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a forest, dark and deep

Chapter Text

The woods are just trees
The trees are just wood
No need to be afraid there
(There's something in the glade there)
Into the woods without delay,
But careful not to lose the way.
Into the woods,
Who knows what may be lurking on the journey?
          ---Prologue: Into The Woods, Stephen Sondheim

Once, many years ago (for that is when all great stories begin, many years ago; we never consider we might be in the midst of our own great story) there lived a boy. But wait, you might say, there is nothing special about a boy living, many people do and never amount to much of anything. You would be right, but you would also be wrong, because this story is not about a boy who lived, but The Boy Who Lived, and that is all the difference.

We come to the boy’s story, not in those moments when he became the greatest hero the wizarding world has ever seen: when he Lived as a babe in his cot, cursed by the most hateful magic a wizard can wield; not the time he fought a basilisk, nor the times he came face to face with dragons (there were three and that is more than enough for any good tale, but they do not matter to this story, not really). No, we come to the boy’s story at the end of these trials, when he has quietly given up his power over death, when he stands on the cusp of manhood at the final defeat of the Dark Wizard Voldemort, and after, when he is a man full grown, though still lost in the gaze of the world around him. We come to the boy’s story at the breaking of one curse and at the beginning of another.

To begin with the curse is nothing, that silent weight all those who are left behind feel pressing on their chest in the quiet moments they are alone.

It starts, as all curses do, with something small: a death. But wait, you’re saying again, death is not a small thing, I have felt it to the very core of my bones, and you are right. But once more you are wrong, as well, because while death may shake your foundations, the Earth itself still turns, the day comes and passes with no notice of your loss at all. To you and I and the boy, who has lost so many through his life up to this moment, death is a very large thing indeed, but to the large things, to the universe that surrounds us and the gods that do not interfere with our miseries, death is a very small affair.

So we come to the boy’s story, in blood and dust and a falling down shack, with a desperate, guilty man dying in his arms. It truly happens before that, of course. With a prophecy in the dubious privacy of a grimy bar, or two murders on a fateful Halloween night. Or perhaps farther back still-- a different boy, aching with a ferocious need to find his place in the world. But for the boy, our boy, the story starts as he watches the light fade from dark, pleading eyes.

And it is thus that the curse begins. If the boy were to look, to peer closely through the round lenses of his glasses, at the very tip of his finger he might see it: a pinprick of color. As it is, however, the years pass and the spot goes unnoticed, slowly waxing, noticed and dismissed in the flicker of an eyelash as a splinter, a freckle, a stubborn fleck of ink. It is not until the boy wakes up one morning and sees the stain swallowing up his entire fingertip that he begins to consider there might be something wrong.

At first the boy thinks he has somehow cut himself in his sleep, but there is no lingering ache, the red of his fingertip is not wet and does not rub away when he gently wipes at it with the corner of his blanket. He considers the berries he picked the day before, bursting ripe and sweet and blue, but their juices had tinted his lips purple for hours and perhaps his finger too; perhaps he hadn’t noticed, perhaps the color had faded to this dull red in the night. Perhaps. His shower, however, does not wash the blemish from his skin, in fact, the water seems to make the odd splotch shine like fresh blood.

He spends a few moments fussing over the strange new discoloration on his fingertip after it dries again and fades to the color of old wine, but it doesn’t hurt him or cause him anything other than a lingering sense of unease. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he remembers an old wives’ tale about marks like these, the terror of mothers bleeding into the flesh of their children, but his mother has been in her grave now longer than she ever lived, it cannot be her fear that has left its impression on him. The boy finally decides to put it out of his mind, in the way that people who want to live quiet lives often do; puts it out of his mind the way those of us who cannot weigh our own value often do. The curse, however, is no longer content to be ignored.

The stain spreads.

The next morning his entire finger has been swallowed up by dull red--and by the day after, two more--the color advancing quickly over his entire hand and seeping over his wrist in the days that follow. When he wakes up to find the first fingertip of his other hand has been overtaken by the blush of red he finally decides that it couldn’t hurt to get a second opinion, if only to spare himself the misery of being the color of a new bruise for the rest of his life.

