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Stars Hide Your Fires

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Blood to bind, tears to break.
Love unwind, Old King Stag’s take.

Blood to cleanse, tears corrupt,
Love defend, Sweet Child, wake up.

Blood to summon down your fears,
Banish, Child, in glassy tears,

Flicker, fight, bicker, bite,
Hunt Him wild on moonless night.

Stag and Starling, darkling Child,
Withered cold, His tithe exiled.

Lonesome in His tomb He waits
To claim His long-awaited fate.

Death begin, and Love brings end.
He calls to you.
He calls you friend.

 

“The Return of Old King Stag,” found written on a scrap of bloodstained parchment in 1869 by Emily Gerard where it was slipped between the pages of A Studie of the Foule Workings of Reynard the Beguiler and his Blackest Magicks by Bertilak de Hautdesert, written in 1337

 

PART ONE

 

“Draco.”

Harry tensed in Hagrid’s arms. The voice belonged to Narcissa Malfoy, who had greeted him on his return—or arrival, he couldn’t be sure—to the clearing where Voldemort had tried to kill him. Barely a whisper before, it was now calm and deep. It sounded like she was casting a spell in the horrible silence of the courtyard.

No one made so much as a gasp, not since Voldemort had last shouted them mute. Harry opened his eyes a slash. They all stood there on the other side of the ruined courtyard and he couldn’t spot Hermione or Ron. He couldn’t tell which figure in red was Ginny. All of them were covered in ash and grouped together in a gathered dark blur.

There was only one person he saw right away in sharp detail.

Malfoy stood apart from the others, distinguishable because of the white shine of his hair, the pale cast to his face strangely luminous in the smoke and fog of the encroaching dawn.

“Draco,” Lucius said in a voice which cracked. It was so unlike his wife’s Harry struggled to think how he had once feared it. It sounded so weak now. So scared. “Come here.”

Still Malfoy didn’t move. Harry knew he should close his eyes. Keeping them open this long would only increase the chances of someone seeing him and reacting before he was ready. He didn’t know yet his plan. He didn’t know what to do and he couldn’t think it through. It was as if he had abandoned his mind in the nebulous white expanse he’d witnessed after Voldemort’s Killing Curse struck him.

His fear and horror and resignation felt so far away now. All leeched from him sometime between the green light of the Killing Curse and the darkness of his own eyelids, all tucked away and hidden. Forgotten. He almost wished he was still scared. At least he would know how to deal with fear. This—hollow anger made him want to jump out of his own skin.

“Draco,” Narcissa repeated, her resonant voice going slightly brittle, “please, darling.”

A swish of black robes drew Harry’s gaze and he closed his eyes shut when he recognized them.

“Yes, Draco,” Voldemort said with a smile in his voice, dripping with satisfaction and the promise of violence. “Your parents have been worried! How they plead for your life even after you left them behind. There’s no need to pretend anymore. Come and greet me as your victorious lord.” Harry almost scowled at the saccharine tone, the utter control and relish in every word. Voldemort really thought it was over. He thought he had won.

“Come,” he said, beckoning—and if Harry could feel anything more than anger or alarm he might have stalled at that. It was soft—horribly, horribly soft.

Voldemort had been Tom Riddle once, the charming, charismatic, alluring young man who had persuaded the world to bend the knee before him.

“Come,” he repeated, and this time Harry could feel the magic wrapped around the word, the compulsion, “and repent, Draco.”

Nothing happened. No footsteps. Not even the shallow breath of someone terrified for their life. Malfoy’s face in the Room of Requirement flooded his mind, pale with fear and shock and reflecting the flames surging up to grab him. He tried to picture Malfoy kneeling and groveling just like his father as he tried to explain his actions and beg forgiveness. But another image—Malfoy’s face tight and close before his in the shadows of his home as he bent down to get a closer look at Harry, eyes flooding with conflict and the beginnings of defiance.

Harry stopped breathing. He waited. The tension solidified. The distant sound of stone crumbling echoed around the ruins of the castle. The whisper of dust slid over broken cobblestones.

“You dare! You dare defy the Dark Lord, you stupid boy?” a horrible, rasping voice spat into the courtyard. It sent a shard of fury into Harry’s heart. The sharp click of heels punctuated Bellatrix’s outrage as she continued, “You should be prostrate at his feet! You insolent coward—”

“Now, now, Bellatrix,” Voldemort said softly, his voice still liquid like the soft susurration of Nagini where she coiled at his feet, “exceptions might be made, and forgiven. The boy knows where he belongs. He knows his master. Don’t you, Draco?”

Another five heartbeats of silence.

Why wasn’t Malfoy moving? Why wasn’t he stumbling forward? The power in Voldemort’s voice…

Finally, soft footsteps answered him, scuffing amongst the broken stones. Harry listened intently as one by one they approached, light and broken as they walked through the center of the courtyard.

Harry opened his eyes again.

Malfoy had stopped a few feet away from Voldemort. His gaze, dark and shadowed, seemed fixed on the ground. His expression was blank and dead. He held himself in a permanent cringe as if bracing for an attack.

A shadow passed over the courtyard followed closely by a swift breeze. Dust and smoke cleared where they’d obscured Malfoy’s face.

His pale eyes were empty. There was a horrible, barren resignation in them which stoked alarm in Harry’s belly for the first time since waking on the forest floor, though he couldn’t say why. There was something to Malfoy’s emptiness. Something Harry recognized.

Why did he recognize it?

Quickly, like he couldn’t help it, Malfoy’s gaze flicked up to Harry, and held.

And as the seconds drew on and Malfoy didn’t look away, Harry knew Malfoy could see he was alive.

Harry’s alarm blossomed wildly into panic. The invisibility cloak was wedged beneath him, his wand—Draco’s wand—digging into the small of his back where it stuck out from his pocket. If he could get away from Hagrid, he could put on the cloak and get clear. Maybe he could draw Voldemort off…

But Nagini wasn’t dead.

And Malfoy was still staring at him.

Malfoy didn’t even react. He stared, and did nothing.

“There,” Voldemort said quietly, taking a step toward Malfoy and opening his arms, “you see, Draco, how forgiving I am? You have erred and betrayed my trust but I will allow you to repent, as your father repented for failing me.” His voice raised as he called out to the rest of the gathered crowd. “I will forgive any witch or wizard who fought here today in service to a craven boy who valued his own life over yours. Perhaps you came here in loyalty to an old, dead wizard. Albus Dumbledore is gone. Harry Potter abandoned you and now you will—”

“HE DIDN’T!” Neville shouted, joined at once by Ron and Hermione and Ginny, every one of his loved ones raising their voices in defiance. “HE—”

“SILENCE.”

Voldemort’s magic slammed down and cut off all noise. The courtyard hummed with it. But Harry could almost feel the places where Voldemort’s magic was weak. He could almost see the places where the threads frayed—the places he might tug, or rip.

He couldn’t do anything, though, if Malfoy outed him.

Malfoy held Harry’s gaze. His mouth tightened as if fighting the urge to speak.

Heart beating in his throat, Harry got ready to run.

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed. The same anger and defiance Harry had seen in Malfoy Manor flickered to life when he’d realized Malfoy knew exactly who Harry was. His left hand moved. His long fingers brushed the end of his sleeve.

Because he was looking solely at Malfoy, Harry saw the moment he decided to act.

Malfoy straightened up. The knot in his throat bobbed as he swallowed. He was taller than Voldemort but he still managed to look properly subservient. He bowed his head. He held Harry’s gaze as he murmured, “I have failed you, my lord.”

His voice was thin and breathy, frightened. Harry waited, tense.

Voldemort tilted his head, one waxy hand rising to tip Malfoy’s chin up. “You have.” His long, sharp nails pressed into Malfoy’s ash-streaked face. “Most egregiously. I could take your life right now and be done with you. Or perhaps you need more effective incentives,” he added this last so quietly that Harry shouldn’t have been able to hear him, not over the distance between them. But he heard it like it was brushed against his own cheek. Like he was there in Malfoy’s place with Voldemort so horribly close.

Malfoy’s jaw clenched, feathering the muscles of his gaunt face. His nostrils flared and his throat worked. A glassy, horrible light burned in his eyes as they held Harry’s.

Harry could almost feel something building within him, something violent and raw—

Malfoy’s gaze flickered over Voldemort’s shoulder, then back to Harry, and then with purpose he released Harry.

Harry knew, somehow, that Malfoy was looking directly at his parents when he whispered, “I’m—sorry.”

He moved fast, too fast for Harry to follow. A flick of his arm—and a wand slid from Malfoy’s sleeve. He gripped it in his long, pale fingers, knuckles standing out white. He wrenched back from Voldemort as if propelled by an invisible force. Before Malfoy opened his mouth, a look of pure and unadulterated hatred twisted his fine, pointed features into a snarl. He leveled his wand directly at Voldemort’s chest.

He screamed, “BOMBARDA MAXIMA!”

The courtyard rocked and erupted into a storm of shouting and dust. Harry lost sight of Malfoy in the center of the explosion when he was jerked to the side so hard he nearly lost his glasses. He rolled out of Hagrid’s hands in the chaos and pulled on his invisibility cloak. Without hesitation, he plunged forward into the crowd. He searched the center of the explosion, where Malfoy had— He must have known— Harry didn’t think it was enough to kill Voldemort but it would have killed anyone else.

Jets of light arced through the smoke, green and red and black, magic electrifying the air. People were screaming and Harry searched for any sign of his friends but it was useless. The flow of the crowd moved toward the castle. Harry followed. Behind him the sounds of more fighting reached him. A wave of noise crashed over them—Grawp’s booming voice joined with the fierce pounding of hooves.

When Charlie Weasley appeared through the smoke, followed by an army of house-elves, Slughorn charging after with another wave of witches and wizards, Harry’s heart picked up pace. It wasn’t hope or relief but it was enough to cut through the deadening anger working its way up his throat.

If he could get to Nagini, if he could finish this now…

As if in answer to his thought, Hermione’s voice cut over the crowd to his left. “ACCIO SORTING HAT!”

Through the chaos a dark shape flew down from the sky and disappeared again into the cloud of smoke and wand-fire. Skidding to a halt before a group of centaurs stampeded over him, Harry swirled his wand in the air over his head and cried, “Ex parte nebula!” The smoke and dust cleared, sucked into the vortex and expelled out over the bridge and toward the lake. It was carnage, clear now amidst the bodies lying on the ground and the slashes of scarred rock and dark liquids.

Hermione crouched in the corner of what was once the Entrance Hall, one hand shoved into the Sorting Hat. Ron wasn’t with her, lost somewhere in the fighting. Harry caught sight of a slither of emerald green weaving through the fighters, heard Voldemort’s voice shout in Parseltongue, “KILL the mudblood, Nagini!”

Harry’s heart leapt into his throat. NO.

Before he could so much as throw a Shield Charm up around her, though, a figure came barreling toward Hermione. Neville, shouting, roaring at her to run, and when she ignored him, pivoting with his wand to be ready. Hermione, face slicked with sweat and wrenched up in fear, withdrew her hand—and from the depths of the Sorting Hat came a glint of silver and red.

Neville reached her before Nagini, throwing out his hand to grab the hilt Hermione struggled to dislodge. Nagini’s fangs glinted with the light of magic raging around her as she reared up before them, poison dripping from each curved point.

Harry knew one moment of unadulterated fear. He opened his mouth to scream.

A flash of silver silenced him. A sick, wet thud following soon after. A dark shape dropped to the ground before Neville’s feet.

Neville and Hermione stood over the writhing corpse of Nagini, Hermione clutching the Sorting Hat to her chest and Neville with two hands clasped over the hilt of the Sword of Godric Gryffindor, both of them wearing similarly stunned expressions.

Nagini was dead. The final horcrux was gone.

As if experiencing a phantom pain he felt the echo of Voldemort’s outrage before his scream pierced the chaos, causing everyone except Harry to flinch. Knowing instinctively where he was, Harry whirled around in time to cast a Shield Charm before Voldemort’s curse hit Hermione and Neville.

The onslaught of yellow and green flame glanced harmlessly up into the air, scoring the rock over their heads. Voldemort’s red eyes widened in fury and shock but before he could attack again three distinct curses bombarded him, one each sent by McGonagall, Slughorn, and Kingsley.

Swarmed in on all sides by the fighters, Harry almost missed the ragged cry. Ginny’s cry. He whirled around for a sign of her, ducked a curse shot over his head as he kept running into the throng. A horrible laugh cut through the noise and Bellatrix emerged through the crowd, grinning as she battled Ginny, Luna, and Hannah Abbott.

“Come on, girls,” she shouted, dancing expertly out of the way of Hannah’s Body-Bind Curse, deflecting Luna’s attempt to disarm her. Ginny clutched at her arm where a fresh gash was leaking blood, face screwed up in pain, wand swinging wildly. “Let’s see which one of you—”

Someone ran into Harry and shoved him to the side. Molly Weasley nearly bowled over him as she lifted her wand, opened her mouth—

White sparks engulfed Bellatrix and almost knocked her forward onto her face. She spasmed, her face gone white with pain. A shriek of fury spilled from her lips when saw who had attacked her.

Malfoy, looking far too alive for someone who had stood at the center of a blast which had broken apart stone and taken out a good chunk of the courtyard, stood on the other side of the small circle which had formed around Bellatrix. He held out his wand with a kind of ruthless challenge, his eyes burning, a trickle of blood running out the side of his mouth and down from his left temple. His grip was steady and sure, and a reckless light burned in his pale eyes now.

Bellatrix lunged forward and screamed as she sent curse after curse toward Malfoy. “You filthy traitor! Undeserving piece of trash—how you could stand there and face me when you couldn’t even—” She broke off as a spell whipped by her face, slashing her cheek. Bellatrix’s eyes were gleaming now, mania taking over and pulling her mouth into a terrible smile. “You weak, disgusting, slug of a boy. I will make you regret the day you ever—”

Malfoy said nothing as he dodged and deflected, his wand moving fast and his mouth fixed in a firm, angry line. He was good—far better than Harry could ever remember, and Harry didn’t know why this stuck in his mind as he watched in shock as Draco Malfoy dueled his aunt.

The fighting had grown weak around the edges of the courtyard, a large open circle surrounding Voldemort where he dueled McGonagall, Kingsley, and Slughorn, and Bellatrix as she gained on Draco. Because it was clear where that fight was going. He had managed to surprise her but Bellatrix was the superior witch and Draco was swaying and stumbling on his feet the longer he battled her. He nearly went down from a jinx that caught his foot, acid burning through the cuff of his trousers. Bled through to bare pale skin.

Harry couldn’t just stand here, watching. He couldn’t—

“You ungrateful worm,” Bellatrix shrieked as she managed to catch the edge of Draco’s sleeve on a lash of black fire. She grinned a rictus smile when more of his pale skin showed through the material, when blood began to soak through his shirt. “You were given everything, everything, and you spurn it in favor of—”

Draco shouted with effort as he dodged a familiar jet of green light. Harry’s heart lurched forward. His wand jerked up as he remembered the last time Bellatrix had sent a Killing Curse in his presence. The image of Sirius’s last smile was imprinted onto his soul and he could feel time folding in on itself. No. NO. His mouth opened before he realized what he was doing—

“NO! BELLA!”

Narcissa’s voice rang out above the crowd, shattering the tense space between Draco and his aunt. Bellatrix spun around in shock and fury, eyes wide—

Draco’s curse flew under her guard and slammed into her chest.

The scene froze. Bellatrix’s eyes were locked in wide surprise. The hint of a vindictive smile still tugged on her mouth. It made her look like Sirius. The moment folded. Harry took in a sharp breath.

She fell to the ground in a heap of torn black skirts and spindly limbs. Harry thought he should feel something—she was dead, the woman who had killed his godfather was dead, but—

Harry jolted as a jarring sensation filtered through his chest. Fear and disgust so strong it made him stumble backwards. He looked up, eyes going immediately to the other figure standing in the open circle.

Draco’s eyes were wide in horror. They were fixed on Bellatrix’s body. His mouth was open as if he had only now realized what he’d done. The grip on his wand grew slack, hand shaking as it dropped a few inches in the air. He took a step back, seemed to lose his footing.

Voldemort screamed in outrage and slashed his wand through the air. His attackers went flying back into the crowd. He turned horrible, rage-filled red eyes on Draco, who was still staring down at the corpse of his aunt, lost in his own world and frozen in the center of the fighting.

Harry moved, the spell ready on the tip of his tongue. “PROTEGO!”

Voldemort’s curse hit Harry’s shield and detonated. A massive wave of air and force sent those nearest toppling over into their fellows. Green shadows danced up toward the sky now turning a violent shade of orange and red. Draco looked up in panic, stumbling as he came back to the battle. He looked like he had no idea where he was or what was happening. He looked young and scared.

The hawthorn wand vibrated in Harry’s grip as he pulled off the invisibility cloak. His Shield Charm held for Voldemort’s second attack, a lance of screaming orange fire directed straight at Draco’s heart. Harry felt the heat from almost fifty feet away. Draco lunged back and nearly fell to the ground. Eyes wild and shining with tears, he searched the crowd.

Their eyes locked, pale grey to bright green. The hawthorn wand crackled with life as if it rose to defend its old owner. Something bright and warm and brilliant cut through Harry’s chest right where Voldemort’s Killing Curse had hit him in the forest. It filled him with lightning and cleared his sight. For a moment all the noise around him faded, retreated.

Draco’s mouth parted on a question. Confusion colored his fear.

For a moment, Harry couldn’t look away. For one infinite moment, he didn’t want to.

A cry of fury ripped his calm apart. Harry was pulled forcibly back to the fight. Voldemort had seen him. He dropped back into the battle with a piercing regret and faced his last task.

And then everything else slipped away. The end had come.

Walking down to the forest he’d thought he was ready. He had thought it was over.

Some part of him wondered if that would ever be true.

Still burning with rage, Voldemort’s eyes narrowed. A harsh, choking scream escaped from his lips.

He controlled himself quickly, drawing up and facing Harry like he had always expected him to arrive. Like it was all falling into place exactly as he had intended it to.

Harry didn’t know what he’d been expecting in this final confrontation. He hadn’t planned on surviving and he didn’t know how or why he had. All the months and years leading up to this moment rushed through him, every small detail and tiny victory, all the loss and anger and fear, the pain of living his whole life as series of battles. He had made it his mission to know this man, to understand him, to beat him. And here it was, the horrible, glorious end he’d been waiting for.

He wondered what Dumbledore would have wanted him to do. He wondered if Dumbledore would care.

And then he stopped wondering, because he was on his own now—truly alone. No one would hold his hand through this.

Voldemort’s expression slid into a cruel smile. Rage down through Harry’s lungs like a snake. He knew what Voldemort would do, because he knew Voldemort. He would wait until Harry made his move because he took supreme enjoyment in making people struggle before he killed them. He liked to give people a shred of hope only to rip it away at the last second. He thought himself superior to every witch and wizard in this castle including Harry. He thought he was untouchable. Why rush an end he had been working toward for seventeen years?

And because Voldemort also knew Harry—knew Harry had always chosen to disarm, not destroy, to incapacitate, not kill—he would wait and outlast him, out-duel him. He would make sure Harry felt it when he chose to send his third and final Killing Curse. He would make sure Harry was well and truly beaten now in front of all his loved ones and supporters, everyone who had ever put their trust in him and asked him to hold their lives in his hands.

Harry knew this with the same resigned understanding he’d taken from Dumbledore’s office. Maybe another version of Harry would have trusted some twist of fate and luck to save him again. To let him walk away from this without blood on his hands. A better version would trust Dumbledore’s double-edged lessons about love and sacrifice, mercy and forgiveness. He would believe in the purity and power of an unbroken soul.

The silence in the remnants of the entrance hall rang with all these branching choices, a web of glittering threads resonating and winking at him where the path shone clear. The waiting, hopeful eyes of his loved ones sat heavy on him. The ghosts of the people he had lost tonight and every other night since he was a baby crowded near.

Since before he could remember.

Stripped of everything except the wand in his hand and the fire in his chest—he was no longer the boy who would have taken the path of mercy, who would have held out his hand in one final offering and trusted in his own goodness to win out in the end.

He realized with a small, faint sadness that he had left that boy in the forest. The boy who had been carried out in the arms of the first person who had ever shown him kindness didn’t have that trust. He didn’t want that trust.

The boy who had come out of that forest would never face his death without a fight again.

Voldemort seemed to catch the shift in Harry’s eyes. He had his wand up in a flash. Harry watched Voldemort’s lips as he mouthed avada kedavra for what Harry knew would be the last time.

The hawthorn wand responded to his magic. Wordless, instinctive—a defiant, feral shout into the dark, Harry met Voldemort’s curse with his own, ready, at last.

Where the two wands met, sparks flew thirty feet into the air. Voldemort’s lance of death-green dark magic rippled and bled, spitting huge licks onto the ground, every bit as nauseating and powerful as it had been in the graveyard where Harry had first seen the ghosts of his parents. It warped the air and sizzled where it melted stone, illuminated that horrible, waxy face so Harry could see all of him.

Harry should have known it would be different for him this time but he was still surprised to see that his beam of light was sliver and blue, steady and pulsing and bright—not red, not anymore. His line of light thrummed and pulsed—like a patronus, he realized with a rush of feeling. Arcs of it radiated around him, spreading light like a lighthouse through fog, flooding him with energy and fight and pure, unadulterated determination to live.

The connection formed. Harry braced for the force bearing down on him. His center of gravity shifted, his attention focused on the gold bead in front of him. He pushed, pouring his will into moving forward, relentless and constant and unforgiving. He felt Voldemort’s first flinch of weakness, his first reaction to Harry’s conviction. Harry focused his eyes on the bead of golden light, giving everything he had into pushing, pushing…

The golden light flared and soared upward to form a glittering, flashing dome. A cage around the two wizards connected by the same phoenix’s life force who no longer sat in their wands but lived inside them. Once again, he was alone with Voldemort. Once again, he was facing off against the man who had killed his parents, his friends, the people he loved. The man who wanted nothing more than Harry’s death. But this time Harry wasn’t fourteen and afraid. He wasn’t young and weak and desperate for help.

He didn’t need help for this. He didn’t want help.

Not for this.

His first step sent shockwaves through the golden dome. He heard the shouts of those outside through a filter of molten glass, saw the shadows move around him, but they couldn’t interfere, not anymore. No one else would die for him today.

No one would help him kill Voldemort.

Voldemort shot every ounce of cruelty and malice he had into his curse, and Harry knew he would start to feel it if he didn’t end this soon. It was too much, even for him. He wouldn’t have the element of surprise for long, and Voldemort was not newly reborn and still regaining his strength. Whatever life-saving power Harry had brought to the Forbidden Forest, he no longer had it. He couldn’t chance it again. He couldn’t hope that he would win out in the end just through love, and sacrifice, through being good.

Harry took another step, and another, until he slowly, steadily, walked toward Voldemort. The closer they got, the more the golden cage bristled and crackled. The bead between them slipped another few inches. Voldemort snarled and surged—it nearly made Harry stop as he felt the fear now choking out the rage.

Fear of death.

An echoing, beautiful sound emerged from the tip of Harry’s wand. He had last heard it almost a year ago, soaring above the grounds on a warm spring night, the stars in the sky winking in sorrow down at the body of Albus Dumbledore where he lay spread out on the ground beneath the Astronomy Tower.

A flash of red fire arched over the golden dome, sparks raining down on Harry where it brushed the crackling light.

Fawkes.

He had come back.

The song layered over him and bolstered him, the blue-white light from his wand strengthening with every note, tugging out of him all the bound up emotion he’d been carrying with him since he had walked down from Dumbledore’s office. Forms coalesced in the light around him, the shapes of all the people he’d lost, of one person in particular with long robes, half-moon spectacles, and a gentle face, floating just beyond the edge of his sight.

Harry didn’t stop the tears from falling. They were part of this, all of it, he knew. This was his power, this was what he had over Voldemort. No matter how broken, how battered, how tired he was, he would never stop feeling everything with an intensity which made his whole body shake. An intensity Voldemort could not bear. So if he had to rip himself open again, one last time, he would take it.

Voldemort’s eyes flicked back and forth, scanning the dome for a way out. His mouth twisted. Harry heard a broken, furious cry of rage spill from his thin, reptilian lips. He shouted but the words got lost over the swelling song, the arcs of light.

Harry stopped a few feet away from Voldemort, who had bent over and contorted his body to remain standing as he shook with the effort. Their eyes level, Harry stared into them and looked for the black eyes of the orphan everyone had feared. He looked for the boy who had grown up without parents, without love, who had fought to carve out a place for himself in a world which didn’t want him.

“This. Isn’t. OVER,” Voldemort snarled, stabbing his wand forward only for it to glance off the concave shell of Harry’s shield. “I am the master of death. I am the most powerful wizard this world has ever seen. You’re nothing but a foolish, cowardly—”

“It is over,” Harry said quietly, heart calm for the first time in hours, maybe days. The song and the light dimmed, encased him and Voldemort in a calm little bubble outside of time. “This is it, Tom.”

Voldemort flinched as if Harry had struck him. “Don’t. You think you know but you don’t. You can’t kill me—”

“I do, and I will.” Harry felt a surge of pity for this man who still thought he could win. Who would not admit, even at the end, that he had failed. “I do know. Your horcruxes are gone.”

Voldemort’s mouth twisted, a sound like a whine and a scream pushed out from his throat.

“The Elder Wand isn’t yours,” Harry said. “It’s mine. You can’t win.”

“I killed—”

“The wrong person. Snape was never its master. You never saw things as they were, did you—only as you wanted them to be.”

“You’re just a boy!”

Another hot tear scored down Harry’s cheek. “I haven’t been a boy since you tried to kill me seventeen years ago over the corpse of my dead mother.”

The slit-like nostrils flared, the last, violent green light burned and pulsed around Voldemort’s wand—fear contracted the irises of his red eyes.

“This is the end,” Harry murmured, lifting his wand as the bead of light slid toward the tip of the Elder Wand. “There’s no one else, Tom. Just you and me.”

Voldemort cried out, in defiance, or fear—Harry would never know.

He stared down into the face of the man who had hounded his steps his whole life, who had twisted Harry almost as much as he had twisted himself, and Tom Riddle stared back.

The full gravity of his choice slammed down around Harry.

He was going to kill this man.

With a final push he sent the bead of golden light into the Elder Wand. It rioted and jerked out of Voldemort’s hand, flipped up in the air three times before Harry caught it, easily. Voldemort was blown off his feet before the magic fueling the cage, his own Killing Curse, Harry’s wordless, instinctual counter-spell—all of it shot down and held him in a vice. It funneled and swirled, Voldemort’s mouth going wide and his eyes burning as Harry forced him to experience all of it, as Harry forced him to feel it, every shred of pain and fear and anger he had been forced to carry because this man had tried to play god.

The final green light of avada kedavra snaked into Voldemort’s mouth and Harry felt it because it was his curse as much as it was Voldemort’s. He had been holding it inside him since he was a baby, and now he was giving it back. He was closing the circle.

It ended between the space of one breath and the next. The magic and the light died as the final shrieks and haunting notes of the bond between them faded out.

Voldemort lay on the ground. Splayed out like Dumbledore. His eyes white now, instead of red, and staring up at the approaching light of dawn.

Tears still tracking down his face, Harry felt a strange, confusing sorrow. The thing which had bound him to this man was gone, or…he thought it was gone. He could no longer feel it, like he had come up for air after drowning his whole life, only to find the air cold and unwelcoming. Empty, when it should have been filled with relief.

The place where Voldemort had buried his power, had remade him, was empty. And it was all he could do not to collapse in on himself at the loss.

People swarmed in around him, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Neville, Luna, McGonagall, George, Molly—all the people he had fought to protect, weeping and shouting and roaring with relief.

Harry wiped his face clean of his conflict, unable to say anything, afraid if he opened his mouth something horrible would come spilling out.

As the crowd churned and people reached out to touch him, to make sure he was alive and whole, to grab onto a piece of him and pull, Harry’s eyes shifted as if by compulsion to a gap between the many, many heads.

Draco stood on the other side of the courtyard where no one else was standing, his eyes wide, searching. His mother had her arms around him, one hand cradling the back of his head, his father bent over him, shoulders shaking.

Harry held Draco’s gaze as long as he could. A flicker, maybe, somewhere behind his ribs—or maybe he was just looking for something anywhere he might find it. He held it until the crowd pulled him away. Until he was forced to let it go.

 

 

Harry didn’t know how he was going to make it through the day.

Dust and smoke still rose up in the air like specters of the people they’d lost, painting the dawn and the morning hazy and soft, growing dull and yellowed by noon. A little after, Luna covering for him when no one was watching, he slipped on the invisibility cloak—and walked out into the grounds on his own.

He thought about going to Ron and Hermione. He wanted to. To explain everything he had seen in the pensieve, how Snape had loved his mother and that was why he’d betrayed Voldemort. How Dumbledore had known all along that he was a horcrux. To fill in the gaps they deserved after the last year, the last seven years, really.

The person who had walked calmly to his death would have told them. He would have told them straight away and let them carry some of the pain that festered in his chest like rot. That person would have been more understanding to all the people who wanted to thank him, to touch him, to cry on him and praise him. He would have taken it as a responsibility to be there for everyone, to help them, and so help himself. He should want to be with them, shouldn’t he?

Harry had tried to die to save them all. He had done it out of love but now that he had time to think, to breathe, it sunk in… He had walked toward his death without a fight. He had given up his life to give them a chance.

He considered going up to the headmaster’s office as well, looking into those wonderful, horrible blue eyes and seeking an answer as to why Dumbledore hadn’t told him. Why he thought Harry wouldn’t have agreed, if he’d known beforehand. Because he would have. Of course he would have. To save his friends, his family, the whole bleeding Wizarding World? He would have thrown himself on any sword to save them all. Gladly, and without thought. He still would.

He hoped he still would.

But Dumbledore hadn’t told him. Like he hadn’t told Harry about Godric’s Hollow, or Grindelwald, or his sister. The Hallows. He hadn’t told Harry anything. He had let Harry believe he was looking out for him, showing him how to save the people he loved, how to be better and succeed where all others had failed, protecting him, guiding him. Guiding him into the fucking grave.

He still wasn’t sure what happened in the Forbidden Forest, when things had gone dark, and then viscerally, violently, white.

He had the vague impression of a big room, a church, maybe, full of white light and the distant sound of a whistle. Someone was with him but he couldn’t… Every time he grabbed for it, the feeling left, and he grew more and more frustrated. It hovered at the edge of his sight and no matter how far or how fast he ran to catch it, it eluded him. Remained just out of reach. He had never met a snitch he couldn’t catch but he couldn’t catch this feeling that he had missed something vital, left something behind when he woke up.

He must have been doing a good job hiding it, though, because while Hermione and Ron kept hovering near him, they didn’t shared frightened, tense looks. They didn’t push him to explain. Hermione hugged him so fiercely he thought his ribs might crack and sobbed into his shoulder. Ron called him a stupid git for not saying anything but he cried too. To them, it was over. They didn’t ask why he’d gone to the forest on his own. Maybe they were too busy with their own grief to care. Maybe they didn’t want to know. Harry wasn’t sure he wanted them to know, either.

So Harry went down to white marble tomb on his own, the top already broken and shoved off courtesy of Voldemort. He stared at the corpse of Albus Dumbledore, magically preserved and peaceful, like he was sleeping. Like he would open his eyes and smile at Harry and everything would be okay, because Dumbledore would tell him all the answers he had kept secret, all the reassurances and the comforts and he would apologize and Harry could leave this place with some kind of closure and peace. He could leave knowing he’d done what Dumbledore had wanted him to do, absolved, finally, of being the Chosen One. The Boy Who Lived.

He waited for the tears to come like they had when he’d set Dobby down in his little grave. Like they had right before he’d killed Voldemort. He almost wanted them to overflow and overtake him. He stood by the lake and the little copse of evergreens, waiting for catharsis or release, until the sun began to fall again through the sky, cutting down through the clouds.

But the tears didn’t come. He didn’t cry. His grief felt like it belonged to someone else, trapped behind a glass wall where he could look at it but he couldn’t claim it. In a detached kind of morbidity, he wondered if he had at last lost enough people for it not to touch him anymore. Fred, Tonks, Remus—maybe they’d pushed him over the edge. Or maybe some part of him had broken when Voldemort tried to kill him. That piece of Voldemort’s soul taking with it the last of his humanity when Voldemort died for good. Maybe he had broken it himself when he’d killed Voldemort.

But if he was broken, why was he so angry?

He fought the urge to snap the Elder Wand in half, throw it off the bridge leading into the castle, be done with it—and never think about it again. He didn’t want the thing. In fact the more he held onto it the more he felt it tainting him, the death and power seeping out through the wood to make him furious and volatile.

He didn’t break it but he wanted to. Seemed like a petty thing to do. And even now, after everything, he couldn’t break it knowing what it meant to Dumbledore.

He went back when he knew his absence would be noticed. Sure enough, Molly pulled him into a tear-filled hug, berating him for wandering off on his own and praising him for saving everyone at the same time. Her grief was painful, like being dunked back into a cold pool. And the whole process started up again. Everyone wanted to touch him, to thank him, to tell him the names of their dead like confessing to a priest. Endless gratitude. Endless grief. The Weasley family enveloped him as they sat together and bore the shared weight of their loss.

He didn’t deserve to sit with them.

Fred was gone, and he didn’t know how to grieve for him—brother, friend, family, it all felt wrong, no word truly fit. He wasn’t a part of their family in the ways it mattered. And he knew that was absolute shite but he didn’t know how to feel anything else.

Because he wasn’t one more mourner. He was still Harry Potter. People still looked at him like he was their savior. He had hoped it would stop once Voldemort died but the divide remained. If anything it felt worse now.

He wasn’t one of them. Not really.

Voldemort’s—Riddle’s face swam before him as Harry sat there with the Weasleys, the young, handsome boy blending with the man who had transformed into a monster to cheat death. He kept flipping between the two images laid out in front of him and one meant something but he couldn’t tell which. Dark, arresting eyes—red eyes. Alabaster skin—waxy, scaled skin. He searched for the connection, as if he could figure out when the monster had consumed the man. The more he sat with it, the more ludicrous the idea seemed to him that Riddle’s birth, loveless and horrible as it was, had sapped him of the ability to love, and this made him somehow irredeemable. Yes, he’d become a monster who deserved to die but he hadn’t started out that way. The more Harry thought about it, the more he hated that easy answer.

There had to be a line between the lonely, frightening kid in the orphanage and the man who had killed Harry’s parents. He didn’t believe there had never been any saving Riddle. There had to be something human inside him which got smothered early in life. But it had been there. Once.

Because Harry couldn’t get the image of Voldemort’s final moments out of his head.

The moment his eyes had widened. The moment he realized he’d lost.

The moment Harry had killed him.

He had never looked more human.

Over the next few hours as everyone rested and waited for the relief to come in from outside, he sat with the Weasleys. Not next to Ginny, sandwiched between Molly and George. He hadn’t been able to get her alone—he hadn’t tried, really—but he caught her watching him now and again.

He should want to be with her though, right?

The need to talk to her should feel more urgent, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t he want to hug her, touch her, make sure she was all right? Ron and Hermione hadn’t let go of each other’s hand for hours. Harry should want the same. He had wanted the same. Back when he saw her in the Room of Requirement it was all he could do not to bury himself in her hair and breath her warmth and life in but now he… He didn’t know what he felt. His emotions kept stalling, getting waylaid and shuffled as his brain processed the events of the last twenty-four hours.

When had he last slept?

Hermione kept prodding him as the Weasleys talked, concerned. She kept quiet, though, as if she knew Harry wasn’t going to share. He could barely understand what he was feeling. He didn’t know how to explain the anger and doubt and resentment without explaining everything, and he couldn’t bear the thought of Hermione’s reaction when she heard what he was, what he’d always been. The longer he sat with it, the less he wanted to tell anyone. The harder it became to imagine Ron or Hermione not looking at him in pity or fear. Not knowing one more thing that made him different, strange. It didn’t matter anymore. Voldemort was dead. It seemed like an unnecessary burden to hand to his friends after everything they’d been through.

His gaze wandered as the hours dragged on, alighting on all the empty spaces where he imagined dead students or Order members should have been. He searched the hall with dull, uncaring eyes, only to get stuck on Malfoy and his parents at the far end. And to remain stuck.

He just…couldn’t stop staring at Malfoy.

The hawthorn wand sat in his pocket, Harry hyperaware of its presence as he watched Narcissa speaking to Lucius, her hands never leaving her son’s arm or knee or shoulders for longer than a few seconds. Like Malfoy would disappear if she didn’t keep her hands on him. She had the look of someone exercising full control over her emotions, face set and cold and frightening in its severity. She didn’t look like a woman who had just lost her sister. Whose son had finished her off.

Her husband, however, looked like a stiff breeze would send him sprawling. Lucius Malfoy used to be nothing but unctuous charm and easy, confident superiority—something his son had never managed to achieve, despite his attempts. Not anymore, though. Lucius was nearly unrecognizable. His whole demeanor had changed. Actually, Lucius reminded Harry of Wormtail in the Shrieking Shack moments after he had been forced back into his human form. He had the same panicked light to his eyes, the same pallid sheen, white hair wispy and disheveled twitchiness—all his class and smiling cruelty gone now his master was dead. He was just a scared old man who had been forced out into the light.

But Malfoy…made him agitated. It wasn’t a new emotion when it came to Draco Malfoy but it felt—erratic. He waited for Malfoy to do something in line with Harry’s instinctual distrust, to become again the bully who had plagued him nearly his entire school career. It was odd, because while he’d thought about Malfoy a lot over the past year, more than he should have, he had never been angry… Concerned wasn’t the right word but it was close. He had seen what Voldemort put him through.

And then Malfoy had gone and covered for him. He had lied to his parents. To protect Harry.

He had known Harry was alive in the courtyard, and if his plan was always to attack Voldemort, he had done it after he had seen Harry. He could have outed Harry and bought himself cover to do whatever he’d been trying to do with his Bombardment Charm. But he hadn’t said anything.

And perhaps worst of all, Malfoy had let Harry take his wand. He must have. The realization had come on slowly as his mind processed—there was no way Harry had overpowered him in his house. You didn’t learn how to duel like that, to fight fucking Bellatrix Lestrange and win, only to get caught off guard when someone tried to knick your wand without using magic.

Harry didn’t know the Malfoy he had seen on the battlefield.

The Malfoy sitting between his parents, face blank and eyes hollow? Harry knew that Malfoy better than he wanted to.

Every time he thought he had accepted it the truth went sour and left him again with the knowledge that without Draco Malfoy, he’d never have been able to kill Voldemort. Without him disarming Dumbledore, letting Harry take his wand, causing enough of a distraction for Harry to get up and face Voldemort on his own terms—Harry wouldn’t have been able to challenge Voldemort for the Elder Wand. Harry would have died.

So Harry stared, because it was easier to stare at Malfoy than anyone else in the room.

His coat was shucked off in favor of his soot- and blood-covered white button down, the slash across his arm staining the fabric. The blood on his mouth was gone, and he seemed…fine. He didn’t look hurt, at least. Harry had no bloody idea how Malfoy had come out of that explosion looking like he’d only been in a bit of a scuff up but he didn’t seem to be anything but shaken. Tired. His right trouser leg was pockmarked from where Bellatrix had caught him. As Harry watched him, he toyed with the left sleeve of his shirt, like he wanted to roll it up but kept stopping and clutching his forearm. Like it hurt.

Harry wondered what would happen to the dark mark now Voldemort was gone. Maybe it’d turn back into a normal tattoo or fade into a scar. He hoped it wouldn’t. He hoped it would stay there forever to remind Malfoy and all the other death eaters every day of the choice they’d made. In a twist of righteous anger, Harry hoped the guilt ate them alive.

After a while, though, the anger faded and he studied Malfoy’s face. He sat on the other side of the Great Hall, so Harry couldn’t see his expression well, but he knew the typical sneer and haughty disdain which had sat so easily on Malfoy’s face for so many years was gone, absent—just as it had been every time Harry had seen him over the past year. He hadn’t seen Malfoy sneer since sixth year. Not since Harry had ripped him apart in the bathroom.

Leaning over with his elbows on his knees, Malfoy was frozen. Staring into space with vacant, unmoving eyes. His long body folded over, almost hunched. The same hollow, lost look when he had walked down to Voldemort in the courtyard.

Had he…meant to die with that last gambit? Before he’d seen Harry, was he surrendering, or…was he getting out, no matter what it cost him?

This stuck in Harry’s head like a thorn and no matter how much he tried to ignore it, he couldn’t.

Malfoy had always taken up as much space as he could, entering a room like it belonged to him, looking at other people with a benevolent smugness, like they should be happy he let them exist within his presence.

He looked smaller now. More normal. Like all the other seventeen-year-old kids who had gone through a war. Seventeen. Bloody hell, they were all seventeen.

If anything, Malfoy was far worse than the rest of them, even Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the bags under his eyes so dark they looked bruised. He’d lost weight. It had been too chaotic at Malfoy Manor and in the Room of Requirement but now Harry was paying attention. Malfoy was a shell of the boy who had stood in front of Dumbledore and chosen not to kill him.

He looked, Harry realized with a spike of discomfort, exactly like Harry felt.

Harry got up and moved before he could think better, brushing Hermione off with a whispered, “I’m fine, it’s nothing.” He walked amongst the groups of people clustered together, silently pleading with everyone to stop looking at him for five minutes. He lost hope of that right away. On his own amidst a sea of people who kept thanking him, watching him with hope and relief, piling all their grief on top of him, he wanted to shove it off and disappear. He regretted leaving his invisibility cloak back with the Weasleys and looked around for Luna, desperate for her to cause another distraction for him. But he had started this. He wasn’t going to stop now, not when he didn’t know if he would be able to do it again.

Had the Great Hall always been this long?

He was three-quarters of the way there when Malfoy saw him.

His grey eyes hardened and he sat up. The indistinct dissociation vanished from his features as he adopted a cold, impassive stare—a mirror to his mother’s.

Harry didn’t know if he imagined it or not but noise in the room dropped perceptibly. His hand sweated, palm clammy over the hawthorn wand in his pocket. A lump formed in his throat as he stopped in front of them. Why had he walked over here? To fucking Malfoy and his death eater parents?

