can feel your guilt and loneliness. I can feel it when you get so upset with Ron you think you might one day kill him. I can feel it every time someone looks at me with scorn or hero worship. It’s suffocating. I can’t stand it here, ‘Mione. You’re going to have to accept that.” Will wanted to be able to say that the vicious pride in Hermione’s shell shocked and horror filled expression wasn’t his, but that would be a lie.
“That’s cruel, Harry,” Hermione said, and Will had to take a moment to process those words.
“I lead a war for you. I sacrificed myself for you. And it’s never enough. That’s why I’m leaving,” he said. His voice brokered no argument, and with a pop he’d already apparated back to his empty apartment.
“I want you on my team, Graham,” Jack Crawford said. The intimidating man was obviously getting tired of trying to convince him. Will was getting tired of feeling like a rook in a giant game of chess.
“Yeah? Well I want to be able to teach in peace,” Will snarled.
“Why? You’re a fully fledged FBI agent. Don’t you want to save people?” For a moment, Will thought he would tear Jack apart with his bare hands. He forced himself to take a deep breath, wrangling control over himself.
“Yes, but not at the price of my sanity,” Will said. He was already broken enough as it was. He didn’t need any more deaths on his conscience. He didn’t need any more guilt for not feeling enough about them.
“We’ll make sure you’re anchored. The board would demand you meet with a psychiatrist anyway,” Jack said. Will sighed, rubbing his fingers over his head.
“I don’t want to see a psychiatrist, Jack,” Will said.
“Will you do it?” Jack asked, ignoring Will. There was so much desperation there, that even if Will hadn’t known he was going to cave, that would have clued him in.
“Fine,” he bit out, “but only on a trial basis. If it becomes too much, I’m done. And I’m not going to stop teaching, so don’t even try.”
“Wonderful,” Jack said, and lead the way out of his classroom, explaining the case as they went.
In Jack’s office, he handed Will a picture.
“Number eight?” He asked, posting the picture onto the board.
“Elise Nichols. St. Cloud State on the Mississippi. Disappeared on Friday. Was supposed to house sit for her parents on the weekend, feed the cat. She never made it home. “ Will looked over the board of information.
“Yeah, one through seven are dead, don’t you think? He’s not keeping them around, he got himself a new one.”
“So we focus on Elise Nichols,” Jack confirmed. Will wanted to sneer. Wasn’t Jack the one that was supposed to be leading this team? Not Will. However, Will just stepped closer to the board, again studying the girls’ faces.
“They’re all very, uh, Mall of America. That’s a lot of wind-chafed skin.”
“Same hair color,” Jack rushed to add. “Same eye color. Roughly the same age, same weight. So what is it about all of these girls?”
“It’s not about all of these girls,” Harry corrected. “It’s about one of these girls. It’s about one of them.Hidden among all of these... substitutes is the real, intended, victim.” Will vividly recalled the summer before his fifth year, when they all polyjuiced to look like him. That was the same night Hedwig had died.
“So is he warming up to his, ah, golden ticket, or just reliving whatever he did to her?” Jack asked, jolting Will out of his memories. He was a bit confused by the golden ticket thing, but figured it was some muggle or American expression he’d never learned.
“She wouldn’t be the first taken, and she wouldn’t be the last. He’d want to hide how special she was. I would. Wouldn’t you?” Will backed up a bit. If this was how close he was getting through pictures, maybe he’d have to rethink his agreement.
“We’ll fly out to Duluth tonight, then. To go talk to the parents,” Jack said.
“I’m not very sociable,” Will warned. Jack ignored him, and began walking to the doorway. Will sighed again, but followed.
“We simply have no way of knowing,” Jack was saying to the parents as they blithered about their child. Their fear was heavy, but Will felt some scorn towards them, because it was the useless sort of fear which made them incapable of anything. He tamped down on that part of himself, but couldn’t resist interrupting their meaningless conversation.
“How’s the cat?” Will’s voice was harsher and louder than he’d expected it to be. Maybe he really was out of practice with being social.
“What?” The mother asked. Will turned around to face them.
“How’s your cat? Elise was supposed to feed it. Was the cat weird when you came home? It must have been hungry, didn’t eat all weekend,” Will added. The parents shared a look of confusion.
“I-I didn’t notice,” the father admitted. Will nodded. That had been obvious from the moment he’d asked the question. Will shot a look to Jack.
“Could you give us a moment, please?” He asked, and they both walked a little ways away to speak without the parents freaking out.
“He took her from here,” Will whispered. “She got on a train, came home. Fed the cat. Then he took her.” Jack sighed, and nodded. He took out his phone, dialing someone.