The healer he visits has known him since he was a child, still fresh-faced and innocent, at least as much as he had ever been, and had known his parents before him. She delivered him into the world, screaming his displeasure for all to hear; tended his Quidditch scrapes and bruises, and those more serious injuries; and he trusts her. It doesn’t occur to him that she may not have the answers he wants until after she gives him one

“Harry,” she says, because to her he is Harry. She has wiped his brow and stemmed his blood, given him potions for growing bones and potions to dull the pain, just for now. To us he is The Boy; he is history and dust and words on a page that we will learn, for a little while. Maybe he will stay with us longer, a lesson in bravery and love, the idea of determination against insurmountable odds, but to the healer he is more, he is a child she has loved and watched grow into a man. “Harry,” she tells him, her voice grave, full of sorrow. “This is no sickness I can cure.”

The curse slows its expansion, then, as if a simple acknowledgement was all it wanted, as if the thrumming knowledge of it through the boy’s veins is its culmination, as if it isn’t waiting, waiting, waiting to bloom out and consume the whole of him. It settles on his hands, staining his palms and fingers with the ghost of old blood. When he washes his hands the red becomes wet and glistening as if he’s held his palms against an open wound. At night the boy dreams of memories that aren’t his own and a ragged whisper: Look at me.

It takes surprisingly little for him to set his affairs in order.

He sends owls to those he loves, thanks them for their kindness. He packs his things into boxes in one afternoon, contemplates how little he’s leaving behind him. The boy has spent most of his life fighting to keep the things he holds most dear and has never quite acquired the habit of collecting frivolously. Instead he gathers close the things that are important: the shine of a happy smile, the warmth of a hug. He considers these, the stories of his life and memories he treasures dearest, as he packs each item away, turns a dented golden snitch in the light, rubs his fingers over the silky cloth of his father’s invisibility cloak.

It is not unexpected that he should have regrets, and he does. The boy is still young for a wizard, though there are days when he wakes and feels older than he has any right to. There are places he has not travelled, experiences that he has not lived to enjoy. Love, for instance. What does the boy know of love? He has dear friends, those who know him better than he knows himself some days, but he shares them--with each other, with their families. There is no one the boy can claim for himself, no one he whispers his desires to in the dark.

He has had a few brief flirtations, but they hold no candle to what he wants. He, who has spent so much time being the hero in a story not of his own making, wants to experience the other side. There was no one to tell the boy fairy tales when he was a child, but even so he learned them, whispered them to himself in his small, dusty cupboard for comfort. He spent countless hours imagining his rescue, imagining that somewhere in the wide world was someone intended just for him. He can’t help but regret that he will not meet them or, if he does, that it will be too late.

He sits in the quiet of late afternoon, a warm beam of sunlight pooling over him, and tries to come to terms with all of the things he has missed, all the things he will miss. He wonders how long he will have to wait before the end is upon him.

The frantic rapping that wakes him from a similar reverie some days later is no surprise, nor is the stack of books that is levitated into his cottage when he opens the door or the witch that follows after, her belly swollen with child. “Harry James Potter,” she scolds even as she opens her arms for a hug, hair flyaway and haloing around her in the breeze of early morning. “What have you gotten yourself into?” The boy smiles.

“Hermione.” She is the brightest witch of her age, but she is more. Always, more than anything, she is his friend. When libraries and histories have forgotten her name they will remember that she is a kind-hearted witch, a champion for those less fortunate. They will remember how she stood beside the hero with her books and her wits and never faltered. He wraps his arms around her and lets out an ‘oof’ of surprise at the fierceness of her embrace as it envelops him.

“Ron will be along shortly, he stopped by to see what Bill has been able to dig up.” She swats his shoulder firmly before she pulls away from the hug and scowls up at him. “Why didn’t you call for us sooner?” Her gaze slides down to his unnaturally red hands where they are resting against her elbows. “Oh, Harry.”

He gives her arms a gentle squeeze and turns away, heading into the kitchen to put on a pot of tea for the two of them and Ron, when he arrives. “Madam Pomfrey said there was nothing to be done. The healer at St. Mungo’s was less consoling, asked if they could observe ‘the inevitable decline of my condition.’” He smiles wryly to himself at the memory of it and fills the kettle with quick, practiced movements. “Not much sense in interrupting your vacation for that sort of prognosis, is there?”

“Harry,” her voice, heavy with emotion, falters and breaks over his name. “You have to know we would have come for much less.”

“Yes,” he says, because his faith in them has run through the tests and trials of war and come out with the strength of diamonds on the other side. “But I would have spared you this, if I could.”