He glanced at Narcissa but her pursed lips betrayed nothing. Lucius, Harry saw with a small twist of satisfaction, was avoiding his gaze and looked ready to bolt.

“Is this the part where you clap us in irons and throw us in a dungeon until the Ministry arrives?”

Harry frowned at Malfoy’s tone—flat and resigned, not even a bit derisive.

“What? No, I—” Harry cleared his throat. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with…you lot. I’m not part of the Ministry.”

Malfoy stared, doubtful. “All right.”

Harry ran his thumb over a slight groove at the head of the hawthorn wand, the edges smoothed down like someone had a habit of performing the same worried gesture over and over again. It wasn’t quite right, though, because Malfoy was left handed.

Why he should have that information so readily available only Merlin knew but he did.

Hawthorn and unicorn hair. Ten inches precisely. Reasonably springy.

Malfoy’s brow arched and he asked almost flippantly, “Was there something you wanted?”

Why did you help me?

Harry flushed at his own urgency to ask a question which would likely get him hexed, angry at the continued disinterest in Malfoy’s face, and thrust the hawthorn wand out.

Malfoy jerked back, bald fear overtaking his blank expression. Lucius jumped and yelped. Narcissa rose—

“NO—no, sorry,” Harry said quickly, raising his other hand palm out. “I wasn’t—sorry. I was just going to give this back to you.” His heart beat hard but he held Malfoy’s gaze. Stupid. This was really fucking stupid. “I swear, I’m not… Just—giving you back your wand. That’s all.”

Malfoy’s eyes flicked between the wand and Harry’s face. His nostrils flared as he sat forward again. “You think I want it after you’ve gone and spoiled it?”

Harry stared, and laughed. Because there he was. The Malfoy he’d known for seven bloody years. It was almost a relief. Some things would never change, and Malfoy’s petty cruelty was one of them.

What the hell had he thought was going to happen? Had he expected Malfoy to thank him? Malfoy? What was he doing?

Harry smiled grimly at the confusion in Malfoy’s eyes. He tossed the wand onto the ground at Malfoy’s feet. His mother tensed again but Malfoy didn’t flinch this time.

“Just giving it back now I don’t need it,” Harry said with a tight smile.

He stepped away, the eyes of everyone in the Great Hall fixed on him. He cleared his throat and looked at Narcissa. Her grey eyes remained every bit as cold and bright as her son’s, her emotions locked tight behind her stony expression. She didn’t look as much like Bellatrix as Andromeda did.

He didn’t know why that mattered.

“Thank you,” he muttered. “For… Thanks.”

She made no reaction, and Harry didn’t expect one.

He walked quickly away down the length of the Great Hall and out the broken doors through the groups of people he’d saved and fought the urge to sprint. He didn’t know where he was going but he knew he needed to get out. Maybe he’d go find his old room in Gryffindor Tower. Maybe it had survived most of the—

Sharp, running footsteps caught up to him in the Entrance Hall. He gritted his teeth, ready to tell Hermione and Ron that he was fine, he just needed some air, but it wasn’t them.

Malfoy came to a stop a few feet away from the stairs. His chest rose and fell fast, color standing out stark against his pale skin.

Harry didn’t reach for his own wand. Maybe he was too surprised.

“The fuck was that, Potter?” Malfoy spat, voice low but still echoing through the broken castle.

“What?”

“You know what.”

Harry frowned. “Giving you your wand back?”

Malfoy’s jaw clenched. “I don’t want it.”

“Fine. Throw it away then.”

“You think I need your charity?”

“It’s not charity, Malfoy, I’m just—” Harry balled his hands into fists, fighting the rising anger in his throat. “I took your wand. Now I’m giving it back.”

Malfoy’s mouth twisted. “If you don’t want it, why did you take it in—”

“Because your lunatic aunt—” He faltered at Malfoy’s flinch, swallowed a knot of guilt. “Because she was torturing my friend and Voldemort was about to come find me and kill me,” Harry said slowly, still through gritted teeth. “Or did you forget that part? So yeah, I fucking took your wand. And now I’m giving it back. Because what am I supposed to do with your cast off?”

Malfoy’s mouth twisted again but all he could manage was a grimace. He blinked a few times, as if he was trying to find the thread of his point. “Well, congratulations. I suppose having the most powerful wand in the world is preferable to—”

“The one I stole from you?” Harry laughed. “Yeah. I bloody well hope so. You think I want to keep anything that belongs to you if I can help it?” He registered what Malfoy had said. “Wait, you know—”

“About the Elder Wand? Obviously,” Malfoy spat, his face hard and haunted.

Harry tried to find his voice. He didn’t know why Malfoy knowing about the Elder Wand changed anything. He didn’t think Malfoy would try to kill him now, not after he’d gone to all the trouble of saving his life.

It was perhaps the strangest thought he’d had in hours.

“I thought he was keeping it secret,” he said after a long pause, frowning at Malfoy’s knowing stare. In fact he knew Voldemort hadn’t told anyone. He knew Voldemort had searched for it on his own, going through the wands of his followers for one strong enough to overcome their shared bond.

Turns out it wasn’t the wands he should have been worrying about.

Draco’s jaw clenched. “He—was.” A mixture of fear and loathing flickered past his gaze. “I managed to figure it out on my own.”

“Are you waiting for me to tell you how clever you are?”

Malfoy’s head tilted and a flicker of his old cruel amusement lit in his eyes. “No,” he drawled, “of course not. Can’t have anyone else stealing a bit of the glory, can you? It’s the Chosen One, right, not the Chosen Many.”

“Shove it, Malfoy,” Harry muttered, done with this conversation.

But Malfoy only stepped forward and lowered his voice, eyes gleaming like a cat who had been waiting for hours for a mouse to emerge from a hole so he could rip it to shreds. “That’s it, isn’t it? You thought you were special, thinking you and Granger and Weasley were the only ones who had any clue what Vol—what he was doing. How disappointing for you—”

“None of this has anything to do with you,” Harry said loudly, forgetting to keep his voice down. He didn’t want anyone else coming out here to check on him, not when standing within ten feet of Malfoy made the languid sludge of his emotions surge back into life. “You worked it out. Bully for you. I don’t care.”

“You’re the one who made it about me,” Malfoy said harshly. “If your little light show hadn’t worked, what then? He would have come after me, or did you not realize when you stepped in and stopped him—”

“From killing you?” Harry shouted, losing his grip. “Do you fucking hear yourself right now? I saved your life, Malfoy—”

“Ah, yes, and this is the part where you tell me how lucky I am you were there to rescue me. Like I couldn’t have saved myself.” His voice was fast and fevered, the light in his eyes turning frantic.But I suppose you haven’t gotten enough of that hero worship, have you? Never enough for the Chosen One. Bloody savior of the world. You’re going to have to find another dark wizard to kill soon or they’re going to stop kissing the ground you walk on, because what else are you good for, really?”

Harry’s anger pounded in his chest now and it was all he could do not to march down the stairs and slam his fist into Malfoy’s face. “Take your wand and piss off, you pathetic asshole, or I’m—”

“Or what?” Malfoy stepped toward him, a challenge flashing in his eyes, hungry and raw and burning like the fiendfyre Harry had pulled him out of only hours before. “What are you going to do, Potter? Are you going to kill me—”

“SHUT UP,” Harry screamed, throat burning as the fire caught and raged behind his eyes. “Shut the fuck up, Malfoy, please—”

His voice ricocheted off the high ceilings of the main staircase, shocked by the violence of his final word. He hadn’t meant the last to slip out. He hadn’t meant to crack open in front of Draco Malfoy. He took a jerking step back, tripping over the stairs, dropping his gaze as he worked through the panic overwhelming his anger.

This was stupid. So fucking stupid. He didn’t want to fight anymore, not even with Malfoy.

The crushing weight of his own fatigue came down on him. He swallowed as a tight, hot pain worked its way up his throat. His eyes burned with unshed tears, rousing now as if drawn from his anger. He couldn’t be here anymore in this castle, watched by all those horribly grateful people. In the same castle where he’d decided to die to save them. Where he had killed Voldemort.

He had killed Voldemort.

He pushed his hair off his face, dirt and sweat and blood coating his palm, getting stuck in his hair. He took another few steps up the staircase.

“Do whatever the fuck you want with the wand,” he said in choked, broken words, blinking away tears. He had been empty and frustrated for hours and now, finally, he was unraveling. Losing it. In front of Malfoy. “Use it for kindling for all I care. I’m done with it. I’m—done.”

More footsteps came from the Great Hall. He didn’t want anyone to offer him comfort. He didn’t want anyone to talk him through the hole opening up in his chest. He needed to get somewhere he could—

“Potter!”

Harry jerked around just as he’d determined to leave, unable to ignore the boy who wouldn’t let him walk away. “What, Malfoy?” His voice broke on the first corner of a sob. “What could you possibly want?”

Malfoy stood there, staring at him, wand loosely clutched in his upraised left hand like he was about to offer it back to Harry. His expression flickered—anger and frustration giving way to that same distant, reaching emptiness he had seen in the Great Hall. Sympathy ripped through Harry as he realized just how thin Malfoy’s veneer of anger was. Harry knew, in the tight crease of his forehead, the slight tremble in his chin—Malfoy didn’t know what he was doing either.

It didn’t make Harry feel better. It didn’t make him hate Malfoy any less.

If anything, he hated himself more for understanding it so thoroughly.

Malfoy’s jaw worked as they stared at each other but if he intended to say anything, it wasn’t coming out. Harry looked down into those pale grey eyes and saw every bit of Malfoy’s fear screaming up at him. Every bit of helplessness. Everything he had witnessed through Voldemort’s eyes when he’d forced Malfoy to torture Rowle and watch as Nagini desecrated the corpse of Charity Burbage. Harry hated how he understood everything Malfoy wasn’t speaking aloud. He fucking hated it.

Harry held Malfoy’s gaze until people stepped out of the Great Hall—Ron, Bill, Ginny, followed by Narcissa. He couldn’t look at any of them, only Malfoy. He glared down at Malfoy and fought to keep hold of his anger, to keep hold of himself.

“Draco.”

Malfoy flinched, face going soft, showing a sliver of weakness, just as powerful as if Malfoy had shouted back at him. He didn’t drop Harry’s gaze. If anything, he seemed determined to hold it too.

But Narcissa’s voice broke the last tethers of Harry’s control—urgent and steady, the same voice which had asked Harry if her son still lived, which had called to Draco across a field of enemies.

It felt like a shard of ice through his ribs. He closed his eyes, trying not to lose it entirely. When he opened them another figure had joined the others, standing behind Malfoy.

Tall and handsome in his pristine Hogwarts uniform, black hair sleek and eyes intent. The pale young man’s mouth twitched, like he was about to smile, a playful glint to his black eyes.

Harry looked down into the face of Tom Riddle and the world dropped out around him.

He jerked back in panic and lost his footing again. He blinked—and Riddle was gone.

He apparated before anyone could so much as ask him what was wrong. The wards were still down, thankfully, so he didn’t splinch himself, and only once he stood upright again did he realize he hadn’t thought of a location so much as let his mind take him somewhere else, anywhere else.

He stood amongst crumbled rocks, took in the twisted metal railing, the broken glass scattered here and there across the floor, the wide open view of the grounds beneath him—the Astronomy Tower. He had apparated to the Astronomy Tower.

Just your mind playing tricks. He leaned against what was left of a wall. You’re tired. You’re hallucinating. He’s dead.

You killed him.

He pressed his fingers to his scar, to the slight ridge of hard skin where the lightning bolt crossed his forehead, but it didn’t hurt. He kept very still for a full minute, counting the seconds, waiting for his mind to be dragged back into Voldemort’s head. But it was just him. Standing in the ruins of the Astronomy Tower. Alone.

All the grief and rage and disappointment flooded in as he remembered watching Dumbledore thrown back into the air. Snape’s expression of guilt and mingled loathing. Malfoy’s trembling hand, lowering the same hawthorn wand Harry had just thrown back at him. Malfoy’s wide, desperate eyes.

He’s dead. He’s dead. You killed him. He’s—

The effort to remain standing became too much. Harry sat down hard, the dust and rubble kicking up around him like smoke. He tucked his knees into his chest and bent over, curled into as tight a ball as he could, and cried. And cried, wringing himself dry.

After, he sat listening to the sounds of the wind drift through the ruined tower. A soft flap of wings greeted him, and Harry didn’t lift his head. He didn’t need to. Fawkes lighted down next to him, gently resting his beak on the same arm he had healed in the Chamber of Secrets. A few more tears slipped down Harry’s cheeks. Fawkes blinked his ancient, gleaming eyes at him, lifted his beak and touched one of Harry’s tears before it could slide off his chin.

A small trill rumbled in Fawkes’s throat, and he left. In a flash of fire and light, he flew out into the sky, disappearing behind a cloud bank on the other side of the lake.

Harry rubbed a hand over his raw, tired face, and reached down with trembling fingers to pick up the single red feather Fawkes had left between his feet.

 

Chapter Text

 

If the weeks after the Battle of Hogwarts were a series of clipped images, people and places blurring past Harry like he was peering out the window of a train, June felt like flying into the Whomping Willow, only it didn’t incite the thrill of being nearly smashed to paste.

All throughout May he gave statements to Ministry officials filling them in on what he and Ron and Hermione had been doing—the bare details, mind, just enough to make them stop asking questions—shuffled from one place to the next, trying to figure out how someone existed as a normal person again after so long on the run. He was so numb he didn’t mind so much that he frequently forgot what day it was or where he would spent the night. The pieces of his life had been so thoroughly shattered and scattered, he was left with the simple task of putting himself back together into some semblance of a functioning human being.

When the numbness started to fade, though, and he was left with the incomprehensible truth of living, the anxiety crept back in like pins and needles in an arm he had accidentally slept on.

Because he had all the time in the world now to just…live, and while he should have been happy, brilliantly, wonderfully, happy to be given a life he was never meant to have, he wasn’t. He wasn’t upset but he wasn’t staring into the future with hope and determination. More like he was staring down an oncoming storm.

Having nowhere else to go, Harry agreed to stay with the Weasleys when Molly and Arthur offered, meaning Molly sat him down and told him in no uncertain terms that he was going to stay with them whether he wanted to or not. Right away, though, Harry felt weird.

He loved the Weasleys, they were the closest thing he had to family—they were his family, but after a while it became hard to find any kind of peace and quiet with everyone clustered around him all bloody day, people coming and going, the house always noisy with someone’s laughter or shouting—and crying, so much crying. he would catch himself staring out over the West Country fields, fighting the urge to just get on his broom and fly until he reached the ocean. He didn’t know what he was going to do when he got there but it seemed sometimes like anything would be better than sitting under the big oak in the backyard, counting down the moments until someone found him and called him back to the house. The wind stirring through the grass and coasting over the hills in waves, pulling him away toward something simpler, somewhere he could breathe. Where he didn’t have to constantly reassure people that he was all right.

The warmth he had always felt when he stayed at the Burrow seemed to dim every day. It didn’t feel like it used to. Safe and comforting. Like he had been given a gift he’d always wanted—a bright, warm house full of people who loved him, people he loved. Like he was living in the dream of someone else’s life.

And he knew with a distant guilt that he was the one who’d changed, not any of the Weasleys, not the people who had welcomed him as family the moment he entered their home. It was his fault. Or maybe it was the little shard of Voldemort, knowing it was there inside his head and had always been there.

It didn’t help that Ron and Hermione had left after a few weeks. Ron was spending most of his time in London with George, helping get the shop back up, and Hermione had gone to retrieve her parents from Australia with the hope that she could restore the memories she had taken, and Harry was just…waiting. The war trials were due to start at the beginning of August. He had already been told to prepare himself for days of questioning and testimony but beyond that, he had no idea what to do. He had always wanted to be an auror but the idea of working at the Ministry right now felt about as stifling as the heat in Ron’s attic room. He didn’t know what he wanted, only that he wanted to move, and keep moving.

The nightmares didn’t help.

They weren’t as vivid or frightening as they used to be. Voldemort didn’t feature in them, not specifically, and he never woke up with his scar burning or to the sound of his mother screaming or a wall of green light. He never remembered the details, only the sense that something was watching him, or present. Something he couldn’t see. His own brain waiting for him to crack, most likely. Inventing danger. Seeing people who were dead. For good this time. He was visiting a strange liminal space in his mind every night and every morning he woke to a lingering sense of dread. Like he was leaving more and more of himself every time he fell into his dreams. It got harder to shake himself out of it, harder to get out of his own head, without Ron and Hermione to distract him, to help him.

Bill must have sensed Harry’s growing discomfort, because after a month of Harry fighting the constant, low-burning urge to smash something or scream, Bill offered him a place at Shell Cottage with him and Fleur, if he wanted it. Harry jumped at the offer without thought, feeling guilty for leaving only when Molly looked at him with big, sad, teary eyes and practically begged him to stay. In the end, Arthur had been the one to talk her down, clapping Harry on the shoulder with tears in his own eyes and telling him he was always welcome, that he was family.

And it wasn’t as if Ginny asked him to stay. She had never asked him for anything, really. Maybe that was why he needed to leave. Because out of all the things he had abandoned in his search for the horcruxes, all the things which seemed to be lost for good, his feelings for her, his lack of them, hurt the worst.

Within a day of them getting back and settled into the Burrow, he noticed the shift. The flood of emotions he had felt at seeing her in the Room of the Requirement before the battle had gone. Touching her didn’t bring the same spark, the same gentle excitement of stealing happiness from the general shite of his life. Watching her from across the room as she laughed and smiled made him feel like he was staring into a sun which no longer felt warm but blinding and sharp. Like he had kept his eyes closed for so long he couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. When they kissed, he felt nothing, just a weird sense of disconnect. It felt more like when Cho had kissed him through her tears—when he had been confused and more than a bit petrified. Nice, he supposed, but not the kind of nice kissing Ginny used to be. Not the kind of nice he lost himself in. Just…nice. The kind of nice where Harry was so focused on the mechanics of where his hands were and how much spit he was producing and wondering how the fuck he had enjoyed this before if it was so bloody weird now.

They had gone slow when they were dating in school, so slow one might say that they went nowhere at all, Ginny only being fifteen when they got together, and Harry having about as much sexual experience as a turnip—bit of over the clothes groping, some quickly-stifled heat when Ginny shifted on his lap and his cock decided to get up and cheer for her. At the time it had felt like they were building up to something, increasing the anticipation with every kiss by the lake or brush of her hand against his.

But they were older now and they had all the time in the world. Ginny was nearly of age, and it wasn’t like Harry wasn’t interested in the concept of sex, far from it, but every time things turned in that direction—he felt nothing. Not wrong, just weird. He had the thought more than once that he would probably feel the same if he tried to shag Hermione, which put everything into a perspective that made it rather hard to get…hard. Seventeen and bored out of his mind and he couldn’t even get it up to have sex with his girlfriend, his brave, beautiful, wonderful, infinitely capable girlfriend. Every time it got close, every time he felt Ginny waiting for him to make the move they both knew was supposed to be coming, Harry just shut down.

He knew Ginny could tell there was something wrong. She had always been so damn perceptive. But she didn’t press him and he didn’t share, and little by little they drifted, and Harry let the space between them grow. Being with her seemed like a different life, one that was simple and soft and innocent. It had only been a year but he wasn’t the same person who had spent months pining for her, thinking she was everything warm and happy and bright in the world, that she was everything he wanted. He wasn’t the same person she had been in love with since she was eleven. The sunny dream he had slipped into when it was just them was gone, and he wondered sometimes if he hadn’t just imagined it or told himself it was what he wanted because it was probably all he would ever get. Because it was what he should have wanted.

He didn’t want this to be true. Most of the time he could convince himself his feelings had had nothing to do with expediency or necessity or obligation. It was too fucked up, too cruel, to imagine the only reason he had ever liked Ginny is because he thought he had to. It also didn’t make a lick of sense but it was harder to convince himself of the truth of his feelings when her tongue was in his mouth and that sweet, flowery smell of hers was making him want to open a window just to get some fresh air. When her grip turned hard, just shy of desperate, and he felt any interest in what they were doing slip away the more he knew she was trying.

In his darker moments he thought this was exactly the reason why those feelings felt so distant. Harry at sixteen still believed there was some greater meaning to his life. He was on a path that had been set for him before his birth. Ginny had been on that path, the inevitable end to the person he had been when they met for the first time in the Burrow. And not only was that beyond selfish to think, it wasn’t fair to her.

Learning what he was, what he had always been, killing Voldemort—he’d lost the path. Or maybe the path had lost him.

There was probably an important distinction there but he didn’t want to try too hard to figure it out.

It came to an excruciating crescendo one night when Molly and Arthur were off visiting Ron and George in London. He and Ginny had the whole house to themselves for the first time in a month, and it should have been a godsend. It should have made him nervous and excited and anxious. All he felt during dinner and after, curled up on the couch listening to the wireless with the girl he was supposed to be in love with, was a sense of impending unease.

Ginny seemed determined to ignore this, though, and when she led him into her room, pushed him down on her bed, and told Harry she wanted him to make love to her—Harry couldn’t imagine saying no, even if the rational part of his mind knew that was impossible, because to make love you needed to feel it first, presumably. He was supposed to want this. He was supposed to want to shag his beautiful, willing girlfriend. He was supposed to want her.

Harry had never been good with feelings but this seemed pretty straight forward. He was in love or he wasn’t. He wanted her or he didn’t. And setting all of that aside, it was just sex. It shouldn’t have been this weird.

The next thing he knew she was under him with her clothes off and his clothes had come off as well and this was the moment, if it was going to happen, it was going to happen now. So…he made it happen.

It became immediately obvious that Ginny knew what she was doing, and that should have made him feel something, because it meant she had done this with some other bloke. He had a history of being wildly jealous of other blokes being within five feet of Ginny—but he just felt guilty. He felt bad that this was probably disappointing for her, because while he enjoyed the act itself after he figured out what the fuck he was doing, it wasn’t special. Even he could tell that it was pretty underwhelming. It was just…nice. He liked Ginny. He was attracted to Ginny. He liked sex, which was actually quite a relief to know for sure now, but there was nothing else there. It was just sex, when it should have been the first night of the rest of his life.

When it was done and they were lying next to each other in the silence, he waited, desperately wishing that that feeling would click into place. For him to know, finally, that he wanted this, that he wanted her, because he would be mad not to, right? After everything, to come out of the war with nothing…

The silence became too horrible, so Harry did the only thing he could think to do and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Ginny’s breath grew ragged and Harry hated himself because he knew she was crying. Ginny, who hadn’t cried when he’d broken things off after Dumbledore’s funeral, when he’d said goodbye to her in this room before Bill and Fleur’s wedding. He was the reason for her pain, again, and he couldn’t justify it this time. He didn’t have to go off and kill a dark wizard and save the world. He had his whole life now, to figure this out. He had no excuse not to be with her.

That he didn’t even want to try made him want to curl into a ball and never speak to anyone again. It made him feel like the biggest git on this planet. Like the lowest, foulest idiot. He was broken. This was his fault. It had to be.

“Ginny,” he started to turn, wanting to do something to comfort her, to make this better, “I’m—I’m sorry. We can… I’ll—”

“Don’t. Please, Harry.” Her voice was hard and final but her cheeks shined and her eyes were red, lit up gently by the lamp on her bedside table. It was decorated with painted flowers. There were flowers in the window sill and next to her quidditch gear in the corner. The whole room smelled like her. Sweet and warm and unbearable.

“I know you… I understand. You don’t have to apologize for not…” She sat up, pulling her clothes on to hide her face. When she finally stood and looked at him, her face was set and she looked almost defiant as she met his gaze. She looked older and more confident and he wondered then if maybe that was the trick, maybe he was stuck thinking of her as younger and softer…

“It’s all right,” she continued, voice flat and casual. “I don’t blame you. I knew what I was getting into with you, so…”

Harry did feel something at that, a little dart of pain to his heart. Right. Of course. She wasn’t stupid. She must have realized a relationship with him would never be normal or easy. Because he wasn’t normal or easy.

She tucked her long red hair behind her ears—and he didn’t want to immediately run his fingers through it, which was a stupid thing to get caught up on but he used to love her hair—giving him a rueful smile. “But I don’t want you to force yourself to be with me if you don’t— That wouldn’t be fair. To either of us. So. It’s all right. Really.”

She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, her eyes intent like she wanted him to tell her she was wrong, that he loved her, that he just needed to figure things out but he was committed to making this work. Because she was that important to him.

Harry said nothing for a long time. He saw in her eyes when the intensity shifted, when the last hope she’d been holding onto died.

And that was worse than all the rest of it. She had still thought he would come around.

He looked down, guilt and shame bubbling up inside him, murmured, “All right,” and quietly left.

Later, when he was lying awake in Ron’s room, staring at the Chudley Canons poster stuck to the slanting wall over his head and trying not to hear the small, soft sounds of crying a few floors below, he wondered if he wasn’t the smallest, most pathetic excuse for human being who had ever lived.

It wasn’t all right, nothing about this was all right, and none of it was her fault. But she probably guessed as much. She had always been smarter about this stuff than him, anyway. She was probably better off. She could find someone who loved her like he’d thought he could and she could be happy. With someone normal. Because after everything she’d been through, she deserved a normal life.

And after everything he’d been through? Didn’t he deserve that just as much?

Did murderers get to move on and find love?

Was murder justified if the man was a monster? Harry had thought so, he still did in theory, but the longer he lived as Voldemort’s killer, he wondered. He didn’t feel justified. Or vindicated, or relieved.

He felt raw. Worn out. Empty.

It had been months and he wasn’t feeling any better.

His own eyes were dry the rest of the night. When he left the Burrow three days later, he hated how easy it was.

 

 

Shell Cottage didn’t feel like home anymore than the Burrow did but at least Harry didn’t feel like some interloper, like he was dragging grief and ghosts with him wherever he went. Maybe it was that he had never known Shell Cottage without the shadow of death. When he was here last, he had been mourning Dobby, readying himself for the moment he finally faced Voldemort.

Now that he had nothing to work toward, he could let the austere melancholy of it take him.

It was beautiful on the coast. The beach quiet and white and lonely but not in the way that made him sad. More like it filled him with an indescribable longing, the endless water and the soft susurration of the waves against the cliffs like a lullaby whose tune he couldn’t quite recall. He didn’t feel the need to pretend here, not like he had in the Burrow. He didn’t need to constantly present himself as being Okay and Fine.

He spent a lot of time on the beach and the hills near Dobby’s grave, walking through the little tufts of grass and watching the sea birds wheel over his head in the pearl-grey sky. The urge to run was weaker here, though maybe that was just because he could fly more often. Bill and Fleur lived far enough away from any muggles that he could go nearly an hour in both directions along the coast, sometimes taking lunch and flying out to a small island which was little more than rock a few miles from shore. The best thing about Bill and Fleur was that neither of them questioned what he was doing, that they trusted he wasn’t stupid enough to fall off his broom and didn’t stand there watching him until he was back and safe. Maybe it was just because they were younger than Molly and Arthur but Harry didn’t feel like he needed permission when he decided to pop off to the village on his own. They didn’t come and check on him when he stayed out a bit later than normal. Fleur just called his name when she needed him, or Bill would come home and wave him in for dinner.

People visited, of course, and they went in to London more than once to see the shop and impose on Ron and George, and then Angelina when she and George started dating. While Bill commuted to the Ministry every day, Harry worked on the house with Fleur. He started to suspect she was running out of things for him to do around the third week of his stay, setting him to work on retiling the roof even though it was perfectly fine. There were only so many times he could rearrange the rock garden before it become excessive. But he didn’t mind. Fleur was lovely company, smart and sweet with a ruthless streak to her which always reminded Harry how well she had done in the Triwizard Tournament. It definitely explained why Bill had fallen for her so hard. She even started teaching him French and let him cook—something at which he’d always been good but never particularly interested, given he was forced as a child and frequently barred from eating the food he had prepared. Bill treated him like a younger brother, not like a kid. It was nice. Or, if not nice, then it wasn’t hard, not like it had been at the Burrow.

Of course, it didn’t last. Harry had almost managed to convince himself he was feeling better, more like a person, when news came that sent a crack through his seaside life.

He was sitting down to breakfast with Bill and Fleur on a sunny Saturday in mid-July, pouring himself another cup of coffee—Fleur had turned him on to it and it wasn’t long before he was taking two or three cups every morning, teaching him the difference between the three ways of brewing she alternated between, because there was apparently a full world of knowledge surrounding coffee that he had never known because he’d only ever reluctantly drank tea because that’s just what you did as a good upstanding Brit, but Merlin’s pants, if coffee, strong and black and dosed with sugar, wasn’t fucking magical—when Bill cursed on the other side of the table.

It was a surprising enough occurrence that Harry arched his brow over his cup when Bill didn’t elaborate. Maybe Harry should have realized it was stupid to even ask but his quiet summer had lulled him into a false sense of security, made him forget about the rest of Britain and the war he had only recently fought in.

Bill scowled, scars pulling at his handsome face before he tossed Harry the paper. “You’re not gonna like it.”

“It’s the Prophet,” Harry laughed, grabbing it and finishing his coffee, the heat scalding his throat in a pleasant, smoky way, “of course I won’t like it.”

Harry scanned the headlines. They were rather predictable—notices of persons still missing from the war, stories about the relief effort and the Ministry rebuilding, calls for anyone with knowledge of lingering death eater sentiment or activity to come forward and inform—and not until he got to the bottom of the page did he realize what Bill must have meant.

DESPITE OBJECTION FROM NEW HEADMISTRESS, MINERVA MCGONAGALL, MINISTRY INSISTS ON HOGWARTS CLOSING FOR ONE YEAR—MINISTRY OFFICIALS CITE UNSAFE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT AND NUMEROUS CONCERNS FROM PARENTS OF CURRENT AND PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS—NEW HEAD OF DEPARTMENT OF MAGICAL LAW ENFORCEMENT, PRUNELLIA YEATS, RUMORED TO BE BEHIND DECISION—

“They can’t,” Harry said loudly, setting his cup down so hard he rattled the plates. “They can’t, can they?”

Bill shook his head, mouth tight. “I heard people talking about it a few weeks ago but I never thought they’d actually go through with it. Hogwarts has never closed down.”

“Unsafe learning environment, my arse,” Harry spat, glaring down at the paper. “The castle was rebuilding itself before we even left. There’s no way it isn’t all fixed by now. And if McGonagall says it’s safe, it’s safe.” Real anger rippled through him for the first time in months. “I get letting kids stay home with their families if that’s what they want but to shut down the school?”

“It’s stupid,” Fleur said sharply, her accent turning the words sharp and deep. “Our ministry tried the same thing after the Second World War and it was horrible. It nearly crippled the school, we lost so many students, so many children got left behind who never managed to catch up.”

“Exactly! What’s the point?” Harry asked. “I mean, if anything kids need to see Hogwarts how it used to be, before Voldemort. They need to know Hogwarts is still there for them, that it wasn’t lost to the war. Shutting it down for a year will make it that much harder for everyone who does go back.”

Hogwarts was supposed to be a refuge, a place where kids could go who didn’t have anywhere else to go, where they could learn and grow and figure themselves out. To just…take that away…

Harry realized with a sick tightness in his throat that while he had never said so out loud, he’d been planning on going back. In the months since the last battle, the thought had formed without fanfare as he quietly decided he wasn’t ready to go into a career yet. And now that he was thinking about it, he felt like he’d left something behind. In the aftermath of the battle and the weird numbness of the last few months he had been able to ignore it and think about other things. Now that the option was gone he felt like he’d been thrust out over a cliff, like he was falling without anyone to catch him.

If he couldn’t go back to Hogwarts, what the hell was he supposed to do?

“Hey, Harry?”

Harry blinked, unclenched his hand from around the paper. He only then registered that Bill had said his name a few times, trying to get his attention.

Bill was watching him with a tightness to his eyes. “It’s not forever, right? Hogwarts will open again.”

“Yeah, I know.” Harry scowled down at the remnants of his breakfast, the half-eaten porridge and summer melon salad, his stomach turning unpleasantly. “I know.” He exhaled and rose, trying not to shove his chair. “I’m gonna…go for a walk. I’ll be back to help with the garden later.”

“You don’t have to help, Harry,” Fleur said gently, tilting her head with a soft smile. “I like the company but I don’t need—”

“It’s okay,” Harry said, trying to smile. “I just need to clear my head.”

He felt their stares on the back of his neck as he made his way down to the water.

It made sense, he tried to tell himself, throwing stones into the waves, walking barefoot along the wet sand and rocks. The frigid temperature helped his mind to clear, the salt and the cold air coming off the ocean making it easier to breathe.

Hogwarts had been turned into a war zone. Maybe it was better for everyone to take a year to heal. Maybe everyone else would rather be somewhere else, with their families.

He swallowed down the tight knot in his throat, blinking against the wind, the warmth building behind his eyes.

Right. Kids should be with their families, shouldn’t they? They should be with the people they love and who love them.

Harry spent longer than he meant to out on the beach, tossing stones until his feet were numb and his eyes burned from the wind and nothing else.

The next week passed slowly as Harry desperately tried to hold on to the sense of peace he’d been able to find out here on the edge of everything. But he had known it would fade, known it would eventually spoil and leave him unmoored again, slip through his fingers and eddy through the air until he could only stare at the empty sky.

A few days before his birthday—after repeating for the umpteenth time to Molly through Shell Cottage’s floo that he didn’t want a party, that he appreciated the gesture, but he just wanted something quiet, a drink in a pub with a few friends and nothing more, she’d finally let it go, to Harry’s immense relief—he was surprised by the extra voice he heard in the kitchen when he came in from his dusk stroll. That in and of itself wouldn’t be a cause for alarm—Bill and Fleur had people over every now and again.

“—doesn’t know anything?” Bill was saying, voice low and hard. “He’s been more than cooperative up until now. Maybe he could talk to them, get them to explain—”

“I don’t like it,” a deep, vibrational voice cut through the window, making Harry hesitate.

That was Kingsley’s voice.

Harry hadn’t seen the Minister for Magic since the week after the battle, when he had gripped Harry’s shoulder tight and thanked him, giving him a sad but warm smile. It had been nice. Harry had always liked Kingsley. It made him a hell of a lot more willing to trust the Ministry for choosing someone he knew had the best intentions. Once he’d taken office, though, he had necessarily not been around much anymore. If Bill and Arthur were overworked, Kingsley must be run ragged.

“No, I don’t think so, Bill. You’re right, he’s been cooperating, but I don’t know if his goodwill reaches that far. I don’t want to push and scare him. He’s too much of an asset to lose right now while we’re still trying to round up the rest of Voldemort’s followers. Maybe, once we know more about what happened…”

“Vinnick’s still out?”

Kingsley made a soft sound of confirmation.

“What the hell were those kids playing at? How’d they even find an Anilex Orb?”

“I don’t know. I would have said from one of their families but all three homes were raided within days of the last battle. Something that dark would have been spotted, even if it was hidden.”

Bill cursed under his breath. Through the window Harry could see him run a hand through his hair, shorter now than it used to be but still long enough to make Molly’s eye twitch every time she looked at him. “Fifteen. Bloody hell.”

“Ravenna Lamar was only fourteen.”

“And we have no clue who…”

“No.” Kingsley’s tone went hard, causing the hair on the back of Harry’s neck to rise. “Believe me, when I find out who was using lethal spell-work in that firefight, I will put them behind bars myself. There was no reason to use a Killing Curse, I don’t care what that girl was doing.”

Harry’s whole body went cold. Ravenna Lamar. He had heard that name before…and fourteen? She must have been a student at Hogwarts but he couldn’t…

A seagull startled him as it landed on the roof of the cottage, making him jerk to the side a bit and send a stone rolling down the hill. He wasn’t trying to hide or listen in but he knew Bill and Kingsley would stop if he announced himself. Bill and Fleur might not walk on eggshells around him but Bill definitely tried to keep talk about the Ministry to a minimum. Harry had appreciated it before, not wanting to hear about what a colossal mess it must still be so soon after Voldemort’s death.

Now, though, with the trials coming up in a few weeks and Harry’s momentary respite ending, Harry didn’t want to be kept in the dark anymore. Not where the Ministry was concerned.

Especially not if they were killing fourteen-year-old kids.

Kingsley’s large shadow passed over the window, nearly close enough to see Harry eavesdropping on this conversation. Harry pressed his back against the cottage, reminding himself of the summer he had been forced to hide in the bushes to listen to the news through the Dursleys’ open living room window. From his angle he could see Kingsley’s face. He looked tired. The beginnings of grey were showing at his temples. He stared through the window, his gaze hard. He seemed to scan the area, settling on a patch of grass close to where Harry had just been standing.

Harry held his breath.

“And the other two?” Bill asked.

Kingsley waited, his jaw clenching before he said slowly, “Yeats wants to send them to Azkaban. I’ve been negotiating her down.”

“Azkaban? Kingsley, they’re kids.”

“I know, Bill. I’m trying. It’s…” Kingsley sighed, closing his eyes. “Geraldine White and Bradford Belmont initiated an unprovoked attack on aurors. They put Vinnick in St. Mungo’s. I don’t have a lot of ledge to walk on, here, especially not right now.” He hesitated, something in his expression tightening. “I can only go so far before the Wizengamot replaces me.”

“They wouldn’t.”

“Of course they would. You and I both know this guilt of theirs is only going to last so long. I took the job because I want to make sure the next person to hold this office doesn’t inherit any of this mess. I can’t do that if I step on too many toes. I can’t help if I’m not in the room. You know that, or you would have gone back to Gringotts. We need people inside, Bill, to make sure the last of Voldemort’s influence is gone.”

There was the sound of a glass being set down gently on a table. A silence Harry could feel even outside the house.

Kingsley turned from the window, walking out of Harry’s sight line. “So,” he started, his voice softer, “how’s our boy doing?”

Harry felt himself tense all over, staring down at the ground and willing himself to walk away. He didn’t want to hear other people talking about him. He didn’t want to know what they thought of him, especially not when it sounded like this was a recurring conversation.

But his feet were rooted to the sandy grass as he strained to listen.

“Bout the same,” Bill said after a while. “Maybe a little better. Hard to tell with Harry. Sometimes I think he’s fine and then…” He trailed off. In what was left unsaid, Harry found himself filling in the blanks.

Harry was fine and then he wasn’t? Then he went off or freaked out or grew cold?

“I don’t blame him. None of us are all right but Harry… It fell on him more than anyone else, in the end. I still don’t know how he did it,” Bill added, a frown in his voice. “That kind of magic…can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it.”

“I don’t think anyone knows what Harry did that day. Albus might have. He told me what happened the night Voldemort returned but I don’t think it was anywhere near as powerful as what we saw. Albus said more than once that Harry was singularly equipped to fight Voldemort. Maybe this was what he was talking about.”

Harry’s mind flared with anger. Yeah. Of course Dumbledore had said that. It wasn’t even a lie. Power the Dark Lord knows not, wasn’t it? And Kingsley had trusted him, just like Remus had trusted him, just like all of them.

Just like Harry.

“Maybe it’s better we don’t know,” Kingsley said quietly. “Has he said anything—”

“No, course not,” Bill muttered. “Not to me, anyway.”

Another silence leaked out of the window toward Harry, flowing into his nose and down his throat as he struggled to remain silent. Heart beating in his ears. Hands clenched at his sides.

“The boy’s always been special.”

Special.

That was a word for it.

“I just wish there was something…” Bill said quietly. “I can’t help but feel like he’s drifting away and we’re all just watching. It’s all I can do to keep my parents from dragging him back and locking him in the Burrow, but I don’t think he likes it here much more. Thought it might do him good to give him some space. Fleur and I have tried but…”

Harry’s chest constricted painfully. He should leave. He didn’t want to hear this.

Bill sighed heavily. “You have any luck on Hogwarts?”

Kingsley grunted. “No. And I can’t say I disagree, Bill. Going back to the place where you watched your friends die seems like too much to ask.”

Bill didn’t answer over the sound of cups touching wood, the soft scrape of a chair.

“Harry’s been fighting this war since he was baby,” Kingsley said. “You don’t come through something like that unscathed. Give him time.” His voice raised, sounding more sure. “He’s the only one who knows what he needs. Until then, just being there for him is probably the only thing we can do. Mind passing on the message that I’m around, if he ever needs to talk?”

“Of course.” The creak of wood and the sound of footsteps announced their departure from the kitchen. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay for dinner? You could talk to him yourself.”

“I don’t want to impose.”

Harry listened until he was sure they were out of the kitchen. He leaned against the cottage and sank down to sit in the grass.

Ravenna Lamar. Fourteen. She had been killed by aurors. He didn’t know what an Anilex Orb was but no matter how dark or powerful—she was fourteen.

The same age he was when Voldemort came back, when he watched Cedric get murdered. Had the other two—Geraldine White and Bradford Belmont—seen her go down? Had they watched her die?

Belmont. He knew a Belmont.

He was a chaser on the Slytherin team when Harry was in sixth year. He was young but he was good. Harry remembered thinking he would turn into a great player one day, despite his natural aversion to anyone who came from Slytherin. Harry tried to construct an image of the kid but he couldn’t remember anything other than a head of black hair and the lanky limbs of a boy coming off his first growth spurt.

They were all from Slytherin, now he thought about it. Geraldine White—Gobstones Club, wasn’t it? And Ravenna Lamar had been serving detention once when Harry had tried to corner Slughorn about the horcruxes. Short brown hair with big eyes, freckled.

Fourteen.

She had been fourteen.

Harry rose when he heard Bill come back into the kitchen. He said nothing about what he’d heard as he sat in silence through dinner. He didn’t even know if there was anything he had to say. His brain seemed to have stalled, stuck on the image of that girl on the ground, eyes blank, just like Cedric’s had been.

 

 

If his nightmares had been bad before, they were even worse now.

He would wake sweating to indistinct faces flickering in front of him through a cloud of sparks and smoke. Ravenna Lamar would be lying there on the ground of a forest with blood coming out of her mouth, only for her to shift into Lavender Brown on the floor in the Great Hall, unmoving, arms at an odd angle, to Colin and Denis Creevey, Colin’s camera smashed and all the parts scattered to form a picture of Harry before the ground shook and it broke apart. Kids would be screaming around him, aurors flooding in on all sides before they morphed into death eaters.