“The Nichols house is a crime scene. I need ERT immediately,” Jack ordered, the sound almost unbearably loud in the heavy home. Jack continued to detail exactly who he wanted, while the family began to seriously freak out.
“Why’s it now a crime scene?” The father asked.
“Can I see your daughter’s room?” Will ignored the father’s question.
“Police were up there this morning,” the man argued, but soon enough was leading Will up to the room. He really didn’t have a lot of patience for their grief. Will understood it, definitely, but by the time the War was over, he’d seen so many grieving parents that he mostly lost his sympathy for them. Especially after seeing Molly Weasley’s firey rage, and the Malfoy’s hardened and icy hope in the face of missing and/or dead children. This weak uselessness was... annoying.
“I’ll get that,” Will rushed to stop the father from opening the door. “Mr, Nichols, please put your hands in your pockets and avoid touching anything.”
“But we’ve been in and out of here all day,” the man protested. Again.
“You can hold the cat, if that’s easier,” Will offered. The man looked from Will to the cat a couple times, before bending down to pick it up. Will opened the door, stepping inside slightly. Almost before he’d registered the dead girl on the bed, the father was overwhelmed with fear and horror.
Reacting to his emotions, Will turned to grab the man and the cat, forcing them out of the room. “Elise,” the man cried, surging towards the bed.
“I need you to leave the room,” Will said. The man dropped the cat, but Will was already pushing the man backwards, down towards the kitchen where Jack was.
Will barely listened to Jack’s parting words as he left him with the body of Elise Nichols, eyes locked onto her prone form. He was barely holding himself apart from the emotions lingering around her, and the moment Jack had closed the door, Will was reliving the girl’s death.
He was standing over her sleeping body, watching as she shifted in sleep. Without warning, he launched himself over her, straddling her and choking her. Her eyes stared up at him, alive and fearful. Something happy twisted in his gut, and a smile drew itself along his mouth.
“You’re Will Graham,” a voice shook him out of his trance with all the subtlety of an entrails expelling curse, and Will was left fumbling and disoriented as he worked to realign himself with the here and the now.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” he forced out, his limbs shaking. The woman didn’t notice.
“You wrote the standard monograph on time of death by insect activity.” Will regretted, then, publishing that with the muggles as well as the magicals (Will Graham has been his pen name for a long time, now. There was a reason he’d had an easy time making a history with it. A life).
Will fumbled for breath, slowly able to realign himself with reality. Get back into himself. “I found antler velvet in two of the wounds,” the woman was still oblivious to his obvious not fine-ness.
“You’re supposed to be working with us for now, right?” The woman asked.
“Trial basis,” Will grunted out.
“Right. You from England?”
“Y-Yeah.” Remarkably, thinking about England, and the War by proxy helped him ground his identity to himself, and Will pulled himself up some.
“You know you’re not supposed to be in here,” Jack said, from behind him. Will barely managed not to jump.
“I found antler velvet in two of the wounds, like she was gored. I was looking for velvet in the other wounds, but I was interrupted,” the woman repeated. Will was finally able to focus on the words, though her eyes on him were distracting, so he turned away.
“Hold on. Excuse me. Deer and elk pine their prey, okay? They put all their weight into their antlers, try and suffocate a victim. That’s how they would try and kill, like, a fox or a coyote,” a man said as the rest of the team entered the room.
“All right, Elise Nichols was strangled, suffocated. Her ribs were broken,” Jack summarized.
“Antler velvet is rich in nutrients. It actually promotes healing. He may have put it there on purpose,” Will interrupted, drawing the confused eyes of all the room’s occupants. Barring the dead girl, of course.
“You think he was trying to heal her?” Jack sounded incredulous. Well, he asked for Will’s opinion.
“He wanted to undo as much as he could-given that he’d already killed her,” Will defended his idea. He could still feel the man in his head.
“He put her back where he found her.”
“Whatever he did to the others, he couldn’t do it to her.”
“Is this the one we’re looking for?”
“No, this is an apology. He would feel proud if his true victim. Not like he was sorry.” The room fell into silence at his words, the questioning of his judgement by most of them causing his wand hand to twitch.
“Does anyone have any aspirin?” He asked.
As he was driving home that night, he nearly crashed the car when he saw Sirius trotting on the side of the road. Stopping abruptly, he got out to look, hoping that this wasn’t another hallucination from seeing that girl’s dead body. But the dog was too small to be Sirius, and too well fed.
Still, it might have been the likeness, or the calm steadiness that resonated from the old dog, or his “saving people thing,” but Will spent the next hour convincing the dog to come home with him.