“Don’t talk as if there’s no hope whatsoever!” Her tears are crystalline in her voice and the boy dares not turn around to look for fear his own will join them. He takes a deep breath and thinks of all the things he has made peace with in the past days. He tries to ignore the fact that it is a very thin veneer of acceptance, that underneath everything burns anger at how very unfair it is.

“Isn’t there?” His voice doesn’t waver and he thanks his lucky stars for the small victory. He flicks on the hob, carefully settling the kettle over its flame. “Don’t do this to yourself, Hermione.” He smiles slightly, retakes the reins on his emotions as he turns to face her. “You’ve always been my common sense, it’s too late for you to start lying to spare either of us.”

Her expression crumples, because he is right, but she clings stubbornly to hope, that fragile thing which can buoy up even the heaviest of hearts. “You don’t know that it’s incurable, I’ve hardly started researching, and Bill is an expert on curses, you know, so he would know more than Madam Pomfrey and some-- some third-rate St. Mungo’s healer!”

“It will be all right, ‘Mione. You’ll learn to get on without me.” He thinks, if he had a choice in the matter, that this way might be best, after all. He does not want to be the one to survive loss again; he finds that in this small thing he is grateful, even as he is sorry for his friends’ sake.

“How can you say such a thing?” She sits heavily in a kitchen chair, quickly wipes away a tear to keep him from seeing. He wonders if she thinks it will upset him if she cries.

“Because it’s true.” The boy has learned this lesson many times, that no matter how cruel it seems, death will not keep the sun from rising in the morning. They sit in silence until the kettle releases a mournful whistle and he pours them each a cup of tea. She picks up a dusty book from the table, fingers rubbing over the edges of its cover, but does not open it. The tea grows cold in their cups.

The sun sinks lower and lower in the sky as they wait for their third, but the quiet between them is comfortable. Here and there they break the stillness with a fond memory or a dream of the future, but always they seem to return to the pressing melancholy and the boy finds himself wishing again that he could have spared them this.

Life returns to the cottage with red hair and shuffling feet, the door thrown open without even a hint of a knock. It stumbles into the small kitchen with the groan and stretch of someone who has spent hours bent over dusty books and blinks owlishly at the two of them as he notices the somber atmosphere.

“Who died, then?”

“Ronald Weasley!” Hermione’s voice rises to a near shriek at the poor joke and breaks into a choked sob at the end.

But the boy laughs. He laughs and laughs until his side aches and his breath is gone. If the witch is his common sense, this wizard is his spine, the first person he’d stood up for and who’d stood for him in return. When the years pass and we forget his name we will remember the way he held the boy up when all else seemed lost. They are his caution and his determination and the boy thinks, perhaps.

There is a spring, Ron tells them, when the boy has caught his breath again, when the unrelenting buzz of the curse in his ears has been pressed back, overwhelmed by the love of his two dearest friends. A spring that’s mentioned in the dusty annals of goblin history, said to cure any ill, able to wash away even the strongest of black magics.

“Where is it?” Hermione lumbers to her feet and begins to gather her books together, eager and impatient to get started. “If we research it tonight, we can pack and leave by mid-morning and get there by…” She pauses as she realizes neither wizard seems to be sharing her excitement. “What are we waiting for?”

“Well, the thing is,” Ron’s face is crunched into a grimace, his freckles standing out against his cheeks like flecks of blood in the late afternoon light. The boy’s pulse throbs in his ears, hope trembling against its beat: cursed, cursed, cursed. “The book didn’t say where exactly.”

“What then, exactly, did the book say, Ronald?” Hermione’s voice goes a bit shrill again and Ron fumbles for a piece of parchment in his pocket.

“Here, this is it. My translation spell is a bit crap, you know, but Bill said I’d gotten the important bits right.” Ron unfolds the note and smooths it out on the table so they can both look at what he’s written.

easte by easte
goeth charm and blood
into the wyzard's wylde
to findeth the fount
of benediction

“Not much for poetry, goblins.” Ron says wryly and the fear in the boy’s throat recedes again.

“This is hardly any information at all, never mind your shoddy charms work!” The complaint escapes Hermione without much sting. She’s chewing her bottom lip thoughtfully, an absent gesture that’s guided them through hundreds of scrapes.