And Harry could do nothing to save them. He kept trying to throw himself in front of the curses, to cut open his own chest and pull out his heart, but he could barely move. He was trapped, watching his fellow students die from the curses of tall shadows all around him.

As a result, he wasn’t sleeping much.

Four days after Kingsley’s visit, Harry left Shell Cottage, kipping on Ron’s couch in his newly bought and very independent, thank you very much, flat in London. Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes was booming and George had brought him on as a full partner at the end of June. Ron, as he explained to Harry in minute, excruciating detail, had been saving up money and scouting the city for the perfect place. He had decked his flat out with entirely new furnishings, opting for a Scandinavian style that made Harry feel like he shouldn’t touch anything because it was so sleek and clean. It was aggressively ‘minimalist,’ apparently, which was very on trend. Whatever the bloody hell that meant. Harry just nodded along every time Ron started talking about his new Modern Aesthetic, happy for his friend, knowing what it meant for Ron to have his own space. Spending time with Ron was like a shot of fire-whiskey and Harry rode the high as long as he could.

He was not so happy when Ron unceremoniously kicked him out two days after his birthday—a quiet affair with Bill, Fleur, Ron, George, and Angelina. Harry had worried someone might think it odd that Ginny wasn’t with them but no one brought it up. Harry didn’t question it, he was just relieved he didn’t have to explain anything yet.

“Hermione’s getting back this week and look, mate, I love you,” he said as he took Harry by the shoulders and adopted a stoic, pitying expression, like Harry was a needy child, “but she’s my girlfriend now and I haven’t seen her in two months. So I can’t have you sleep-mumbling in the other room while—” Harry had shrugged him off at this point, threatening one of his many chrome balls Ron liked to call ‘art’ if he so much as hinted at what he and Hermione were going to do that required him to be gone.

It’s not like Harry didn’t understand. He just didn’t like being reminded of the fact that his two best friends were in love and he was…decidedly not. He was thrilled for them. Really. He just wished he was better able to appreciate it.

Problem was, the idea of going back to Grimmauld Place until the trials started up was about as enticing as the prospect of listening to his two best friends fuck. It was the only place he could store all his stuff, though, so he’d made a go of it. He tried to sleep there his first night alone—he even made himself have a pleasant conversation with Kreacher about all the work he had done to fix the place up, so he was, trying—but he ended up just sitting in Sirius’s old room, listening to records and thumbing through photo albums and ticket stubs, letters stuffed into the bottom of drawers. He found a whole chest of clothes hidden behind a false wall in his closet, band t-shirts and ratty jumpers and pants that had so many holes in them he struggled to think why Sirius hadn’t just chucked them. He stopped when he found a black leather jacket, running his thumb over the initials stitched into the collar—S.C.B.—only to realize he’d never known Sirius’s middle name.

And though Kreacher had made more headway into ridding the place of its grimy dimness than Harry would have ever thought possible, he couldn’t shake the memory of Sirius trapped in here alone for almost a year before he died. That sleepless night was the first time in nearly three months that Harry regretted losing the Resurrection Stone. He had sat there in the flickering light of a candle and his own wand and felt the house looming in on him like it was just as lonely and desperate as he was.

He was out before the sun rose, waking a very disgruntled Ron the morning Hermione was due back to ask how he’d bought his flat. Before lunch he took the first place the agent showed him—a small two-bedroom on the top floor of a wizards-only building one street over from St. Andrew’s Gardens. Flustered and still doing a poor job of not ogling Harry’s scar, the agent asked if he wanted to purchase something called the All-Inclusive Furnishings Package. Harry was barely listening, so he just nodded and agreed, anything to hurry the whole business along so he didn’t think too hard about the fact that he was buying a flat, his own bloody flat, because he’d had a bad night in the mansion he also owned. He signed the papers, took the keys, accepted control of the wards, and she was gone.

When the noon bells sounded over London, Harry was standing in the middle of an empty flat, the entirety of which belonged to him.

It was nice too, well-kept with a lot of light, a window seat in the kitchen, a clawfoot tub, pleasantly scuffed wooden floors the color of caramel. It was small but once upon a time it would have been unthinkable to the little boy who had been locked in a cupboard with only spiders for company. It creaked in a homey way. There were little sanded-down ticks on the corner of the hallway wall, measurements of the children who had lived here before him. He even had a walk-out which was apparently weather-proofed for anything barring large hail or hurricane-force winds. The agent had told him it was a good place for a plant. If he fancied himself a hobby.

He had never had any hobbies before. Quidditch didn’t count. All he had done at the Dursleys was cook and clean and pretend not to exist. At Hogwarts he’d just had school. He didn’t think constantly trying to survive counted as a hobby, either, even though the majority of his life had been spent doing just that. The idea of free time was foreign and weird and it made him feel all empty down at the bottom of his stomach.

He rooted through the box the agent had left him, realizing the package was actually a bunch of shrunken furniture, to find something to sit on. Picking at random a little red armchair, he released the enchantment and sort of tossed it in front of him, wincing when it made a loud thud on the shabby floors.

And then Harry had a chair. Now he was sitting in the middle of an empty flat.

He hadn’t even made a dent in his inheritance from Sirius or his parents. Granted, he didn’t actually know how much he was worth now, because every time he thought about checking he remembered that most of it came from his dead parents and his dead godfather. The idea of quantifying their deaths put a bad taste in his mouth, for some reason. The Blacks were flush in that old blood money way and it wasn’t like Sirius had spent much after getting out of Azkaban. As far as Harry knew, the only big purchase he’d made had been Harry’s Firebolt. So there was an indeterminate amount of money currently sitting in Gringotts and all he knew was that when he made withdrawals none of the goblins tried to kick him out. Which, frankly, was surprising, because he was pretty sure they knew exactly who had broken into the Lestrange vault. So either they had decided to forgive him in a rare change of character, or he had so much money they didn’t want him to take his business elsewhere.

Also, to make matters worse, apparently the twins, before Fred’s death, had secretly brought him on as the principle investor of the shop, opened a vault for him connected to his parents’ and he was now making a very small percentage of their earnings. Even so, the shop was so successful and his holdings at Gringotts had swelled so quickly over the year or so since the twins had roped him in, they had upgraded him to a different, more secure vault. One which was apparently deep enough down in the caverns that they informed him he would need to send word if he wanted to visit it himself, because they would need to prepare an escort—this only confirmed the fact that they knew exactly what he had done. But they didn’t care. Because he had too much money now. Which was insane.

The reality of his life became too much to deal with, sitting there in his own chair in his own flat with no one expecting him anywhere, just—living. As a person. Instead of marinating in his own numbing thoughts, he locked up, fortified the existing wards and layered on a few he’d used when he was on the run with Hermione and Ron, realizing after that there was nothing inside of value since the majority of his things were split between Grimmauld Place, the Burrow, and Shell Cottage, and went for a drink at the Leaky Cauldron. This turned out to be bloody stupid, because the moment he stepped inside he was swarmed by well-wishers and grateful witches and wizards who began crying and telling him about all the people they had lost in the war, as if Harry wanted to know. He managed to drink one pint over the course of an hour before he finally bailed, having to duck out the back door and sprint down the street before a group of old men tried to get him to sing another rendition of Odo the Hero.

After that, he didn’t try to go out anymore. Not in Wizarding London, anyway.

One benefit he hadn’t even realized of having his own place now was that he owned a fireplace and could floo whenever he liked. Setting it up was a bit of a hassle and he nearly burnt all his hair off the first two times he tried to use it but he hadn’t needed to bother Ron so he thought he’d done well. And it’s not like his hair couldn’t handle a bit of a singe anyway. So he spent the week leading up to the trials wandering around Muggle London, halving his time between aimlessly trying to fill the hours and visiting Andromeda Tonks and Teddy Lupin.

He began dropping in by floo nearly every day once he realized Andromeda spent most of her time in the house unable to leave because she had no one to look after Teddy. He offered to sit with him any time she needed to pop out. It led to a few close calls—Teddy nearly got stuck in the toilet their first afternoon alone. After that he shredded a few shirts and proceeded to wail like a banshee when Harry took the eviscerated remnants away. By the third day, Harry came to accept that he had no idea what to do with children and he probably never would, so he should just stop freaking out every time the kid hiccuped.

It was heartbreaking, the first few times, to look down into Teddy’s eyes and see Remus staring back up at him. It helped that the boy’s hair kept changing color and length every hour, shooting down to his knees as he crawled across Andromeda’s worn plaid rug, only to reverse back up into his head when he sat down.

“Dora was just like him when she was his age,” Andromeda told him over tea one day in the sunny kitchen of her small cottage outside of Oxford. She had moved after the war, telling him quietly on his first visit that she couldn’t handle the memories in the old house all on her own.

He smiled down at Teddy, who seemed determined to entirely soak the stuffed elephant Harry had bought for him with his own saliva. “I keep thinking he’s gonna grow another arm or something.”

Andromeda laughed, a full-bodied sound that made him wonder, sometimes, how in the world she’d grown up with Bellatrix and Narcissa. She seemed so much warmer. Even if there was a certain haughtiness to her person, it didn’t feel superior. She might look exactly like Bellatrix but she couldn’t be more different.

“Thankfully, metamorphmagi are not able to change their body shape too much. Can you imagine? Babies are enough of a handful. He likes to get heavier when it’s bath time, though. I swear, he gains four stone every time he hears the water running.”

Harry grinned. “You’re a little bastard, aren’t you?”

Teddy blinked up at him, warm brown eyes slowly shifting to Harry’s own bright emerald. When he smiled Harry felt a little like the kid had reached into his chest and squeezed his bloody heart.

Later, when he was helping wash up and Teddy had finally deigned to lay down for a nap, he felt Andromeda’s gaze on his cheek. He let it go for a while, sensing it was the kind of look that came with a heavy conversation, but he couldn’t hold out forever. When he finally did look, the expression on her face made him stop cold.

Sometimes, he was wrong about the family resemblance.

It was so similar to Narcissa’s, down to the way her lips were pursed on the left, how her eyes held him like she could see right through him, his palm slipped on the knife he was cleaning.

“Bollocks,” he muttered. “Er, sorry. I didn’t—”

Andromeda reached over and took his hand, dragging her thumb over the cut on Harry’s palm. “Episkey,” she murmured. Her hands were remarkably steady and the magic that washed into him was soft and warm.

Tonks must have learned the spell from her.

“Don’t apologize about swearing in front of me,” she said with a small smile, wiping the residual blood from his palm. “I’d prefer if you didn’t do it in front of Teddy, at least until he’s older.”

“Right,” Harry laughed, a little breathless, staring down at her hands, the wedding band she still wore. “Yeah, of course. You’re—really good at that,” he added, a small amount of anxiety kicking up in his chest.

Her lips twitched again. “I used to be a healer at St. Mungo’s.”

“Really?”

“A long time ago. I decided to stay home once Nymphadora was born but I still know a thing or two. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how useful it is when you’re constantly running after a child who seems determined to run headfirst into everything they see.”

He looked up and met her gaze. Dark like Bellatrix where Narcissa had lighter, more grey eyes. Like Malfoy, his mind supplied unhelpfully. With a jolt he realized that Malfoy was related to Andromeda, that he was her nephew. He had killed her sister.

He wondered if Andromeda knew…but she must have found out. Surely someone had told her. Probably the same day she learned Tonks and Remus had died.

He forced himself back to the present. It might be hard to see the resemblance to her sisters when she was laughing but sometimes he felt like he was staring into the same face reflected three times, all of them complicating until he was unsure what to feel.

Right now, though, all he felt was a little nervous.

“I’ve loved having you here, Harry, so don’t take this as me warning you off,” she started gently, “but I wonder… Why are you spending so much time with an old woman and a toddler? You’re eighteen. Don’t you have something more exciting to do? You’ve got your own flat, don’t you? You should be spending time with friends, surely.”

He tried to smile. “I think you have the wrong idea about my life. Believe me. It’s not that exciting.” He finished drying the plate, putting it down slowly so it didn’t clank with the slight tremble in his hand. “I want to be here for him,” he finally said, softly. “I know I won’t—I’m not trying to interfere, and if this is overstepping, shove me out on my arse and I’ll leave you alone but…” He swallowed, the growing warmth in Andromeda’s eyes almost unbearable. “I want you to know that I take this—being Teddy’s godfather—seriously. So however you want me in his life, that’s fine. I just…”

His tangled mess of thoughts was impossible to unwind—how he knew what it was like to grow up with no parents, no idea of where you came from except for pictures and other peoples’ memories, how lonely and horrible it was to think you had no one to turn to, no one who would be there for you if you needed it, no matter what. He couldn’t bear the thought of any kid experiencing that, especially not Teddy, who, in his biased opinion, might be the best toddler in all of England.

“Remus and Tonks—” He started again, eyes burning. “Remus and Nymphadora trusted me enough to ask that I look out for him, if they couldn’t. That means a lot to me. I know I won’t be around all the time, and I don’t need to be, because frankly I’m the least qualified person to do anything so important as raise a child and I’d probably mess it up if I was here too often, but I want him to know I am here, and as much as I can be, I—”

Andromeda took his hand, folding it in both of hers and holding it tight. She looked down but not before Harry caught the tear rolling down her cheek.

“Oh, my dear,” she said, somewhat choked up, “you sweet boy. Of course you can. I just didn’t want you to feel obligated. You’re so young. I’m—I’m so happy to raise Teddy, but I wouldn’t want you to feel guilty for not taking care of a child when you’re barely more than that.”

He laughed. “No. Not at all. It’s not an obligation. Really. Maybe I thought it would have been before I met the kid but he’s brilliant.” He wanted to hug her, or thank her, or—something. Their only connection was the little boy sleeping in the other room but he couldn’t help but feel like he could do more to comfort her. Like he owed it to Tonks, to Sirius, to Teddy, even. “I know what it’s like to grow up without a family. I don’t want Teddy to ever feel like that.”

Her face twisted in what looked like a forced smile, her eyes still shiny. “Thank you, Harry.” She patted him on the cheek, the gesture so motherly it twisted something deep and long-neglected inside him. “And while I know it’s not for me, having you around the house this week has been—well, it’s been wonderful to have someone else to talk to, frankly.”

Harry grinned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Teddy can’t seem to shut up.”

Her hand lingered on Harry’s cheek as she studied him. They stood in silence for a while. Harry kept looking into her eyes expecting to see someone else looking back at him. But it was just her. Just Andromeda Tonks. A woman who had lost her husband and daughter, a woman whose family had turned their backs on her. Someone else without a family.

“If you do ever need to get out,” he started, feeling a little awkward, “I’m sure Fleur would love to have you.”

She blinked. “Bill Weasley’s wife?”

“Yeah. They’ve got a cottage outside Tinworth, in Cornwall. It’s on the coast. Right next to the sea. It’s really beautiful, if you ever want to take Teddy on a holiday or something.”

“Oh, I’m sure a young married couple wouldn’t want me crowding them out.”

“I was just there for about a month. If they tolerated me, they’d love you. Fleur might steal Teddy once she gets her hands on him, though, so maybe it’s not such a good idea.”

Andromeda looked skeptical but she was saved the bother of responding by said toddler announcing he was awake by making a noise that lived somewhere between an owl hooting and a honking goose.

 

 

The day before the trials started Harry got a television, because he couldn’t think what else to do.

He couldn’t walk around outside anymore—too many people were recognizing him now. His second day out, crossing through Piccadilly Square, a wizard had actually grabbed and stopped him and attempted to regale Harry about his own monumental efforts to stop the war. Harry had needed to shove him off or get hit by a muggle bus. He had even spotted someone who might have been hiding in the bushes outside his building. It had been fine when he was out with other people. Potential gawkers tended to leave him alone when he was with friends but for some reason every bloody witch and wizard in London seemed to want his autograph or their hand shaken or to tell him about someone they had lost in the war. After the first few days, the photographers had started showing up and stalking him and Harry had had quite enough of being photographed to last a lifetime. Whatever that meant when it came to him.

He considered more than once just putting the invisibility cloak on but it seemed like some kind of surrender, so he just stopped going out.

Feeling like an idiot, he contacted the woman who sold him the flat and made sure she wasn’t sharing his address with anyone. When she assured him that all of the other tenants were under the same magically binding contract which prohibited any of them from sharing any of their names or addresses, he felt slightly better.

Ron and Hermione were too busy to answer their floo, doing something he tried hard not to think about. George was working and Harry couldn’t even pop down and help because every time he so much as offered, the mannequins started lopping him over the head with umbrellas. Everyone else was due to arrive in the next few days for preliminary questioning. He was the only one called in for the full week before the trials started.

Even bored out of his mind, he didn’t think he wanted be around anyone else. A weird, jittery tension had worked its way into his brain and he didn’t think he would be able to carry out a normal conversation, even with Ron and Hermione. So he bought a television, managed to hook up a line to the next door building so he could steal their cable, and watched television for the first time in nearly five years. He spent a few hours trying hard to pay attention to a program about an alien who flew around in a police box and dressed like his uncle on a golfing holiday—in fact he was pretty sure he had seen the very same beige jacket and paisley scarf in the Dursleys’ front hall closet when he was younger. He still didn’t understand Dudley’s obsession with the thing. After a while he started getting antsy and he had to force himself not to pace around his new, still mostly empty, flat.

Predictably, he only slept a few scant minutes the night before he was summoned, leaving him feeling like a poorly buttered piece of toast.

He left twenty minutes sooner than he meant to, tired and irritable, in the cheap suit and robes he’d bought on Andromeda’s recommendation, his hair as tame as he could make it. It was probably too long but he wasn’t about to try cutting it himself and show up to the Ministry with great chunks of hair missing. His hair grew back fast but not that fast.

The stupid thing was that there was no reason to be nervous. He was just answering questions. He wasn’t accused of anything, he didn’t need to defend himself. He was going to the Ministry for the first time as an actual guest, not someone wanted for performing underage magic. There was no pressing matter of life and death which needed to be resolved. He was a witness. That was all. He might not even need to testify in front of the full council.

He didn’t stop to think about what lay under his nerves—some part of him recycling the same images of Ravenna Lamar, his imaginary version of her, anyway, dead with her big, lifeless eyes staring up at him.

He still felt like a complete ass when he stepped out of the floo in a coughing fit. The huge black atrium was just as polished and clean as it had been the last time he was here, though there were less propaganda posters hanging on the wall. Just as imposing and official. It was still packed with witches and wizards going about their day, but there was something hushed about it all, like someone had cast muffliato over the whole place.

It occurred to Harry as people started staring that he had no idea where he was supposed to go. Presumably to level nine and the courtrooms but he didn’t know if he needed to check in somewhere, or let someone know he was here—

“Harry!”

Harry let out a relieved laugh as he caught sight of Bill on the other side of the atrium, hand raised. Percy was there too, looking somewhat awkward but smiling as Harry crossed through the crowd, the number of people stopping and staring starting to cause little traffic jams as people rubbernecked when they caught sight of him.

“Don’t you look snappy,” Bill said with a grin. “Dunno if I’ve ever seen you in a full piece before.”

He was in a decidedly nicer suit and robes, though he had left the tie out and looked about ten times more at ease than his brother, who was wearing official-looking black and white Ministry robes. But that was hardly fair, as Bill always looked cool and polished. If he didn’t like Bill so much he would find it frustrating.

“I wore a suit to your wedding.”

“You also wore someone else’s face, to be fair.”

Harry frowned. “Should I have worn something else? I figured—”

“He’s joking, Harry,” Percy said with a tight smile. “You look perfectly respectable.”

“Thanks, Percy,” Harry said after a moment.

Harry hadn’t seen much of Percy that summer. Once at Fred’s funeral and then again one night when George had forced him to join them all for a drink. He still didn’t know quite how to feel about Percy but he was glad Percy seemed just as uncomfortable as he was.

Bill, unflappable as always, pulled Harry in for a one-armed hug and walked him down toward the lifts. “So, you’ve got all informal interviews today. Not sure who exactly you’re being asked about, but I think they’re trying to spread the questionings out, to cover as much ground as they can before they decide on the formal charges. Which is probably why they want you here every day this week.”

“Right. Sure.” Harry stopped himself from loosening his tie when an old witch with violently red hair actually walked backwards to gawp at him. “Don’t I get to know who’s questioning me?”

Percy said, “The Ministry has decided to ask for outside help, with officials from America, France, and Germany to assist in the hearings, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t know any of them. Unfortunately,” Percy hesitated, eyes going hard, “most of the higher ups were killed during Voldemort’s take over, and of those who remained, many of them are themselves being tried.”

“I can see why you might need outside help,” Harry said, frowning as they walked past the fountain. There was no statue now. Maybe they had realized that anything they could come up with would be offensive to somebody. Harry privately agreed but it did make the atrium look bare and bigger.

“It’s been a nightmare, to tell you the truth, but,” Percy cleared his throat, “well, that’s war for you.”

“Percy’s been handling a lot of the finer details,” Bill said, nodding in greeting with a warning smile to a few people in bright green robes who stopped and pointed at Harry. “He’s one of the only people in the administration who stayed on and isn’t on trial.”

Harry tried not to look surprised. “I thought you resigned?”

“I did,” Percy said. “They asked me back. Figured I could try to undo some of my own mistakes.” He stopped rather abruptly in front of the lift. If people hadn’t already been moving around them like water around a boulder, he might have caused a pile up. With an air of hard-earned determination, he turned to Harry and said stiffly, “I owe you an apology, Harry.”

Harry blinked, startled.

“It’s long overdue, I know, but you’ll have to forgive me, because I am, as it turns out, something of a coward. A dense coward, at that.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Harry caught Bill’s sad smile. “I… It’s okay, Percy—”

“It’s not. I was an ass. I should never have doubted—” He cleared his throat, face going red and splotchy. “I’ve always known you to be an honorable chap, with a good heart. Now I know you’re more than that. You’re a bloody hero. I know my brother Ron is alive because of you and I can only guess what might have happened to the rest of my family had you not—”

“Percy,” Harry said firmly, not sure if he was moved or just embarrassed, “it’s all right. We all make mistakes. People can change, can’t they? And you did it all on your own, so you don’t have to apologize to me. Only thing we can do is try to learn from our mistakes so we don’t make them again.”

God, I sound like Dumbledore.

His stomach did a feeble twist at that.

Percy stood there, looking if anything even more uncomfortable and guilty.

Harry patted him on the arm because it seemed like the right thing to do. He looked to Bill for help.

Mercifully, Bill tugged Percy gently into the lift, still smiling. Percy recovered impressively and started listing out the topics Harry might expect to be asked about with a zeal that seemed disproportionate to the subject matter.

“The important thing,” Percy said as they walked out into level nine, “is that you’re as thorough as you can be. You never know when some small detail might lead to a conviction, or a pardon.”

“Right. Thanks.”

Harry tried not to look toward the hall which led to the Department of Mysteries. Last time he’d been here, he was too focused on finding Umbridge to think much about what had happened beyond that door. Now, it felt like a magnet was tugging him toward that room with the fluttering veil and the slight whispering. The yawning empty space surrounding the pedestal which seemed to exist in another world. Sirius’s final resting place.

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. In spite of himself he chanced it.

It was just an empty hallway of black tile leading down to a black door but he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had just been watching him. There was a weird blank space in the air too but he didn’t know if that was his eyes adjusting to the dim light or—

“—pint after, yeah? Harry?”

Harry cleared his throat and turned back to Bill. “Sorry?”

“It’s all right.” Bill gave him a long look. “I just invited you out for drinks when this is done. Charlie’s in town for a few weeks and Ron and Hermione want to meet up at the Leaky Cauldron for supper.”

“Yeah, that sounds great.” Harry took a deep breath. “Probably’ll need that every night this week.”

Percy looked like he was trying hard not to say something stuffy, like Harry shouldn’t joke about getting sloshed while reporting to the Ministry about war crimes, but he kept quiet.

“Hey,” Bill said softly, gripping Harry’s shoulder, “you’re just answering questions, right? That’s all it is.”

“I know. I’ll be fine. Just,” he sighed, hands shoved into his pockets, “don’t have the best memories of this place.”

“If it helps,” Percy said quietly, “you’re not alone.”

Harry exhaled a laugh.

“Well. I’ve got to be going. I’m sure I’ll see you again this week, and if you need anything, Harry, don’t hesitate to ask.”

With a final tight smile, Percy nodded to his brother and moved back toward the lift.

“He didn’t have to walk me down here, did he?” Harry asked.

“No,” Bill said. “He wanted to, though. Dad would have joined but he’s out on a job right now. You’ve got a few well-meaning letters from my mum, too, so you can look forward to that when this is over.”

Harry groaned.

“I told you to reply sooner. You can’t let her build up steam or you’re going to start getting howlers.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You doing okay?”

Harry arched a brow at him. “Seriously?”

“Outside of all this,” Bill pulled his other hand out of his pocket and gestured, “are you doing okay? I realize this is a bloody nightmare but I haven’t heard much from you since you left Shell Cottage. Settling into London all right? I know Ron kicked you out, the little bastard.”

It took him a moment to find his voice. Bill was being genuine, he knew, but he couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed. Maybe it was just the conversation he had overheard between him and Kingsley but Harry had to fight the urge to frown.

He looked down, dragged the toe of his trainers along the white groove between black tiles. He should have bought nicer shoes. He had bought a bloody television but he hadn’t thought to buy shoes without holes in them. Brilliant, Harry. Just brilliant.

“I don’t know,” Harry said. “I feel…like I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.” He made himself look up and meet Bill’s knowing gaze. “I’m just hanging around waiting for someone to tell me what I’m allowed to do, I guess.”

He left out the part about never really thinking about this because he had always thought he would die as a child but he didn’t think Bill would appreciate the joke. Or maybe he would. Bill was good like that.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself.” Bill smiled gently. “You’re not the first eighteen-year-old wizard to have no fucking clue what he wants to do with his life. You’ve got time to figure it out, Harry.”

“That’s the problem,” he muttered. “Thanks, though. You’ve been—”

At the end of the hallway a door opened and a tall, thick man with white hair and a face hewn from granite stepped out and spotted Harry and Bill. “Mr. Potter.”

Harry straightened up. “Yes.”

The man nodded toward Bill and stepped back into the room.

Bill squeezed his shoulder and murmured, “Seven by the fountain, all right?”

“Right. Thanks, Bill,” Harry added as Bill stepped away.

Bill just grinned and winked, the effect somewhat lost in the scarring over his right cheek.

Harry took a deep breath and turned, trying not to grimace at the squeak of his trainers over the slick tile floor.

The room he walked into was small and well-lit. He had been picturing one of the large courtrooms where he had sat under the watchful eyes of fifty witches and wizards in plum robes—the whole Wizengamot in all their glory. This wasn’t cozy but it didn’t seem designed to intimidate him.

There were only three people waiting for him today, including the intimidating white-haired man who had summoned him. They sat at a large table with a tray of glasses, a silver carafe, and a jug.

“Mr. Potter,” the white-haired man said in his gravelly voice. “It’s a pleasure. Gawain Robards, Head of the Auror office.”

Harry stared, remembering vividly Rufus Scrimgeour mentioning Robards’s name when he was trying to tempt Harry into working with the Ministry. “Pleasure to meet you as well. Sir,” he added as an after thought.

“I’ve heard good things, Mr. Potter. Very good things. After this nasty business is done, feel free to visit my office any time you like. We’re in need of fresh blood and you’ve got a few fans there already, as well as a personal recommendation from the Minister for Magic himself.” Robards didn’t smile but his face seemed to lose its stony edge. “Shacklebolt was one of the best aurors I ever trained. If he says you’re good, you must be extraordinary.”

Harry had no idea how to respond to that but was saved the trouble by Robards gesturing to the open seat and the two other people waiting.

Kingsley had said he was good. That wasn’t nothing. The praise did a bit to ease his nerves.

“I’m sure one of the Weasleys told you we would be bringing in outside help to make sure there’s no bias going into these trials,” Robards said as he sat down. “Today is just a preliminary questioning. If I or my two colleagues decide the Wizengamot needs to hear your official testimony, we’ll ask you to stand in front of the full council.”

Harry nodded. “Of course, sir.”

One of the other two, a beautiful black woman with sleek hair and a warm smile, offered her hand, her eyes a lovely dark brown. “Faye Lorelai Kamau, Mr. Potter.” Her deep, slow accent was unmistakably American and her robes were colorful without being ostentatious, the cut of them rather more sharp and masculine than those worn by British witches in the Ministry. “I’m an auror here on behalf of MACUSA, to help you all get back on your feet.” Her smile sweetened. Harry had the unhelpful thought that she reminded him of Fleur. She had that effortlessly beautiful charm that made you want to help with whatever she needed. Did America have veelas too, or was he just freaking out for no reason? He was definitely staring for no reason.

“You’ve got quite a reputation back in the States,” she continued, mouth twitching. “I’m looking forward to getting to know the real you.”

“Great,” Harry said, hurriedly shaking her hand and adding, “pleasure to meet you, I mean, m’am.”

“Me too, sweetie,” she said with a raspy laugh. “You can relax a bit. You’re not on trial here.”

“Right. Thanks.”

The man to her left apparently did not agree, because he didn’t even rise to shake Harry’s hand. “Jean Chastel Proulx, Mr. Potter, from the French Ministry.”

Harry nodded as he took his seat, getting the distinct impression from Proulx that he had very little intention of letting Harry off easy. With thick black hair streaked with grey and impenetrable blue eyes so dark they might as well be black, sharp, aristocratic features marred by more than a few scars, and a lean frame which Harry guessed would unfold into an even greater height than Robards, the man looked like he would be just at home in an opera house or cage fight. There was even a scar running through the left side of his mouth, under the groomed mustache.

Proulx stared at him, through him. Harry felt his defenses rise. He knew that look. It was the same look Snape had worn for six years. Disdain mixed with boredom. Though, he wondered now how much of the latter had been real boredom and not just practiced apathy, with how much he hated Harry’s dad, and Harry, by extension.

Robards leaned forward, his bulk somehow looking bigger across the table. “We’ll start with your fellow students, if that’s all right, Potter.”

Harry swallowed tightly. “Of course.”

“It’s difficult, as most of the students at Hogwarts were underage when the Battle of Hogwarts occurred. Underage crimes are handled differently than those committed by wizards who are of age, although in this circumstance, so many of those of age had not yet completed their schooling. It puts us in an uncomfortable position of deciding who to charge with what, and what punishments fit which charges.”

Right. He would be talking about the kids his people arrested, then. Or maybe the one they had killed?

Stow it, he told himself, trying to keep his cool.

Harry did not comment that he knew that very well, having been nearly convicted of a crime while being underage, in this very building. Of course, back then he had been nearly thrown in jail just for conjuring a patronus in front of his cousin. The circumstances were a bit different.

But he didn’t say this either, because he was trying to cooperate. Like a good lad.

“Of the few who were of age, there are even fewer who have been put under surveillance and house arrest though we’re keeping tabs on them all. I’m going to ask you about the ones who are under direct suspicion of criminal acts. I’ll remind you that no matter what your relationships with your peers, this is part of a criminal investigation. Anything you withhold to protect one of them will only muddy the process, and we would like for this to move as swiftly as possible. Do you understand?”

Harry nodded, knowing already a few people who might come up first. Sure enough—

“What can you tell me about Draco Malfoy and his involvement with the Dark Lord or any of his followers?”

Malfoy’s name made his stomach knot. He had thought about the git more than he would have liked over the summer, unable to forget that horrible expression on his face the last time Harry had seen him.

But he was here to be honest, not to air old grudges. So.

“He’s Lucius Malfoy’s son. He took the dark mark the summer before our sixth year at Hogwarts.”

“And how do you know that?” Robards asked.

Harry hesitated. It was one thing to explain to people who understood his dynamic with Malfoy that he had assumed right away he was doing something wrong and then obsessively watched him the rest of the year, another to tell that to professional law enforcement officers. He had a feeling Robards might not buy the I just had a gut feeling justification. “I…had a suspicion Malfoy—ah, Draco, had been accepted by Voldemort between our fifth and sixth year and made a fully fledged death eater, due to—my own observations.”

Robards stared at him, eyes narrowing.

“We—we’ve never been on the best of terms,” Harry said quickly, embarrassed to have to explain a stupid childhood rivalry. “I’ve known his father was a death eater since the night Voldemort returned, and Draco had never exactly been quiet about his family’s—darker inclinations. I noticed he was acting strange on the Hogwarts Express and over the course of the year came to be understand he was working on something for Voldemort.”

“And do you know the nature of what he was working on?”

The image of Dumbledore sliding down the wall, Malfoy’s wand shaking as he broke down in fear, made his hands clench. “I do. He was—tasked to kill Albus Dumbledore.”

Robards nodded but Kamau frowned. “Sorry—how old were you both at this time?”

“Sixteen.”

Her eyes widened, something hard flashing in them. “The Dark Lord asked a sixteen-year-old boy to kill one of the most powerful wizards in this country?”

“I was younger than that the first time I fought him.” His voice came out hard, the words said before he realized what they must sound like. “He didn’t much care, funnily enough.”

Kamau just watched him, mouth tightening.

“How much younger?” Proulx asked, interest sparking in his eyes.

“That depends. I was one when he killed my parents to get to me, then he tried again when I was eleven. Had a few nice years there where he left me alone, then he tried again when I was fourteen and fifteen. After that it was any time he got the chance, really.”

“And you held him at bay?” Proulx’s eyebrow arched. “Impressive.”

“If you say so,” Harry said, disliking the way there was something amused in his blue eyes.

“Returning to Draco Malfoy,” Robards said, his voice flat, “you say he was tasked to kill Albus Dumbledore. Do you know why?”

“I’m not sure, that is—I think Professor Dumbledore suspected Voldemort chose Malfoy—Draco,” Harry added, frowning, “to punish his father, for being caught and arrested at the battle which took place a year before. Here. In the Department of Mysteries.” He swallowed the painful knot in his throat. “I don’t think he ever expected Draco to succeed. I think he always meant for—Severus Snape to be the one who killed him.”

“Severus Snape did kill Albus Dumbledore,” Robards said.

“He did.”

“And how did you learn of this—presumably you were there at school when the event happened?”

Harry fought the urge to loosen his tie, wishing he had just ditched the whole thing and worn a bloody t-shirt. “I was was there, yeah, in the Astronomy Tower. I saw it.”

This apparently was news to Robards, his brow furrowing sharply. “We have testimony from Draco Malfoy that there was no one present in the tower except for the persons later identified as Alecto Carrow, Fenrir Greyback, Severus Snape, and Albus Dumbledore himself.”

“Professor Dumbledore and I had been—out, on an errand. We came back to Hogwarts after the death eaters had come through a vanishing cabinet, whose twin was in Knockturn Alley. Professor Dumbledore—immobilized me when he realized it was a trap. He hid me.” He took a stabilizing breath. “When Draco Malfoy came in to the Astronomy Tower to confront Professor Dumbledore, he thought he was alone. He never saw me. None of the others did, either.”

Robards gestured to a quick-quotes quill beside him which started taking notes. “I see. And do you remember the conversation that occurred between Draco Malfoy and Albus Dumbledore?”

He looked from Robards to Kamau, who was also taking notes, though she was looking down. Proulx was still scowling at Harry but there was a glint of interest now in his eyes which put Harry off. “I do. A lot of it was—personal, but… Professor Dumbledore was talking Draco down. He was—” He didn’t know why this was harder to say now than any other time, but for some reason he couldn’t get Malfoy’s pale face and crumpled expression out of his head. “He offered Draco clemency, him and his parents. The Order of the Phoenix would have taken them in and protected them. If Draco surrendered.”

Kamau asked, “And why would Dumbledore do that? It’s my understanding that Draco Malfoy was implicated in two other nearly fatal incidents at Hogwarts that year, and if his family’s allegiances were well known before this, I fail to see why anyone would expect he’d have second thoughts.” Her eyes flicked up to meet Harry’s, not accusing but attentive. “Seems like a pretty big chance to take on someone who, in your own words, had shown darker inclinations before this.”

She was right. It was a big chance. An insane chance. One Harry hadn’t understood at the time, and if he were being honest, he still didn’t understand. But Dumbledore had loved giving people second chances. Snape. Malfoy. He hadn’t even fought Grindelwald until his hand was forced.

Unbidden, the photograph of Dumbledore and Grindelwald as teenagers swam to the front of his mind. Dumbledore and the boy he had apparently loved so much he had stood aside as the world burned.

No, Dumbledore’d had an incredible amount of compassion. Just not when it came to Harry and the fate Dumbledore had decided for him when he was only a year old.

Still, Dumbledore had been right about Malfoy, in the end. He had turned. He had helped Harry. He had nearly died himself more than once.

It complicated things.

“I—won’t claim to understand Albus Dumbledore’s motivations,” he started, slowly, trying not to sound bitter. “But I think he believed Draco was redeemable. That his actions so far had been coerced and motivated by fear for his own life and for his parents’ lives.” He hesitated, fighting himself. Damn it. “And for what it’s worth, I don’t think Draco would have gone through with it.”

“Why not?” Robards asked, still frowning.

“He was lowering his wand,” Harry said quietly. “When Snape and the other death eaters came up to the Astronomy Tower. He was lowering his wand. He seemed—afraid. I’m not saying he’s not guilty of trying, but I don’t think he wanted to kill Dumbledore. Dumbledore didn’t think so, at any rate.”

“So,” Proulx said, voice startling and sharp, “you think the boy is innocent?”

“What? No. I didn’t say that.”

“If he is not guilty—”

“He’s—” Harry stopped himself from calling Malfoy a cruel, stupid ferret. Somehow, he didn’t think it would be appreciated. “We never got on. I don’t have the best opinion of him. But I do think he was reluctant, maybe even forced to follow Voldemort against his will, by the end. I know—” He exhaled and adjusted his glasses. “When Voldemort had taken over his home and he didn’t go back to school, I know he was forced to do things, terrible things, against his will.”

“What terrible things?” Proulx asked. “And how do you know these things?”

Harry bristled at the arrogance in the man’s voice. “Voldemort forced him to torture people when they displeased him, probably got a sick kick out of making Draco do it for him. I know he was forced to watch at least one person he knew be murdered and then get eaten by a snake, a teacher from Hogwarts. Again, I don’t know the specifics, because we’re not, and have never been, friends, but I know how horrible it was. I do know that he chose to lie to protect me when I was brought to Malfoy Manor, and then again when he saw I was still alive at the very end.” Proulx opened his mouth to speak but Harry spoke over him. “He was the first person to attack Voldemort in the final battle. He killed his aunt, Bellatrix Lestrange. He surrendered along with his parents before Voldemort died and handed himself over to the Ministry without a fight. It’s not my job to say if he’s innocent or guilty, it’s yours. I’m just here telling you what I know. As for how I know, well.” He didn’t think they would take his word that he could sometimes see into Voldemort’s mind. And he wasn’t too keen on them knowing, if they did. “I just know. Guess you’ll have to trust me.”

The silence was thick when Harry finished. All three aurors stared at him, waiting.

He had just defended Draco Malfoy. Well, not defended, but it was close enough to make him question his own sanity.

Robards’s frown had softened, almost like he was confused. “In his own testimony, Draco Malfoy didn’t specify if he had been coerced to follow Voldemort’s orders or if he followed them willingly. He simply confessed. You seem to think it was the former. If you had to guess, why do you think he didn’t defend himself?”

It took Harry a moment to digest this. “Malfoy didn’t say he was forced?”

“No. He didn’t.”

“I…” The room felt like it had just doubled in size and twisted to the left. “I have no idea.”

“Draco Malfoy has also been cooperating with the Aurors’ Office to search his family estate for powerful dark artifacts left over from Voldemort’s occupation, and to bring in any death eaters who fled after the final battle at Hogwarts.” Robards watched Harry’s reaction closely. “Based on your foreknowledge and current opinion of his motivations, would you characterize this aid as genuine?”

His mouth opened but his mind had been wiped blank. He wet his lips. “He’s—informing? Helping you, I mean?”

“You seem surprised, Mr. Potter,” Kamau said slowly.

“I—am.” He exhaled sharply. “Yeah. I am.”

Proulx arched his brow, made a small scoffing noise which reminded Harry too much of Umbridge’s cough. “You’ve known him for seven years and you can’t—”

“I said we’re not close,” Harry said, anger getting the better of him, half his mind still reeling from the idea that Malfoy would turn on his family and friends. “I’m not privy to his inner thoughts. All I can do is tell you that the kid I knew wouldn’t have turned on his family for anything, so whatever made him risk that is probably pretty damn important. I’m the last person who will sit here and defend the Malfoys, but I know that Draco and Narcissa both independently chose to save my life. So I don’t know if Draco is different, if the war changed him, but I would guess that if he’s cooperating, he’s genuinely cooperating. If it means protecting his parents, he’s not bluffing. He was never very good at it, anyway. If he didn’t want to work with you lot, he wouldn’t. He’d find a way out or he’d go to Azkaban. Assuming you’re not coercing him.”

Proulx narrowed his eyes, about to say something smart, no doubt, but Harry cut him off.

“Look, you’re new here, so you probably don’t know that the Ministry hasn’t exactly been kind to me in the past.” Harry couldn’t help it—his fists clenched as the burn of the scars etched into the top of his left hand itched. “Believe me when I say I’d rather not be here. But I was asked, so I came. Either you value my opinion and my answers, or you don’t. It really makes no difference to me. Trust me, I stopped betting on the Ministry a long time ago. No offense,” he added to Robards, imagining that glowing recommendation from Kingsley whither and die. “So unless you’re going to insist I take veritaserum, which I’ll refuse to do, you’re going to have to take my word.”

He sat back, exhaling in an attempt to calm down. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to start shouting soon. Why had he thought this would go well?

“Lucius Malfoy is a cowardly, vile, evil man, and deserves to be in prison for the rest of his life. That’s my opinion. He’s threatened the lives of my friends, he’s hurt people I care about, and I think the world would be safer if he weren’t allowed to get off clean and rebuild his life, because he would, in a heartbeat. Narcissa—,” he thought of Andromeda and frowned, “I don’t know her well, I don’t know what she’s done or if she deserves to be charged with anything, but she saved my life, so take that for what you will. And she’d do anything to protect her son. So if he’s working with you, my bet is she’s amenable too.”

“And Draco?” Kamau asked after a moment of silence.