He gave the dog a bath, the soothing motions and the dog’s peaceful nature keeping him grounded and feeling relatively safe. All the while, he thought about names. His mind kept being drawn back to Snuffles, but then he would look into the dog’s dark, calm eyes (so unlike his godfather’s excitable, grey ones), and he couldn’t do it.
“Winston?” Will looked to his pack of six dogs. “This is everybody. Everybody, this is Winston.” Why was it always seven?
The dreams plagued him that night, as he had known they would. Elise Nichols, keying by his side on the bed, looking up towards a killer that was no longer there. Blood on the sheets as her body rose above the bed, angelic in her death.
It would have been simple to take a dreamless sleep, except for the fact that he was now immune to them, from how he’d abused them when the War first ended. And it would have also been simple to dry himself and his blankets with a cleaning spell, except that he had stopped using magic since his transition to being a muggle. Even his wand was locked away in a warded safe under the floorboards.
So he simply draped towels over himself to keep the sheets clean, and went back to his fitful rest.
He woke up more exhausted than he fell asleep, but a long run in the crisp air with his dogs, and a steaming mug of good tea was enough to make him a semi functional human being. Emphasis on the semi.
Which is why he found himself hiding in the men’s bathroom, trying to scrub away his mind in a sink full of water. That lasted exactly until the water turned into blood.
“What are you doing in here?” Jack asked, agitation and anger (mostly at himself) instantly revealing him if his words didn’t.
“I enjoy the smell of urinal cake,” Will snarked, his cheek always coming out in the worst moments. He really didn’t do well with authority figures.
“Me too,” Jack agreed without pause. “We need to talk.” Will tossed the paper towel he’d used to dry his face into the bin, as an agent walked in, unbuckling his pants to take a piss.
“USE THE LADIES ROOM!” Jack roared, frightening the poor agent out of his mind.
“You respect my judgment, Will?“ He asked, pacing. Will nodded, though that was a bit of a stretch. He respected his judgement in regards to getting the killer caught the fastest. Not necessarily his mental and emotional health.
“Good, because we will stand a better chance of catching this guy with you - in the saddle.” Will wanted to laugh. Did he pay attention at all?
“Yeah, I'm in the saddle. I'm just, um, confused which direction I'm pointing. I don't know this kind of psychopath. I've never read about him. I don't even know if he's a psychopath. He's not insensitive. He's not shallow.”
“You know something about him; otherwise, you wouldn't have said, "This is an apology”. What is he apologizing for?” Will looked off into the distance, feeling the way he felt about the girl as he killed her.
“He couldn't honour her. He feels bad.”
“Well, feeling bad defeats the purpose of being - a psychopath, doesn't it?”
“Yes! It does,” Will shouted, because this was exactly the problem. It didn’t make sense!
“Then what kind of crazy is he?!” Jack screamed in his face. Will forced himself to shove aside all of his emotions and those coming from Jack, focusing instead on what he could still see. Still feel.
“He couldn't show her he loved her, so he put her corpse back where he killed it. Whatever crazy that is.”
“You think he loves these girls?”
“He loves one of them. A-And, yes, I think by association he has some form of love for the others.”
“There was no semen, there was no saliva. Elise Nichols died a virgin. She stayed that way.” Rage filled his vision, and Will imagined himself killing Jack in a million different ways. For a moment, he almost convinced himself he’d already done it.
“That's not how he's loving them. He wouldn't disrespect them that way! He doesn't want these girls to suffer. He kills them quickly and-“ Will stopped, realizing exactly how entrenched in the killer’s mind he’d become. “To his thinking, with mercy.”
“Sensitive psychopath. Risked getting caught so he could tuck Elise Nichols back into bed.” Jack didn’t notice or comment on the pause, and that above anything else showed exactly why Will didn’t trust him with his mental health. He wouldn’t be able to tell when he went too far.
“He has to take the next girl soon 'cause he knows he's gonna get caught. One way or the other.”
Will say in the lab, trying not to look at the body. If he looked at the body, he’d see himself. Killing her. Over and over and over again.
“The scrapings were from her own palms when she scratched them. She never scratched him. Piece of metal is all we got.”
“We should be looking at plumbers, steamfitters, tool workers,” Will says, because it seems no one else is going to. He stops listening after that for the most part, as his eyes finally lock onto the body he’d been avoiding. Once more, he saw himself killing her. He eyes as they stared up at him, the pride and power of his kill. He saw the way her body floated into the air, beautiful as she hung from the antlers of his previous kill. Beautiful as he carved-
“She was mounted on them. Like hooks.” Will snapped out of the vision. There was an ugly pause as they all looked at him, but after a moment they seemed to accept his statement. “She may have been bled.”