“Oi, you could have been the one to ask Bill, you know.” Ron’s retort is just as perfunctory as he watches his wife pick up the parchment and quietly mumble the words he’s scribbled down with obvious fondness. “There was a little more about the miracles the spring had performed, but that was the only bit that gave any clue as to where it might be. Bill reckons it’s a wizarding wood. He’s going to keep looking and he thinks he can get a meeting with a goblin historian, though I shouldn’t expect much help there, goblins being goblins.”

“A wizarding wood! There must be hundreds of those in the world, possibly more, not all of them are large enough to be registered--there are five in the United Kingdom alone and goblins migrated here from Normandy in the 12th century! Didn’t Bill have any more information?”

But the boy doesn’t need more information. He knows in the way that he’s known few things before. The boy knows, the dread certainty of it filling his lungs like a breath of air: the Forbidden Forest. He has died there once before. What a fitting place to meet his end again, he thinks.

The Forbidden Forest is not so big you say, look here on this map, and you are right. But, ah, my dear, haven't you learned your lesson by now? The forest has its borders, true, but it is a wizard's space, dark and deep. The forest exists, lives and breathes, in those eerie stillnesses where trees loom and birdsong ceases, in those gloomy undergrowths we learn quickly to be wary of, more than in any cartographer's lines or borders.

“It’s a place to start,” the boy says, hopefully heading off any plans Hermione might already be piecing together. He knows what needs to be done, surety like lead in the pit of his stomach. “That’s more than we had. And we have a little time.” He smiles at them then, his dearest friends. “Let’s start fresh in the morning.”

Tomorrow, just after the sun rises, after he makes his way into the outskirts of the forest, east by east, they will be furious with him. Tomorrow they will come into the empty cottage, tomorrow they will find the letter he leaves for them on the table, but tonight he convinces them, smiles guilelessly at Hermione and plays on Ron’s worry for his pregnant wife. “You’ve just come back from a long trip and then spent who knows how long researching. We could all use a good night’s sleep before we get started.”

He whispers an apology to the heavy oak of the closed door, once he has ushered them to the front step and they have Apparated away, and then he prepares.

***

Dawn comes early.

The sun isn’t yet peeking over the horizon, but its glow is lightening the sky when the boy gives up on sleeping. He Apparates to an open meadow at the forest’s edge. Sleepy Hogsmeade is quiet behind him, in the stillness of early morning, and the towers of Hogwarts can just be seen peeking into the sky beyond him. Between the village and the castle, sizing one another up, stand the boy and the wood.

A breeze lifts the hair on the back of his neck, cooling the sticky sweat already gathering there, as he considers the trees sprawling out in front of him. The summer has been unusually warm and he can’t decide if he’s thankful or not. The temperature will make his hike unpleasant, no matter how many cooling charms he places on the red wool of his robes, but there will be no lingering on the edge of starvation this time, no desperate huddling together with Ron or Hermione, trying to remember what warmth feels like; he’s far better prepared for this camping trip than he was for his first. Still, there is a persistent feeling of unease that prickles in the back of his throat, metal-sour: the last time he walked willingly into the Forbidden Forest he died.

A sharp, sudden burst of birdsong finally spurs him into motion and he lurches forward through the tall summer grasses, the soft wumph of his expandable pouch as it hits his thigh grounding his thoughts. I’ll head for the center of the forest, the boy thinks, and spiral out from there. It shouldn’t take long to find the spring, a day, maybe two. He has a plan and determination-- if only the tapestry of fate could be unraveled with those meagre weapons. (He has a plan and determination, both of which have served him well in the past, but the course of true love never did run smooth--ah, but we’re getting ahead of the story.)

Stepping into the line of trees is rather anti-climatic, the boy finds. The weak light of dawn casts even deeper shadows under the leafy canopy of the wood, but he has never been afraid of the dark. The things that frighten him have always been less ephemeral; the boy knows that darkness cannot last.

When he takes one step, then another onto a deer track that winds its way out of sight into the penumbra beyond and no shade from the past leaps from the semi-darkness to gobble him up, he relaxes, slackens his sweaty grip on his wand. I am going to live, he thinks, and holds out the slender branch of holly and phoenix feather in his hand, loosens his magic from the tight, tense coils it has formed inside of him to instead curl gently outward in a spell. East, he thinks, and then speaks quietly, sure, “Point me.”