What could he say? Malfoy was horrible. If he were to write down every reason to put him in prison and every reason not to, the affirmative list would be many feet longer. But he couldn’t distinguish what was just him and his own animosity, or if Malfoy actually deserved to get put away. He tried to imagine Draco Malfoy in Azkaban—sitting in a cold cell, his pale hair lank and hanging down over his sunken cheeks, cringing as a dementor floated past—only to find the idea filled him with guilt and more than a little distress.

“I think,” he started slowly, “that Draco didn’t realize what he’d gotten himself into. I think he found out the hard way that he wasn’t up to the same level of cruelty he liked to mess around with as a kid. I don’t know.”

Harry saw in his mind’s eye Draco leaning over a sink, face screwed up in fear as he cried in a bathroom.

Of course the next moment he had tried to cast the Cruciatus Curse on Harry but considering what he did in retaliation…

Well. He had a good reason to feel a bit of conflict when it came to Malfoy.

But he had saved Harry. More than once. That had to mean something.

“Draco Malfoy could have become every bit as horrible as his father. Worse, maybe. He had every opportunity but he didn’t. He changed his mind before the end. People can change,” he added, softly. “And I think they deserve the chance to try. He was a kid.” Something fragile went taut in the back of his mind, tensing until he felt a cord was pulling at him, straining.

“We were all kids.”

Just like the kids you killed and sent to Azkaban.

All three aurors stared at him in silence, their expressions closed off and curious—even Proulx seemed to be eyeing him speculatively now.

“I appreciate your candor, Mr. Potter,” Robards said at last, steadily. “You should know that the Ministry is firmly aware of how much it owes you. I don’t just speak for myself when I say that many of us regret how you were treated in the past, and are dedicated to correct those mistakes.”

Harry heard truth in the old man’s words. It was refreshing, coming from the Ministry. Even if it was undercut by Harry’s growing desire to get out of this room and never come back into this cursed building.

“Thank you,” Harry said quietly, “sir.”

Kamau was watching him with a soft smile but Harry had a feeling the woman just looked like that all the time. Proulx still looked like he was sucking on a lemon, even if something in his dark blue eyes made Harry uneasy, gleaming with interest.

“Let’s move on to another peer of yours,” Robards said, cutting Proulx a look when he opened his mouth to object. “Please tell us the details of your relationship with Gregory Goyle, who is currently at large and wanted for the suspected murder of three muggles.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Seven hours later, Harry was seated on the edge of the fountain in the atrium, seriously considering just throwing himself and drowning.

Malfoy had been the first of a slew of other students, almost all of them Slytherin, he’d been asked about. Their families, their homes, did he know them well, would he consider them to be dangerous, how would he characterize their views on the Ministry of Magic and muggles in general, et cetera. He could only say, “I have no bloody idea,” so many times before they realized he had, in fact, no bloody idea what most of them had gotten up to last year. He’d been too busy tracking down horcruxes and dodging people trying to kill him and finding out the man he’d trusted for nearly six years had been grooming him to die. It wasn’t like he could talk about any of that.

At least half the names were surprises and there was one bloke in Ravenclaw who had apparently tested a few dangerous new hexes out on the younger kids whom he’d never even heard of.

They didn’t ask about the kids in Azkaban or the girl they’d killed. Presumably, this Yeats woman wasn’t going to change her mind anytime soon about their sentencing. He’d nearly brought it up himself after two hours, but he stopped himself. He was here to help. They wanted him to help. Harry could do that.

Even if the longer he spent inside this building, the more he was wondering why he was so determined to be cooperative.

And it was day one. He had at least another week of this. The time off this summer should have prepared him, but he felt just as tired and anxious and unpredictably angry as he had the whole bloody year.

He’d ripped his tie off the moment he got let out on the atrium, shrugged off his outer robes and sat down, and here he was nearly twenty minutes later. He checked his watch—the one Molly and Arthur had given him for his seventeenth which made him feel a bit sick with guilt—and exhaled slowly through his frustration. He still had thirty minutes until Bill was due to meet him.

He slipped his glasses off and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes, bending over and allowing himself a small groan. Maybe he would just leave. Chance a walk outside to clear his head. He could meet Bill and the others later when he felt more sociable. He didn’t know how the fuck he was supposed to just sit here—

“Excuse me, are you Harry Potter?”

—to just sit here where anyone could walk up and decide to pull him into a conversation.

He took a deep breath and looked up to see the blurry outline of someone wearing a bright yellow dress with what might be feathers sticking out of her shoulders. He couldn’t be sure, because he didn’t have his glasses on, and he considered just keeping them off to save himself the coming conversation.

“Oh, you are,” the woman—sounded like a woman, anyway—exclaimed and clapped her hands. “I say, I never thought I’d be able to meet you myself.” A white shape shoved toward his face. It was probably her hand, but Harry had been wrong before. Another woman had asked him to sign the handle of her umbrella ten minutes ago. Five minutes before that a man had wanted him to touch his handkerchief for luck. As if that made any kind of sense. The six others before them had only wanted to introduce themselves and thank him and then leave him alone, which had been fine when he was eleven and still found it novel when people didn’t actively sneer at him or ignore him entirely, but now it was somewhat annoying. It made him feel like a circus attraction. Difficult even when he had the patience, near impossible now when he wanted to piss off and go scream into a wall for a few hours.

Summoning his last bit of willpower to be polite, he put on his glasses and straightened up. An elderly woman’s face came into focus, her lips painted a garish neon pink and her hair shifting colors from orange to white then back to orange like a demented swirling ice cream.

“Hi,” he said, voice rough from so much talking. “Can I help you?”

“Help me? But you’ve already helped so much!”

Yes, I have, so this is maybe a little fucking rude don’t you think?

“My grandson speaks so highly of you, I’m positively chuffed to meet you.”

Harry kept his expression blank with a force of effort for which he thought he should be congratulated. “Did your grandson attend Hogwarts?”

“Yes, yes,” the woman began digging in her bag, which was the exact same color as her lipstick, “of course!”

“Right. What’s your grandson’s name?”

“Patrick.” She looked up at him expectantly, as if Harry was supposed to have exclaimed out loud. “Oh, but you know Patrick!”

“I know no one named Patrick.”

“Patrick!” The old woman frowned, as if simply repeating the bloke’s name would jog Harry’s memory. “Patrick Van Buren!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, tone flat, “but I have no idea who you’re talking about. I’m sure he’s very nice, but I—”

“He’s a gem of a boy, really. I must insist on giving you his information. You’d get on so marvelously. And what a quidditch player! Now, I don’t want to step on your toes, Mr. Potter, but many have said that he’s got the makings of being the finest seeker Hogwarts has ever seen! I fully expect him to make the team when he tries out once school starts up again. And he’ll have all next year to practice, oh, yes, I expect him to give you a run for your money!”

Harry shoved his hand through his hair. “Look, is there something you want me to sign or—”

“Patrick Van Buren?” a posh, unhurried, immediately familiar voice called from a startlingly short distance away. 

It was so unexpected Harry thought for a horrible moment that he was going mad. Three months, and the voice still managed to make him jerk with attention. Three months, but he was thrown backwards in time to a life he couldn’t even remember living it felt like so long ago, when he was still bothered by school bullies and sneering gits who thought they were better than anyone else. The last time he’d heard that voice sound anything other than scared or shaking or shouting was before the day Harry had sliced open its own in the bathroom.

Harry turned as sharp footsteps clipped toward him in a determined nonchalance.

Right. Because it wasn’t bad enough, being harassed by an overzealous grandmother. Something had to show up and make this day even less enjoyable. Something in a sleek black suit and robes that looked as if dust and lint had never dared go within five feet of it. In fact, they were probably charmed to do exactly that.

Draco Malfoy walked—no, sauntered, more like—up to Harry, his eyes sizing up the old woman like she was a piece of furniture at an auction he found wanting. Apparently he judged the combination of colors on her person just as offensive as Harry had, because his expression twisted into one of such bored distaste he had to have practiced it in the mirror for hours when he was younger. No one just looked like that without work.

“Ravenclaw, right?” Malfoy continued, leaning indulgently against the fountain far closer to Harry than seemed safe—no more than three feet between them at best. “He would have been in fifth this year, I think. Bulbous blue eyes and a nasally voice with a penchant for hiding out in the girl’s toilet?” At the old woman’s shocked gasp, he smirked, “Yes, I remember giving him detention once. Did not take it well, poor chap. Think he might have cried a bit.”

Harry kept frowning at Malfoy, but the asshole didn’t even look at him. He was just staring at the old woman, brow raised as if to question why she was still standing there.

She went bright red and spluttered. “I—I’m sure you’re thinking of someone else, young man. And I must say, this is no way to—”

“Hold on,” Harry said, a memory springing up out of nowhere, “was Van Buren the first year who got his nose stuck in a Christmas popper? Walked around for a week before the holidays shooting out confetti when he sneezed?”

Malfoy’s eyes flicked to him. A little jolt went through Harry when they met his, but then Malfoy relaxed, a surprised twitch to his mouth. “Peeves used up all the pepper shakers dumping them in his trousers, didn’t he?”

Harry smiled before he could stop himself. “Okay.” He looked pleasantly at the old woman who was gawking at them with a growing anger. “So I do know Parker, then.”

“Patrick,” the old woman hissed.

“Right. Patrick. Still sticking his nose places it doesn’t belong?”

Harry thought for a moment the woman might start shrieking at him, but she merely drew herself up and huffed.

“I must say, Mr. Potter, your reputation for kindness seems vastly overblown.”

“Should have gotten to me sooner,” Harry said, any guilt he might have felt for being an arse evaporating at her faux outrage. “Eight people ago and I probably would have let you take a picture.”

“This is the ninth?” Malfoy asked, frowning. “How disappointing.”

The old woman turned sharply on her heel and marched away, nose so high in the air Harry watched for a while to see if she tripped on the stairs leading up to the floo hallway.

“You should set up a marquee, Potter,” Malfoy drawled, finally shifting to stare indolently down at him over the bridge of his sharp nose. “Charge a fee. Ten knuts for some hair, fifteen for a fingernail clipping, twenty for a quick tug on the old—”

“Hello to you too, Malfoy.” Harry considered standing up, feeling strangely imbalanced while looking up at him, but then he thought—no, better to do nothing and make Malfoy do all the work. “I step on a cat or something to offend the universe and summon you out of your hell hole?”

“The only offensive thing I can see right now is that suit. Did you fish it out of a bin on your way here, or did you just grab some old curtains and beat them to death?”

“Glad to see you still enjoy walking up to insult me without any kind of provocation.”

“I just intervened on your behalf. You should be thanking me.”

“I’ll get right on that, then.” He eyed Malfoy sideways, noting that he looked no better than he had the last time Harry had seen him. A little too gaunt, a haunted look about the eyes. But he still, to Harry’s immense annoyance, managed to look like he’d walked straight out of an advert in one of Aunt Petunia’s old fashion magazines—handsome in that ‘don’t touch me, I’m better than you’ way. It didn’t help that his suit was frustratingly sleek and his white-blonde hair was styled to within an inch of its life. Also, he wasn’t covered in plaster dust and blood this time, so that was an improvement.

Strangely, Harry also felt approximately none of the anger he’d thought he would feel the next time he saw Malfoy. Annoyance, sure, but… Well. Maybe he was just tired. Maybe that was why he was still staring when Malfoy looked at him with a frown.

“You look terrible,” he said quickly, fumbling.

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed. “Says the boy whose hair has been fighting a constant battle with gravity for the past seven years. And I’d stick to my glass house if I were you. You’re not exactly looking hale and healthy yourself. Celebrity getting to you?” A flicker of amusement built in his gaze, mouth tugging up to one side. “Or are you wasted without a cause to champion? Find you just can’t get out of bed in the morning without whacking a few death eathers—”

“Don’t you have somewhere else you can go?” Harry asked sharply, hating that Malfoy’d got it in one. “Perhaps on another continent? I hear Hawaii is nice. There’s a few volcanoes you could throw yourself in.”

Malfoy took a while to respond, face tensing as if he were fighting with himself. “Unfortunately, I think some people would take issue with my fleeing the country at the moment.” His voice lost some of its nonchalance as he continued, “Aren’t you here about the trials? Or did the Ministry walk you in on a velvet carpet and give you your pick of any of the open jobs?”

“Yeah.” Harry was caught off guard. “Thought I’d give the Magical Pest Advisory Board a spin. Maybe try my hand at wrangling feral brownies or redcaps.”

Malfoy made a noise which sounded suspiciously like a snort.

Harry stared in alarm. He could not think of one other time Malfoy had ever laughed at something Harry’d said. He’d laughed at him. All the time, in fact. If Malfoy wasn’t laughing at him he was probably doing something else to piss Harry off.

It was oddly disconcerting to imagine Draco Malfoy laughing just because.

Malfoy also seemed to have noted the strangeness of his reaction, because he pointedly looked over Harry’s shoulder instead of holding his gaze. “I’m surprised they didn’t call you in sooner to stab an Order of Merlin into your chest. They must want to get the Golden Boy’s stamp of approval on all the poor sods they couldn’t manage to pin something else on.” His mouth tightened. “But I suppose they already know who’s bound for Azkaban and who gets to work out their sins the old fashioned way through money and disgrace. The rest is a show to make it look like they’re doing something useful, isn’t it?”

Well, at least Harry wasn’t too far from the mark. Yeats and the others probably just wanted him in to say they asked for his opinion. He wouldn’t be surprised if he was asked to pose for a photo with them when this was all over. They’d slap his face on the front of the Daily Prophet to lay it on thick, let all of Wizarding Britain know Harry Potter approved of their methods.

A hard knot formed in his stomach. He knew this already. Malfoy telling him didn’t make it any worse. It didn’t.

He was quiet long enough for Malfoy to look down and meet his gaze.

“Yeah, they, er,” Harry said, feeling strangely conflicted, “they brought me in for informal questioning. Today was all Hogwarts students.”

Malfoy’s eyes flashed and his voice lowered. “Ah, well, I bet that was fun for you. Work out all your childhood grievances?”

“They told me you were cooperating with them,” Harry said before he could stop himself.

He still didn’t know if he believed it. Malfoy had been an arrogant snake his whole life—right up until sixth year when his fangs proved to be far less lethal than anyone expected. People can change, right? Hadn’t he just said as much to Percy that morning? He hated that he was worrying about this, about Malfoy and whether or not he was being honest and actually helping or just playing the Ministry for fools. It didn’t matter either way. It was a good thing, if he was. And if he wasn’t, that’d be in character, so there was nothing to get worked up over.

Malfoy’s expression twitched, but he didn’t betray anything, his smile just as lazy as it used to be when he had nothing to do but think up fun new ways to make Harry’s life more miserable.

“I was under the impression any information I gave would remain private.”

“Like you said. They’re probably trying to make up for those years of treating me like a criminal.” He shouldn’t press it. It was bad enough Malfoy was here, Harry didn’t need to go provoking him. 

But he had to know. It was important, for some reason he couldn’t quantify.

“You’re helping them look through your house, right?”

“Please,” Malfoy snapped, anger flaring, “shout it louder so everyone can hear, because there couldn’t possibly be anyone who might take issue with me cooperating with the people throwing them in jail. Of course, I don’t expect you to care whether or not I get killed because someone didn’t like my playing the properly cowed and obliging former war criminal. You’d probably think it deserved.” His rancor flickered, a dark note dropping into his voice. “It wouldn’t be the first time, would it?”

Their fight in the ruins of the Entrance Hall came back to him. Malfoy’s desperate anger, the look on his face when Harry finally broke down and screamed at him. He’d thought about that face more than he’d like to admit over the summer—knowing now as he looked back that Malfoy had just been scared the whole time. Harry hated how it muddied things, knowing. Understanding. Understanding Malfoy.

And like a specter in the back of his mind, he thought of the girl killed in a fire fight with trained aurors at least twice her age. She would have been scared too.

The feeling in Harry’s stomach should have been annoyance, it should have been resignation, because of course Malfoy would be an ass about this. He was an ass about everything. But he wasn’t annoyed. He actually felt bad for not thinking about what it might cost Malfoy to cooperate.

“I was just surprised, that’s all,” Harry muttered after a moment. “Never thought you’d do anything to go against your family.”

Malfoy’s nostrils flared. He looked like he was trying to control his temper. Which was, frankly, confusing, seeing as how he’d never bothered before. Quite the opposite. He muttered, “You understand nothing, Potter.”

“Fine,” Harry said harshly, temper flaring in relief. “Thought it was uncharacteristically decent of you, but apparently I don’t get it. My mistake for thinking you might do something good for once.”

Right away Harry regretted the words. They weren’t true. Malfoy had done plenty of things which were good. He’d stopped himself killing Dumbledore, he’d saved Harry, twice.

He had risked his life to give Harry the chance to fight. And if he really was cooperating with the Ministry…

A tightness settled into Malfoy’s face, a remoteness. Harry felt an echo of that weird desperation he’d felt in the aftermath of the Battle for Hogwarts, like he needed Malfoy to be angry and cross, like he needed the world to go back to the way it used to be when they were two people on opposite sides of a war that hadn’t yet started. When it was easier to remember who he was supposed to hate.

But that was the whole problem, wasn’t it? The board had been upended and he didn’t know anymore whose side he was supposed to be on.

Malfoy looked away after a while, tension in the way he held his arms, crossed stiffly over his chest. His fingers clenched under sleek black leather gloves. All the tension in his eyes seemed to drain away until Malfoy looked—tired. Just like Harry. Until he looked like he was trying to go somewhere else, be somewhere far distant from this place.

Just like Harry.

“If there is one thing at which my family excels,” Malfoy said in clipped, flat tones, “it is survival. I’m no use to them locked up on a rock in the middle of the sea.” The muscle in his jaw feathered. “You saw what the Manor had become near the end. I didn’t fancy living in that kind of filth the rest of my life. Thought I’d divest myself of some of it.” A tremor ran across his face. He added, almost as if he couldn’t help it, “One year was enough.”

Harry just stared at him. The image of Malfoy Manor was burned into his psyche—the dark, shadowed hall, stretching out farther than he could even see until it was swallowed by a thick, cloying darkness, the sound of screaming somewhere beneath his feet, a smell rank and sharp that seeped up through the wooden floors. And when the screaming stopped, overwhelming, suffocating silence. He’d been in the house for less than an hour, and it still disturbed him.

Like Harry, Malfoy hadn’t gone back for seventh year. As far as Harry knew, he’d been in that house for a year. Harry hadn’t seen much, but what he had seen told him only the suggestion of what Malfoy had been forced to live through.

Some of Malfoy’s old contempt flickered up into his eyes. He cut Harry a sharp look. “Or did you think I enjoyed having my home turned into a nightmare? You probably did, didn’t you? Just like you probably told your old Ministry friends how horrible I was to you during school. How it had to be inevitable, what—what I did.” He straightened and made a show of pulling his gloves tighter, face slipping back into his cold, disdainful mask. “I suppose winning the war wasn’t enough for you. Better to ruin what scrap of my life I still have left.”

Harry watched the efficient movement of his fingers as they pulled on the glossy leather, remembering what Malfoy’s hand had looked like trembling around his wand in the Astronomy Tower, it’s solidity when facing off against his aunt. He wondered, suddenly, if Malfoy really had chucked the hawthorn wand, or if it was hidden up his sleeve right now. Or why he cared.

“Don’t worry about your adoring fans, by the way,” Malfoy added, the tone arch and artificial. “Just keep scowling like that and people will stop coming up to ask you to kiss their babies. Golden Boys aren’t nearly as attractive when they’re not eager for the attention.”

Harry watched Malfoy take three strides away from him. A weird, sudden desire to explain himself took over, before he stood. “Malfoy.”

He turned and gave Harry a look which once might have made his blood boil. Now it just made him uneasy. It was like looking into the face of what his father might have been at his age—cold, cruel, unreachable.

“It is decent of you,” Harry said slowly. “That’s all I meant. I think you’re doing the right thing.”

Malfoy stared at him. “Yes, I’m sure you do.”

Harry fought himself, wondering why they fuck he felt he owed Malfoy anything more than a kick up the arse. Damn, bloody, bastard, ferret. He cast a quick look around the atrium, but it was mostly empty. People were sending him and Malfoy interested looks, but there was no one around who could hear their conversation and no one seemed eager to approach him right that second.

He only then realized it was probably because of who he was talking with.

Harry took a few steps toward him, trying not to frown at the slight shift in Malfoy’s shoulders, like he was trying to stop himself from backing away. “You should know there are…people who aren’t—aren’t too eager to consider what you, what other kids went through. Yeats, the new head of Magical Law Enforcement… I don’t think she’ll be forgiving if you slip up. She seems eager to throw whoever she can in jail. And there’s a bloke,” Harry added, watching a group of wizards pass them, more than one giving him and Malfoy a shocked once-over, “name’s Proulx, a transfer in from the French Ministry. I think—I don’t know for sure, but I think you should steer clear of him, too. I know you enjoy being a complete ass, but maybe keep it to a minimum if you ever cross him, and just…keep your head down, or…”

Harry trailed off, registering the startled look in Malfoy’s eyes.

He might loathe the bloke, but he couldn’t help thinking of those kids, that girl with her blank, dead eyes—Malfoy lying on a floor wet with his own blood, eyes wide and unseeing.

“Be careful, is all,” Harry added lamely, growing more uncomfortable under Malfoy’s piercing scrutiny. “Or don’t. Whatever.”

Malfoy stared, face blank. His lips parted. He exhaled. His brow furrowed. “You’re putting me on, right?”

Harry frowned. “No. Why?”

“You tell me.”

“Why would I joke about something like this?” Harry asked, angry. “This is serious, there’s—” He swallowed his reasoning, knowing he couldn’t tell Malfoy about the kids in Azkaban. The girl who was killed. If Malfoy was cooperating, he wouldn’t any more if he heard what the Ministry was willing to do.

Malfoy scanned Harry’s face, confusion slowly taking over his expression. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he let out a hollow laugh. “Potter, why do you think I’m here?”

“You’re going in for questioning.”

“At quarter to seven on a Monday night?”

Harry didn’t have an answer for that.

Malfoy stepped back, sliding his foot out and hiking up his left trouser leg.

Harry watched him in alarm, mind spinning off in a slew of confusing tangents—and then he saw the metal ring around Malfoy’s ankle. He stared for what felt like a long time, not understanding at first. Some part of him was trying to figure out why Malfoy was showing him his bare ankle, if it was some kind of power play or method of distraction, until it clicked. A chill sank into the pit of his stomach.

“Is that—”

“A cuff layered with a tracking charm and a dormant curse if I violate the terms of my conditional freedom? Yes.” Malfoy released the material and Harry had to blink a few times once he realized he’d been staring at the strip of pale skin where his sock ended. “It’s a fun new toy the Ministry’s trying out. If I don’t come in once a day, this will clamp down and shoot a petrificus malientus curse up through my leg. Encouragement, obviously, to keep me from getting any ideas about revenge or homicide. Convenient as well, because while I’m here, they can take my wand and monitor what spells I’ve used all day to make sure I’m not off hexing innocent muggles. It also prevents me from apparating. They call it La Douce Prison in France. Rather straightforward for the French, wouldn’t you say? And who do you think introduced this clever workaround to answer the question of what to do with the children of the death eaters they couldn’t indiscriminately throw into cells? Who do you think gave it the stamp of approval?” Something strange flickered through Malfoy’s bright grey gaze, almost resignation. “I know exactly who’s holding my leash, Potter.”

Harry reflexively clenched his left hand. His shock quickly transformed into something else, but he felt paralyzed. It took him a moment to find his voice, and when he did it was flat. “You have to come in every day?”

“I’m the only one who gets that kind of special treatment. The others only have to check in every three days.”

“Others?”

“All the Slytherin students, of course. You know, the ones McGonagall sent down to the dungeons to lock up before they could start murdering their classmates.”

He looked back down at Malfoy’s now hidden ankle. He could understand requiring anyone under suspicion of allying with Voldemort to remain in the country, even putting them under house arrest. Surveilling them, bringing them into question—sure. He understood that. If they were dangerous, and they might hurt someone else, he could understand holding them somewhere safe.

But as far as he knew, Malfoy had been the only death eater still under age during the war. And Malfoy had very openly defected before the end.

And these were still kids.

Petrificus malientus was practically a death sentence for anyone who couldn’t remove their own bloody leg before the curse took hold of their heart and made it stop pumping blood. Hard to breathe when your lungs froze and your brain up and turned off.

And they were putting these things on kids.

“Proulx wanted to bring in every member of Slytherin house, even the first years.” Malfoy smiled grimly when Harry looked up in alarm. “Apparently Robards and Shacklebolt talked him down, but the froggy bastard insisted on everyone over the age of thirteen at the time of the Battle of Hogwarts. Yeats, charming woman she is, sided with the Frenchman and in the end, who’s really going to put up a fight for a few scared Slytherins?”

“Kingsley can’t know about this.” Harry shook his head, horrified. Even as he said it, though, he couldn’t imagine a scenario where Kingsley didn’t know everything that was going on in this building. But still, “There’s no way—”

“The Internation Confederation of Wizards is concerned that Britain has a dark wizard problem. This is our second in a century, and it’s a wonder the muggles didn’t figure it all out this time. It’s not like—he was being subtle, near the end. They’re worried. Why do you think we’ve got outside officials coming in to babysit and make sure we’re being properly punitive? I’m sure Shacklebolt wants to reassure the rest of the Wizarding World that they’re taking the problem seriously.”

“By terrifying children?” he practically shouted. A few people gave him startled looks as his voice rang through the atrium.

Malfoy’s confusion had turned into a strange kind of amusement. “They were at Hogwarts during Snape’s tenure. They followed orders from the death eaters who taught them. They’re Slytherins, aren’t they?” Malfoy’s lips twisted. “Never mind that from what I hear, there were a fair few Ravenclaws who also found the new establishment not altogether repulsive, whose pureblood parents were just as passive, just as willing to roll over and let someone else take the blame. The cuffs aren’t hurting anyone, right? So is it such a big deal, in the end?”

Arguments popped up in Harry’s mind, but they sounded weak even to him. At the time, he’d thought nothing of McGonagall sending all the Slytherins out. Of course they’d side with Voldemort. Pansy Parkinson hadn’t waited a minute before shouting for Harry to be handed over once Voldemort gave his ultimatum.

At the time, he hadn’t thought about the younger ones, who probably had no idea what was going on. They tried to make us practice on first years. That’s what Neville had said about the Carrows. First years. There had to have been some Slytherins who objected.

But at the time, he hadn’t cared. He’d been glad to see them go.

He found himself asking, without thought, “Why not punish the parents if…”

He trailed off as Malfoy continued to stare levelly at him.

“This is the same Ministry who launched a moderately successful misinformation campaign against you for an entire year,” Malfoy said simply, frowning, “the same Ministry who caved, with very little struggle, to—Voldemort.”

Harry noted the stumble, like Malfoy was unused to using his true name.

“You can delude yourself all you like about the radical changes they’re making here. I’m sure it sounds lovely and they’re desperate for you to think they’ve gotten their act together, but don’t be a naive idiot just because it’s easier. Of course they’re bringing in the children of pureblood families who might have sympathized with the likes of me.” Malfoy laughed, the sound hollow and tired. “Because terrorizing a generation of kids won’t lead to any utterly predictable consequences when they get older and more cynical.”

Harry swallowed his immediate retort.

“Oh, please.” Malfoy looked away, waving a hand dismissively through the air. “I can practically hear you thinking I’m a hypocrite.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.” Malfoy sighed. “I expected worse, honestly.”

“Worse than putting bombs on the ankles of thirteen-year-old kids?”

“Come on, Potter,” he said, low, tilting his head. “Use your imagination. Not like you don’t have enough experience.”

A fist had formed in Harry’s chest, hot and hard and brittle. This couldn’t be right. He understood monitoring pureblood families who’d shown sympathies to Voldemort. He understood fining them and charging them and doing whatever was needed to start to fix the chaos which had happened last year. He even understood taking in kids who proved to be dangerous, like Geraldine White and Bradford Belmont, not to put in Azkaban, mind, but to monitor, to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves or anyone else.

But to go after the kids who hadn’t even done anything…

Malfoy was watching him, an unreadable expression turning his eyes hard and bright. Harry couldn’t wipe away the image of Malfoy facing Dumbledore, Malfoy crying in the bathroom, Malfoy torturing Rowle, Malfoy in a sea of flame.

Malfoy staring up at Harry from the base of a broken staircase like he was desperately searching for something, ash and blood caking his face.

He still looked like he was searching for something. The sneer didn’t reach his eyes, and his posture didn’t look confident, it looked defensive. There was a challenge in Malfoy’s eyes, but it wasn’t cruel.

Harry didn’t know why that mattered, but it did. It also made it impossible for Harry to look away.

When a voice called across the atrium, the moment broke and Malfoy turned, only to scowl. “Lovely,” he muttered.

A man approached them, furiously gesturing at Malfoy. He wore, Harry saw with a frown, the uniform of an auror even if he looked no older than Harry or Malfoy. “The hell you doing just loitering down—” The man’s eyes widened as they fell on Harry. Malfoy made a small, disgusted noise beside him.

“Harry Potter,” the man spluttered. “You’re—”

“Really him,” Harry said, already annoyed. “I know. It’s wild.”

“Merlin’s beard, Harry Potter.” His eyes flicked to Malfoy, narrowing. “Sorry about this one. He can’t keep his slimy mouth shut most of the time. But that’s a death eater for you, isn’t it? Thinking they’re smarter and better than everyone else even after they lost, the bleeding snakes. If he’s been bothering you, I’ll make sure he gets his. Don’t you worry.”

Harry could feel the tension rolling off Malfoy even without looking at him, could practically hear the beating pulse of his blood as he forced himself not to rise to the bait.

He didn’t know why he did what he did next. Maybe he just hated bullies, even if they bullied someone who had once been determined to treat him like dirt every time they saw each other and who had on more than one occasion actually threatened his life.

Maybe he couldn’t forget how Malfoy looked as he stared into Harry’s disfigured face in the shadows of his own home, fear and something like defiance flashing in his dark grey eyes. Maybe he couldn’t forget that same determination when Malfoy stood inches from Voldemort and decided to fight back.

Or maybe he just hated the Ministry that much.

“Gets his what?” Harry asked flatly.

The auror blinked. “Er. Well. You know what I mean.”

“I don’t, actually.”

“I just meant he wasn’t supposed to be talking to anyone, especially not you.” The auror leaned in like Malfoy wasn’t even there and whispered, “This here’s Draco Malfoy, you know, son of—”

He actually smiled at this. Like he wouldn’t know who Draco fucking Malfoy was. “I went to school with him. Reckon I know better than you who he is.”

He really, truly, had no idea what he was doing. Just like he’d had no idea why he’d returned the hawthorn wand to Malfoy in the Great Hall, in front of all those people. It was like part of him just shut off as he did something that, objectively, made no sense—defending Draco Malfoy was something he would never actively choose to do, and yet here he was, feeling a weird, irrational anger toward this tosser. On Malfoy’s behalf.

“Well, then you know,” the auror said with an increasingly perplexed expression.

“Know what?” Harry asked, temper getting shorter. “I didn’t realize it was illegal to speak to someone else in the Ministry atrium. You’d think they’d put up a sign.”

The auror looked back and forth between him and Malfoy. “It’s not. But he’s—he’s not supposed to be here.”

“Here in the Ministry or here in the atrium? Funny, because I’m pretty sure he’s got as much right as anyone else to stand by a fountain.”

A small, sharp cough came from Malfoy. Harry very purposefully ignored him.

“Look, Mr. Potter, I don’t think you understand—”

“Oh,” Harry said with a laugh, feeling a lick of heat warm his chest, “this will be good. What am I supposed to be misunderstanding, then?”

The auror’s face hardened as he took a step back. Harry was filled with a fierce sense of vindication at seeing the hero worship leak out of his eyes. Well fuck. Maybe he should be an arsehole more often. To some people, maybe.

“Mr. Malfoy is due to check in with his probation auror at seven,” the auror said. “I was merely arriving to escort him.”

Harry’s brow lifted and he made a show of looking down at his watch. “It’s ten to. Pretty sure he can walk on his own to the lift. Won’t take him more than a minute. Think you might be a bit too keen on punctuality, mate.”

The auror looked over his shoulder to the large clock hanging on the wall above the lifts. “Right. Well.” His demeanor shifted, confusion to embarrassed anger. “I’ll be waiting, Malfoy.” The man sent another baffled look at Harry before he turned and left.

Harry slid his hands into his pockets, riding high on a sick rush that made him almost jittery.

“The fuck was that?” Malfoy hissed.

Harry cleared his throat. “He was a git.” As if that made any difference. It still didn’t explain why he’d felt the urge to step in. Harry forced himself to meet Malfoy’s gaze, to not be even a little embarrassed. “Just because it’s you it doesn’t mean I’m going to let someone get away with that shite while I’m standing here.”

Malfoy blinked, expression frozen somewhere between anger and disbelief. His mouth hung open, and Harry found it unsettling, again, how quickly it changed Malfoy’s appearance.

“Sweet Morgana,” Malfoy said slowly, “is it not exhausting to be so morally superior all the time? That halo of yours must be rather tiresome.”

Harry scowled, choosing not to answer. He didn’t look away either. It left him and Malfoy just staring at each other.

Malfoy continued to frown at him, saying nothing but looking at Harry as if he were trying to read his mind. Harry felt his neck warm and his cheeks flare hot and then he was wondering why the hell Malfoy staring at him now was any different than all the other times he’d stared at Harry. Maybe it was the lack of malice, or the genuine confusion which made his eyes brighter and harder to look at.

Pull yourself together.

“You should tell someone about the cuffs,” Harry said, a bit more rough than he intended. “They’re barbaric.”

It seemed for a moment as if Malfoy wasn’t going to let him move the conversation, but then he sighed. “And bring down more trouble on my head? No, thank you.”

“What?”

“Shall I go tell the new Minister that us poor, put-upon Slytherins don’t like being tagged and watched for a few months after a war that killed hundreds of muggleborns, perpetrated by our parents? How unreasonable, he’ll think. And I’m not even one of the others who can play the ignorance card. ”

“So you’re just assuming they’ll dismiss you?”

“I’m assuming that listening to the complaints of a former death eater isn’t high on their list of priorities.” Malfoy studied him, eyes flicking down over the length of his body and back up, still frowning. This was almost worse than the staring. “Why do you care?”

“It’s wrong.”

“Lots of things are wrong in this world, Potter.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

“This is a problem for Slytherins and purebloods. Why on earth would you care about us?”

Harry held his gaze, heard the shift in Malfoy’s tone. He knew what Malfoy meant and he was still unable to come up with any reason that didn’t make him want to scream until his throat was bloody.

Because I was fourteen when I watched Cedric die. Fifteen when I was told not to tell the truth. Sixteen when I watched the most important person in my life die.

Seventeen when I learned he’d been lying to me the whole time.

Malfoy only stared at him harder the longer Harry stayed silent.

“Like you said,” Harry finally muttered, hands clenched in his pockets. “I’ve got morals.”

Somehow, Malfoy’s frown deepened, but he didn’t say anything. No, he just kept staring at Harry—and Harry fought the urge to glower at him and ask what the fuck was so interesting about his face. It wouldn’t help anything and Malfoy would just take it as Harry admitting Malfoy made him uncomfortable, something he vowed right then never to do.

The tension built until his surroundings faded, until it was just him and Malfoy staring at each other again, like they were back in school across from one another on the quidditch pitch. Harry felt like he was waiting for something. He felt that thrill of anticipation, that flicker of hunger to know.

All at once Malfoy’s brow smoothed as he tilted his head, realization darkening his gaze. “You heard about Ravenna.”

Harry wasn’t quick enough to hide his flinch. He tried to rally, but hearing her name spoken out loud, by Malfoy, was like a shock to his chest.

“You heard about the firefight.” Malfoy exhaled softly, incredulity in his voice. “You did, didn’t you?”

Harry refused to look away. He swallowed tightly. “Yeah. How did—”

“They brought me in to talk to Gerry and Bradford. They were a bit reluctant to cooperate, having watched these same people kill their friend only a few weeks prior.” Malfoy paused. “They tried Ravenna’s sister, but Eldefina was understandably too distraught to be of much help.”

Now it was Harry’s turn to be surprised. Bill had mentioned someone else that night, someone who had been cooperating with them and might be willing to talk to the kids, but Kingsley had shot him down for fear of asking this person too much. He didn’t want to scare them off.

“That was you?”

A number of expressions twisted Malfoy’s features before he settled on wary. “It was.”

“I—overheard. They didn’t tell me.”

“No, they wouldn’t want to tell you,” Malfoy said slowly, voice heavy, almost musing. Harry’s chest tightened. “Not when they need your stamp of approval. Smarts, does it, knowing your people can be every bit as—”

“They’re not my people,” Harry said harshly. “They’ve never been my people.”

Malfoy’s expression shifted, becoming almost curious. His eyes flicked down, and Harry had the uncanny feeling that he was looking toward his left hand, the one marked by Umbridge. Harry almost threw it back at him, how Malfoy had been part of her Inquisitorial Squad and at the time had had a good laugh with his mates about it.

But that had been over two years ago. Harry’d been a different person then.

And he was starting to wonder if Malfoy hadn’t been a different person as well.

Harry looked away when he spotted a group of people coming out of the lifts, Bill among them. Thank Merlin. He could still feel Malfoy staring at him, his gaze heavy and probing, making him feel uneasy. What the fuck had come over him today? Maybe it was just being in the Ministry again. It’s not like this place conjured warm fuzzies for him. Or maybe he was just reacting normally to someone he hated looking at him like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to punch Harry or—

“Hey, Harry, sorry,” Bill said as he jogged over, grimacing. “Had a situation in one of the vaults we’ve—” He stopped, brow lifting as he spotted who was with Harry. “Oh. Wotcher, Draco.”

Malfoy reluctantly looked away from Harry, and nodded. “Bill.”

Harry blinked, alarmed, when Malfoy said nothing else. When he remained politely quiet.

Malfoy had just greeted a member of the Weasley family without any attempt at an insult.

“Actually, I’m glad I caught you,” Bill said with a sheepish yet still charming smile. “You mind if I get your opinion on something, while you’re here?”

Malfoy looked at his watch, a sleek silver piece with black and gold threaded around the face, forming a delicate snake. “I only have seven minutes before I have to meet my nanny, and I don’t much look forward to getting reprimanded today. But sure. What do you need?”

Bill actually laughed and shot Harry an apologetic look, which Harry only saw because Malfoy had looked back at him with a furrowed brow and he’d had to glance away quickly. Because apparently he was twelve again and looking at people who were looking at you was beyond his skill to handle.

“Right,” Bill said. “You don’t happen to know anything about the Avery estate, do you?”

Malfoy frowned. “Which one?”

“There’s more than one?”

“There’s three. One in the Cotswolds near Chedworth, another in the High Weald, and their ancestral home in Wales, though I can’t for the life of me remember where it is. I think we still have records back at the Manor if you need their precise locations. I’d be careful, though, if you’re planning on exploring it. There’s a branch of the family in Wales who won’t be happy if you start poking around. Wouldn’t be surprised if one or two distant cousins are trying to get in before you and are waiting for someone else to spring the lock. They’re practically royalty over there, and very territorial.”

Harry stared at Malfoy like he’d transformed into a different person. He was just—talking. Like someone normal. No sneer or smirk, no attempt at coming off smart or slick. His expression was mild, open, almost like this was a normal occurence.

Bill frowned, eyes distant in thought. “Yeah, I’d appreciate the records if you can find them. I was talking about the one near Chedworth. They’ve got a curse layered into the surrounding hills which keeps sucking my people into the ground and spitting them out fifty miles away. We’ve been combing the place for weeks and still haven’t found the source.”

Malfoy narrowed his eyes, as if he were actually considering the problem like he was about to help—

“If I remember correctly, it was Royse Avery who built the house in the Cotswolds, sometime around 1460. It was near the start of the War of the Roses, anyway. So you’re probably looking at a Binding of Hunger, a consecrated apple tree bound by the knucklebones of a Welsh Trallod Du. It’s pretty straight forward—the spellcraft, anyway—but you can’t remove the tree without destroying the bones or you’ll have a whole family of wights hunting you down for the rest of your life.”

Bill’s brow lifted. “I thought all the Welsh sentry dragons died in the Norman Conquest.”

“They probably did. Doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of bones left in crypts all across Wales. The old families raised those beasts like chickens and they bred them specifically to guard the land. A dead dragon is better than no dragon at all.”

“Well, that’s great. Those are a nightmare to break, and that’s without any dragon bones.”

“They shouldn’t be hard to find if you can get your hands on a Welsh dragon scale or tongue. You might even be all right with an Irish Kettle Roc. When you do get the bones, you could try soaking them in Pome’s Tears for a few days. Might help when you try to shatter the curse. Trallod Du tend to explode violently and embed themselves in the eyes of anyone present.”

“Okay,” Bill said with a smile. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” Malfoy said flatly, giving Harry a strange look when he saw that Harry was still staring. To Bill, he said, “You should come by the Manor when you get a moment anyway. I think I figured out why that jewel box won’t open.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“It belonged to my great grandmother. She had a penchant for Mongolian horsehair and seemed to put it in everything she made.”

Bill scraped a hand across his jaw, sighing heavily. “Of course. That’d be why everyone who touches it starts shouting in Kazakh. I think I’ll have time on Wednesday, if I don’t get called in for questioning.”

“I’ll put out the good china for you.” Malfoy gave Harry a final searching look. “Be seeing you, Potter. Probably soon. I’ll be the one in the defendant’s chair.”

He turned on his heel and left, his sharp footsteps sounding all the more ominous as Harry stared after him. He knew Malfoy had been helping, but to see him offer information so easily, without any kind of smug superiority, to Bill Weasley, boggled the mind.

“Gotta say, he’s the most surprising thing to come out of the war.”

Harry frowned and looked sharply at Bill, feeling a bit off balance. “Malfoy?”