“Her liver was removed.” They all looked at Zeller as he reached into the girl’s stomach. They had no idea the monster in his skull. Well, monsters. “See that? He took it out, and then - yep, he put it back in.”
“Why would he cut it out if he's just gonna sew it back in again?” Brian asked. Will gave him an incredulous look. How did they not see? Will didn’t even need his empathy to know that one.
“There was something wrong with the meat.”
“She has liver cancer,” Zeller looked at him like he was crazy, distrust and wariness pouring off of him even more than the others.
“He's, um he's eating them,” Will said, because they looked like they needed it spelled out for them. Honestly, was this Jack’s team? If Will had been in charge, he’d never have allowed this level of incompetence.
Will went to a gym that evening after classes, because at that point he was a ball of anxiety that would explode if he didn’t let out some of the tension.
But as he fought against the punching bag, he became overwhelmed with memories of killing Nichols, which turned into memories of killing dark wizards and purists in the line of duty, which turned into memories of the war.
He was tired. So tired. The kind of exhaustion which settled itself into your bones, weighing them down with an unescapable heaviness. It would tickle his nerve endings, until he wasn’t quite sure if he was laughing or crying or dying. The kind of exhaustion that held his heart in its grip, and squeezed the opposite way it was pumping, with a spastic sort of rhythm that made blackness cross his vision, and his limbs jittery and shaky. He was so tired that he could not sleep, like his very body was confused because awake was the new sleep, the new natural state.
Still, everyone was looking to him. Those in the DA that were still alive, he understood. But the adults? Remus? It was a responsibility that weighed him down, and wouldn’t go away even after the War. If there could ever be an “after the War.” So despite the weariness, Harry stood at the head of the table, drawing up battle strategies and training strategies. Figuring out how to get food, supplies. Where to sleep, how to defend it. Where to strike next, how to prevent the next strike from killing them all.
A massive bang shook the floor and walls, and everyone froze for half a second, before everything was in motion.
“Death Eaters!” Someone cried, as they scrambled for their placement. It was sloppy, and if they made it out alive, Harry was going to have to run drills with them until they were bloody.
“Sonorus. FORMATIONS!” He screamed above the sounds of battle that were already taking place, and inside the interconnected cabins, they lined up in rows of two. The front, with a shield charm, the back with wands and guns at the ready for attack. Young and old, practiced and new. Everyone that was physically capable was fighting in this war. Harry saw Hermione behind Ron and his shield charm, like everyone else. But he had no time to swaddle, as the enemy was already on top of them. So with a shield charm in front of him and a semi-automatic pointing towards the closed door, he screamed, “NOW!”
The battle raged. There was no mercy, as formations devolved into single person fighting. Harry paid no attention to anything but the next enemy in front of him, killing without kindness or mercy. There was no such thing, in death.
Eventually, there were no more enemies to defeat. They’d won this round, but Voldemort would get better. They had to, too. So they put their weapons down (but ever within reach), and burned the dead. Tonight, they would mourn and drink, and tomorrow, they would hunt and plan.
“How’s it lookin’?” Ron asked, coming up to Harry with two cups of vodka. He handed one to Harry, who downed the nasty shit gratefully.
“Horrible. We need more food, again. If Winter comes and we’re still this low on supplies, I’m not sure we’ll make it,” Harry said. And that wasn’t even mentioning numbers. Voldemort (by their best estimate) had eight thousand in his army. Their side, on the other hand, was at seven thousand, with numbers dropping quickly, because they were spread out into seven different camps. Each camp was being lead by a trusted member of their inner core, but the moral in some of them was reportedly low, with significant amounts of deserters each night. They needed food, supplies, and a major win. Something that could revitalize their army, or else they would lose for sure.
Two nights later, there was another attack. A unprecedented turnaround, and now their camp was down to six hundred. And that night, stumbling into camp, came a group of twenty wizards. Harry knew he’d never forget the sight of those twenty bloody, torn, and broken soldiers, one of which his darling Ginny. Ron had run to his sister, holding her in his arms. She didn’t cry, but her blank face as she told him she was sorry for failing him, that they’d taken them by surprise in the dead of night with double their men, slaughtering the whole camp. A thousand people, now twenty. Fred and George, and thirty too young or old to fight were now among the dead.
Ginny was never the same after that.
Will’s knuckles were bloody by the time he was done, but thankfully hadn’t broken any bones. He gasped for breath, and leaned his head against the hard concrete walls. The War has been over for more than a decade, now, but sometimes it seemed as if it had only been yesterday.