The morning passes with the chatter of birds and squirrels and other small fauna that call the Forest home. Branches of Bowtruckles peer curiously at him through the leaves of Wiggentrees and once or twice he catches sight of more elusive creatures, dashing away from his clumsy tramping through the underbrush. A hinkypunk crosses his path at one point and waves at him enticingly, but drifts away with the breeze when it sees that he isn’t interested in following it. There is so much life surrounding him that the boy forgets to consider death for several hours, as early morning eases into early afternoon and then into early evening with no sign at all of any spring.

He is thinking of finding a place to bed down for the night, the light is dimming between the trees and he knows he won’t accomplish anything by continuing to search in the dark except, perhaps, breaking his own neck, when he stumbles into the clearing. He recognizes it immediately, for all that he’s entered from the wrong direction. What is it that strikes a chord in the boy’s memory? It might be the well of magic that lingers in the ground here, it might simply be that one never forgets the place where one has died. Or perhaps it is the ghosts that seem to hover in the air here, frozen in time. Shades of the Death Eater camp, and a figure in black, pacing impatiently back and forth in the center of the open ground.

The boy watches as the other players of this little melodrama arrive, emerging from the treeline opposite. His mother leads the way, tossing her hair back over her shoulder defiantly, his father a mere step behind her, and Sirius and Remus flanking him. The boy watches, then, as he arrives, tired, dirty, and half-starved, aware he must die and seventeen years old: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. He watches the figure in black, sees the sweeping swirl of his robes as he waves his wand, hears the whining snarl of the voice. Avada Kedavra. He watches himself crumple to the ground in slow motion.

The boy closes his eyes, takes in a slow, hitching breath, and tries to remember that the past can’t hurt him. When he opens his eyes again the field is empty, nothing left of that day so many years ago except for a pervasive stillness. He Lived. So many had died, but--whatever else had happened that day--he had walked away with another chance at life. He would be damned if he gave that up because he was unsettled by a few ghosts. The boy squares his shoulders and lifts his wand. “East,” he says firmly, though he has no reason to recast the spell. “Point me.

It’s full dark when he finally finds a place that looks safe enough to bed down for the night and he leans against a tree to calm his breath. He has several scrapes and bruises from wandering through the deepening dusk, his lumos spell illuminates the darkness only enough to make the shadows around him dance, rather than lighting his path. He sets up his small tent with a quick set of spells and, at the sound of a mournful howl in the distance, sets his wards with much more care. It isn’t a full moon, and the last true werewolf to roam these woods was killed in the Battle of Hogwarts as far as he knows--still, there is no reason to be careless; werewolves can migrate and there are many other dangers in the forest. When he is satisfied that he will be unbothered for the night, he casts one last spell and smiles as the elegant form of his patronus does a dancing turn in front of him.

“Go to Hermione and Ron,” he says. “Tell them I’m safe.” The stag bounds away and he watches until its glow fades entirely through the trees before he moves into the tent, eager for sleep. The day has been long, with no sign of the spring. Strangely, he’s not discouraged, but eager to start again in the morning, his conviction that he’s on the right path still burning brightly within him. He pulls off his boots and robes, tossing them aside haphazardly as he stumbles to his bed. He is asleep before his head hits the pillow.

The boy dreams that night, as everyone dreams. He holds his breath in a dim, narrow passage, invisible as evil sweeps past him. Somehow he knows that what waits for him at the end of the hallway is worse yet, but he makes his careful way into a dusty, mouldering room, makes his way to where a broken body is sprawled on the floor. He kneels in the spreading pool of blood, presses his hands to the gaping wounds just as he has done in a hundred, a thousand dreams before. "Look at me," echoes through him and he finds he cannot tear his eyes away from the man beneath his hands, watches countless memories dance between them, memories of them, memories of friends, of enemies, of people and faces he's never seen before, and through it all, a pervading sense of loss, the knowledge that if he lets go he will lose the most important thing he's ever had.

The boy dreams, but when he wakes he remembers nothing but a heightened sense of urgency that he allows to push him onwards, out of his tent to begin his search again. If the stain on his hands seems redder in the muted light of dawn, he does not notice.

***

The next days pass much the same as the first.

There is a little more excitement on the third day, when he passes too closely to a large nest of Acromantulas and has to spend nearly an hour hiding against a Wiggentree, its Bowtruckles shaking with excitement as they provide him with camouflage, but there is certainly no sign of any mythical spring. There's hardly any sign of water at all. He's only crossed a stream once in his travels and has found himself grateful, at least, that aguamenti will keep him from going thirsty.