Bill nodded. “Kid’s the best curse-breaker I’ve ever met. Instincts like his would land him any job he wanted in the field tomorrow, if he wasn’t—you know. When I was his age I couldn’t get myself out of a Victorian tomb, but by the time anyone showed up at Malfoy Manor to bring his parents in, he’d apparently already emptied out the first level of the family cellar and had removed most of the nastier curses he could find, all on his own. That’s why they called me in. It was a veritable treasure trove of dark artifacts, just sitting out on the lawn like a fair. Makes Grimmauld Place seem like a laugh.” A dark look passed over Bill’s face. “I’m surprised nothing worse happened to you when you were taken there. From what I could tell, the curses Voldemort worked around that place were incredibly powerful. The kind of dark magic that makes you wonder how anyone could even live in the midst of it.”

Harry took a moment to pull himself out of those horrible, cold hallways. To separate himself from the knowledge that he did not have to wonder how someone lived with that kind of darkness. He’d been living with it for eighteen years.

“I thought their house was searched when Lucius got arrested.”

“Not by me, it wasn’t.” Bill frowned. “Honestly, though, I’m not sure we would have known what half the stuff was without Draco identifying it. The old pureblood families, their brand, anyway, are mad about their ancient heirlooms and relics. I worked on a vault once in Germany which went down five hundred feet and had no less than fifty-five independent curses to break on the way. Spent a year on that job, still didn’t get past the twenty-second.”

Harry’s mind had entered a strange place of discomfort and disbelief as he’d listened, as if he’d been absent for the whole conversation and just walked in near the end to find Draco Malfoy being helpful and borderline pleasant to both him and Bill. Like the world had flipped on its axis and no one else noticed.

Malfoy was helping. He was genuinely helping.

“I know you and him don’t get on,” Bill said carefully. “Frankly, I was predisposed to hate the little bastard from the start, but he’s been nothing but helpful all summer. It’s kind of annoying, actually. It’s like he gets a kick out of being accommodating just to buck our expectations. Well. Mine anyway.”

Harry nodded, watching the auror from before meet Malfoy by the lifts. “Yeah. They asked me about him today. Told me he was turning on his pals, or their parents, anyway.” He winced. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”

“I already knew,” Bill said, grinning. “But you might want to keep it quiet. Him and his parents were already on thin ice before Voldemort kicked it. Can’t imagine they’ve got a lot of friends these days on that side. Never seen anyone else at the house, anyway. Just Draco.”

“Are his parents…?” Harry realized suddenly that he had no idea what happened to Malfoy and his parents after he’d apparated away. He’d assumed they’d been brought in to the Ministry, but it’s not like he checked.

“Yeah, they’re both in Azkaban,” Bill said. “Robards thought it would be a death sentence to throw them in with the other death eaters while waiting for their trial, but he was shouted down. Yeats wouldn’t hear it. Wouldn’t be surprised if they get moved, though, after the trials.”

“Where would they get moved?”

“There’s a place up north called the Ring Castle. It’s mostly political or non-lethal prisoners in there. Not as cruel as Azkaban.”

That hot fist formed in Harry’s chest again, a tangled thing he wanted gone. “Right. So he just went back to his house, after Hogwarts?”

Bill nodded, watching him closely. “I think Lucius and Narcissa went back with him at first, but by the time I showed up, it was just him.”

For some reason, the image of Malfoy walking into his house alone after it had been witness to so much horror made him intensely uncomfortable. It wasn’t pity. It was too angry to be pity, but he couldn’t for the life of him pin it down.

It was haunting, whatever it was.

“The day was that bad, huh?”

Harry sighed and forced himself to smile. “No, it was great. Think I made a new friend of that French guy. Seemed to really like me.”

Bill laughed, draping an arm around Harry’s shoulders and tugging him out toward the exit. “Oh, you crossed paths with Proulx, did you? Never met a man I’d like to punch more, let me tell you.”

 

 

Harry only half-listened to Bill make pleasant, mostly one-sided conversation as they made their way to the Leaky Cauldron. The night was warm and Harry had his coat and robes bundled up under his arm, but he still felt a lingering chill at the back of his neck, like someone was watching him. Or like he was aware of the Ministry he’d left behind, the building itself like a crouching dragon, waiting to swallow him if he ever went back.

It was about this thought that Harry realized he wasn’t going to be much of a laugh the rest of the night.

When they got to the Leaky Cauldron, he tried to make a show of being happy to see Charlie. He was happy to see Charlie. He liked Charlie a lot, and he had a tendency to slip into long, exciting, sordid stories of his exploits dealing with dragons when he got a few drinks in that Harry always liked listening to. Charlie was a good story-teller.

Harry was trying to pay attention as Charlie explained what he was doing which would take him out of Britain for at least eight months in the fall, trying to find something called an Ottoman Jewelclaw, a breed of dragon thought to have gone extinct around the time of the fall of Constantinople. Apparently everyone in Romania thought he was crazy, “loveably mad,” Charlie had said with a snort—so he was planning on backpacking around the Black Sea on his own to follow up on the few sightings which had reached Charlie, but Harry found it hard to stay present.

He kept losing his train of thought, drifting, staring down into his drink and thinking of children with metal cuffs on their ankles and blank, dead eyes.

Apparently, he wasn’t doing a good job of pretending either. The moment Bill left to get another round, Charlie gave him a sympathetic smile. “I hope you’re not here for my sake. I promise I won’t be offended if you bail.”

Harry gave a weak laugh. “No, it’s—sorry. Long day.”

“These trials sound like shite, honestly.” He threw back the rest of his ale.

Harry couldn’t help but notice that Charlie looked even more fit than the last time he’d seen him. Really, most of the Weasleys were thin and lanky while Charlie looked like he might still keep up with his Quidditch training. Maybe he even lifted weights. Or…other things fit people did to get muscles like that. He’d seen first hand what regular exercise could do to a bloke—and Dudley’d been carrying enough body weight for a small nuclear family.

He followed the motion of Charlie’s throat, watching the knot dip and the muscles flex. There was another scar on his upper arm which looked freshly healed, bright red amongst the bevy of freckles.

Charlie wiped the back of his hand over his mouth, giving Harry a wide smile. “This is why I stick to dragons. No politics or drama. Just fire and claws. Much simpler. Primal, even.”

Some of the tension in Harry’s gut eased. “That does sound appealing, I’m not going to lie.”

Charlie grinned. “Well, if you ever need a bit of a break, you’re always welcome to visit. Romania is very beautiful. Mountains, forests, lakes—and your favorite Weasley.” He gave Harry a small wink. “Plus, I already know you’re good with dragons.”

Harry laughed, shifting in his chair, color warming his neck. “Right. ‘Good.’ The last two I met nearly killed me.”

“Ah, but the ‘nearly’ bit makes all the difference.” Charlie cocked his head. “Wait, you’re not talking about Norberta, right? She was just a baby. Not that she wasn’t up to it, but I got the impression she took most of her love out on Hagrid.”

“No, I…” Harry smiled, feeling the urge to brag a bit. It was an odd sensation, one which sat a little uncomfortably in his chest. “Did you not hear about Gringotts?”

“What about Gringotts?”

Harry finished off his ale, pleased to see Charlie’s waiting gaze. “Hermione, Ron, and me stole one of their dragons.”

Charlie blinked. “From Gringotts? No. Bullocks.”

Harry nodded, his own smile growing.

“You stole a dragon from Gringotts, and the whole bleeding country is somehow not talking about it?”

“To be fair,” Harry said, shrugging, “there was a war on, at the time.”

“There’s a reason you’re just hearing about this,” Bill said as he slid into the seat next to Harry, divvying up drinks. “For some reason, the goblins didn’t want everyone to know that a few teenagers were able to infiltrate one of their most secure vaults, only to break out on what was their oldest dragon.”

Harry’s brow lifted. “I didn’t know it was the oldest.”

“Four-hundred years, I think.”

“Bleeding goblins,” Charlie muttered, still treating Harry to an oddly intent look. “I really can’t believe they haven’t been taken to court for that. Using dragons as guard dogs. Fucking monsters.”

“Maybe if you came back and took up the cause,” Bill said pointedly over the rim of his glass. “Not everyone has your deep, abiding affection for the flying death machines which belch fire.”

Charlie scowled. “You just want me back so Mum stops bugging you about your hair.”

“I was gonna ask,” Harry said, grinning. “You haven’t been to the Burrow yet, have you? Looks like you’ve still got some left on your head.”

“You’re one to talk,” Charlie said with a laugh.

“Yeah, but my hair is immune to your mum. She’s tried. Believe me.”

Bill scoffed. “As if you have any idea what that woman is capable of.”

“She made Charlie look like a peeled carrot for your wedding, so I have some—”

“You know, I remember when you were a quiet kid,” Charlie said, giving him a not-gentle kick in the shin under the table. “Very polite. Bit of a weirdo. Used to be the only thing I could get you to talk about was quidditch.”

“Thanks,” Harry said dryly.

“Speaking of,” Charlie leaned over the table conspiratorially, “I heard you’d been signed to the Wimbourne Wasps.”

Harry paused with his new drink halfway to his lips, distracted by the lines of muscle that appeared in Charlie’s upper arm when he rested it on the table. “Er, that’d be odd, since I never tried for it and don’t even know who the coach is. Maybe you’re thinking of a different Harry Potter.”

“Right,” Charlie laughed. “Common name, isn’t it?”

Bill rolled his eyes. “Stop reading gossip mags. You’re as bad as Mum.”

“Look, it’s that or the Prophet, and I can’t bring myself to pay for that shite.”

Charlie and Bill shared a look that Harry pretended not to notice. It wasn’t the first one of the night, nor would it be the last. He had to stop himself from checking if there was a storm cloud over his head. He knew exactly where it was coming from, though, and he had no intention of helping them along.

Charlie took a long drink, shooting Harry another oddly furtive look. “You thinking about it, though?”

“Playing professionally?”

“You’re good enough.”

Harry narrowed his eyes. “You’ve never seen me play.”

“I have too. I’ve played you.”

“In three-a-side,” Harry said with a laugh, looking down when his cheeks started to warm. “Using a summer melon for quaffle. Don’t think that counts.”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ve seen you fly. You’re brilliant.” Charlie waved a hand at Bill. “Plus, I’ve heard about how good you are for seven bleeding years from every single one of my siblings and my parents. Stealing my title as best Gryffindor seeker in a hundred years. Very rude, you know.” Charlie grinned and winked. “If I were a lesser man, I’d be jealous.”

Harry didn’t have anything to say to this. It skirted too close to that nebulous, hazy future Harry still had no idea what to do with. So he just hummed in a noncommittal fashion, trying to wrestle his chest back into position as it tried to squirm around under Charlie’s praise. He didn’t want to think Charlie was just trying to make him feel better, but it was hard when both he and Bill seemed to treating him like a horse that might bolt if they scared him.

He didn’t know why them wanting to make him feel better was a bad thing. Maybe he wished it wasn’t necessary in the first place.

“Seriously,” Bill said, nudging him with an elbow. “Something to consider. Might be a nice change of pace.”

“Yeah. No, I mean… I’ve thought about it.”

“Ginny’s going for that internship with the Harpies, right?” Charlie asked, grinning. “You can both go be world famous quidditch stars and make the rest of us normal sods feel terrible about ourselves.”

Harry looked down at his ale, an unpleasant twist in his gut. He hadn’t known she was going for that, actually. It made sense, though. She’d certainly talked about it enough when they were still together. And the year off while Hogwarts was closed would give her plenty of opportunities to get some real life experience. She was good enough to play professionally.

His mind conjured up the image of watching Ginny play for a professional team, of him standing in the bleachers cheering her on with Ron and Hermione and the rest of the Weasleys, vigorously proud of his girlfriend as he screamed himself hoarse, happy, beaming, alive and hopeful and normal—it vanished like smoke in a swift breeze.

It should worry him, right? That he couldn’t even picture himself doing something so mundane as watching a quidditch game anymore? That the very idea felt like it couldn’t, shouldn’t, belong to him?

After an awkward silence, he managed, “Not really keen on being any more famous than I already am, I think.” He attempted a smile, but it felt weird, forced. He cleared his throat and rose, not looking at either of them. “Gonna go to the loo.”

He felt their eyes on his back as he walked through the pub. Bless them both, neither Bill nor Charlie brought it up again. Harry assumed Bill had warned Charlie off. He hadn’t told Bill he and Ginny had split up, but he probably guessed when Harry spent a full month at his house and didn’t seem to mind the fact that his supposed girlfriend never visited or floo-ed except to check in with Bill.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t told anyone. He guessed Molly and Arthur knew, but he had no idea if Ginny had told anyone else. He was surprised, actually, that Molly hadn’t already tracked him down to make him feel guilty. Arthur’d probably told her to let him be.

Of course, he still felt guilty. He didn’t think he’d ever stop feeling guilty. I should visit when the trials are over, he told himself. Molly and Arthur were the closest things to parents Harry had, and he’d basically ignored them all summer.

Ron and Hermione arrived soon after and Bill and Charlie left them to sit with some of Bill’s older Ministry friends at some point after, leaving the three of them alone. Harry’s mind wandered but he couldn’t help coming back to the first bit of questioning that day.

He still didn’t know what to think about it.

He’d defended Malfoy twice. Once in the interview and again in front of that auror. Both times he’d wondered what he was doing. Both times he’d questioned why he felt guilty every time he thought of the idiot. There was no reason. Malfoy had gotten himself into his own mess. He was a nasty, spiteful arse. He’d taken every opportunity to make Harry’s life hell for six straight years, to hurt his friends, and the bastard had enjoyed it.

People could change, sure, but Harry couldn’t shake his own disbelief. He couldn’t stop thinking about Malfoy alone in that dark house, deciding to open his doors and pull back the the curtain on all the wealth and history his family had amassed over however many hundreds of years. Malfoy deciding to give information on people he knew were dangerous and would most likely kill him for it if they found out.

Harry didn’t know this boy. Not really. The longer he thought about it, though, the more he wondered if he hadn’t seem some tiny flash of him in Malfoy’s eyes before he’d apparated to the Astronomy Tower.

“Oi!”

Harry started as Ron snapped his fingers in front of his face.

“You look like a fucking ghost, mate.”

Harry scowled, taking a sip of his mostly untouched ale. It was lukewarm. He hadn’t been paying attention to whatever Ron was talking about, and it looked like he was about to be given shit for it.

“Was the questioning that bad?” Hermione asked, leaning forward to prop her elbows on the table. “You really do look awful.”

“Thank you both for telling me how terrible I look. It’s nice to know after all we’ve been through we still make an effort to be kind to each other.”

“Did they make you reenact stuff or something?” Ron asked, downing his drink. His cheeks were already flushed and there was a glazed look to his gaze. He must have had another when Harry wasn’t paying attention. He’d cut his hair in the week or so since he’d kicked Harry out of his flat and he wore rather nice slacks under his summer robes. Harry felt a little stab of affection when he thought of Ron going shopping for new clothes.

“Nothing so exciting.”

“Pity,” Ron said with an exaggerated sigh. “Can’t go wrong with a good reenactment. But maybe that’s for the actual trials. Dramatic readings? A few pencil sketches?” He chuckled to himself.

“Ron,” Hermione chided, scowling as he rose from his seat. “You aren’t going for another, are you?”

“Harry’s about to unload all his problems unto us. Serious topics require serious beverages.” He nodded at Harry. “You want another? Shot of firewhisky?”

“No, I’d better not. I have to be in all day tomorrow, too.”

“I’ll take a tonic and lime,” Hermione said, giving Ron a disapproving look. “And you should too. I’m not carrying you back to your flat.”

Ron’s face tightened. As he moved off, Harry thought he saw Ron muttering something under his breath.

“What’s his problem?”

Hermione sighed heavily. “I told him I was thinking about taking some time to visit family this fall. As you can imagine, he’s taking it poorly.”

Harry paused in taking his drink. “Aren’t your parents back? You said they were fine.”

“They are. A little rattled, and more than a bit upset with me, obviously, but fine. I meant my father’s family in Lagos. Apparently my great aunt is putting together some kind of reunion in October, and I’ve never spent much time with them. I mean, obviously, they’re all muggles, but… My dad’s been mentioning it constantly. I think he really wants me to go with him.” She shrugged, pushing back her sleek brown hair and playing with one of her earrings.

It was odd, her looking like a normal person. He’d gotten so used to seeing her dirty and tired and haunted, her hair even more insane and unkempt than Harry’s had gotten, by the end. She was wearing a soft pink jumper and simple khakis and she looked healthy and relatively happy—and Harry didn’t know why that hit him so hard all of a sudden. She looked normal. Tired, but normal. Just like Ron.

Meanwhile he still looked like he’d been sleeping on the ground for eight months.

“Seems like as good a time as any,” she continued, “with school not starting back up until next year. And I think my parents—” She frowned, shaking her head. “I think they want to spend time with me too. Away from—this.”

Harry nodded, taking another sip of his ale to give him time to shake himself out of the weird disconnect he suddenly felt. “Sure. That makes sense.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” She huffed and tipped back the rest of her drink, wincing. “Ugh. I don’t know why you find this enjoyable.”

“There’s a reason I’m drinking ale right now,” Harry said with a smile. He laughed as she screwed up her face and mock gagged. “You know you don’t have to drink if you don’t want to.”

“I know I don’t have to,” she said waspishly. “I’m holding out for the day I find something that doesn’t taste like piss or nail polish remover. There’s got to be some reason everyone’s so obsessed.”

“You could try hard drugs,” Harry suggested pleasantly.

She fixed him with a glare that had no teeth. “I would hope you would intervene if I did.”

“Right, because you’re very receptive to other people’s helpful advice.”

“As opposed to you.”

“I don’t have a stubborn bone in my body.”

“And I fancy trying out for the Holyhead Harpies,” she said with a laugh. “I really think I’ve got a shot this year.”

Harry tried to mask his discomfort at the second mention of Ginny’s favorite team.

“What’s that look?” Hermione asked at once.

Couldn’t she just be dim for a second and let him off? “This is just my face,” he muttered.

“Yes, the one you wear when you don’t want to talk about something.”

He fought the urge to look over his shoulder to check if Ron was coming back with the drinks. “You, er, haven’t spoken to Ginny in a while, have you?”

Hermione blinked, concern making her brows shoot up at once. “No. I haven’t gotten a chance yet, I’ve only been back a few days.” She went quiet and leaned toward him. “What’s wrong? Did something—”

“We split up,” he said quickly, before he could lose his nerve. “It’s fine, really,” he added as her mouth popped open on a gasp. “It was—mutual and it happened almost two months ago, now, so…” He shrugged.

He was a bit lonely, sure, but every time he thought about Ginny these days, it was just a small sadness. Followed by a healthy amount of self-loathing, but still, only a bit sad. He missed her, but only because she was brilliant and he liked spending time with her.

What really gnawed at him was the fact that he wasn’t more upset about it. He missed the life he’d imagined for them over the year he spent on the run, the fantasy of a happy ending after he did what he was supposed to do. The one where they’d have kids and settle down and live the life his parents never had and he’d finally be normal.

Before he’d killed Voldemort, that life was one of the only things which kept him going. Now it just seemed like one of the many things built on top of shifting sands, washing away with the sea.

“Oh, Harry,” Hermione murmured, reaching across the table and taking his hand. “Why didn’t you say anything? Does Ron know?”

“Apparently not. I haven’t told him.” He looked away from her intensely concerned expression. “I didn’t want to make things weird. We haven’t exactly spent a lot of time together this summer, and he’s been busy with George and the store. I didn’t…want to give him anything to get worked up over. He’s so happy,” he finished lamely, knowing it was a shit excuse.

Hermione squeezed his hand. “Things will get better, I promise. You two love each other, you have for so long. Give it some time, all right? I’m sure you’ll make it work again.”

Harry didn’t meet her gaze, not wanting to lie to her but not wanting to have this conversation right now. The day of questioning had been bad enough, he didn’t need to deal with this too. “Maybe,” he allowed, summoning a tight smile. “But…listen can you not mention it to Ron for a while? At least until after the trials are over. I feel like everything’s a bit mad right now, and I’ll feel a hell of a lot better when I can breathe again, you know?”

She looked for a moment like she wasn’t going to let him off that easy, but something in his eyes must have convinced her, because she just pursed her lips and nodded. “If that’s what you want.”

He smiled gratefully at her, giving her hand a squeeze for good measure. “Thanks, Hermione.”

She breathed deep and sighed, a fond kind of exasperation twisting her mouth.

“Hey,” Harry said, asking before he could convince himself not to, “you haven’t heard of something called an Anilex Orb, have you?”

Hermione blinked. “I…yes? Why?”

“What is it, exactly?”

“An extremely powerful magical artefact that projects an aura of decay for at least twenty feet on all sides, an archaic form of the Degradation Curse, but much more potent.” She frowned, but kept going, like she couldn’t help but tell him everything she knew about it. “There were only ever five made. Apparently, the wizard who created them was considered something of a madman, because no one ever tried to replicate it. Or if they did, they didn’t live to tell anyone else.”

“Only five?”

“Well, only five recorded, anyway.” Hermione leaned forward, brow furrowed. “Why are you so curious?”

“I overheard someone talking about it today,” he said after a short pause, trying to invent some reason that didn’t involve him lurking under a window, eavesdropping on the Minister for Magic. “Sounded…interesting.”

“Interesting,” Hermione repeated. “I suppose that’s one way to put it.”

“Where’d you learn about it?”

Her expression slipped into her normal exasperation at him not knowing something he should have. “In History of Magic, of course. Grindlewald used one in the Battle Under Paris only a few months before Dumbledore defeated him.”

Harry stared. “Grindlewald.”

Hermione nodded, concerned. “You just…heard someone talking about this today? In the Ministry?”

“Yeah.”

Her eyes narrowed at him, and he had the uncanny feeling that she didn’t believe any of this. “How odd.”

“Yeah,” Harry repeated.

What the hell were a few teenagers doing with something like that?

“Anyway,” he said without grace, trying not to look troubled, “you were talking about your family in Lagos. Your parents want you to go?”

Her lips pursed. “I was.” It took her a few moments, but she seemed to decide to let this go as well. She leaned back and slumped in her chair. “They haven’t said so in as many words, but I think they do. My father keeps saying I might benefit from a more well-rounded education. There’s a program at the university there that seems interesting.”

“You’re going to go to a muggle school?” He blinked. “Is that…allowed?”

“Of course. I’m not the first muggleborn to think about it. It’s a bit complicated, but there’s a small wizarding society in the city and they apparently do this quite often.” She smiled. “I have to say, it’d be interesting to see what it’s like. I used to dream about going to university as a child, where I would apply.”

Harry snorted. “Of course you dreamed about university.”

She narrowed her eyes at him but let it go. “I’m not sure when I’d get another experience like this. And I would truly love to meet my extended family.”

“You don’t have to explain it to me, Hermione,” Harry said quietly, smiling. “It makes sense.”

Her gaze went distant. “I think it makes sense too. My parents—they were terrified when I finally told them what happened, after I…fixed them. They weren’t even mad about what I did, they just… I felt—god, Harry, I felt horrible. It took them two weeks just to let me leave the house alone. It’s perfectly reasonable for me to take a few months off and spend time with my parents. But…” She trailed off, looking over Harry’s shoulder where Ron was probably standing at the bar. “I don’t know. It’s fine. Ron is just. You know.”

Harry wondered if he shouldn’t try to stay out of it. He’d thought about this a bit already, and he’d decided not to interfere in anything when it came to Ron and Hermione’s relationship. He’d had enough of being a go-between during school. He sympathized with Ron, really, but it sounded like Hermione needed this. And he couldn’t exactly blame her for wanting to connect with her family, to take some time away.

In fact, the more Harry thought about it, the more appealing it sounded.

“Give him a week and he’ll be fine,” Harry said. “I think he’s probably just disappointed he can’t keep you in his brand new flat forever.”

Hermione fought a smile. “It is quite nice. Very modern.”

“Streamlined.”

“God, what was the thing about the future being—”

“The look of the future is sleek and simple, and the New Millenium will be christened with chrome.” Harry snorted. “Must have gotten that out of a brochure. There was also something about the silver balls balancing out the energy but I stopped listening at that point because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten out alive.”

Hermione laughed, and then quickly covered her mouth as Ron slid back into his seat.

“What did I miss?” Ron asked with a frown, holding Hermione’s drink away when she tried to take it. “Did you make a joke about me while I was getting you a drink?”

“We were talking about your new flat,” Harry said, hiding his grin behind his mug. “How contemporary and sparse it is.”

“Oh, ha, ha,” Ron rolled his eyes as he let Hermione snatch her drink, “yes, very funny. There’s no accounting for taste with you two.” He glared at Harry’s smile. “All right. Fess up. What’d they do to you and what should we expect if they finally call us in?”

Harry shrugged. “It was pretty standard, and after a while I think they realized I didn’t have much to say. They asked me about Hogwarts kids today, mostly, which I didn’t know much about beyond…” He cleared his throat, trying not to think about Malfoy. “Just weird. They brought in people from outside Britain to help, you know.”

“I heard,” Hermione said. “It makes sense. The International Confederation of Wizards usually offers aid to countries after a war.”

“Where were they during the war, though?” Harry asked. “Seems like we could have used the help a year ago. Now it’s just a slap in the face, isn’t it? ‘Sorry about all those people who died, but here are a few aurors who can come in and start telling you how to punish your own bloody citizens.’ ”

“Is that what they’re doing?” Ron asked.

“Not entirely. I got interviewed by Robards and two—”

“Wait, Robards—the Head Auror, Robards?”

“Yeah. He seemed all right, actually. Bit of a stiff, but nice.”

“I’m sure,” Ron laughed. “He offer you a job right away or did he make you wait for it to heighten the anticipation?”

Harry looked down at his ale, frowning. Malfoy had made the same joke. He didn’t know why it bothered him so much. It was the plan, after all. Join the Aurors’ Office. Keep fighting dark wizards. He’d known people would be grateful to him, but it seemed like the world had decided to treat him like he knew everything when it came to this stuff. Like he wasn’t an eighteen-year-old kid who hadn’t even finished school. Shouldn’t he be more experienced? Why the hell did they think he was ready to just slide into that kind of a job, a kind of job that regularly dealt with peoples’ lives?

“He told me to come in for a chat, if I wanted,” Harry said when he realized he’d been quiet too long.

“Good!” Ron reached over and clapped him on the shoulder. “There’s your career sorted, then. Hermione, how does it feel to be the one who isn’t prepared for once?”

Harry took another drink of his ale instead of commenting.

“You said there were two others?” Hermione asked him, her eyes a bit too focused.

“French bloke named Proulx. Acted like he had a broomstick up his ass the whole day. And a woman from America, Kamau. She was decent, actually.”

“Kamau?” Hermione asked, leaning forward. “Not Faye Lorelai Kamau?”

“Yeah. Was I supposed to know who she was?”

Hermione gasped, looking both excited and exasperated. “Oh my god. She’s—she’s an absolute legend! She was one of the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. She led the charge for desegregation in the MACUSA Department of Magical Law Enforcement. She’s the foremost authority about human rights when it comes to racial relations in Wizarding America, and she’s worked on so many high profile cases, mostly serial killers and cult leaders. She’s also apparently a total badass when it comes to dueling. She’s won awards and everything.” Her expression dropped. “I suppose she’d understand completely what went wrong here, with her experience.”

“Yeah, I got that impression.”

“All right,” Ron said slowly, “so this Proulx was an arse. Kamau was nice. And Robards practically offered you a job.”

“He told me to come in for a talk.”

Ron scoffed. “Yeah, but that’s a formality, right? They’re probably polishing up your Order of Merlin right now. You’re the fucking Chosen One, mate. What are they going to do? Make you interview?”

“Did anything else happen, Harry?” Hermione pressed. “You just seem a little—”

“Mopey,” Ron supplied.

“Upset,” Hermione said with a sharp look to Ron.

Harry struggled for a moment, not sure, exactly, how to explain what he was feeling. Could he tell them about the kids in Azkaban, about Ravenna Lamar?

The fact that he wasn’t sure made a stone drop down into the pit of his stomach.

At Hermione’s continued and very pointed stare, he said, “I ran into Malfoy on my way out.”

Ron set his drink down hard on the table. “Well, why didn’t you just say that first? That git would ruin anything.”

“Did he try something?” Hermione’s voice dropped in anger. “If he threatened you—”

“No, no, it wasn’t like that.” Harry set his drink down and leaned back in his chair, frowning. “It was fine, actually. Just a surprise, I guess.”

“Again,” Ron said, “perfectly reasonable. If Malfoy snuck up on me the rest of my day would be ruined too. Surprised he isn’t locked up with his parents.”

Hermione pursed her lips. “He’ll have wormed his way out of it, of course. Claimed he was too young to know better.”

Ron nodded, scowling. “Merlin’s pants, you’d think they’d know better by now. He’s got a bleeding dark mark, hasn’t he? What more do they need? Why the hell would they just let him go free like that?”

He’s not free. He’s got that thing on his ankle.

Harry stared at the condensation on his mug, a confusing mess of conflict in his chest. “Might have something to do with attacking Voldemort before anyone else.”

There was a moment of silence as Harry felt them share a look.

“But that was a show, obviously,” Ron said slowly, like he was waiting for Harry to agree with him. “That was all to make it seem like he wasn’t with the other death eaters when the dust finally settled.”

Harry looked up at him incredulously. “He nearly blew himself up to make it less likely he’d go to Azkaban?”

“Key word being ‘nearly,’ yeah. He survived, didn’t he? How do we know that wasn’t his plan all along? He could have turned hours before but he waited until the last second.”

“I seem to remember him not attacking us in the Room of Requirement.”

Ron laughed, eyes wide like he thought Harry was putting him on. “Yeah, cause he was too much of a coward—”

“So he was a coward when faced with us, but not Voldemort?”

Ron’s mouth hung open for a second before he closed it with a frown.

“Sorry,” Harry muttered, letting his eyes close for a second. “Been a shite day.”

A shite life, really.

“Harry,” Hermione started gently, “if there’s something you need to talk about, you know you can.”

Harry fought the urge to laugh.

He might have been able to once, but he didn’t know if he could now.

“I just—don’t like the way the Ministry seems to be handling this,” Harry waved his hand, unable to adequately convey what he meant, “this whole situation. It just seems harsh, that’s all.”

“Handling Malfoy?” Ron asked, seemingly trying to keep his expression neutral.

“No, not Malfoy. All of them. The Slytherins. Kids of death eaters or sympathizers.” He could practically hear them both thinking he’d gone mad. “He turned over his house, you know,” he said quietly.

After a moment, Hermione scoffed. “Turned over? Please. I’m sure the entire property was seized as soon as they had the manpower to do it without anyone getting hurt.”

“Sounded like it was voluntary.”

“Did he tell you that?”

Harry frowned at her before returning to his methodical tracing of one water droplet down the handle of the glass. “No, Robards did. Bill too. Malfoy got kind of pissy when I mentioned it, actually. Like he didn’t want to talk about it. Bill said he was being really cooperative. I even saw him offer to help, like he’s done it before.”

“Did you have a conversation with him?” Hermione asked incredulously.

“Well, yeah. This old bat was trying to shove her grandson on me and Malfoy scared her off.”

The moment he said it, he realized it was true. Malfoy had interrupted her, and then he had proceeded to insult her until she left. He’d been an ass about it later, but he’d clearly done it for some reason. He could have just let the old woman prattle on for a few minutes and watched Harry suffer through another tedious conversation.

But he’d interrupted. For no justifiable reason.

When he felt Ron and Hermione waiting for him to continue, his face flushed. “What was I supposed to do? Just walk away and ignore him?”

“Yes, obviously,” Hermione said at the same time Ron said, “You could have hexed him. That would have shut him up.”

Harry looked between them, then back down at his drink.

“You were in the Ministry of Magic, Harry.” Ron laughed darkly. “You could have eviscerated him and people would understand.”

The sound in the bar went suddenly static, like all the air had rushed into Harry’s ears and started screaming. His grip tightened on his mug. His heart pounded.

Malfoy lying on the ground, blood seeping into his white shirt, skin grey where it was cut into neat slices of slow-blooming red which turned into ink the moment it joined the tiles beneath him, mouth open on a silent, choking scream, Harry saying over and over again that he hadn’t meant—

He managed to pull himself back out. He was staring down at the wood grain of the table. His hand was wet. He’d spilled some ale on it. His heart was still pounding, his whole body telling him he needed to run, to get out of this bar.

But it was just a memory. He was fine.

He took a deep breath. Waited. Blew it out. His hearing came back slowly, the tension leaking out of him into the air like a toxin.

“I didn’t actually mean—,” Ron started slowly.

“I know. It’s—it’s fine. They asked me about him earlier so I guess I just wasn’t expecting him.” He finished his drink to give him time to relax. It worked a bit. His hands weren’t shaking anymore as he wiped them off with a napkin Hermione offered him. “You know he has to check in everyday?” His voice sounded off to his own ears, higher and clipped, overprecise. “Him and all the other Slytherins. There’s a list and everything. Their wands are monitored, too.”

Ron just blinked at him incredulously, but Hermione frowned and said, “No. He was putting you on.”

“He wasn’t. They have ankle cuffs spelled so that if they don’t check in on time, they’re cursed.” He shook his head again, trying to control his voice. “They made a registry, again. Except this time it’s not muggleborns, it’s teenagers from Slytherin, coming in to make sure their parents behave. They’re being used as leverage.”

“Harry, you must not—” Hermione exhaled. “There must be more to the story. He was lying to you. He must have been.”

“Sorry,” Ron said loudly, “we’re not taking Malfoy’s word seriously, right? And even if it was true,” he shrugged, “serves him right.”

Harry stared at Ron. “You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not. So he’s being monitored? If there wasn’t a reason to come in, you know he’d be on the next boat across the pond. They wouldn’t be able to find that slippery ferret if they didn’t keep him on a tight leash.”

“He’s not wrong, Harry,” Hermione murmured, looking just as incredulous as Ron. “He deserves to be watched. You of all people should know that.”

Harry frowned, discomfort rising in his throat. Did he know that? “Sure, but he’s seventeen. He’s our age.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, harsh, “and you just killed the most powerful dark wizard in the last century. I don’t see how him being our age excuses him from being an evil git. It’s not like we’re running around killing and hexing innocent people.”

Ron and Hermione hadn’t killed anyone, sure, but Harry had. They’d watched him do it. They’d thanked him. Everyone had.

Harry’s knee started to bounce, anxiety still flickering through him like a faulty bathroom light.

“Wasn’t Voldemort sixteen when he murdered his father’s family?” Hermione asked.

He glared at her. It wasn’t the same. Malfoy wasn’t—

Wasn’t what? Why did comparing Malfoy to Voldemort make him want to smash his glass on the floor?

“Malfoy hasn’t murdered anyone,” Harry muttered.

Ron laughed harshly. “Pretty sure we all saw him murder his own aunt, Harry.”

“You mean the aunt who tortured Neville’s parents, killed Sirius, and carved a slur into Hermione’s arm?” Harry watched Ron’s conflicted guilt morph back into stubborn defiance. “You’re gonna call me out for defending Slytherins and in the same breath—”

“Harry,” Hermione said sharply, her eyes fixed on the table, “stop it. You know that’s not what Ron meant.”

“What about the other kids?” he asked when it looked like Ron was going to interrupt him. “What about the eleven- and twelve-year-olds? Even the ones without parents who were death eaters have to come in. Most of them weren’t death eaters, but their kids are still being treated like war criminals. Proulx suggested it, I think, but the new Head of Magical Law Enforcement agreed. She was the one who made sure Hogwarts closed. So it’s not even from the outside. It’s our own people putting those bleeding cuffs on those kids. Treating them like—”

Like they were dangerous, and couldn’t be trusted. Like nothing they did would ever be good enough.

Ron was staring at Harry like he was speaking a different language. “I still don’t see the problem.”

“The ankle cuffs have a Baleful Body-Bind Curse in them, Ron. You don’t think that’s extreme?”

“I think it was extreme when they started trying to round up muggleborns and kill them, so no, I don’t think scaring a few Slytherins is anywhere close to extreme.”

“Most of those kids haven’t done anything. Most of those kids were just caught up in it.”

“They didn’t do anything to stop it, either. You heard what went on at school last year. The Slytherins were given free reign to do whatever they wanted, and it was a fucking nightmare.”

Harry held his gaze. Some part of him completely agreed with Ron. This was nowhere near the kind of trauma inflicted on the country while Voldemort was in power. Most of these kids benefited from a pureblood-first ideology. And he was also pretty sure most of them had been perfectly happy to let a few muggleborn and halfblood witches and wizards get tortured, because it wasn’t their problem. They were safe, and so were their families. A lot of them probably didn’t even think about fighting back or standing up for the other.

But they didn’t know for sure. There was no way to know.

“Harry, this is ridiculous,” Hermione muttered. “You don’t even know if it’s—”

Harry didn’t know if it was the sharp tone of her voice, or his heart still ricocheting around in his throat from his flashback, but he couldn’t let it go. He turned around and called, “Bill!”

Bill looked up over the heads of his friends. “What’s up, Harry?”

“Could you come over here for a second?”

Bill nodded after a second, confused. “Sure thing.” As he came over, Charlie shot Harry a curious glance, but he stayed where he was.

Ron’s mouth was hanging open when Harry turned back around. “The bloody hell is wrong with you? You’re not actually upset about this, are you?”

“Ron,” Hermione warned.

Harry wasn’t sure why he was angry, or why this was making him feel like his skin was too tight for his bones, but he couldn’t get the image of Ravenna Lamar out of his head—

“Everything okay?” Bill asked, taking the seat next to Harry and sliding in.

“Did you know about the mandatory check-ins for Slytherin kids?”

Bill tensed as he met Harry’s gaze, alarm in his eyes before his expression closed off entirely.

Harry felt his stomach drop. Until that moment, he’d been able to convince some part of him that Malfoy had been lying, playing it up, trying to mess with Harry’s head—but he saw it in Bill’s eyes. He saw the flicker of shame, the same discomfort Harry felt in the twist of his mouth. It was all true. And Bill knew how wrong it was.

His conflict took a sharp turn into fully-fledged outrage.

“Kingsley approved it, didn’t he?” Harry asked after a tense silence.

Bill looked around, making sure there was no one listening in, but the Leaky Cauldron was mostly empty now, only a group of witches in the corner who seemed sloshed out of their minds.

“Look,” Bill said, leaning in, “he didn’t have a lot of other options. Half the Wizengamot wanted to throw the children of anyone suspected of being a death eater or a Voldemort sympathizer in jail with their parents. It was all Kingsley could do to keep them out until they got a fair trial. This was the best we could—”

“The best?” Harry said sharply. “The best he could do was strap bombs onto the legs of kids?”

Bill’s expression hardened as he breathed out, conflicted. “You shouldn’t even know about this.”

“Yeah, well, I do.” Harry’s jaw clenched. “So I guess they know it’s wrong or else they’d be shouting it from the rooftops, yeah? It’d be on the front of the Prophet like the rest of the trials. But maybe they think eleven-year-olds getting punished because of their parents wouldn’t sit well with their readers.”

“Harry,” Hermione hissed. “Calm down.”

Harry looked at her incredulously. “You’re okay with this too?”

“They’re not just rounding kids up at random, Harry.” Something cold slipped into her eyes as she frowned. “Ron’s right. All of them are Slytherins, all of them are from families who were fine with letting people like me get killed. It’s not the same. You know it’s not.”

Harry stared, his heartbeat loud against the rush of blood in his ears.

Unbidden, from the dark recesses of his mind, came the Sorting Hat’s soft, whispered words. You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that…

He’d never given much thought to the house system before. It had made sense, putting people who were similar together, judging people by their values and their morals.

But how many times had heard about the cruelty of Slytherin House before he even got to Hogwarts? Hagrid, Ron, they’d both come right out and said that Slytherins were evil, no question. Getting to know Malfoy and his goons had only confirmed this, and Snape had set out to make his life hell the moment he walked in the door. The rivalry, the antagonism—his first year at Hogwarts had been framed by it, and every year since. Slytherin versus the rest of the school, the rest of the world.

Because a hat decided you were a bit ambitious and superior when you were eleven?

“This isn’t a topic for a pub,” Bill said quietly. “Let’s just—get out of here and we can talk about it, okay?”

Harry stood without looking at Bill and muttered, “No, I think I’m good.” His chair made a jarring noise as he shoved it back under the table. He was too close to throwing Ravenna Lamar and the other two kids in his face, just to see him try to defend that, but he knew better. It wouldn’t help his case.

He wasn’t supposed to know anything about this, after all.

“Harry, come on,” Bill said, reaching for him.

Harry rounded on him, eyes flicking from him to Ron and Hermione, all of them wearing similar expressions of startled concern. It pushed him over the last cliff into the anger simmering so close to the surface since Malfoy’d showed him the cuff. Since he’d had to sit in a chair in the same place Sirius had died and answer questions about the war he’d been fighting since he was a baby.

“Tell me how using children to punish their parents is a good thing, Bill,” Harry said, low and rough. “Tell me how threatening the lives of children is a fucking good thing.” He lifted his left hand, showing Bill the scars there, vindicated by the quick look of disgust on Bill’s face. “Because from my experience, it doesn’t work. You know what you get when you terrorize kids? A bunch of terrified kids.” He dragged a hand through his hair, agitated, and said, harshly, “You know I almost thought for a second things were different, that the Ministry might actually have learned something. But they’re the same. They’re the exact fucking same.”

He left without looking at any of them, not caring if they followed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Charlie get to his feet and walk toward him in alarm, but he seemed to think better of trying to stop Harry.

He made it to the apparition point in the alley out back, grateful there wasn’t queue. The wards on his new flat gave him a bit of trouble—one of the protega maxima charms he’d laid down on the steps felt like it’d gone a bit wonky—but then he was alone.

He threw a few orbs of light into the air, as if lighting the interior of his empty apartment was going to help him calm down.

They were kids. Most weren’t even of age. If it had just been Malfoy, he might have understood. It would have been overkill, but fine. He was a death eater. He’d taken the dark mark. That was a choice. He’d turned before the end and when Harry let himself admit it, he was one of the reasons Harry was even alive to kill Voldemort. He might even understand the other seventh years. But the rest of them…

And no one fucking cared. Because they were Slytherins, no one gave a fuck.

Why did he care? He’d hated Slytherins just as much as Ron and Hermione. He’d thought they were vile, cruel, racist pieces of shit. Malfoy more so than anyone else.

He scrubbed his hands through his hair as he paced back and forth.