By the fifth morning he finds that he's already as heartily sick of this camping trip as he was the last, though he's as grimly certain that he mustn't give up as he was when he set out. He is just as sure, however, as he takes stock of the red stain that has spread overnight, nearly to his elbows in the early morning light, that he is running out of time.

By the seventh day he wonders that he hasn't yet come to the end of the forest and considers changing his course. If he hasn't yet found anything after a week of traveling east it might be time to reassess his strategy. At the very least he could see what his friends have found out about the spring. If they're still speaking with him, after he decided to go alone, that is. He hasn't had any responses to his nightly Patronus check-in and it worries him.

It is typical of the boy's luck that he stumbles across the wolf as he is in the midst of reconsidering his strategy. It might be more accurate, of course, to say that the wolf finds the boy, because the first indication he has that he is not alone is a hair-raising snarl.

There are wolves in the woods, my dear, we know. How many times have we been told? Don't stray from the path, don't lose your way. Be wary, my child, lest the wolf gobble you up.

The boy knows these things, of course. He has heard the warnings, knows the dangers. He has tracked the phase of the moon each night, watched it dwindle down to the thinnest crescent only the night before. It is full daylight, still, but even knowing that does not stop the chill that dances down his spine. The warm, moist cloud of a werewolf’s breath on your face is not a fear that dies easily. The boy freezes in place, fingers tightening around his wand as he scans the trees around him for the source of the growls.

The origins of the noise are perhaps more of a surprise than the sound itself, when he finally spots the flash of white teeth against the gloom of the forest undergrowth. A wolf, lean and rangy, it’s black fur melting into the shadows of the trees as if it were a normal part of the scenery--which it would be, the boy reminds himself. There is nothing unusual about a wolf in the woods, particularly here where it is safe enough from Muggle hunters-- there are a surprising number of animals that find shelter and safety in wizard spaces. The thing that is perplexing, however, is the apparent reason behind the creature’s angry noises: a gin trap cutting a bloody path through the wolf’s leg, holding it fast in place.

The trap is a puzzle. The half-giant who keeps these woods, the boy knows, has checked the forest for poachers’ traps regularly and diligently over the last 60 years-- his run-ins with the Ministry and Giants during his school days aside. The boy knows first hand that there is no one with a bigger heart than Hagrid, had experienced his easy kindness with awe as a scrawny eleven year old. Hagrid was the boy’s very first friend, and he can’t imagine any reason that would cause his friend to miss a trap like this in the Forbidden Forest. Hesitantly he steps forward to get a closer look and then stills once more at the resulting snarl and snap of teeth from the wolf that sends a shiver of unease down his spine.

The animal is trapped, but the ivory flash of teeth and the spittle flecking its muzzle send images of bloody death spinning through the boy’s mind. His grip tightens reflexively on his wand once more and his breath whooshes out of him in a rush at the relief of remembering he can use magic.

Immobulus.” A sharp flick of his wand and the wolf is frozen. The immobilizing spell is less harsh on a living creature than petrificus totalus, but the rage and pain in the wolf’s yellow gaze as it follows his movements suggests to the boy that he will absolutely need to move a safe distance away before he releases the magic.

“Easy,” he says as he slowly kneels next to the wolf, knowing the creature is still aware of his actions, though it can do nothing to prevent them, bound up as it is by his magic. Gently, he presses his hand against heaving sides, strokes gently along thick black fur. His red fingers seem to disappear into the coarse hairs. “It’s okay,” he murmurs. “I’m not going to hurt you.” A low growl rumbles through the wolf’s chest and the boy swallows hard and moves his attention to the trap, deciding the sooner he heals and releases the creature, the better.

He winces as he gets a closer view of the hungry silver teeth biting into the animal’s leg, as he takes in the runes along the spring arms of the trap. “The Ministry.” The words hiss out from between his teeth like a curse. “I should have known.”

The Ministry has been lobbying against free werewolves since his Hogwarts days, of course, but they’ve grown bolder in the past few years. Silver traps set for werewolves in magical forests are only one of the more aggressive movements, and bad enough on their own, but the wet-behind-the-ears junior official to set these had clearly forgotten to include the spells necessary to keep non-magical creatures from running afoul of the traps. Fortunately, not being a werewolf, the trap poses no trouble for the boy to disarm.