This was wrong. It was wrong to make children responsible for a war they hadn’t chosen to fight in. It was wrong to treat children like soldiers, to punish them like criminals because of their parents’ actions.

It had to be wrong.

He stopped, staring through the window looking down onto the green in front of the building. Traffic lights reflected off the drops of water, flashing red, then green, then red again. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, and when he opened them he thought he saw a shape move behind one of the trees. He relaxed when another figure walked up to the tree and pulled the first out, both of them disappearing slowly down the road.

“I’m going fucking mental,” he whispered.

He threaded his hands behind his neck, stretching—and then an idea cut through the static. He checked the time and winced. It was probably too late, but he could try. He felt some glimmer of hope for the first time in twenty-four hours and he knew he’d stay up all night if he didn’t do something. He knelt by the fireplace and picked up a dash of floo powder, certainty making his heart beat a bit slower.

He waited a few seconds, the green flames around his face almost tickling.

A kitchen materialized as the flames retreated. A kitchen he’d only seen a bit of, the only time he’d been there. From what he could see now, the house had been rebuilt, mostly. There was a conspicuous absence in the center of the round room, but then a green tartan dress with what looked like bananas stitched onto the skirts appeared, and Harry smiled.

“Harry?” Luna said, eyes wide and smiled even wider. “Why, hello, Harry! This is a wonderful surprise!”

“Hiya, Luna.” Harry grimaced. “Sorry about the late call.”

“Oh, don’t you worry. I’m up to watch the meteor shower, of course.”

“I didn’t know there was a meteor shower tonight. Not that I’d be able to see it in London.”

“The trick is to watch for the kettlefoxes,” she said, nodding sagely. It looked as if there were streamers tied into her hair, except they were wriggling slightly, like long worms, but not…entirely disgusting. “They know when the buzzsprites all come up from underground. Kettlefoxes do love buzzsprites. I don’t know why—they taste too much like those muggle spark plugs Arthur Weasley has in his shed. Horrible things to eat. We tried putting them in a pie once, but it was no good. Daddy thinks it was probably the type of jelly, but I think they’re just unpleasant. All that anger makes them too spicy, you know.”

“Right. I’ll take your word for it.” Harry cleared his throat, silently accepting that he didn’t want to know why Luna knew what spark plugs tasted like. “I, uh, wouldn’t know anything about buzzsprites.”

“Well you grew up in the suburbs. They only live near the roots of the cornflower trees.”

“I thought cornflowers were—flowers.”

“They are, but sometimes they come together to make a tree. It’s how they make love.”

Harry thought he should be congratulated on not swallowing his own tongue. Instead, he just gave a little choked sound of surprise.

“You know,” Luna continued, looking far too earnest and just a bit concerned, “sex? I’m talking about—”

“Yeah, Luna, I know what sex is.” Harry grinned, going a bit red around the ears.

Luna hummed, as if she were skeptical, and Harry’s mood flagged a bit in the face of that well-meaning pity.

In the silence as she considered him, he had the horrible realization that Luna was quite close to Ginny. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think Ginny had confided in her about their night of sad, disappointing sex. The pathetic coda to a relationship which had been crawling on by a string.

Then again, it was Luna, who was kind and probably not at all interested in Harry’s failure to please a woman sexually.

“It’s strange, actually,” she continued over his moment of panic, “because the kettlefoxes usually don’t chance coming out when it’s so near the new moon. Don’t like to be caught out when the Wild Hunt gets going. They’re generally much more careful, but it’s been such a queer summer. Would you believe I counted fifteen hinkypunks in July alone? Normally I’d be lucky to see one all year! I didn’t even have to go out to the river. They just floated up the hill, bold as you please.”

Harry remembered hinkypunks from third year, of Remus animatedly telling them how to avoid them.

“Are you all right, Harry?”

“Yeah, sorry.” Harry tried to smile over the tight pain memories of Remus still caused him. “Zoned out for a second.”

She stared at him, big blue eyes startling in their intensity. “Have you been spending a lot of time in Wiltshire this summer?”

“Er, no? I did spend a month with Bill and Fleur down in Cornwall, and that’s pretty close.” He hesitated, wondering if he shouldn’t chance asking. “Why?”

Her eyes moved to a point just above his head and she chewed on her bottom lip. “Hmm. Well, you have a veritable flock of wrackspurts in your hair right now. You’ve always attracted them more than others, but this seems excessive.”

Harry stared. “Is that bad?”

“Oh, no, it doesn’t have to be, if they’re the good kind. I don’t have my spectrespecs with me right now, I lent them to Rolf, so I can’t tell for sure. Do you feel an unusual amount of gloom lately?”

Harry blinked. He certainly seemed to be feeling worse than normal, but Harry’s normal wasn’t exactly healthy either.

“I—” He frowned. “I don’t really know how to answer that, Luna.”

Her forehead creased. “Oh, Harry. If you like I can send you some of Daddy’s clover tea. It might help clear your head out. You could also try wearing your shirts inside out for a few days to scare them away. Might help you think a bit more brightly.”

A thread of warmth blossomed in his chest. He couldn’t help but smile. “I’ll try that, thanks. Unless—is this tea…er, safe?”

“Of course it’s safe! You just can’t drink it if you’re going swimming or if you fancy a walk by the sea. I’d take it at night, too, as sometimes it can make you rather tired, but that’s just the dreamroot powder. You don’t take a hallucinogenic regularly, do you?”

Harry laughed. “Only on Sundays.”

Her eyes narrowed, but she was still smiling. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I don’t know that drugs would be a good idea for me.”

“You never know. It’s all in who you do it with.” She settled down and crossed her legs, folding her hands delicately on her lap. He could see now that they were covered in green paint. “So what did you need, Harry? I assume it’s not a social call.”

His chest constricted in guilt. “I—well, no. But I’m not—”

“Oh, I know, you’re very busy. I’m not needling.” Her smile was warm and gentle, and Harry felt like the world’s biggest prat for not checking in sooner. “The trials start soon, don’t they?”

“They do. That’s why I’m calling, actually.” Harry took a deep breath, Luna’s open face reassuring as he made the decision. “I was wondering if your dad had any plans to start up the Quibbler again.”

 

Chapter Text

 

The next few days of questioning went by as slowly as the first, except now Harry had lost whatever good will for the Ministry he’d managed to drum up over the last few months—making the whole process that much more painful. It didn’t help that Proulx seemed determined to provoke Harry whenever he could. Kamau and Robards continued to be friendly but firm, though Robards seemed to sense Harry’s lack of enthusiasm and was doing his best to reassure Harry that his department was aware of their past failings and committed to reforming. More than once, he admitted its flaws, and hinted heavily that he’d need new blood to shake things up. Young people who understood the risks, knew firsthand how to defend themselves.

It was about as blatant a job pitch as Harry could get without the old man outright asking.

Harry took his reassurances with a tight smile, well aware that Robards thought he was telling the truth. But when he saw Malfoy walk in every night, passing Harry on his way out, sometimes followed by other Slytherins, some from his year, even—Daphne Greengrass, Blaise Zabini, Theodore Nott—he wanted to march up to the Aurors’ Office and shout Robards down, to find this Yeats woman and ask her how the hell she thought this was all right.

He’d looked into it himself, managing to convince a bright-eyed and overeager receptionist who clearly wanted to do nothing more than help Harry however he could to let him into the Ministry records, and he’d been right about the severity of the punishment. While there were no laws in place that prohibited this kind of deterrent with this level of severity, it’d been struck from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement’s policies over a century ago. More than one Head Auror had seemed to find punishing children distasteful in their written files surrounding the change.

It didn’t make him feel better. It made him angrier, honestly, pulling in all the horrible detritus of the last few months and forming it into this compressed ball of fury. But he held back. He made himself be patient, something he’d never gotten the hang of and hated almost as much as the anger, and so he waited.

On his fourth day of questioning Hermione joined him, looking wary but stubborn—wearing the same expression he recognized from school whenever she’d been building up to chastising him or challenging him on something. She tried to talk about the fight in the Leaky Cauldron, but Harry shook her off once he realized she had no interest in hearing him out. She didn’t press the issue beyond a few pointed, heavy looks, but Harry knew she wasn’t satisfied. Probably wanted to wait until after the trials were over to bring it up again. Ron hadn’t been asked to come in for questioning much, and Harry saw little enough of him as it was. Which was fine. Hermione might be insufferably unwilling to let anything go, but she at least tried to pretend things weren’t weird. Ron would sulk until one of them caved, and Harry didn’t feel like engaging with him right now.

He knew he’d be in for it when the Quibbler came out in a few weeks’ time—its first issue since Xenophilius had stopped production after Luna’s capture. The man had been understandably eager to print whatever Harry wanted. Most likely he still felt bad about trying to hand him over to the death eaters that one time, and conducted an informal interview right there on the spot. It’d be a small piece, short and to the point, and it would give him the publicity to get the magazine back up and running again. He’d asked for time to put the business back together, see if he couldn’t get a few more people to confirm his story—though he’d reassured Harry he would print the story regardless—and Harry had thanked him. That night, he slept better than he had in months.

When he woke in the morning, it was to the realization that he no longer wanted to become an auror.

It became more evident as the week went on that he couldn’t work for the Ministry. Not as it was, anyway. After the long days of questioning as they walked out of the Ministry together, he listened to Hermione talk about reforming it from the inside, about working within the system to change it for the better. That was all well and good. Harry sincerely wished her the best of luck, because if anyone could do it, it’d be her.

But he couldn’t ignore the creeping disgust he felt for the whole bloody place when he watched kids walk through the atrium on their own, faces drawn in fear, hands shaking where they were shoved into their pockets or clutched at their sides. He knew what it felt like to have the Ministry treat you like a delinquent.

He couldn’t be a part of that. Not right now. Maybe never. He was too angry. Too bitter.

Besides, he had a feeling they wouldn’t be too keen on him either once the story broke.

So when he woke to a new copy of the Quibbler sitting on his back porch, on the cover a somber, simple illustration of a girl sitting on a bench with her face hidden and a manacle on her ankle, he was relieved. He read through the article, surprised by the addition of an anonymous source from the Ministry itself which confirmed everything and lent support for Harry’s condemnation of the practice. He wondered who it was—if it was Arthur or Bill, maybe Percy felt bad enough to throw him a bone. He hadn’t seen Kingsley since the trials started, but he knew it would be too much to hope he’d read this and realize he was feeding into the same cycle they’d gone through during the war.

This was the last day of trials. The last day of walking into the Ministry and looking into the eyes of the actual monsters who were to blame for the war, the death eaters who’d killed people he loved and the Ministry officials who’d stood there and watched, then he was done. He wouldn’t have to walk through the mob of journalists and photographers every morning. He wouldn’t have to listen to all the horrible details recounted again and again, listen to the names of the dead, the lists of atrocities committed against muggleborns and anyone who stood up for them or against Voldemort.

It would be over. For good. He could move on.

He had no idea what he was going to do tomorrow, but thought he might to disappear for a while, get out of London and away from all of this. He was pretty sure Bill wouldn’t want him back at Shell Cottage after he’d read the article, and he didn’t want to try the Weasleys. He had no idea what Ginny would think, but he knew it wouldn’t be good. Ron had already kicked him out once.

Maybe Andromeda would let him stay with her and Teddy. If she didn’t think he was mad as well.

The full weight of it didn’t register until he was pulling on his suit and robes for the last time. He’d bought a few more, again with Andromeda’s help, when he realized he didn’t want to have to clean the bloody things every night. She showed him a handy spell to smooth out the wrinkles too, to make him look less like a rumpled vagrant who collected plastic bags for fun. They were nicer too, and even he had to admit, there was a difference in the cut and the line of his body. He stared in his mirror as he adjusted his tie, smoothed down his simple grey jacket. His image doubled and shifted, reminding him unnervingly of the Mirror of Erised. He was Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, the war hero, the person everyone kept expecting great things from—and then he was Harry, the kid who’d come out the other side of a war naive enough to think the world had changed.

He knew what people would think, what his friends would think. They’d be angry. Some might think he was betraying the people he’d fought for. They wouldn’t understand, but he didn’t blame them. People were still hurting and they wouldn’t want to hear about this, on top of everything else. He knew a lot of people he didn’t even know would get mad, but he couldn’t do nothing. And honestly? It was fine, if those people would just leave him alone. If the world could move on and stop bothering with him. If he could have a bit of peace and quiet to figure out what the fuck he was supposed to do with his life. The world could hate him for all he cared. Not like it’d make much of a difference.

He ran a hand through his hair, knowing there was nothing to be done for it—the messy black wave of it looked somewhat intentional. Most of it was going the same way, at least. He straightened his glasses. He didn’t look bad. He’d put back on some weight over the summer, Molly and Fleur both taking it upon themselves to shove as much food as they could at him. He was still too skinny, but at least his suit fit him now so it wasn’t so obvious. There were bags under his eyes and the shadow of stubble on his chin looked like it might be ready to grow in one of these days, but he had new, sharp shoes and his white collar was clean. He looked—older. Not quite like his dad in the pictures he had sitting on his bedside table, but closer than ever before, his skin a paler brown and his hair a deeper shade of black, his face growing longer to reflect his dad’s impressive jaw line.

All his life, he’d been told he looked like his dad. Staring into his mirror now, he finally saw it.

In a moment of self pity, he wondered what his parents would have thought of him turning on the Ministry. The only first hand experience he’d had of his parents was filtered through Snape’s memories, and they weren’t even in the same country as impartial. He had stories from their friends, sure, and everyone who’d known them thought they were good people, moral, brave people, who didn’t deserve what happened to them. Maybe they’d understand.

Of course, if they were in a position to tell him what they thought, he wouldn’t have gone through a war and learned exactly what it felt like when your protectors failed you.

“Right. Let’s get this over with,” he murmured as his throat tightened. The ghostly images of his mother and father, of Sirius and Remus, swam in his mind, every bit as clear as they had been that night in the Forbidden Forest.

He thought again about the Resurrection Stone just sitting in the dirt somewhere, covered in leaves and roots. He thought, for the first time, that maybe even shadows would be better than nothing.

As he was about to step in the fireplace to face what was sure to be a blood bath, an owl tapped softly on his kitchen window. He started. No one knew where he was living. He hadn’t told Ron or Hermione he’d bought a flat—not on purpose, but they were occupied with each other and their own lives—and everyone else had assumed he still lived at Grimmauld Place. It would come out eventually, of course. He’d signed a privacy agreement with the woman who sold him the flat, but he was sure she’d let slip sooner or later. It’s not like he’d hidden who he was.

No, the only person who knew where he lived was Andromeda.

After the second, more insistent tap of the owl, he moved to the window. With a small pang of heartache he fished a treat out of the little jar he kept there, stroking the bird’s head as it munched happily and gave him a soft hoot of thanks. It’d been over a year now since Hedwig’s death. He still didn’t know if he wanted to get another owl. Every time he really thought about it, it made him feel horrible. Like it was an insult to her memory.

The small envelope was a soft robin’s egg blue. He opened it carefully, wondering if it might be a howler, hoping she at least wanted him to explain. She’d lost her family to the war. She’d have more cause than most to think what he was doing was wrong.

 

Harry, darling,

I read the Quibbler this morning. I would chastise you for so recklessly courting the Wizarding World’s anger, but I’d be a hypocrite. I’m infinitely grateful someone so brave and so good as you is my grandson’s godfather. I know Sirius would be proud of you for doing the right thing. Even if it’s harder. Even if it hurts. Keep your head up. Trust your heart.

And come over this weekend so I can hug you properly, you wonderful boy.

Andromeda

 

Harry stared for a long time at Andromeda’s neat handwriting, unable to stop rereading, like if he set it down the words would vanish.

They didn’t talk about Sirius in the same way they didn’t talk about any of the people they’d lost. He was present, like Remus, Tonks, Ted, and Bellatrix were present. It was hard to imagine Bellatrix with a family, especially with Andromeda as family. She was so different, he sometimes forgot she’d left that life. Darling, though…that was all Narcissa.

He blinked furiously before he could start crying and folded the card back up, about to set it on the table before he tucked it into his pocket. So he had one person who wouldn’t want to strangle him. One person who thought he was doing the right thing.

The reassurance was enough to get him through his fireplace and into the Ministry of Magic, and after, well—he had plenty of practice being the center of unpleasant attention.

Sure enough, there was a huge crowd waiting in the hallway between the fireplaces. No one spotted him at first, and he wondered if maybe he could sprint for the atrium and an elevator before he was recognized.

As if the thought was what tipped them off, someone shouted his name, and they were on him.

“Potter—do you sympathize with death eaters now?”

“Harry Potter! What do you have to say to the families of muggleborns who died in the war?”

“Are you of sound mind, Potter?”

“How could you?”

“Do you have any statement regarding your support of Slytherin house?”

He walked steadily through the mob as copies of the Quibbler were shoved into his face. Bulbs flashed, blinding him a few times. He shoved and maneuvered, finally needing to cast a Nudging Charm every few feet as he made his way down to the atrium. The press wasn’t allowed to cross into the Ministry proper—Kingsley had banned them from the proceedings entirely.

It took him a solid five minutes to walk about thirty feet, but he got out without incident, managing to keep his mouth shut as the reporters hurled increasingly wild speculations at him. As soon as he stepped out of the throng and down the steps to the atrium, he spotted Hermione—waiting for him with her arms crossed, a badly crumpled copy of the Quibbler in her hand, and the kind of anger in her eyes Harry had long ago learned to fear.

“Are you out of your mind?” she snapped, not waiting for him to reach her before she let him have it. “What were you thinking?”

“Morning, Hermione,” he said blandly, catching the rolled up magazine as she tried to smack him with it. He held on as she tried to pull it back, which only made her angrier. “I didn’t know you still read the Quibbler.”

Her eyes widened in outrage, but before she shouted at him, he silenced her with a sharp look.

“Do you really want to do this here? In front of a hundred reporters and the entire Ministry of Magic?”

Her jaw clenched and she flushed dark red, but she kept her mouth shut as she followed him further into the atrium, round the back of the fountain. There wasn’t really any place to talk unless she wanted to shove him into one of the private toilets, but they were at least out of earshot of most people. He checked his pockets just in case, though. He’d found a listening bean in his jacket a few days ago and a tac in the sole of his trainers which would record his movements. Apparently they weren’t above illegally spying on people for their stories. Though, he shouldn’t have expected anything less from the British Media. He should just be happy Rita Skeeter hadn’t shown up yet.

With a steadiness he’d thought himself incapable of, Harry slid his hands into his pockets as he faced Hermione, and waited.

True to form, Hermione started in on him. “You don’t have anything to say for yourself?”

“What do you want me to say?”

Her nostrils flared. “How could you, Harry?”

He fought the urge to scowl. “I told you exactly how I felt a week ago. I haven’t stopped thinking what they’re doing is wrong. So yeah, I thought people should know what the Ministry’s trying to do.” He knew it was a low blow, but he added, “I thought of anyone you’d understand needing to tell people the truth.”

“Don’t you d—” She spluttered, crushing the Quibbler in her fist. “This is— Do you understand what this looks like? Three months after Hogwarts, and you’re siding with death eaters?”

“You can’t pull that with me, Hermione. You know there’s a difference between the people in black hoods and masks and the kids we went to school with. There’s no siding with anyone.”

“You have to realize what people are going to think when they read this! And over something Malfoy told you? Since when do you listen to Malfoy? I don’t—I don’t know how you could think this is acceptable. I don’t know why you’d believe him, you especially.”

“They are threatening kids,” Harry said steadily. “They are using teenagers as collateral to make sure their parents behave. Most of whom didn’t even fight during the war. How can you justify that?”

“Fine,” she snapped, throwing her hands up. “Fine. For the sake of argument, let’s say I agree with you. You think this,” she brandished the magazine, now little more than shreds of paper, “was the way to do it? You personally know the Minister for Magic. Everyone in this building would have listened to you if you’d done this properly. They respect you, and this is how you—”

“It shouldn’t have been done in the first place!” He rubbed a hand over his chin, trying to control his anger. He lowered his voice. “Why would I think they’d react any differently than they have in the past? Why would I be that naive? And bugger their respect, I don’t want it if they’re willing to do this.”

“You didn’t have to give Xenophilius Lovegood, of all the ludicrous—of all the people you could have spoken to, an exclusive. And you didn’t so much as mention this to me! How do you think I felt, reading this this morning? How do you think Ron felt? I wouldn’t be surprised if he refuses to talk to you for a month!”

Harry barked out a laugh, an old pain surfacing. “Neither would I. Be pretty in character, actually.”

A shadow flickered across her face. “You don’t mean that.”

“Yeah, I do, Hermione.” In for a penny… “How many times has he decided to cut me out because he’s pissed off and can’t be arsed to listen? How many times has he done that to you?”

“Stop it. Just—stop. You’re not the only one with scars, Harry,” she said, voice choked. Her hand jerked, almost as if she was going to clutch at her forearm where Bellatrix had cut into her skin.

His chest constricted like he’d been punched. “So—what? You want it to happen to someone else?”

“That’s not what I said!”

“That’s what you meant! How does scaring kids make up for what happened to us, other than putting them through the same kind of trauma we went through? Tell me how that’s all right, and I’ll march up there to those animals and retract the whole thing. I’ll take it all back if you can give me one reason a fifteen-year-old kid deserves to bear the weight of her parents’ crimes, other than revenge.”

Her eyes went dark, and her voice dropped. “It’s not that simple.”

“It’s exactly that simple, Hermione.”

“Why didn’t you talk—”

“I did!”

“Not seriously, you—”

“I sat there with you in that pub a week ago, and you and Ron and Bill all said it was fine. So don’t tell me you didn’t know how I felt. Don’t.”

Harry wished he could shake her until she understood, because he couldn’t be the only one who saw how messed up this was. He couldn’t be the only person who didn’t think hurting children was morally reprehensible. The only person willing to stand up and actually do something.

His steadiness faded, leaving behind only the raw place where his anger sat these days. “It’s not fine. Not to me,” he said quietly. “I’m not okay with this, Hermione.”

Hermione said nothing, eyes hard. Her brow furrowed and he could see how much she wanted to scream at him. He knew exactly how angry she was, and he hated knowing he was the cause of it, but he couldn’t do nothing because he didn’t want her or Ron to be mad or because he was worried what other people would think. She shoved a curl which had come free from her bun behind her ear, rolled her shoulders back to launch into another argument. Harry braced himself.

“Excuse me,” a small voice cut her off.

A girl stood a few feet away from them, hands primly folded in front of her immaculate robes, large eyes moving between him and Hermione. At first he didn’t recognize her—her hair was a lighter shade of brown, longer too. Her freckles weren’t as prominent.

But her eyes were big like her sister’s. Big and frightened.

This must be Ravenna’s sister.

“Hi,” he said, working through the violent knot in his chest. “It’s—Edlefina, right?”

Her eyes widened as she nodded. “Yes. Edlefina Lamar. I—I’m a year younger than you at school. In Sly—or I was, anyway. Not now, obviously.”

“Was there something you wanted?” Hermione said coldly.

Harry cut her a sharp look before saying, quietly, to Edlefina, “I remember who you are.”

She blinked, caught off guard. “I…” The girl swallowed, nervous, but stared with determination up at Harry. She was very short. It made her look a lot younger than seventeen. “I wanted to thank you. The interview you gave—it was kind. I don’t know you, obviously, but… It was… Thank you.”

A surge of self-loathing ripped through him, anger on her behalf. She’d lost her sister, and she was here, coming in to the same building where the aurors who’d killed Ravenna were working.

Harry could sense the attention of everyone around them in the relative silence of the atrium. It felt like a vice clamping around his neck.

“You don’t have to thank me,” he said, still quiet. “I meant it.”

“Not all of us wanted—,” she said too quickly, pausing. Her face went red but she held his gaze. “We weren’t all on—his side. We didn’t—we didn’t want…”

Harry fought the urge to reach out to her, to try to comfort her. He’d never spoken to this girl before, he probably wouldn’t have recognized her were it not for Ravenna’s face fixed in his mind, Malfoy’s mention of her.

But he knew the look in her eyes. Desperate and scared, relieved someone else knew and was trying to help.

“I know.” He tried for a smile. “You don’t have to justify it to me. Or anyone.”

Hermione’s head whipped toward him, but he didn’t acknowledge her.

Edlefina’s eyes shined with moisture. “I’m… I’m sorry for—”

“Fina.”

One of the other Slytherin girls had joined her, speaking softly. Harry recognized her at once. Daphne Greengrass’s hand hovered over Edlefina’s shoulder as she gave Harry a small, tight smile. Her auburn hair was tucked up into a neat bun, her robes austere and fine. She looked far older than she had the last time Harry’d seen her.

But he supposed that was true for all of them.

Her eyes brushed over him and rested on Hermione, something speculative about her gaze, before she turned again to Edlefina. “I think you’ve bothered the Gryffindors enough, don’t you, dear?” she said primly, her voice perfectly composed. “You’ve said what you meant, and now it’s best to leave things be.”

Edlefina blinked furiously and nodded, ducking her head to hide her tears. “Yes. I…” She gave Harry one last pained smile. “I…thank you. I’m fine, Daphne,” she added when it looked like Daphne was about to put an arm around her. She turned and walked back to the group, shoulders hunched.

Daphne remained, regarding Harry like he was about to attack her. “Potter,” she nodded, eyes flicking again to Hermione, “Granger.”

When Hermione remained silent, waves of tension pouring off her, Harry inclined his head. “Daphne.”

Her brow twitched, surprise taking over her features. “I… Fina’s been through a lot. I hope you’re not—”

“It’s fine,” he said at once. “I understand.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, a haughtiness showing there as if she couldn’t help it. “Do you?”

“Yes.”

Whatever she saw in his eyes, Daphne seemed more suspicious rather than reassured. “Well. We’ve got a sentencing hearing to go to, and unfortunately for us we’re not even in the main room. Going to be dreadfully boring, and I’m sure you both have better things to do than exchange awkward pleasantries for the next five minutes.”

Harry snorted.

Before Daphne left she dropped her gaze, head still turned toward them. “She’s not the only one, you know,” she murmured. “A lot of us regret what happened.”

Hermione let out a sharp laugh. “I’m sure you do.”

Daphne’s mouth twitched, as if amused. She gave Hermione a final long, pensive look from beneath her lashes. “A delight as always, Granger.”

Daphne joined Edlefina on the other side of the atrium, pressing a comforting hand to her back. A group of Slytherin girls lingered, though he could only recognize Millicent Bulstrode and Pansy Parkinson. Pansy was studiously not meeting his gaze, looking twitchy, while Millicent was staring daggers at him.

Most of the atrium was staring at them, though a few had the grace to look embarrassed or turn away when Harry noticed them. Of the Slytherin girls who moved as a group toward the lifts, only Millicent lagged, her eyes hard and angry, before she stalked after the others. Between them Harry thought he spotted Zabini as well. Were all of them here today, then?

“You know what, Hermione, I didn’t get it before, but you’re right. Kids like that are very dangerous. Now I definitely think she deserves—”

He stopped when the crowd parted to reveal Malfoy leaning against the fountain in almost the same position Harry had seen him a week ago—staring right at him. Malfoy looked every bit as polished as he had before, though there was a restless light to his eyes, a tension in him today. Dimly Harry noted Zabini try to get Malfoy’s attention, another figure, Nott, take a few more steps toward him. Malfoy didn’t so much as acknowledge them.

Hermione let out a sharp sound of disgust, but Harry ignored her. He waited until he was sure Malfoy wasn’t going to look away, then nodded to him, not caring that it made the people around them gasp and whisper.

The tension between them went taut as Malfoy narrowed his eyes.

Harry had made sure not to mention Malfoy, or even allude to him, and Lovegood hadn’t included his name, or any names, in the piece. He knew it was likely Malfoy’d be angry at him, but he didn’t care. Harry hadn’t done it because of him. Not entirely, anyway.

Harry arched his brow when Malfoy did nothing, that familiar thrill of annoyance he always felt when he thought of Malfoy zipping up his spine. Except he wasn’t annoyed now. It felt more like—anticipation. He didn’t buy into all that optics shite, but he knew what happened next was going to matter.

And Malfoy was nothing if not a dramatic bastard.

Across the atrium he saw Malfoy’s jaw feather, his lips purse. Harry waited, hoping Malfoy didn’t make a scene and cause Harry to regret listening to him.

For some reason, he wanted this to go well. He didn’t care about anyone else, but…

Malfoy’s eyes dropped to the ground at Harry’s feet, halting the confusing train of Harry’s thoughts. His mouth twitched into a smile which looked almost unconscious—a smile Harry could never remember seeing on Malfoy’s face before. He straightened and slid his hands into his pockets, a mirror of Harry’s own posture, and made to turn only to stop and glance at Harry again. It was all so casual, so simple, but Harry felt the intention, the performance, behind every movement. His eyes held on Harry’s face before they flicked down the length of his body in an obvious inspection. Harry’s chest filled with buzzing, like a beehive had woken up in his ribcage—violent and heady and strangely exhilarating. Malfoy met his gaze again, brow lifted, and tipped his head in what looked like the smallest gesture of approval.

With that, he turned and joined Zabini and Nott, leaving Harry to stare at his artfully flaring robes and the tight span of his back.

Harry exhaled, frowning at the rush of feeling. Malfoy had always been able to get a rise out of him, but this felt—

Hermione grabbed his upper arm so hard he nearly yelped. “Hermione—?” She pulled him after her with a strength Harry was startled by, too surprised to do anything more than follow. She slammed open one of the private toilets, shoved Harry inside, and pulled it shut behind her.

As the lights flicked on, Hermione said sharply, “Colloportus maxima.” The door flashed with white light along the edges as it sealed shut.

Harry stared, his mind unable to keep up with what was happening right in front of him. He opened his mouth but before he could say more than, “Hermione, what the—,” she had her wand pointed directly at his chest.

“Finite incantatem,” she said quickly, watching Harry with hard, frantic eyes. “Finite amorentem.”

The dispelment charms hit him like two slaps to the face.

Hermione thought he was under some kind of enchantment.

Her hand was shaking as she kept it pointed toward him, desperation in her face. “Harry, I’m sorry, but I need to be sure—” She jerked back when he stepped toward her. “Immo—”

Harry deflected her spell quickly, his wand out and in his hand before he realized what he was doing.

He couldn’t hold the thought in his head. She thought he wasn’t in his right mind.

Hermione staggered backwards and hit the door. Eyes wide, face draining of color, she tried again, “Finite maledictum! Finite—”

“Not gonna try specialis revelio?” Harry’s voice came out cold and flat. “Maybe I’ve got a charmed ring on. Want to check for that too?” He lifted his hands up and offered them to her. They weren’t shaking. “Or maybe a necklace? It’ll take me a second to get my tie off, so you might have to stop throwing countercharms at me while I do it.”

His body felt strangely disconnected from his mind, which was horribly, painfully aware his best friend had… She’d… His mouth was moving before he realized what he was saying, pulled up from the same hollow void he’d been living in since the day Voldemort died.

Hermione’s mouth was shut tight, her chin quivering as she stared at him, chest heaving, eyes wide. Like she was afraid of him.

She was afraid of him.

“Come on, Hermione, you must know more ways to check if someone’s making me do this. Solvo hominum should work if I’m Imperiused. If it’s some kind of love potion I’d get violent, so you have to be careful, right?”

His voice was still unnaturally smooth. It sounded horrible, but she was looking at him like he wasn’t the boy she’d been friends with for seven years. The boy she’d fought a war with.

“You want my wand? Or did you want to disarm me yourself? Maybe you should go out there and ask those aurors to come in and take care of me, strap me down and figure out what’s wrong with me, because there has to be something wrong with me, right? I can’t just disagree with you?”

She flinched at the last, and it was like the ice around him cracked.

He felt his disbelief, his anger, bleed into horror. His eyes burned as they stood in silence. His resolve crumpled and he took a step back, unable to stand near her.

She was afraid of him.

Her mouth opened and closed, her own eyes going glassy. “Harry,” she whispered. “Harry, I—I’m sorry. You’re not making sense. You realize what you just… I—you’re acting like…”

He went tense as his body caught up to his mind, as they slammed back together and shattered inside his chest.

“Like what?” he asked, voice strangled. “Like I know how it feels to be treated like shit because of who my parents were? Like I spent eleven years thinking I was a piece of trash because my aunt and uncle wanted nothing to do with me and I was this stain on their carpet, this bug they couldn’t squash? Like I should be grateful I wasn’t turned out onto the street?”

He heard the words but didn’t at first know how they were connected, it shouldn’t have mattered what Harry went through as a kid—except it did, and he was just starting to realize.

“I know what it’s like to be blamed for something that isn’t my fault, Hermione. You—you know that.” He was crying now as the whole ugly knot of words untangled and sprang out of his lips like Devil’s Snare, Hermione’s face blurring as the feeling burrowed deep into his brain and screamed at him to run, run, RUN—

“Like Snape reminded me every time he saw me I was talentless and stupid because he hated my dad so much and was obsessed with my mum and looking at me was a reminder of her? Yeah,” he said harshly at Hermione’s confusion, “I saw his memories in Dumbledore’s pensieve after he died. That’s what he gave me. He was in love with my mum his whole life and when she picked my dad over him, he lost his mind. He treated me like I was worthless for six years because she didn’t fancy him, and he was supposed to be Dumbledore’s man. That’s who Dumbledore trusted. That’s who Dumbledore asked to keep me alive, a man who couldn’t look at me without wanting to spit in my face! He took out his childhood grudge on me, Hermione. Because I fucking looked like my dad.”

Tears fell down Hermione’s face as she listened, frozen in horror, and he hated it. He hated this. He felt like he was being ripped apart. All the frustration and listlessness of the last three months were torn to shreds and the only thing left was this white-hot kernel of pain where his heart was supposed to be. He didn’t know what he was saying, but he couldn’t stop.

“Or maybe I know exactly what it feels like to be used as a weapon,” he spat, anger spilling in as the words kept coming. “I know how it feels to find out the people you thought were looking out for you think you’re nothing but a fucking piece on a chess board, and they don’t give a damn what you want or what you feel, because you’re not a person to them, you’re an investment. You’re just a way to get what they want. They never care about you. You’re nothing to them!”

He clenched his hands into fists, desperately trying not to smash them into the mirror. The shattered glass instruments in Dumbledore’s office cut into his chest and he could barely breathe for wanting to break something. He was so angry. He was so fucking angry. He didn’t know how to be anything but angry and hurting and he hated it. He didn’t hate Hermione, of course he didn’t, but she was standing there looking at him like he was a freak—and he hated that more than all the rest combined. Because she was supposed to understand. Because if anyone in this whole world knew him, it would be her.

But she didn’t, because the worst part of all of this was he hadn’t told her he was a horcrux. He hadn’t told her or Ron what kind of dark, horrible magic had always been inside him. He hadn’t told them that he’d left behind a piece of his soul when he dodged whatever had happened to him when Voldemort sent his Killing Curse.

He hadn’t told them anything.

You can’t. If she’s already scared of you…

“You don’t think I realize exactly how insane this is?” he asked, voice cracking. He could barely understand himself over the roaring of blood in his ears. “I wish I didn’t have to think about any of them. I wish I could hate them and move on with my life. You think I enjoy helping Malfoy? Or I’ve forgotten what he did to me, to you, for five fucking years? I haven’t. I remember all of it, every fucking day, and it’s still wrong. Because we’re supposed to be better than them. We’re not supposed to treat them like they treated us or it’ll never end and all of this bullshit will keep happening! Kids will keep dying and breaking and no one will care! How can you not get that? You’re so fucking smart, Hermione—you’re the smartest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t get it.”

She gaped at him, crying silently, sagged against the door. She looked so small, smaller than she’d ever looked, and Harry hated that too because he’d caused it. How many times had she saved him and now he was shouting at her in a bathroom—and she was looking at him like he was a stranger.

Harry choked on a sob and turned, trying to dislodge the thing working its way up his throat. He clutched both sides of the sink, knuckles white. His head dropped as he shook with the effort of holding back a scream.

He was fifteen again and he was breaking. Still breaking. Except Dumbledore wasn’t there to put him back together again and steer him off toward his death. No one was going to put him back together again.

He had no one.

But there were still hundreds of people out there waiting to grab any piece of him they could snatch up and slap a headline on. - Potter crumbles under pressure. - Potter fights with friend only months after his defeat of the Dark Lord. - Has Potter finally cracked or is this the sign the Chosen One has chosen a different side? - They flashed before his eyes like a strobing marquee. Every single one of them wanted something from him and he couldn’t— He didn’t have anything—

He snatched off his glasses and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, pain-prick lights erupting against the black of his eyelids. He clenched his jaw to stop what little there was left inside him from spilling out and setting the floor, the mirror, himself on fire. Setting it all on fire.

He was supposed to be done after today.

It was supposed to be over. He was supposed to be able to move on and live now, but he was so, so tired, and his anger felt like it had ripped straight through his sternum and broken right out of his chest. He didn’t know how he was going to walk through that door and do this all over again.

He looked up. He stared at his own reflection. Without his glasses he was just a blur of colors. A shivering mass of shapes. He knew what he would see, though, if he could. Red-rimmed eyes, shaking hands, face screwed up as he cried into a sink. He didn’t have the same pale skin and white-blonde hair, but he could have been Malfoy—leaning over a sink in the bathroom trying not to fall apart.

Hermione wasn’t going to slash open his chest, though. No, that had been Harry. He’d done that.

Maybe Dumbledore had been wrong about all it. Maybe Harry had never been whole. Who could do something like that to a person, even by accident? Especially by accident?

He splashed cold water on his face and rubbed his face with trembling hands. When he put his glasses back on, he looked a mess—hair wild again and robes rumpled and a pink ring around his eyes that made him look insane and unhinged—but he had to get out. If he stayed in here with Hermione much longer, he wouldn’t be able to go out and face the rest of the world.

“Harry,” she said, soft, so horribly soft. “Harry, I’m—I’m sorry. Please don’t— Look at me, please, Harry—”

“I think you should do like Ron and not talk to me for a while. I think—I think I need time. Alone, or… More time, to think, or… I don’t—” He exhaled, the sound curled around a final sob. He pushed his hair back as he cleared his throat, voice still shaking with his hands. Going through the motions like someone else was pulling the strings. Get out of the bathroom. Go down to the courtroom. Cut yourself open for everyone to see. Fall apart later. On your own. “I don’t want to do this with you. I don’t—want to fight. Not with you, or with Ron. But I can’t—” His voice broke and he blinked more tears from his eyes. “It’s really hard to look at you right now, and I don’t want to be around you while I’m… While I feel like—”

While I feel like breaking the world around me so I'm not the only one.

He could barely stand being around anyone these days, even the people he cared about most in the whole world. If he couldn’t trust Ron and Hermione, if he couldn’t manage to love Ginny, if he couldn’t be with the only people who actually cared about him, the closest thing he would ever get to family…

What the hell was he supposed to do?

“You don’t mean that,” Hermione said, voice breaking as she took a careful step toward him. “Harry, you don’t—”

“Let me out, Hermione.”

She didn’t move.

He clenched his jaw and met her gaze. “Move out of the way, Hermione.”

Slowly, and after what felt like hours, she stepped to the side. Her hands lifted and fell, and he could hear her trying not to sob out loud. “We can—we can talk about this. I… I promise—I’ll listen. You don’t have to be alone, Harry—”

“Yeah,” he said, hollow, pointing his wand at the door, “I do.”

He didn’t speak the incantation out loud, managing the nonverbal countercharm with more force than he’d intended. The door flashed white then yellow as the spell broke. It blew open with a bang, tearing one of the hinges loose, but it stayed up.

There were people huddled outside the door, because of course there were, but he ignored them. Moving with his eyes on the ground and his face set—just look at the ground, don’t look at them, don’t listen—Harry stepped out and flicked his wand at the hinge, repairing it before anyone could mention it. Dimly he registered Bill as one of the people waiting. He called out to Harry and tried to stop him, a gentle hand trying to catch his arm, but Harry shoved him off. He pushed past them all and headed for the lifts. Eyes down. Keep walking. Keep— He needed to get down to the courtrooms, to recount, once again, how thoroughly he’d been broken by this war, how many people he’d lost. One after the other. Like candles winking out in a looming darkness.

He retreated into himself, where there was nothing but anger and loss. A wide open cavern filled with hateful things just below the dark surface. All the sounds and noise and flashing swarmed around him, pressed in on him, but remained muted and distant. It felt, oddly, like the first few moments after he’d brought Cedric’s body back to Hogwarts. Lights and color, music flaring up as people cheered and laughed and clapped before they saw the truth. And him lying on the ground with his arm cut open and his hand clutching a dead boy’s wrist.

He was older than Cedric now. Older than Cedric would ever be. 

If people were in his way they must have realized he wasn’t in any mood to ask politely if they’d step aside. A path cut through the crowds and though people were all talking and staring and there were reporters trying to get his attention, it felt like there were others holding them back. Or maybe Harry was hoping someone, maybe, understood he was an eighteen-year-old boy who wanted to be left the fuck alone.

He stepped into the lift. The grate slid shut. The pleasant female voice over his head announced the floors one by one, and as he looked up to pull the correct lever, his eyes caught on a pale face.

Malfoy hadn’t gotten on a lift with the other Slytherins. He must have hung around after Hermione dragged him into the bathroom. Wanted to see Famous Harry Potter fight with his friend, probably. Have a laugh after with his mates when he saw Harry had been crying.

But no—the boy standing outside the lift wasn’t sneering, he wasn’t laughing. He was looking at Harry like it hurt. His eyes were wide and almost silver in the sunlight streaming in from one of the overhead windows. Brow furrowed, jaw clenched, leaning forward on the balls of his feet—he looked like he was about to reach out and stop the lift before it could descend.

Draco Malfoy was looking at him, looking into him, and he was asking the same unspoken question Harry had seen in his tired, red-rimmed eyes three months ago amongst the ruins of their school.

His eyes were still tired, but Harry was the one who’d been crying now. And for an infinitely small slice of a moment, he also wanted to ask—

Be he didn’t. He wasn’t supposed to ask. He simply did was he was supposed to do.

The lift jerked into motion. Harry looked down, breaking the moment of relief. A little pebble dropped into the hollow cave of his chest, ripples disturbing all the foul things below. The swarm of noise reached a crescendo with his blood beating in his ears, and he let the boiling anger drag him under.