He tucks his wand away and gently works his fingers in close to press down the springarms. Three things happen seemingly at once: the trap whines open, the magic holding the wolf immobile fails, and, with a strike like a snake, the wolf’s teeth sink into his forearm.

Before the boy can do more than draw in a pained breath, his mind dizzy with confusion, a fourth thing happens: magic recoils and expands between them, the wolf and the boy, sparking and sizzling along skin and fur in colorful eddies of light until it explodes suddenly, forcefully blasting them apart. The last thing the boy is aware of is the sensation of flying and the wood around him going abruptly dark.

***

“Wizard.” The voice is a heated, breathy growl into the boy’s ear as he slowly becomes aware of himself again. “The night comes, Wizard. It will not be safe for you here.”

He groans softly, more than a few aching pains making themselves known as the voice prods him further into wakefulness. The boy’s arm is throbbing with fiery pain and he tries to place the unusual damp warmth pressing against the shell of his ear. When he comes up with only a questioning sort of blankness he blinks his eyes open and stares up at the blurry shadow hovering above him through where his glasses sit askew on his nose.

Yellow eyes blink slowly down at him and the boy’s memory returns in a disorienting rush. “Shite.” The word escapes him in a long, slow breath as he and the wolf continue their staring contest. Frantically the boy tries to shift without arousing the ire of the creature looming over him, panic leaping in his throat when he realizes he can’t feel his wand in his pocket. The wolf tips his head in canine questioning and the boy freezes again, trying to breathe shallowly. For all that the creature doesn’t seem nearly as enraged as before, it is still an animal and while he has magic the boy doesn’t like his odds if the wolf decides to lunge for his throat while he’s unarmed. As soon as he thinks it, the wolf’s mouth lolls open and an icy blade of fear stabs through him.

“If you’re awake, Wizard, we should leave this place. I scared off one of the Giant’s hungry pets, but the Centaurs travel through when the moon is high and they do not care for wizards.”

The boy has lived in the wizarding world for more than half of his life and each time he witnesses something new he cannot help the bubble of wonder that floats through him. It is something inherent in those who have to unlearn their disbelief, to those who for so many years are taught to think ‘coincidence’ or are told to get their heads out of the clouds, to stop daydreaming. To them magic is a marvel, every time. The ones who, like the boy, have even the smallest magics taken from them when they are young--a kind word, a loving hand, a new toy, a proud smile--never cease to be amazed by the miracles that can be performed by the simplest spells. It is with this sense of awe that the boy realizes the wolf is speaking to him.

The wolf, for his part, is a creature of action and instinct. In the years that he has wandered the forest he has not had much cause to wonder. Magic is not of much use to a wild wolf, nor smaller joys, like the colors of sunrise or the song of a babbling brook. The closest the wolf comes to these things is the contentment of a full belly on a moonlit night. It is no surprise, then, that in the face of the boy's wide-eyed staring he huffs with impatience.

"Are you always so slow, Wizard? Or did your magic do you harm?"

The boy, still stunned, cannot seem to find his voice. While there are a few magical creatures that are able to speak and reason and another handful still that are rather astonishing mimics of human speech, this wolf is neither. Nor has he ever seen any spell that successfully translates mundane animal sounds into speech--there had been a brief period of time when one could walk into Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes back workroom and watch George or Ron as they worked their way through staring at a veritable menagerie of animals in an attempt to accomplish just that, both brothers certain that such a creation would be an instant bestseller, but neither had achieved any sort of breakthrough.

Hermione had theorized that animal thought was simultaneously too complex and too basic to be accurately translated to human speech. "They're busy processing sense stimuli that are quite unlike what we experience and at the same time most animals are largely focused on survival and not much else," she had said, bemused, when Ron had tried to draw her in to help solve the problem. "Furthermore, you're making the assumption that animals want to speak with us." The animals had been removed from the shop shortly after, the idea abandoned.

The boy tries to reconcile these bewildered thoughts with the reality of the wolf leaning over him, but apparently the process takes too long as the wolf gives another distinctly canine huff and moves away, leaving the boy with the strong impression that if a wolf could roll its eyes to express displeasure this one certainly would have. He decides to press his luck as the wolf snuffles at the ground now several feet away and he slowly sits upright on the off chance his brain decides to work once it's right-side up. Better reception, he thinks inanely, and then groans softly as his body proves that the only difference between vertical and horizontal is that one comes with more pain.