 

 

It took Harry the length of the lift ride down to shove up a wall and disconnect from his emotions. When he stepped out, he might still look a mess, but he was nothing on the inside. The anger was there, waiting, but he wasn’t touching it.

Not yet.

He testified for three people that day—Goyle, who was still absent and wanted for the suspected murder of four muggles in the last three months, Pansy, and Malfoy. He’d already testified for Lucius and Narcissa, for Rookwood, Dolohov, Avery, Rowle, Travers, and Nott Sr. on previous days, but he didn’t know what their sentences were. He hadn’t asked. He didn’t want to know. Though he’d already been questioned and testified once for his fellow Hogwarts students, the Wizengamot had asked him to come in again, for further clarification on these three. Presumably because they were the ones Yeats wanted to make an example of.

After the initial statements and the long, tedious procedures, he listened to Hermione give her testimony first. He tried not to hear the telltale sign of tears in her voice, the slight shake most people would chalk up to nerves, but Harry knew better. Harry knew Hermione like she was his sister and he knew when she was putting it on to get through something she deemed important, urgent.

He’d thought he’d known her. Or maybe his transition from a teenager fighting a war to this…exposed nerve of a person he was now had changed everything, a divide expanding between him and them, making it nearly impossible for either to bridge, making them strangers. Maybe that’s why Ron had avoided him all summer, why Ginny’d been so upset when things fell apart, why Bill was always there to check in on him, to watch over him when everyone else kept their distance. Maybe everyone else had changed, moved on, and he’d been stuck behind. And they all knew it.

He saw it now. They were all waiting for him to lose it. Thought it was inevitable.

The whole bloody world was waiting for him to lose it, and he was starting to wonder why the fuck he was trying to pretend otherwise.

Harry sat forward in his seat, elbows on his hands and staring at the ground between his feet, trying to control his expression. He fought the urge to tap his foot, to work out some of the frenetic anger working its way up from the dark cave he’d tried to make of himself.

“Do you have any opinion on the severity of the sentence handed out to your classmates, Ms. Granger?” the new Head of Magical Law Enforcement, Prunellia Yeats, asked in a ringing, glass-clear voice. “Understand this won’t have any effect on the sentencing, but I believe the court would value your opinion.”

Sure they would. If it fell in line with what they wanted. Of course they’d want Hermione to support them. All of Britain knew she was clever and brilliant. Her vote of confidence would be nearly as powerful as Harry’s.

Nearly, but not quite. He hated that he knew this for a fact.

The room felt heavy and full in the pause, like Dumbledore’s memory of the Wizengamot Harry had watched in fourth year. Everyone waiting to hear the answer they were hoping for.

“Respectfully, my opinion doesn’t matter, Madam Yeats,” Hermione said after a long, long pause. “Furthermore, I wouldn’t wish to give my opinion if it did, because I don’t think I could give you one that was unbiased. I hope the Wizengamot will take everything they hear today into consideration when they come to their verdict, and not merely my personal—judgements.”

A few murmurs swept through the crowd, packed with wizards and witches in thick black and dark navy robes. Some sounded impressed, approving, some frustrated.

Harry’s hands clenched, pulse kicking up as he heard Yeats thank Hermione for her testimony and dismiss her. He wanted to think Hermione was only being honest, that there was nothing more to her statement, but he couldn’t help but hear a note of accusation directed toward him. As gentle a reminder as she could give him in the midst of so many other eyes.

Carried on by Hermione’s soft footsteps, the wave of whispers seemed to turn toward him, as if the attention of the Wizengamot was a sentient, massive thing.

“The Wizengamot now calls to the stand Mr. Harry Potter.”

Out of the corner of his eye he caught Hermione looking at him, trying to draw his gaze. He rose and walked past her without so much as turning his head, up to the center of the chamber. There was no chair this time, just a simple dais facing the senior officers of the court, Madam Yeats, Percy in his old job as the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister, the court scribe, a squat man with ludicrously yellow hair and wide glasses which swallowed his whole face, and, of course, Kingsley.

Harry took his time to raise his eyes. He exhaled and unclenched his hands, rolled his shoulders back, and made sure his body was under control by the time he met Kingsley’s steady, impenetrable gaze. A gaze which reminded Harry terribly of Dumbledore’s after Sirius’s death, when he had watched Harry destroy his office, impassive and distant. He’d expected to feel guilty when he finally faced the Minister, but all he could feel was a kind of barely-controlled anticipation. A mounting tension.

The kind he felt when he was about to get in a fight.

“Thank you for coming here today, Mr. Potter,” Yeats said once the courtroom had quieted again. “The Wizengamot appreciates your cooperation with the transparency of these trials.”

Harry stared up at Madam Yeats, wondering if he’d only imagined her emphasis on their supposed transparency. He’d been listening closely to everything she’d said today, trying to match this rather even-keeled woman with the person who’d decided it was a good idea frighten children so their parents would fall in line.

She was middle-aged, with a no-nonsense bun and little, if any, make-up. Harry couldn’t help but compare her to Amelia Bones, the woman who’d served as Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement before her, a woman whose power of presence was a thing you could feel like an aura around her. A woman Voldemort had murdered personally because he needed her out of the way.

He didn’t know this woman. He had no real idea if she was fair or petty or impartial. All he had to go on was her policy of terrorizing children, of retribution. But he did recognize the tightness which crept over her features when he said nothing and the silence in the room remained oppressive. He’d seen it quite a lot the last few years.

“Let’s begin with a summary of your testimony you have already given to Ministry officials,” she said after a while, settling back into her chair and look down at him from the bridge of her nose.

He answered her questions along with a few from the other members of the Wizengamot—simple, really, nothing he hadn’t already answered more than once with Robards, Kamau, and Proulx. Only the first and last were present in the room, Robards sitting to his far right at the edge of the curved benches, while Proulx was top left. Throughout, Harry managed to keep his voice level, his answers short and simple. He didn’t rise to the condescending remarks from Yeats, tame enough to ignore for now. He didn’t shout at anyone. All in all, he thought he was doing a great job, all things considered. He couldn’t help but feel like Umbridge was going to walk in here with her tinkling laugh and her cold, dead eyes, trailing a dementor in her wake.

Thinking of Umbridge made the back of his left hand burn, and he clenched it before he realized it would look combative, aggressive.

Almost at once, though, he wondered why he cared what he looked like.

The whole time, he felt his wand pressed to his side. Memories of this room seeped into him, the deathly chill still held within the sleek tiled walls and austere benches. His godfather had died just through that door to the Department of Mysteries. He’d stood here in this room and been called a liar by the Minister for Magic.

He hated this place. He hated it so much he wondered why he’d ever thought he could work here.

It was over as quickly as Hermione’s. Harry stood there while Madam Yeats called for further questions from the Wizengamot. Kingsley had refrained from speaking, but Harry hadn’t expected him to. He was well known to have been part of the Order of the Phoenix. People would think he was playing favorites if he interfered. He had to distance himself to protect his job.

Harry didn’t know where to look as he waited, eyes wandering over the members of the Wizengamot absently, avoiding the area where he could still feel Hermione staring at him, like she was shouting and he was the only one who could hear her.

His gaze fell first on Parkinson. Face pinched and slightly pinked, the bags under her eyes were so prominent her make-up couldn’t hide them. She’d lost a lot of weight, and her face was now sharp where she’d only ever been round before. She had her hand in her mouth, biting her nails, eyes flicking nervously around the room. It looked like she was bouncing her leg up and down.

Their gazes met and she started, looking down at once as her face went bone white.

Harry couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of pity. She looked so young, so thin, sitting there in her fine robes with her black hair dull and a bit mussed. He tried to imagine the same girl shouting for his capture only three months ago, and he couldn’t. All he could remember was her panicked voice, breaking, too high.

As he watched, the boy beside her reached up slowly and took her wrist, pulling it down to rest on her knee and cover it with his own.

The small gesture did something odd to Harry’s chest. It was something he might have done for Hermione, were things easy like they used to be.

Malfoy didn’t say anything to comfort her. He was still, his body rigid and his eyes fixed firmly on a point ten feet to Harry’s right. He just held his hand over hers, a steady pressure to stop her fidgeting.

Harry tried to look away, he really did, but something in him latched on and refused to let go. He didn’t know what he might have expected Malfoy to do during his hearing. Sneer, probably. Wearing an expression of fury that he was being subjected to this kind of scrutiny. His posture should have been relaxed and careless, indolent to show none of this could touch him, even after everything he’d done and everything he’d been through.

But Malfoy looked like a completely different person too. Like he was trying as hard as he possibly could to leave, to be as distant as he could from this room.

“Right,” Madam Yeats called out, breaking the tension in the air only to summon a different kind in its wake. “I believe the Wizengamot is satisfied.”

Malfoy flinched like he’d been struck. Just like in the ruined courtyard, his gaze flicked up unerringly toward Harry, sending him a static shock and a stab of a needle-sharp attention.

A strange panic and helplessness rose up inside Harry, knowing with absolute conviction that this situation was wrong. A vital part of the world order had slipped out of place and everything had taken on a weird, unsettling filter. All of this was wrong.

“Thank you, Mr. Potter.”

Harry looked up to the high bench, to Yeats and Kingsley in the center, to Percy where he sat a bit further along, his expression worried and tense. He stared at Yeats, waiting for the question he’d been wanting to answer since he sat down in this bloody dungeon.

“You are dismissed,” Yeats said, her tone growing sharp.

Harry didn’t move. A witch cleared her throat quietly to his left. He waited for the voice of caution to tell him to leave it alone, to get out and breathe some fresh air before he did something stupid. Problem was, that voice of caution sounded an awful lot like Hermione.

So instead of leaving, he did the one thing he knew he shouldn’t do.

He picked a fight.

“Are you not going to ask for my opinion on sentencing?”

His voice was far louder than he’d intended it to be, startling a few people. Heads whipped back and forth as people began muttering.

Madam Yeats was not looking at him, shuffling parchment on her desk and reaching for a gavel which sat on a black stone stand in the center of the bench. “That will be unnecessary. The Wizengamot is more than aware of your opinion in this matter, Mr. Potter. As is, I’m sure, a good portion of this building.”

Everything went quiet. His mind slowed to a halt and his heart seemed to stop beating.

And in that silence and stillness the anger he’d been holding, coiled and tense in the pit of his stomach, caught flame.

“I hadn’t realized magazine editorials counted as official court testimony.” He waited until everyone in the room was listening. “Makes me wonder why you insist on doing things like this, when it would save you plenty of time and hassle if you could just send an owl.”

Yeats went very still and slowly shifted her gaze down to him. “Mr. Potter,” she said in clipped tones, “I will remind you that these proceedings are a matter of law and of the utmost importance, and not subject to mockery or trivialization.”

“Of course not. It’s because I’m taking this so seriously that I want to make sure I give you my full and enthusiastic cooperation with any and all parts of this trial.”

Another tense silence passed. Harry wouldn’t be surprised if the entire room had had a Statuary Jinx placed on it.

Yeats set her quill down slowly, mouth going flat as the only sign of her frustration. “And the Wizengamot is grateful for that cooperation, which is now, no longer necessary. You are dismissed.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Harry said, slipping his left hand into the pocket of his robes to hide his nails digging into the meat of his palm. “You see, I think I’ve got a bit more to say that the court would appreciate hearing.”

“What’s unfortunate, Mr. Potter, is this court has no interest in what you deem to be worthy of the court’s appreciation.”

So now they didn’t want his opinion. Lucky for him, he had a lot of practice ignoring what the Ministry wanted.

“Right,” he laughed, “because why else would you ask me down here if the court had no interest in what I had to say? Believe me, I’d prefer if all of you pissed off and left me the bloody hell alone, but you’re not going to do that, are you? You care what I think, so I’m going to give you my unvarnished opinion. To do otherwise would be tantamount to lying, and I shouldn’t tell lies, should I? I thought you people frowned on that sort of thing.”

It was like a shockwave rippled through the crowd, murmurs growing and ebbing and swirling around the circular room like water down a drain.

Yeats leaned forward and said slowly, “You’ve spoken your peace, Mr. Potter, and now—”

“No, I haven’t, m’am,” he interrupted, ignoring the scandalized gasps. “I’ve answered your questions, more than once, mind, but you neglected to ask me what I think should happen to the teenagers you’re charging as war criminals. The same teenagers you’ve decided to treat as collateral in your post-war grudge campaign.”

The feeling in the room shifted slightly as a few people frowned. Yeats seemed to disregard her former dismissal as she said, “Mr. Potter, the witch and wizards being sentenced here today were of age when the Battle of Hogwarts took place.”

“What about the other Slytherin students?” Harry asked, unable to keep a bit of bite from his words. “What about the other ones who heard Voldemort speaking into their minds, telling them they’d be safe if they just did exactly as he asked? And when they’d all been forcibly escorted from the castle minutes later, what crimes were they committing when they listened to their professors and went quietly? They weren’t even there for the fighting. Are you telling me those kids are dangerous enough to warrant punishment in the form of a Class Four Curse, a curse so severe the Department of Magical Law Enforcement made it a policy to discontinue using it in 1845 and only this year reversed that decision to allow its use by Law Enforcement officials, despite the objections of three of your own lieutenants?” He relished the small frisson of shock play across her face. “Because, m’am, I think I have a right to be more than concerned with how harshly the Ministry has decided to land on this issue.”

“Of course you have the right,” Yeats said sharply, “as all witches and wizards have the right to disagree with how the Ministry conducts its affairs—”

“But we can’t say so out loud, is what you’re saying? We have the right to think what you’re doing is harsh and immoral but we can’t do anything about it. We can disagree, but only in private. Anything else is discouraged.”

“If you take issue with the laws in place in this country, I’m afraid this trial is not the place to—”

“Again, m’am, I have to disagree. Why else would you invite me to testify in front of the full Wizengamot if you didn’t want me to honestly recount what happened to me and other Hogwarts students during the war?” He couldn’t help but look at Kingsley, finding an impassive, intent mask. Say something. “I’m confused, see, because if that’s not why you wanted me here, I’m thinking maybe you wanted me to lend these trials and your sentencing credibility, no matter what I thought. But that couldn’t possibly be why, right m’am?”

Yeats’s nostrils flared. She cut a glance to Kingsley beside her, but he remained silent. With what looked like a great amount of effort, she schooled her features smooth. “You are approaching a line you do not want to cross, Mr. Potter. The Ministry of Magic is not interested in having any one person, no matter how influential, dictate national policy.”

“No,” Harry said with venom, leaning forward a bit as his anger leaked out into the air around him. “No, of course you’re not interested hearing any criticism I might have. But the Ministry hasn’t been all that keen on my criticism the past few years, has it? I’d wonder why you thought I’d change my opinion now, because you want me to be your spokesperson, right? That’s what the Ministry has wanted before. My support to give the people hope, right? To excuse what you’ve decided to do? That’s why the Wizengamot asked me and Hermione Granger here today, because you need people who everyone admires to agree with you to make it look like you’ve got your act together. Get a few war heroes in here to support your policies and it’s a lot easier to pretend you’re making things better. Pity, then, that I happen to disagree. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for kids, you see. I happen to think using them to scare their parents and families into cooperation feels a bit wrong.”

“That’s enough, Mr.—”

“I’m not finished.”

His voice rang through the room, pinging off the high ceilings. He couldn’t help but remember how Bellatrix’s crazed laughter had rebounded over the sleek black tiles in Dumbledore’s memory, filling the space and making it feel like a tunnel you were falling through.

“I’m upset, you see,” he said forcefully, “because I’ve witnessed this kind of thing before. Kids being used as collateral to make sure their parents behaved and fell in line. You know who else did that? Voldemort.”

The entire room flinched. Harry took a cruel, vindictive pleasure in the shock and outrage on the faces of the old witches and wizards in the Wizengamot. Kingsley, too, cracked his first expression of the day—a small frown, a furrowed brow. He saw Hermione shift out of the corner of his eye, as if she were about to stand up.

“You know who else expected blind faith and cooperation, who hated dissent and punished those who dared to question what he was doing? Voldemort.”

“Mr. Potter,” Yeats said loudly, her composure breaking, “you will be found in contempt—”

“People inside the Ministry agree with me. I wasn’t the only source in the Quibbler article. I’m not the only person in this building who disagrees with your new policies. I’m just the one who’s come forward, probably because no one wants to make a fuss so soon after the war. Because the policy of your department is apparently to inflict the most psychological trauma you can on a bunch of kids and then close their school. So I have to say something, because no one else will. You’re using these kids, the ones you’ve got upstairs in another courtroom with bombs on their legs, to scare this country into falling in line. You can say it’s out of caution, but it’s cruel. That’s all. You don’t care about them. You don’t care what they went through. Well I do. And apparently I’m the only one willing to say it out loud.”

Harry looked again at Kingsley, urging him to speak, feeling a hint of the desperation he’d felt when Dumbledore had come to his defense in this very room only to ignore him, to distance himself. To ignore him for a year until he was forced to come in and fix everything.

He didn’t know why it took him this long to make the connection.

Kingsley was looking at him when Harry saw it in his eyes, large and dark and always comforting, always steady—Kingsley had always seemed like the one person who would never fail. He’d be there until you were safe. He knew what he was doing and he had the experience and skill to do what needed to be done, the right thing. You could trust him.

As Harry met his gaze, Kingsley’s eyes tightened long enough for Harry to see the guilt flash through them. To see the regret in those steady, unbeatable eyes.

A senior Ministry official. Bill had said Kingsley had managed to convince the Wizengamot to keep these kids out of Azkaban long enough to give them a fair trial, but he’d wanted to do more. He’d argued against Hogwarts’s closing. He’d thought Yeats was going too far, but he couldn’t outright object, or he’d lose support, and he’d be forced out of office.

And Kingsley couldn’t show favoritism now, because if he did, people would link him to Harry. Harry, who had decided right away that people needed to know how heinous this was. Harry, who had a penchant for telling the truth even when it fucked him over. Especially when it fucked him over.

Harry, who would make a scene and do what Kingsley, as Minister, could not do.

A roaring began in the base of his chest, rising up to pound in his ears as he stared at Kingsley and realized that no one and nothing would ever be sure again.

He wasn’t a person to any of them. Just a name and a weapon. Just a tool.

Yeats was speaking and voices were raising around the room. From the corners of his eyes he saw figures gathering, darkness coalescing, but he didn’t care. If they wanted to arrest him, they could bloody well try. He’d welcome it, if only to break the feeling caging him in place, to shake him out of his furious paralysis. The pounding in his head rose and he felt his wand give off sparks where it was sitting on his hip and he wanted to blow this entire fucking building apart. He wanted to smash all of these sycophantic adults like Dumbledore’s glittering instruments and glass cabinets. He wanted to take all of them by the collars of their robes and shake them until they saw what they were doing. Until they fucking saw.

“—warning, Mr. Potter,” Yeats said, hands braced against her desk. She’d gotten up at some point to glare down at Harry. “You’ve done this country a great service, but I won’t allow you to behave like—”

“YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO PROTECT US!” Harry shouted, his voice ripping from his throat and flung out into the courtroom. Yeats flinched back along with half the courtroom. “You were supposed to protect us and you failed! We were kids—kids, and we fought your war and now you think you have any right to condemn us? We were KIDS!”

He looked around the courtroom, seeing the shocked, frightened, angry faces of witches and wizards who were older and wiser and useless.

“Our school was turned into a war zone. A graveyard. We had to figure out how to survive, to fight, because we couldn’t trust you. Kids were forced to torture their friends, to watch as death eaters destroyed their home and killed their families, and you wonder why they decided not to act? I saw what happened to those who fought back. How dare you sit there and threaten teenagers because they chose not to risk their own fucking lives! How many of you worked for the Ministry last year?”

He took an unconscious step forward, sending another wave rippling through the Wizengamot. He could see bald fear on many faces now. He knew it should have been a warning, but it was just fuel. They were scared. They were all fucking scared, and he didn’t care.

“How many of you kept your heads down and worked your jobs every day knowing witches and wizards were being marched down here to have their wands taken and snapped and their identity stripped away until they were just names on a fucking registry? How many of you watched your colleagues disappear one by one, comfortable because there was always someone else lower on the list than you? I saw what the Ministry looked like under Voldemort’s rule and it wasn’t a battleground. It wasn’t a war zone. How long did it take the Ministry to fall when Voldemort made his move? A few hours, if that? You failed, and now you’re telling me I’m not allowed to think it’s fucking wrong to blame and punish teenagers for something none of you could manage on your own? This whole building full of specially trained witches and wizards, the best Britain has to offer, and it all came down to a handful of kids and their teachers hundreds of miles north of here.”

Harry pointed to Parkinson, sweeping his gaze around the room again. “You’re going to blame her for wanting to give me up to Voldemort? Fine. Every one of you who gave a name to save yourself last year has to suffer the same punishment. But you won’t, will you, because you don’t remember what it was like to be a kid and terrified because the people you thought were supposed to protect you fucking failed.”

“The boy’s a death eater!”

Harry whipped his head around, trying to find the witch who spoke up, but it was just a sea of faces and his vision was warping as his heart hammered against his sternum. There was smoke in the air. He could smell fire—

“Draco Malfoy saved my life twice in the weeks leading up to the Battle at Hogwarts. He was the first person to attack Voldemort that day. He dueled his own aunt, risking his life fighting against the same people who would kill him, or worse, if they won. He did more to win this war than anyone in the Wizengamot, but because of who he is and what he was forced to do you’ve decided point the finger at him, the easiest person you could find. He was forced to take the dark mark at sixteen to save his parents, because Voldemort knew exactly how to ensure their loyalty, by using him as a deterrent to keep his parents in line. You have no fucking idea what he went through. You have no idea what I went through, or Hermione or any of the other kids who spent the last year of their lives in hell! But you want to use me to boost your propoganda, to make you all feel better about yourselves? You want us to shoulder the responsibility of a war the majority of you didn’t even fight in?”

Harry let out a sharp, ragged laugh, magic flickering in the palms of his hands. His vision was going spotty. His heart was racing. He felt like he was pitching forward through thin air without a broom or a wand to stop his fall. He was spiraling into dangerous territory, and he didn’t bloody care.

“Because that’s it, isn’t it? We fought your war. We didn’t want this. We didn’t want to see our friends murdered and tortured. We didn’t want to learn how to defend ourselves because no one else would. We didn’t ask for any of this! But we’re the ones who fought it and we’re the ones who finished it. And now you want to punish us because you can’t face the truth that the Ministry of Magic is filled with cowards who’d rather blame children than admit that they failed.”

Kingsley rose to his feet, drawing Harry’s gaze. He was having a hard time breathing. He was slipping, his mind warping at the edges as flashes and sparks swarmed around him, explosions and jets of green light, a wall of orange fire—

“Mr. Potter,” he said in warning, his deep voice resonant and overwhelming.

Once, it might have stopped Harry, but he might as well have been speaking to a specter. Harry wasn’t here anymore. He was burning in the ruins of all the homes he never had. He was choking on the black water rising up over his head, pulled down by cold hands locked around his ankles.

He was gone. He was fucking gone.

“You treat children like soldiers and you wonder why they fight back. Take away their families, their homes, and tell them it’s their fault? But if a few kids get caught in the crosshairs, that’s fine, right? It’s a bit sad, but it’s acceptable, because they were born into it. It’s tolerable because they deserved it, right? Nothing to make a fuss over, not if they’re that kind.”

Kingsley’s face tightened and he leaned forward, eyes piercing. “You’ve made your—”

“Did Ravenna Lamar deserve to be killed, Minister?”

A gasp surged through the room. Kingsley controlled his expression right away, but Harry saw the alarm in his eyes. He saw the opening and he went for blood.

“She was fourteen and being attacked by a group of highly-trained witches and wizards, but she knew what she was doing, right? She deserved to die? It was justified when one of your aurors let a Killing Curse slip out? And Geraldine White? Bradford Belmont? How long have they been in Azkaban? Two months now, isn’t it? I imagine they’re where they belong beside men and women who were in Voldemort’s inner circle, the most dangerous witches and wizards in Britain who spent years doing unspeakably vile things? Who murdered and tortured and fought to silence anyone who stood against the man they followed without question? That seems a fitting punishment for two fifteen-year-old kids, doesn’t it?”

More people were muttering now, the noise lifting and swirling around him like a whirlpool. Water laced with ribbons of red. Blood. His blood. Blood of the kids in this room and Ravenna Lamar and Colin and Denis and Lavender and Fred and all the others who died to protect their home and their friends, to fight, when they should have been learning how to live.

“Where was their trial, Minister?” Harry kept on, voice cracking as he shouted, the room throbbing along to the quick beat of his own heart. “Did they get to tell their story? You know I’ve been in this courtroom twice before. Dolores Umbridge used to sit up at that table. The same woman who forced me to carve words into my own hand to make me stop talking, to stop me telling the truth. Where’s Dolores Umbridge now? In the cell next to Geraldine or Bradford? Does that seem fitting to you? How many people in this room sat in these very same seats and watched that woman silence anyone with even a shred of muggle blood? How many of you told yourselves it wasn’t your fight, that it was fine because it wasn’t happening to you, because it was easier for you to do nothing?”

“Mr. Potter,” Kingsley said firmly over Harry, “you will respect the authority of this court or you will be—”

“I’LL GIVE YOU MY RESPECT WHEN YOU’VE EARNED IT.”

His voice echoed through the tall, rounded ceiling. He wouldn’t be surprised if people on the atrium had heard him. He pierced Kingsley with as much anger he could summon, enough grief and pain and disbelief, because he’d maneuvered Harry into this.

This was what you wanted, wasn’t it? You wanted me to kill myself to do what you couldn’t?

His mind was a flashfire and he didn’t know how any of him was still burning because he couldn’t remember not feeling like this. He’d been burning like this since the day Voldemort had turned his crib to kindling. Since the day green fire burnished him with death.

The room was deathly quiet. Kingsley was looking down at Harry with a horrible pity and guilt in his eyes. Every single one of them was staring. Waiting. What else was he going to say? How much more of his heart did he have to offer up to them on a plate smeared with his own blood?

The world was breaking all around him, and all he could hear was the sound of his own ragged breath.

Slowly, he turned back to Yeats. She was watching him with wide-eyed fury, her olive skin sallow, her hands still braced against the desk as if they were permanently fixed there. When Harry met her gaze, she flinched.

Because he’d become something to fear.

With as much calm as he could muster, keeping his eyes on her and not looking at Hermione or Bill or Kingsley, not even Malfoy, he said slowly, “I’m done now.”

In the ringing silence of the courtroom, Harry turned on his heel and left.

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry didn’t head for the Floo Hub.

He wouldn’t be able to deal with the throng of people, his anger shifting and mutating into a rabid animal in his chest the further away he walked from that courtroom. Instead, he took the lift up to the roof and cut in line for the apparition point. People started to protest, but when they saw him—Harry Potter the war hero, with burning eyes and clenched hands—they let him pass.

Just as he stepped into the designated apparation circle, he heard Bill call out his name. He must have run out after Harry. But he was already disapparating. He’d regret it later, but he couldn’t bear the thought of speaking to anyone right now and he didn’t know what else would come out of his mouth if he opened it. He was riddled with cracks, brittle with anger, and he didn’t want to fight. He’d left all of it down in the courtroom and he could feel the drop hurtling closer and closer toward him, the moment his rage died out. He was so tired of fighting.

The fresh night air greeted him, smelling of trees and leaves and the faint metallic hint of the city surrounding him. He took a few deep breaths before throwing a Silencing Charm around him, crouching down, and screaming into his hands.

He stopped himself from punching the ground, but only barely. An odd sensation of crackling energy surrounded him—his magic flickering to life just like it had in the courtroom. It startled him enough to kill his shout, breath coming fast as he fell back on his arse to the ground. He lifted his hands—the palms of them had angry red half-moons carved into his skin, they were pulsing with blood. And as he watched a small flicker of white danced over his palms.

It was gone just as quickly, vanished with the last of his anger, but Harry couldn’t stop staring down at his hands, letting them fall to the damp grass and tremble as he caught his breath.

You’re fine. You’re fine. It’s normal.

It really wasn’t, but it wasn’t so abnormal either. Plenty of wizards lost control of their magic from time to time, in situations of extreme danger or fatigue—like mothers lifting cars off children. When pushed, magic could express itself in all sorts of volatile ways.

Usually, though, it only happened when you were trying to cast. Not so usually when you didn’t even have a wand in your hand.

Harry swallowed his unease and closed his eyes, breathing deep until he didn’t feel like his chest was on fire.

He’d found this spot two weeks before he’d gone in for questioning, a little hidden patch of grass in the center of Richmond Park on one of his early days of wandering London, trying to fill the time. Caged in on three sides by a hedge, it reminded him of the maze at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. It shouldn’t have been comfortable, but it was, weirdly, covered in shadow and cool even during the day. The air smelled older here—a small pocket of London hidden away from the noise and the chaos of people swarming through it. The world felt like it was perched on the edge of autumn here in the dim light, the last summer warmth trailing up toward the sky in waving fingers.

Harry stared at a cluster of white flowers sticking out from the hedgerow. Small, rounded petals nestled amongst the deep green of the leaves. He had the strange feeling he’d seen them before, and as he rubbed one of the petals between his fingers, the deep, fresh smell of it stirred a kind of longing in his gut.

Now that he was out here on his own, he realized how thoroughly he had just lost his bloody mind.

He’d screamed at the Minister for Magic, accused the Wizengamot of being cowards. They were, and Kingsley deserved that much and more if he really had stood back and let Harry take the fall for him, but…

He waited for that voice of reason to reprimand him again, but it was quiet. He felt nothing but anger toward the whole bleeding lot of them. He couldn’t have stood there and not said anything. He would have hated himself if he hadn’t done something. He was right, he knew he was. So what if he’d gone about it in a violent way? Maybe the Wizengamot needed to be shaken out of its simpering superiority. Maybe Yeats had thought she could get away with scaring kids and hadn’t realized they might push back.

Is it not exhausting to be so morally superior all the time?

He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, hating the voice which slid so easily into his head. Why did Malfoy have to be right? Why did it have to be Malfoy who’d told him in the first place and forced him to face what he’d already known in his heart? Anyone else would have been better than him, and the worst part was Harry didn’t even regret what he’d said in Mafloy’s favor. It would have been easier if he did, but Draco Malfoy wasn’t the problem here. Not anymore.

Fucking hell. The last year had taken everything he’d thought he’d known, everything he’d wanted, and flipped it on its head. He was standing up for Malfoy. He was insulting Kingsley. He couldn’t hardly think about Hermione because it still hurt so fucking much. She’d stood by him through so much.

Maybe this was one time too many. He couldn’t blame her.

Hermione had thought he was under a spell.

That’s how strange she thought he was acting. They’d been on opposite sides of an argument before, obviously. They’d butted heads, shouted at each other—fought when neither one of them had been willing to give ground. But to dismiss him entirely…

Would he have done the same to her? He’d seen people under the Imperius Curse, under a love potion. He couldn’t believe what he’d done was anything close to that.

Part of him wondered if this wasn’t somehow his fault. He’d been mostly silent over the summer, stewing in his own despair and keeping to himself. Hermione, and Ron by extension, had been busy with their own lives. They were moving on, thinking about the future, making plans and doing things. Ron was already there, seeming perfectly content to settle into working at the shop with George. Hermione had a year to travel and throw herself into projects while she waited to return to Hogwarts.

Harry had nothing. Becoming an auror had been his path, he’d never thought about anything else. He didn’t think he was good for anything else besides fighting dark wizards and helping people. That’s all he was, really.

But that option was gone now. Harry had blown it spectacularly to pieces. He’d alienated his friends and the people who trusted him. He’d provoked the Ministry, again. He wouldn’t be surprised if they brought him in for something. A firm scolding, maybe, or some kind of public rejection of what he’d done. They had to see that getting the Famous Harry Potter to sign on to their agenda at this point was laughable. They’d probably just want him to go away, stay quiet, so they could move on.

And it’s not like he was anything special anymore. He didn’t have any great destiny or goal. They didn’t have to put up with him ever again if he became too much of a liability.

He stood in the little pocket of silence, staring at the small white flowers hidden in the hedgerow as the sense of London moved around him—people laughing, cars honking and breaking and groaning, footsteps, the smells of Indian and Thai and pub faire mingling into a heady rush of life. London was flush with an overwhelming amount of sensation.

None of it reached him here in the shadowed nook. He’d set himself apart from all of that. But…had he ever really been in it?

All he knew was that he felt like someone had burned all the vital things that made him up and stuffed him full with dead air. Left him in the dark. Again.

He closed his eyes. Frowned.

Right.

He could sit here for the rest of his life, which was suddenly, horrifyingly wide open now, or he could start moving. Walking seemed better than not. Walking would lead him to food. He was starving. That was something he could deal with. Maybe he’d grab a coffee after and just ride the Underground until morning, because he knew without a doubt that he wasn’t getting any sleep tonight. He could pop into a cinema, maybe. He’d never been before. He’d never had the time or the opportunity. After, he’d find somewhere high enough that he could see the sunrise and sit for a while until his head was clear and the sun warmed him up. As if the new day would make any of this more bearable.

The path leading through the park was empty, secluded in the very center where there was only grass and clutches of trees. He’d come here once when he was younger on a school trip and gotten lost, only to end up trailing around a small herd of deer. His teacher had gone mental, of course, and the Dursleys had locked him in his cupboard for nearly a week, letting him out only to use the toilet and drink from the faucet, shoving some bread and crushed crisp packets at him before kicking him back in. Thinking back, it was almost comical to realize how many little, impossible things had popped into his life before he understood what they meant. A doe in this park. A snake in that zoo. It was all so bloody clear.

God, that felt like another life.

Not for the first time, the knowledge that Dumbledore had effectively chosen that life for him sat heavy like a stone in his stomach.

The sun had only recently set so the dusk was still fading out as he followed the path down into a little patch of trees between two hills. The sky was soft purple and indigo, small traces of pink and red still hovering over the horizon. It was second nature to look around, the practice ingrained in him since he’d spent a year camping in various forests all across England. The absence of Hermione and Ron felt all the more potent as he stopped and leaned against the trunk of a huge, gnarled oak, letting his head fall back and his eyes close.

He should go back and apologize. He knew he should. Hermione meant well. Of course she did. They could talk about this and… Fuck, he didn’t know. But whatever it was would probably be better than him sulking by himself in a park at night.

His fingers clenched around the gnarled back. There was something sweet smelling about the tree. He imagined he could hear the sap being made, sugar dripping down the insides of the tree.

He was so bloody tired.

He was just about to disapparate on the spot—when the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Gooseflesh prickled up over his arms and it was like his mind roared to life. His senses seemed to shift and heighten, his eyesight growing sharp, his ears suddenly hearing a full wealth of noise which had been inaudible only a moment before. The bark under his fingers was rigged and digging into his skin.

A foot scraped across the dirt path behind him.

“Stupefy!”

Harry ducked as the jet of red slammed into the tree over his head. Another stunning charm whipped toward him and this time he managed to throw up a shield. It hit the center of his chest and made him stumble, but he had his wand out and ready just as—

“Confringo!”

Harry redirected the blast with a quick slash of his wand. Fire lit up the path as it caught on a few of the oak branches.

He knew that voice. He hadn’t heard it in over three months, but he knew that voice.

“Crucio!”

“Protego,” he countered, only just able to shield himself before the curse caught him. Tendrils of red and black flickered over his skin, seeking an entrance, but he brushed them aside.

Gregory Goyle stalked toward him, face lit up in a horrible expression twisted by the fire.

Harry’s mind was ripped backwards in time to the smell of burning, the shrieking of thousands of horrible voices as a wave of fire surged through the Room of Requirement, it was so hot the air shivered all around him and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t see, and all he could hear was this distant cry of panic, turning on his brook before he knew what he was—

In the brief span of time it took for Harry to shake himself out of the flashback, he caught only a few details of Goyle—long, lank hair, sunken skin, and a horrible burn mark all down the side of his face.

“Stupefy,” Harry shouted, backpedaling as Goyle lunged at him. “Expell—”

“Oh, no you don’t, you fucking maggot!”

He’d managed to deflect Harry’s spells—probably because Harry was having a hard time focusing on anything except his own shock and the scarred flesh of Goyle’s face. He was shaking and he couldn’t get his bearings, slow to react and dragged down by flashes of a different day, a different fire—

The memory of fiendfyre ripped through him and it was all he could do to grit his teeth and try not to see Malfoy’s pale, terrified face as he reached down—

Goyle slammed into him. He was big, much bigger than Harry even if he was noticeably thinner, and Harry went down hard under Goyle’s bulk. They rolled back onto the path, Harry’s face scraping over the dirt and digging his glasses into his temple. His skin burned and the pain cleared his head.

He managed to ground out, “Flipendo,” pushing Goyle off him enough to get back onto his knees, trying to put some space between them. He just needed a moment to breathe, then he could paralyze Goyle, and—

A cut opened up on the back of his leg and he cried out. Warmth soaked into his pants as he hit the ground again. Large, unforgiving hands grabbed both his ankles and then he was face crashed down into the dirt as Goyle pulled him back. He threw out an elbow and caught Goyle on the chin. He twisted himself, trying to point his wand toward where he thought Goyle’s face was.

Pain stabbed through his stomach just below his ribs. He wasn’t hearing any spells, how was Goyle managing to— He gasped, the wind knocked out of him as Goyle’s knee came down on his hip. Something fragile cracked. His vision blurred as involuntary tears leaked from his stinging eyes.

“Thought you could get away with it, did you?” Goyle snarled, low voice manic and fevered. The smell of him now was strong enough to make Harry wince. He smelled like raw meat and sweat, like an animal. “Though you could just kill the Dark Lord and walk away? Destroy everything—”

Through the overwhelming sensation of pain in every part of his body, Harry felt one of Goyle’s hands wrap around his throat and squeeze.

The other reached for his right hand.

“Think I couldn’t find you,” Goyle spat on his face, his hot, rank breath making Harry flinch as he tried to shove him off. His chest was pounding as he grew increasingly panicked at the lack of breath. “You take everything away from me and you think I wouldn’t come for you—well, I did, Potter. You ruined everything, you killed Vincent and then Draco, you got to him, you did something to him and how he… and now he—he won’t—”

Goyle was crying, his scarred face horrible and pained. He was crying and he was choking Harry, and Harry was digging into Goyle’s hand with his nails, panicking as Goyle’s fingers slipped over the edge of his wand. A jolt of fresh panic went through him as he felt Goyle tug, try to pry open his fingers with his free hand.

Not my wand. No—not—

“You won’t—be able to fuck things up now,” Goyle said through clenched teeth, voice breaking on every other word. Another impact to his stomach. Harry would have tasted bile if Goyle hadn’t been crushing his throat. “Never again. I’ll kill you, I will—and I’ll kill all your stupid mudblood friends and you won’t be able to do anything because you’ll be dead, Potter. I’m going to kill you!”

Black spots formed in front of Harry’s eyes as the hand around his throat tightened. Goyle was holding him down with one hand, just one… Memories of Dudley sitting on his chest until he cried flickered through his trembling mind. He’d been so small, so much smaller—but he was different now. He wasn’t supposed to feel like this—

Harry was trying to scream, but he had no breath, he couldn’t breathe. His legs kicked uselessly. Another knee to his thigh. Goyle let out a choked growl and slammed his right hand down again and again, breaking bones. It sounded like glass shattering. Like Dumbledore’s fragile instruments tumbling to the floor—

Harry’s grip loosened on the third impact.

Goyle yanked his wand away.

His body seized as he tried to get it back. Goyle was still choking him, but he lifted up and held Harry’s wand out of his reach, a manic, shocked smile tugging up his mouth into a rictus grin. Tears streaked down his dirty face and he was shaking. Harry reached up, fingers trying to get some hold on Goyle’s mouth or cheek, but he could only managed to slap him. He needed his wand. Goyle had his wand. More dark spots. Goyle’s grip tightened again on his throat. Harry’s eyes rolled back into his head, black crowding in the edges of his vision. Goyle was saying something, shouting and crying, but Harry couldn’t hear him. His mind was screaming. Screaming and shrieking and he couldn’t think. His chest was aching so bad he thought Goyle might have ripped it open.

Goyle was choking him. Beating him to death.

Goyle was going to kill him.

The moment froze, fixed in his mind.

Goyle on top of him, pure hatred in his manic eyes, lank hair falling down around his dirty face.

Harry under him, one hand on Goyle’s wrist, choking, broken.

The sky nearly black, but with traces of purple and pink. Trees set alight with fire.

The screaming in his head shifted. The ground dropped out from under him. And like a key turned in a lock, something inside him broke loose.

A flash of blinding grey-white filled his vision.

The pressure on his throat vanished. Goyle’s body was no longer weighing him down. He breathed, panic and air filling his lungs as he coughed violently, blood coating his lips. His head swam and stuttered as he tried to sit up. It hurt. It hurt so badly he nearly blacked out. He turned, shaking, as his hip pulsed in protest.

For what felt like a lifetime Harry lay curled up on the dirt road, sucking in heaving breaths, trying not to scream.

When the rushing of his blood died down there was only the sound of his own wet breathing, the heartbeat in his ears. Far off in the distance, he heard the rush of traffic, but he was so far into the park that it was just a faint murmur. Bugs chirped. A little splash of water as something dropped down onto the nearby lake. Mundane sounds of the world around him.

Trembling all over, Harry rose to his hands and feet, biting off a cry as pain flared up across his ribs and his right hand crunched sickeningly. He barely caught himself. It felt like all the bones under his skin were shifting where they shouldn’t have shifted, like sand and shards of glass moving between his fingers.

When he was able, he lifted his head.

Goyle lay only a few feet away from him, face down. His right arm was spread out at an odd angle, hand balled into a fist around Harry’s wand.

He wasn’t moving.

The silence around Harry shivered to a halt. For a moment there was utter nothing. The world shifted, like he’d been thrust onto a high-speed train while Harry remained motionless.

Move.

He actually wanted Goyle to get back up and attack him. He wanted Goyle to groan, twitch, so Harry could reach forward and take his wand back and knock him out. He wanted to flip Goyle over and make him look up into Harry’s eyes so Harry could see that he was—

Move. Please, move.