"Bloody hell, what hit me?" The words tear their way out of his chest in an aching wave, proving that he can still speak, if he doesn't think about it too much.

The wolf returns to his side then, between one dizzy blink and the next as the boy straightens his glasses, a familiar length of holly held carefully between its teeth.

“My wand!” The boy exclaims, surprise and dismay coloring his words. He has no idea of how to ask the wolf to return it, thinks if the creature decides to keep it he will be helpless to demand its return and worries, bizarrely, that the wolf will want to play fetch. It’s a strange thing to think, that he has saved his wand from Death Eaters, mended it whole from broken, and now has no idea how to negotiate its return from an animal. But as quickly as the fear rises it ebbs away, the wand dropped into his lap without ceremony-- and without even the slightest indent to show where it rested in the cup of eager teeth.

“It fell when we were forced apart.” The boy notices how guttural the wolf’s voice is and wonders at it, curious as to whether the sound is so strained and hoarse because a wolf's vocal cords were not meant to be used in such a way or if there is some other cause that he doesn't yet understand. He finds there are a lot of things he doesn't understand at the moment, when he pauses to think on it. Beginning with talking wolves.

"What...what happened?" The question slips out without much thought on the boy’s part as he takes stock of his body’s protests. He certainly feels as if he went flying through the air without the benefit of either a broom or a cushioning charm to soften his landing, which goes hand and hand with his memory of before the world went dark, but he still doesn’t understand why it happened.

"I would have thought that a Wizard could recognize magic. Then again, so many of you blunder along it shouldn't be a surprise that you don't." The growling rasp of the wolf’s words startles him out of his thoughts.

“I know what magic is.” The boy bristles at the implication that he’s an idiot, though he isn’t certain if it’s the fact that he’s been doubting his own intelligence for at least the last day or the fact that it’s a wolf insulting him that raises his ire. “Of course it was magic--the question is why?”

The wolf tips it’s head and lifts its lip in a surprisingly good irritation of a sneer--or so the boy thinks once he quells the sharp bolt of apprehension that jolts through him at the sight of those teeth. “That isn’t the question you asked.”

He huffs in surprise, irritation melting away-- trust an animal to be so literal minded. “S’pose you’re right.”

The wolf gives him a slow blink that the boy imagines is full of smug superiority. “I usually am. And I’m certainly right about the centaurs, if we don’t leave this place. Pick up your magic stick and let us be gone.” A damp nose presses roughly against his shoulder and shoves much in the same way Ron would when chivvying him along. “Hurry, Wizard.”

Bemused, the boy picks up his wand as directed and pats himself down hurriedly in an attempt to ascertain that he’ll leave nothing behind in this grove of trees apart from his dignity. When he finds nothing amiss other than his aching head and body he climbs to his feet, staggering unsteadily for a moment before his stubbornness and equilibrium assert themselves. “Right. East,” the boy says, as if he hadn’t been doubting himself not so very long ago, and lifts his wand to cast his spell.

“Put your stick down,” says the wolf, glowering at him from several feet away. “If you go that way you’ll save the centaurs the trouble of finding you. This way.”

The boy blinks as the wolf turns away, picking out an uneven path through the underbrush, and wonders at the tug in his chest that tells him to follow. His head is still throbbing dully as he considers his options, looking towards the narrow little path his wand tells him is east and then back towards the wolf and the mystery it carries away in its mouth.

Almost thoughtlessly, he looks down at his hands to remind himself why he’s here, considers the stain covering his fingertips. Through a ragged, bloody tear in his robes the boy’s gaze lands on the shiny, colorless puckering of scar tissue, a ragged arch of punctures where he knows the wolf’s teeth tore into him. Magic, the boy thinks. There is no other explanation why such a wound should look like it happened months ago.

Magic. It is in moments like these, the knowledge of things he’s never considered just beyond his periphery, that the boy feels more than the simple wonder of magic, that he feels the connection of himself to the world around him, the answers to questions he has left unasked. In this moment he knows that all he has to do is take a leap of faith and everything will turn out as it should. Two paths stretch out before him, breadcrumb trails in moonlight; all the boy needs to do is follow the right one.

The wolf stops, barely visible against the dark backdrop of the forest now, and looks back at the boy, yellow eyes gleaming in the fading light. “Are you coming, Wizard?”

This is the moment, he knows, that will change everything. The boy hurries forward to greet his story.