Harry’s eyes were burning and his temples were pounding and the thought of reaching toward Goyle and seeing if—if he was—

His vision tunneled. The sensations of his body dimmed as, with every shaking breath, Goyle remained perfectly, horribly, still.

He wouldn’t move.

Harry knew. Of course he knew. He’d seen plenty of people die before. He knew what it looked like when a body wasn’t going to move again.

Cedric had looked the same. His large frame spread out over the ground with an unnatural stillness. Eyes dark and wide. All the tiny signs of life severed. Dumbledore, Fred, Colin, Remus, Tonks—they all had the same unreality. Like time had frozen around them as the rest of the world kept turning.

He’d watched the life vanish from Voldemort’s eyes. Stared down at his motionless face.

Of course he knew. He’d killed someone, hadn’t he?

He looked around, suddenly registering the fact that he was lying in the middle of a park, hurt so bad he probably couldn’t walk—and there was a dead body in front of him. There was a dead body in front of him and he was—he’d almost—

Forcing himself to inch forward, Harry crawled with his heart in his throat until he could fumble for his wand. He hesitated before he pulled, waiting for Goyle to move, willing it to be some stupid trick. Some feint to get Harry to come close enough to finish the jo.

His wand slid out of Goyle’s loose grip. Before he could stop himself, Harry looked down at Goyle’s face.

His eyes were half-closed and blank, his jaw broken, and his neck twisted too far around. He was staring just over Harry’s shoulder. Blood dripped over his open lips from what must have been a nosebleed. 

It was grotesque, and Harry couldn’t look away.

He had to tell someone. He couldn’t just—leave him here.

Should he go to the Ministry? Could he even get up and walk, in this state? He wouldn’t be able to apparate. He wouldn’t even be able to heal himself.

Oh god.

He’d killed Goyle.

He didn’t know how, but he’d killed Goyle.

A burst of laughter sounding somewhere behind him nearly made him scream out loud. It was far away, across the pond over the hill, maybe. But it was close enough for him to hear, and if he could hear them…

Harry’s grip was slick with his own blood as he lifted his wand—in his left hand. His right was still pulsing and cracking every time he moved it. “Wingar—” His fingers were trembling so badly he nearly dropped his wand. He swallowed back the panic rising up his throat and tried again, “Wingardium—leviosa.”

Goyle’s body jerked upright and Harry nearly threw up. He closed his eyes, forced himself to concentrate on not dropping—the body. Goyle’s body.

He was doing this. He was moving a dead body.

Didn’t have to move the body last time.

The thought was so abhorrent, so absolutely vile, that some part of his brain shut off. Shock, he knew, probably, as he shifted Goyle off the road and into the little stand of trees, behind one of the bushes. A bird startled out and flew off. Harry errantly wanted to watch it go, anything to stop looking at Goyle’s body, but he couldn’t look away.

Harry was still on the ground in the middle of the path, bleeding. He needed to stand up and get somewhere he could sit. And then he could— He could—

The effort to move managed to consume all his higher faculties. He focused on getting up, on standing, on holding back the noises he wanted to make when he felt where Goyle had—stabbed him? Harry hadn’t seen a knife, and he hadn’t heard Goyle cast anything else. What the fuck had he done, and how had it happened so fast? How had he been able to overpower Harry so easily? Time flipped forward and back, and he tried to gauge how long it had been since Goyle’d sent the stunning spell. Five minutes? Less, more? He didn’t know how long he’d been on the ground unable to move.

The sky was dark, but…he couldn’t remember what color it had been before. He couldn’t remember  why he was here.

He managed to get off the path, realizing only too late that he’d left Goyle’s wand in plain sight. Hopefully if any muggles did pass by they’d think it was a stick. And then they’d see the blood and maybe mistake it for water.

The blood. Fuck, there was so much blood.

And it was all his.

He leaned against a tree, hidden from the path, sliding down until he was sitting opposite Goyle where he was tucked into the shadows. He looked now like he’d just fallen asleep. His arm draped over his face. One knee hooked up over the other. Harry couldn’t see the odd angle of his neck or his broken jaw from where he was. He didn’t look dead from here.

Harry’s breath was coming fast and sharp, his mouth locked shut in case he decided to start screaming.

He had to let someone know. He couldn’t—he wouldn’t just leave Goyle here.

The unreality of it slammed down on him as he sat in the growing dark. Goyle had been wanted for his suspected murder of three muggles immediately following the Battle at Hogwarts. Unlike some of the other death eaters or students who’d fought with them, he’d fled. At the time Harry had thought it made no sense that Malfoy had stayed behind and Goyle had left without him.

He’d seen Malfoy less than an hour ago. Was it less than an hour? It couldn’t have been that long ago…

He was losing a lot of blood, he realized, could feel himself getting dizzy. He looked down and saw darkness staining his white shirt all the way up to his chest, soaking into his suit and robes, trailing down his hip.

I just got this suit.

How do I get blood out of a suit?

He tried to focus, every breath bringing with it another shock of pain. He couldn’t apparate. He could barely manage a spell. He needed to let someone know, but who…

His grip around his wand felt so strange in the wrong hand. It was like he was eleven and standing in Olivander’s shop holding this stick and wondering how on earth he was supposed to do anything with it other than poke his own eye out.

You can do this. He repeated this over and over again. He’d done this so many times before. He’d been in worse spots. Hadn’t he?

He closed his eyes, tried to find one happy memory he could grab onto. It was like trying to hold water in his hands. He’d been so aimless and lonely, so angry, he couldn’t find anything in recent memory that was strong enough. And then—he stopped on one thing he knew was good, more so than anything that had happened to him in months.

He pictured Teddy solemnly patting apple sauce in his bowl like he was sitting at a potter’s wheel. His hair a shade of vibrant, electric blue and his eyes—brown, just like his dad. Like Remus. And it was that image paired with the memory of Remus smiling sadly at him with those same brown eyes as he taught Harry how to push out the dark that finally did it.

“Expecto patronum,” he whispered, fixing the target in his mind, not giving it words, just an image and a location and an urgency he hoped would be conveyed through the spell. He’d never done this before and he had no idea if it would work. He had no idea what he’d do if it didn’t.

A silver-blue specter of a stag appeared out of his wand. It seemed to look back at him for a moment, and Harry felt a snap of horrible, clawing shame at the knowing, unyielding look of those depthless eyes, before it fled into the night.

Harry’s left hand fell to his thigh. He held his wand so tight his fingers began to cramp. His right was lying useless on the ground. He stared at Goyle’s body. His breathing grew shallow as the silence seemed to layer itself over him.

Goyle had nearly killed him.

Harry had—killed Goyle.

It must have taken his patronus some time to get to its intended recipient, but it felt like one second Harry closed his eyes, and the next a loud crack broke the silence.

“Thank Merlin,” Bill said in relief, “Harry, look, I—”

Harry opened his eyes to find Bill staring down at him, shock and horror twisting his features. “Bill,” he tried to say, but his throat constricted so badly he could barely make any noise at all.

For a moment something caged and haunted flashed over Bill’s face, but then he dropped to his knees, panic slotted efficiently away as he started murmuring healing spells under his breath. The hot brand around his throat released and Harry coughed. “Stabbed,” he managed. He tried to gesture to his side, but moving sent another wave of dizzying pain through him. His vision blacked out and for a moment he went under.

When he came to again Bill was looking over him, eyes hard with fear. “—hear me? Harry?”

Harry nodded. He didn’t feel any better, if anything Bill’s healing had cut through the shock and he was now feeling every place Goyle had punched him, had sunk his knife in, had caught the edge of Harry’s shield with a spell and ripped through him. His breathing grew unsteady as he tried not to devolve into racking sobs.

“What happened?” Bill muttered, his voice eerily calm. “Who attacked you?”

Harry swallowed and looked over Bill’s shoulder. Bill followed his gaze, his whole body tensing when he saw Goyle’s unmoving body.

“Is that—”

“G-Goyle,” Harry managed. “Gregory Goyle. Kid from—”

“Hogwarts, yeah.” Bill turned back slowly and asked, “Is he dead?”

Harry opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. His eyes burned with tears and his head pounded and somewhere in the distance he swore he could hear someone screaming. He could smell rust and ash and he wasn’t in a park in London anymore, he was—

“Okay, okay,” Bill said quietly. “Okay. I’m going to apparate you somewhere safe. I’ve done what I can but you need someone better than me to fix your hand, and I think…it feels like there might be something internal. If you need to go to St. Mungo’s, we’ll go, but right now I just need to get you out of here—”

“Andromeda Tonks,” Harry whispered, voice shaking. “She—used to be a healer.”

Bill stared at him for a moment before he nodded. “Okay. And she’s… You trust her?”

“Yeah.”

“You know where she lives?”

“Gracemorrow Cottage in Binsey,” Harry coughed, something came loose in his chest , “Oxford.”

Bill swept his wand over his head, a Notice-Me-Not Charm settling around them. Goyle’s body didn’t disappear, but it wasn’t so obvious now. It might have just been a strange shadow, a log.

“Try not to scream, all right?” Bill murmured, and then he was pulling Harry up with a sharp tug.

Harry wouldn’t be surprised if his jaw cracked from how tight he was clenching it. Sounds built up in his throat but he pushed them back down, closing his eyes as his vision blurred. Horrible, cut off sobs rushed up to bash at the back of his teeth. He felt his body give out for a moment, like a string connected to his leg had been cut, but he clutched at Bill with his good hand.

“This is going to hurt,” Bill said, taking a deep breath.

Harry registered how funny that warning was, but in the moment it took for Bill to apparate, his eyes were drawn to the path. Beyond the little copse of trees in the shadows, he saw a figure, far clearer than he should have been able to make out from this distance. Familiar.

Black hair. Handsome, pale face. Still in his school clothes.

This time, when Harry met his shining black eyes, Tom Riddle smiled in full.

The world wrapped and warped around that smile until Harry felt like it was the only thing that ever mattered, until he could see nothing else, but he didn’t have time to panic before he was being squeezed through space. Within a second the pain completely wiped his brain of all thought.

He blacked out.

 

 

Face pressed against a soft blanket smelling of lavender, Harry heard someone saying his name.

A fog covered his senses as he swam up from what felt like a deep, horrendously dark pool. Watery sounds rushed around him, muted and echoed. There was something around his ankle—a hand, a manacle? A voice, low and lovely and unnerving whispered into his ear. A dull, aching sense of approaching consciousness swelled but he didn’t want to go back, he wanted to stay down in the water—and then he woke up.

His body jerked and pain flared in his right hand. He screamed before he managed to close his mouth. He hurt everywhere. He’d hadn’t hurt this much in years, not since Voldemort had tried to possess him in the Ministry. He was on fire. He’d never left the Room of Requirement and the fiendfyre had followed him—

“Harry, you have to stop moving. I promise the pain will go away soon, but I need you to relax.”

Andromeda’s voice was measured and firm, her low tone commanding and cutting through his panic.

He choked off his voice, opened his eyes and there she was, gaze harder than he’d ever seen, her fine features shadowed as she leaned over him. As he blinked, her face bled into her sister Narcissa’s, the edges going blurry as his vision swam again. She was supposed to ask him if her son was alive. Had Harry killed him too? Was Draco— No, Andromeda had a daughter and—Tonks was dead. They were all—

“Hold still.”

She lifted her hands from where she’d been pressing him down into the couch. From her wand spooled a mass of spiraling pink light, shaping itself into a replica of Harry’s prone body. Red light surged up over his ribs, his stomach, his hand, and his leg. He understood belatedly that it was like a Muggle scan in a hospital. A map of all the places he was broken and bleeding. Well. Not all.

Somewhere behind him he heard Bill curse.

Andromeda’s brow furrowed as she muttered an incantation. Conjured bandages wrapped around his right hand, the pain lessening a bit as something cold and soothing washed in over his skin, settling down into the prickling bones. “In the cabinet above the sink there’s a small black box,” she said sharply, to Bill, he presumed. “Bring it and the set of vials next to it.”

Harry caught Bill’s movements out of the corner of his eye. He tried to speak, but only managed a rough, “An-dromeda—”

“Be quiet.” Her eyes flicked to his and held, a small, horrible flash of fear reaching out to him before she regained her steely composure. “Most of the bones in your right hand are shattered. You have two fractures in your ribs and a puncture wound to your stomach, which nearly caught your lung, and another cut to the back of your knee that grazed a ligament.”

She paused, taking a breath, composure wavering. “You are also poisoned, Harry. I won’t be able to treat any of the other injuries until I purge the poison, but unfortunately you have to remain conscious because I need to maintain this map of your body to monitor the spread of the poison to make sure the antidote is working. I can’t put you under yet. Luckily, the poison seems to be rather generic, so a general antidote should do it, but it is necessarily thorough, and it isn’t gentle. You’re going to be in a lot of pain. Do you understand me, Harry?”

Harry blinked a few times, moisture swimming in them, then nodded. Just shove a bezoar down my throat, he thought, unhelpfully.

Andromeda held his gaze for a moment longer, and Harry saw with a stab of pain that was entirely emotional that her dark eyes were also shiny with tears.

Bill came back in, holding out the black case and the vials. “What else can I do?”

“Make sure he doesn’t move.” She flicked her wand in short, precise movements, liquids and ingredients combining and then separating into streams which swirled in the air. It was beautiful and precise.

Harry had the distant thought that Hermione would have been thrilled to watch the process. The thought snagged as he remembered her tear-stained face, her shaking voice.

He closed his eyes and tried to take a deep breath, only to whimper when his ribs protested.

“All right,” Andromeda murmured, “try to relax, Harry. This will work easier if you aren’t fighting it.”

Harry opened his eyes as Andromeda pressed a vial of smoking black liquid to his lips.

The moment it hit his tongue, he nearly screamed. It felt like acid pouring down his throat. He started shaking with the effort not to move, and Andromeda had to hold her hand over his mouth to make sure he drank it all. She took her hand away and Bill shoved something else into his mouth, something rubbery.

“So you don’t bite your tongue off, mate,” Bill said with a tight smile. He was still unnaturally calm, but his hands shook slightly as he pressed Harry’s shoulders down gently. “Not pleasant to grow back, let me tell—”

Harry stopped listening as the antidote began to burn through his body. He didn’t know how long it took, but he felt like he was being scoured out with fire. He tried his best to stay still, but his body couldn’t help jerking in shock whenever the antidote flowed somewhere new. He was dimly aware of Bill talking to him, Andromeda murmuring spells, the image over him flaring with light every once in a while. It all began to blur together until he wasn’t really sure he was still conscious or if he was imagining things.

Finally, everything seemed to go quiet. He could hear his own shallow breathing joined by Andromeda’s, which was far heavier. He looked for her, and saw her forehead beaded with sweat and a drawn, tight look to her face.

She sagged a bit as she closed her eyes.

“Will he—”

“He’ll be fine.” She gave Bill a relieved smile, patting Harry gently on his uninjured leg. Her voice was shaking a bit, like her iron control was breaking now Harry wasn’t in danger of dying. “You did a fine job stabilizing him, Bill. I’m not sure he would have made it a few more minutes without it. Now I just need to heal everything else. But first, I think a cup of tea.”

Harry watched her gather up blood-stained cloths and a very empty vials, cleaning the floor with a wave of her wand before retreating to the kitchen. The sounds of her putting the kettle on seemed magnified in the sudden silence.

Bill’s expression crumpled as he looked down at Harry. He crouched down in front of the couch, head falling to his hands, a shudder going through his large frame. Harry had only seen Bill lose his composure like this once before, when Fred died.

Guilt reached into him and grabbed. His chest grew tight as he tried to breathe. Now that he didn’t feel like he was slowly exploding from the inside out, Harry realized the gravity of the situation. How much he’d put both Andromeda and Bill through. “I’m sorry. Bill, I’m—”

Bill looked up at him sharply, eyes red and skin pale under his freckles and scars. “You didn’t do this to yourself. You have nothing to be sorry for.” It looked like he was forcing himself to calm down. He grimaced. “Merlin’s pants, Harry. Apologizing for getting attacked. Only you…” He exhaled and straightened up. “But I do need to know what happened.”

“Surely he can tell you once he’s rested,” Andromeda said in alarm as she came back into the sitting room. “He needs—”

“It’s fine,” Harry muttered. “Can you—can I sit up?”

Andromeda’s jaw clenched and she looked as if she might refuse. The look reminded him so much of Madam Pomfrey he felt oddly sentimental.

“Let me wrap up your ribs, at least. Then I’ll get to work on something for your hand.” She frowned. “I’m pretty sure I still have some Skele-Gro left—”

“Ugh, no,” Harry said with a groan. “That stuff—”

“Would you like further use of your wand hand?” Andromeda asked sharply, her tone driving the fear of God straight into Harry’s mind. “Or shall I simply lop it off?”

He swallowed tightly. “Yes. No. Sorry.”

Andromeda didn’t meet his gaze as she began healing his ribs. Harry grimaced through the few minutes of spellwork, but when it was done he could breathe easy again. His lungs didn’t hurt every time they expanded, anyway. She backed away when it was done, her expression closed off and impassive. The kettle began to whistle and she looked like she was rooted to the spot before her eyes closed and she left again.

Harry tried not to think how she must be feeling. He’d brought this into her life—into Teddy’s life…

Bill helped him up to a seated position and then knelt down in front of him, expression grave.

Harry told him everything, trying to be as detailed as possible, though he choked and stumbled on the actual killing. Now that he was feeling closer to normal, the reality of what he’d done hit him.

He’d killed Goyle. A kid he’d gone to school with for six years. A bully and a thug, sure, a kid who’d tried to kill him and nearly succeeded, but he was still… He was still a person Harry knew. Had known.

When he finished, Bill’s eyes were hard with alarm and anger. With his scars, Bill looked downright terrifying when he was angry, but Harry had never had cause to see him like this before, fiercely protective and furious. He looked older, somehow, than he normally did. Harry felt like a kid looking into his face, because he was a kid, and Bill was older and knew what to do. In that moment Harry wanted nothing more than to just do whatever Bill told him to do. He wanted absolution from making any decisions. It was hard to admit, but Harry still wanted someone to tell him he was going to be all right, that he was going to be safe.

It was an empty promise, Harry’d known that for years, but sitting on Andromeda’s couch, wrapped in bandages and a few unlucky minutes from death, he wanted someone to protect him.

“Okay,” Bill murmured. “Okay.” He looked up at Andromeda where she was hovering in the doorway to the kitchen. “I’m going to have to leave to deal with this, Andromeda. Can you—”

“He’s staying here,” Andromeda said without hesitation. “I’ve activated the wards around the house and set up the alarms on either end of the street. You’ll need to disapparate from the hill across the road, and I won’t let anyone else in without you informing me first. I don’t care who they are.”

Harry felt a hot stab of guilt wash through him as he recognized the fear in Andromeda’s voice. He’d only heard her this sharp once before, and that was the night of his seventeenth birthday, asking after her daughter.

Bill nodded. “Right. Thank you.”

When Bill turned back, Harry couldn’t help himself. He had to do something. He couldn’t just stay here, especially with Andromeda and Teddy… “Bill, I can’t—”

“You can stay here until I come back and you will.” Bill’s expression broke no leniency. “I mean it, Harry. You have no idea if this is an isolated incident or if this is something bigger, and I’m not going to let you wander off and get yourself hurt. Not again. You’re not leaving this house until I know you’re safe.” He took a deep breath, his voice softened. “I’m going to have to bring the Ministry in,” he added, slowly, watching Harry carefully. “I won’t—”

“No, of course,” he said before Bill could cut him off again. “I was going to say I’ll come in and confess. I have to tell—an auror, or someone, right? I have to turn myself in.” What else was he going to do? He had no intention of hiding what he’d done. He might hate the Ministry but he wasn’t about to start breaking laws just because he could. This… He’d done something horrible and of course he needed to go in and tell someone. “Bill, I can’t just stay here and—”

“You were attacked, Harry. You acted in self-defense. There’s nothing for you to confess. Not right now. When you’re healed up, we’ll go from there. Right now you just need to stay here and stay safe. You’re no use to anyone—” Bill swallowed tightly. “You can’t confess if you insist on hurting yourself, all right?”

“But—,” he started, eyes burning, a heavy weight pressing down on his chest, “I—I killed someone, Bill. I can’t… I killed—”

“I know.” Bill grasped his shoulders, expression twisting, voice almost breaking. “I know, Harry. I… It will be okay. You’re going to be okay. But I have to go now. I can’t risk someone else stumbling across the—body. I’ll be back before morning, and we’ll figure this out. I swear. I’m not letting you do this alone, all right?”

Harry’s throat went tight and he couldn’t do anything more than blink against the tears and nod.

Bill gripped the back of his neck and rose to kiss his forehead. It felt like he wanted to give Harry a hug, but was holding himself back so as not to hurt Harry. “You’re all right,” he murmured, and if Harry hadn’t already been crying he would have started then. “You’ll be all right, Harry.”

Bill turned to Andromeda as he scrubbed a hand through his hair. He was still wearing his Ministry robes, but there was blood on his collar and tie. Harry’s blood. “I can’t thank you enough, Andromeda. Truly.”

Andromeda looked at Harry, her expression unreadable. “You don’t have to thank me, Bill.”

Bill took a deep breath and said, firmly, “Expecto patronum.” A silver-blue animal, long and thin with a fluffy tail, it looked almost like a squirrel but sleeker and longer, burst from his wand, zipping once around the room before he dispelled it. “Now you know. I’ll send a warning before I come.”

Andromeda nodded.

Bill exhaled, gave Harry another look of reassurance, and left through the front door.

The silence after was somehow even worse.

Harry stared down at his hands. His right was still wrapped in linen, numb and swollen. His left was trembling. He felt Andromeda’s stare but he couldn’t look up. He couldn’t see the fear in her eyes, fear Harry had caused her. “My wand,” he whispered, voice breaking. “My—”

“It’s sitting on the table, Harry.” Andromeda walked over to him, kneeling down just like Bill had. Hesitantly, she reached out and took Harry’s left hand, heedless of the blood flaking over his skin.

His vision blurred with tears. He tried to hold them in, but he didn’t seem to have any control over himself anymore. He was shaking, and he was cold, and he’d— He’d—

Andromeda cupped his cheek again, just like she had a few weeks ago, and brushed her thumb over the falling tears. Her hand shook slightly against his face. “Let’s get you cleaned up, all right? Do you think you can walk?”

Slowly, Andromeda helped him into her small bathroom. He sat on the toilet while she gently peeled off his clothes, methodically cleaning and then healing his remaining wounds. Harry sat in a detached kind of horror, unable to do more than move when she asked and hold back sounds of pain when some other injury made itself known. He couldn’t even remember how he’d gotten most of them. As the minutes dragged on he tried to think back to the fight, but there were gaps. He was propped against the tree and then he was on the ground. He was screaming as Goyle broke his hand and then he was exploding with fear.

The white light consumed his vision, and then Goyle was dead.

Every time he tried to remember, it slipped a little further away from him. But he had to remember, all of it, because he knew he’d have to repeat all of this when an auror finally came to take him away. If he’d had the capacity to laugh, he would have at the irony. He’d screamed at the Wizengamot and called them all cowards and now here he was, a murderer twice over…

“Here you are, dear,” Andromeda murmured, putting something soft into his hands.

Harry blinked, realizing he was no longer in the bathroom, but sitting on a bed in a small room—Teddy’s room, he realized with a jolt. He knew there were only two bedrooms in the little cottage, but the knowledge that he was sitting so close to Teddy after he’d… He looked down and saw he was wearing a faded blue t-shirt and a pair of overlarge cotton trousers. On his lap was a striped pink and green fleece blanket. His right hand was wrapped up, and he only then remembered Andromeda telling him they’d wait on the Skele-Gro until later. Wouldn’t do to be fighting back a scream the whole time he was…questioned? Presumably Bill was bringing an auror back with him, or maybe he’d come and fetch Harry and they’d—

“I’m going to give you a sedative, all right? It’s not a true sleeping draft because I suspect you’ll need to be up again in a few hours once Bill returns, but it will help you relax.”

His eyes were raw. His throat burned. His guilt came back with a vengeance, like fiendfyre surging up in his chest.

He’d killed someone, and she was trying to comfort him.

“Harry?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, vision blurring again. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Andromeda. I’m—”

He was sitting in her house, wearing what must have been her late husband’s clothes, clutching a blanket which had probably belonged to Tonks, with his godson in his crib only six feet away, and he’d killed someone only a few hours ago.

“I’m—sorry— I’m so sorry—”

“Harry, look at me.”

He did as she said, because he didn’t think he could refuse anyone anything right now.

Her dark eyes were nearly obscured in the darkness of the room, the only light a small slice coming in from the hall, but as she held his face he knew she was crying too.

“You never need to apologize for needing my help. You will always have a place here.” Her hands shook slightly. “You’re a good man, Harry, with a good heart. What happened tonight doesn’t change that. Sometimes, you can’t blame yourself for the evil others do in your presence. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is save yourself, and you should never regret that. The important thing is you’re alive, and you’re going to be all right. You’re safe,” she murmured, almost to herself. She combed his hair back and tucked it behind his ear. “You’re safe, Harry.”

Harry stifled a sob, trying not to wake Teddy. Andromeda pulled him into a gentle embrace. She sat with him for a few more minutes, letting him cry into her shoulder until he could stop, before she offered him the potion and guided him down onto the bed.

He didn’t sleep, he didn’t want to—his dreams would be filled with the sigh of Goyle’s lifeless body. The time drifted as he listened to the quiet sounds of the house and the world outside. A tap turning on and off. A soft shuffle of feet. Birds chirping somewhere outside. A car spluttered on, pulling out of a garage what sounded like a few houses down.

For a while, Harry thought of nothing at all.

When he heard small gurgling noises, he made himself get up and walk to Teddy’s crib. He was still sleeping, his fists curled up and his eyes shut, but he was squirming. It surprised Harry that he knew it meant he was about to wake up. Maybe it shouldn’t have, since he’d been spending so much time here. Still the knowledge made something inside him warm, just a fraction.

Before he could stop himself, he reached down and smoothed a few pieces of blue hair back from Teddy’s forehead.

Harry stared at his godson for a long time, a looming sense of consequence crowding around him.

A baby in a crib. Sleeping. His parents dead.

Teddy’s forehead was clear, though, unmarred. Teddy would grow up with someone who loved him, in a house where he didn’t have to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. Teddy would know who he was, who his parents had been. Teddy wouldn’t be alone.

Harry was crying when Teddy finally squirmed awake, his big brown eyes blinking slowly open until he saw Harry, and then he smiled.

“Hey,” Harry said, trying to smile back. His voice sounded terrible and for a moment he thought he might scare Teddy, but the kid just made a series of yawning raspberries. “Good morning to you, too. How’d you sleep?” Teddy kicked his feet a few times and reached up, making a noise which Harry could only describe as an attempt at soft howling. The language of babies was weird. “That makes one of us, then,” he murmured, patting Teddy’s tummy. He wiped his arm across his eyes, wincing as his ribs pulsed in a reminder that they’d been broken only a few hours ago. He was still bloody crying. He couldn’t seem to stop.

Teddy grabbed his fingers after a cursory stretch. Harry let him gnaw on them for a while as he just watched.

He wondered if this was what Sirius felt when he found Harry in his crib, his parents dead, his house destroyed. This horrible, heavy yearning to do something good. He’d always felt protective of his friends, he’d wanted to live up to Dumbledore’s expectations, but he’d never felt both at the same time. He had sacrificed himself to save all those people, but it hadn’t felt as desperate at this. This violent, overwhelming urge to shield something so much smaller and more fragile than himself. A need to be good enough, not to set an example, but just to be worthy of having the responsibility. All those lives had been precious and important, but Teddy felt like his, and it filled him with panic at the idea that he was so woefully unworthy of the job of protecting him.

He hated that he was feeling this now, in the aftermath of murdering someone. It was frightening as hell, knowing now how easily he could lose this. He didn’t want to associate this moment with doing something so unforgivable. Part of him wanted to go back to the bed and lie down so he couldn’t infect Teddy, like it was an illness and Harry was contagious.

Harry would never be good enough for Teddy. He would never deserve this, but he wanted to try.

“Sorry, Teds,” he whispered, voice choked.

Eventually the sounds of the house grew a bit more intentional. Light was coming in from the drapes. Nearly dawn, then. As if summoned by the thought, a few cracks of people apparating sounded outside the house, followed by low, murmured voices.

Panic gripped his heart, but he couldn’t move away from the crib. If he just kept watching Teddy, if he stayed here in this room, he could pretend last night wasn’t real. Teddy was so good, he radiated it, and Harry didn’t want to leave.

The cottage door opened, and the sound of more than one set of feet came into the house, creaked on the small staircase up to the sitting room. Voices followed, low and deep. A gentle knock on the bedroom door.

“Harry, are you—”

Harry cleared his throat, trying to wipe his face of tears. “Yeah, I’m awake.”

Andromeda walked up next to him, a hand pressed gently to his shoulder. “Looks like you’re not the only one.”

Harry nodded, swallowing tightly. “He only just woke up.”

“Sorry, Harry,” Bill said from the doorway, voice low. He sounded tired. “It’s better if we do this now, I think.”

Harry nodded again, trying to pull his hand back from Teddy. But the kid bit down, or gummed down, though there was a definite hardness to it now, like he’d start getting his teeth soon. “Kinda need that back, mate,” Harry whispered, tugging out his hand and wincing at the sound of loss Teddy made. “Yeah, I know. Sorry. If the other one doesn’t get fixed, you can have it.”

Andromeda pulled a towel from her shoulder, cleaning off his hand, giving him a reassuring squeeze. “Think I’ve got more of those orange biscuits, if you want some?” She fussed with his hair, reminding him painfully of Molly. “I can make you beans and toast? Tea? You must be starving.”

He wasn’t. Or if he was, it didn’t bother him. He’d gone hungry enough as a kid not to notice it anymore, and for some reason he didn’t care about the physical needs of his body right now. He wasn’t punishing himself, but eating and sleeping felt like something only people who weren’t murderers were allowed to do.

“You don’t have to,” he said when he found his voice again.

“I know I don’t.” Gently, she turned him around with a soft push. “I’ll put something together for you.”

Harry took as deep a breath as he dared and met Bill’s gaze.

There were dark circles under his eyes, but he was smiling, with an expression that reminded Harry so much of Arthur. They really did look alike, even if Bill was about a foot taller and even charitably it’d be a stretch to call Arthur handsome.

“You get any sleep?”

Harry shook his head.

“Thought not.” Bill moved to let Harry through into the hall, Andromeda following with Teddy in her arms. “Merlin’s beard, Teddy’s gotten big.”

Harry nodded. Before he could follow Andromeda, Bill pulled him into a hug. It was a bit too tight, and Harry winced at the lingering soreness, but he slumped forward into Bill’s chest. Bill was big and warm and Harry felt like he was ripping apart at the seams. It was nice. Even if it hurt, it was nice. He’d regret it later, when this was just a reminder of what he’d always lacked, but right now Harry would take whatever he was given.

“Everything’s gonna be all right.” Bill murmured, squeezing, rubbing a comforting hand down his back. “Promise, Harry.”

Harry didn’t respond, but just moved through the hall and into the sitting room. He hesitated when he saw who was waiting for him—Robards, Faye Kamau, for some reason, and a younger woman with a severe blonde bob and large yellow glasses Harry had never met before.

Kamau drew in a small breath as she looked at Harry, brow furrowing in alarm. Robards was as stoic as Harry had ever seen him, though there was a distinct air of grim calm to his person that hadn’t been there during his questioning. The young woman’s eyes widened behind her glasses, and she muttered something under her breath.

So he looked even worse than he felt. He didn’t know if that was good or bad. Luckily, he didn’t have the energy to care.

“Tituba’s mercy,” Kamau murmured, her frown deepening as she studied him. Her hair was pulled back now, a dark red scarf tied around her head. “I’m surprised you’re even on your feet, sweetie.”

Harry shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

There was a long silence before the young woman snorted, not unkindly. “That a joke?”

Harry thought for a moment. “Don’t think so.”

Her eyes widened comically and she looked like she was about to say more, only to flush under Robards’s hard glare when he cleared his throat.

“Maybe we should all sit down,” Bill said after another tense moment, hands still resting on Harry’s shoulders.

Robards nodded, taking a seat after raking another sharp look over Harry’s body. His eyes tightened.

Andromeda came in with a tray in one hand and Teddy in the other. He was looking around at all the newcomers, eyes wide and flickering from blue to green to purple and then back to his normal brown.

“I can hold him for a second, if you need,” Bill said, helping Andromeda set down the tea tray.

She hesitated for a moment, her eyes flicking to Harry, but then she nodded and handed Teddy over. “Anybody take milk?”

The young woman lifted her hand, smiling sheepishly. “You wouldn’t happen to have honey, miss?”

Andromeda took everyone else’s orders, eyes coming to rest again on Harry when he remained silent. He felt terrible for making her go through all this.

After an awkward pause as they all listened to Andromeda moving about the kitchen, Kamau said, “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but the little chameleon wouldn’t happen to be—”

“A metamorphmagus,” Harry said, voice croaking. “Yeah.”

“That’s rather extraordinary.” Kamau smiled up at Teddy in Bill’s arms, who was currently shifting through hair colors. “What a charmer.”

“His mother was one as well,” Robards said quietly, his deep voice somber.

Kamau blinked, looking into the kitchen with a frown. “His mother?”

“Died in the war.” His brow furrowed as he looked down into his tea. “One of the best aurors I ever trained.”

Harry stared at Robards, chest tight as he realized the old man would have known Tonks well, almost as well as Kingsley.

As if sensing Harry’s attention, he looked up, a surprising softness to his eyes. “Nymphadora asked you to be his godfather, didn’t she?”

“I was—her husband, Remus, was…” Harry swallowed as heat rose up his throat. He blinked furiously, trying not to start crying again. “He was good friends with my dad, and he taught me at school. We were—close.”

“Remus Lupin?” the woman with glasses asked, leaning forward in her chair. “From the Order of the Phoenix?”

Harry blinked, startled. He’d forgotten someone else was there. “Yeah. Sorry, who—”

“Oh, Merlin.” The woman set down her tea and raised her hand as if to shake Harry’s only to see that his right hand was still wrapped in a bandage. “Felicity Burbage, Mr. Potter. It’s—well, it’s an honor. But I’m sure you’re tired of hearing that.” She gave him a weak smile, folded her hands in her lap. “Still, it’s very nice to meet you.”

Harry stared. Burbage.

Her smiled dimmed as she slid her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “You would have known my sister, Charity, I think.”

The image of a woman suspended over a long, dark table, hooded figures surrounding her, laughing at her as a snake coiled near Voldemort at the end—whispering, pleading, with Snape as he sat impassively beneath her—a pale sliver of a boy unable to stop looking up at her in horror…

The silence grew oppressive, and Harry found he could only nod.

“Felicity is one of the Magical Law Enforcement’s senior hit wizards,” Robards supplied. “She’s here because… Well. I suppose we should get to it.”

Andromeda came back in with another plate, picking up a biscuit and handing it to Harry with a steady, commanding look. Only when he took it and ate a bit off the end did she release him. “I don’t know how long you’ll need him, Gawain, but Harry shouldn’t be up for more than a few more hours. He shouldn’t be up now,” she added, her voice dark.

Robards nodded. “Thank you, Andromeda. Bill told me you treated Harry.”

“Of course. It was—of course. You should know that he was poisoned with something I’ve never seen before. Luckily, Harry only got a small dose and Bill got him here quickly, but it could have been lethal, would have been if I hadn’t caught it as soon as I did. I’d be careful if you—come across any more of it.” She stumbled over the truth, that Robards would only find more if he’d searched Goyle’s body. “I’ll take Teddy into the other room, then. If you need anything else—”

“I think we’re fine, Andromeda,” Bill said gently, giving Teddy a little pat on the head. “Really. You’ve done more than enough.”

Andromeda’s mouth went thin, anxiety in her gaze as she looked one more time at Harry. Her voice firm, she said, “When you’re done, come get me. I’ll be waiting.”

Harry tried to give her a smile. “Thanks.”

When Andromeda and Teddy were gone and Bill had taken a seat on the couch beside Harry, Robards set his tea down and leaned forward, folding his hands together with his thumbs steepled up. All at once the somber old man regained the steely demeanor of the Head Auror. He took out a sharp black quill and a pad of paper, and set it down. It was a quick quotes quill.

Harry felt like the ground under him had shifted. It became, suddenly, painfully real, that he was being questioned about someone he’d murdered.

“Right,” Robards said, not ungently, “I realize this is going to be hard, Harry, but I need you to tell me everything that happened tonight, from the moment you left the Ministry to now.” He paused. Harry waited for him to start in on his behavior in the courtroom. “I assume you left you left through the rooftop apparation point directly after you left the Wizengamot. Start there, and don’t leave out any details, even if they seem unrelated to you.”

If Harry’d been able to laugh, he might have at that—it was nearly the same as what Robards had said to him his first day of questioning.

The second time through was worse. He remembered everything viscerally, to his mild horror. Every detail, every moment—apparently his brain had been storing it all somewhere he hadn’t been able to access without three Ministry officials staring at him. Telling Bill hadn’t been easy, but it had been brief. He hadn’t stopped him and questioned him every few minutes. Robards seemed fixated on the actual attack, what Goyle had done to him.

“And he did all of this to you in only a few seconds?” Robards asked, eyes hard as they remained fixed on Harry’s face. His quill continued to scribble in sharp, compact cursive. Harry’d given up trying to read what it said after a few seconds. He’d just have to hope that Robards was more dedicated to the truth than Rita Skeeter.

Harry nodded.

“Did Mr. Goyle often resort to physical violence when you were in school together?” Kamau asked, brow furrowed.

“Sure, but as far as I know he never stabbed people. It was more just—bullying, really. Might have started in seventh year. I told you what I heard from other kids who attended last year. I’ve never seen him that—unhinged before.”

Kamau exchanged a glance with Robards, then said, “He was unhinged? Did you notice anything else about his demeanor?”

Harry frowned. “Yeah, he seemed…upset. Actually,” he added, “I’ve never seen him that upset before. He was—emotional. He said he was…trying to fix things. He blamed me for the death of his friend, Vincent Crabbe, and—” He cleared his throat. “He used to be close with Draco Malfoy, but I don’t think that’s true anymore.”

He ran through everything Goyle had said, and paused. “He seemed—er, I don’t know if it was just me caught off guard, but he was stronger than he should have been. He looked half-starved, but I couldn’t shake him off. He was able to do this,” he lifted his right hand, “just by hitting my hand on the ground.”

Robards hummed low in thought. “We have reason to believe that Goyle was under the effect of some kind of toxin or substance which enhances certain abilities. We’ve still got people identifying it, but it might explain his heightened strength and his mania. We’re not sure, yet, but our working theory is it’s a concoction meant to mimic the effects of lycanthropy. In a small way, of course.”

Harry stared. “Lycanthropy? Is that even possible if you’re not—a werewolf?” He looked at Bill in alarm, but all he got was a wry smile in reply.

“It’s not that cut and dry,” Kamau said, her big black eyes studying him closely. “But yes, essentially. We dealt with something similar back in the States in the 80’s. Potions meant to replicate lycanthropy, vampirism, even a few folks trying to grow themselves wings. Didn’t work out well for them, I’m afraid. I have a bit of experience in this field, so I was asked to consult by Mr. Robards. Hope that’s okay,” she added with a comforting smile.

Harry just nodded, the idea turning his stomach.

“Do you know why Goyle decided to target you, Harry?” Robards asked. “Beyond his belief that you were somehow responsible for his friend’s death, and Mr. Malfoy’s abandonment.”

“I…” He swallowed. Bill’s hand came down on his knee and squeezed in reassurance. “I don’t know.”

The room went very quiet, suffused with a knowing sympathy. Harry tried not to let it drag him down further, but really, how much further down could he go?

“So, he took away your wand, he was choking you…”

Harry met Robards’s gaze again. “And I killed him.”

“And you don’t know how?”

“I think—my magic just reacted. I don’t know. I’ve never—that’s never happened to me before. I’ve cast spells I didn’t mean to, one time it wasn’t even one I knew, but never without my wand. I was dying one second and the next Goyle had been… I don’t know what I did.”

“Wizards are known to produce inexplicable magic when they’re pressed,” Kamau said softly. “It’s not ridiculous to say you performed wandless magic in a state of panic, when your life was on the line. It’s instinctual.”

He held her gaze for a while, something cringing in the back of his mind.

“I’d like to look at your wand, Harry,” Robards said. “It might help explain what happened.”

Harry gestured to his wand sitting on the table, nestled between full cups of cold tea and the crumbs of a discarded biscuit. “Of course.”

Robards stood and moved to a clear space in the corner of the room. With his own wand, he murmured, “Priori incantato.”

For a moment, nothing happened apart from a few sparks and a trail of smoke. Harry had the horrible thought that it was broken, that Goyle really had taken control of it and Harry wouldn’t be able to—

A flash of grey-white light cut through the living room, followed by heat and the quick sensation of all the air being vacated from his lungs. His injured hand was pulsing as if he’d clenched it without meaning to. Pain launched up his arm and slammed into his chest—

And then it was gone. He felt just as he had before the flash, tired, sore, and fatigued in a muted, low burning throb.

No one else looked even slightly perturbed.

Calmly, a spectral line of magic shot out from his wand and formed a large stag, its antlers smoking before it shot off into the air. A body emerged from the tip of Harry’s wand, gliding up and over an invisible plane. That would be wingardium leviosa.

Robards kept watching as the echo performed the same hand motion required for the Flippendo spell, and then produced a ghostly imitation of a Stunning Spell and Shield Charm.

Harry was staring, heart in his throat, sweat beading on his temples.

What—what the hell was that?

Robards didn’t look at all disturbed, but nodded. “It seems whatever magic you performed, your wand didn’t register it. I’m inclined to believe Ms. Kamau, that it was simply an act of unconscious, uncontrolled magic.”

Harry stared, his mouth hanging open. “But I…” He hesitated when he looked around the room and everyone else seemed unperturbed as well.

Had he imagined the white light? The same light he’d seen right before he’d killed Goyle?

He had the horrible thought that perhaps it was connected to what he’d done to kill Voldemort. He hadn’t cast a spell then either, just let his magic flow through him. Maybe some door had opened and now he’d never be able to control himself again.

The silence in the room was normal, but he couldn’t help the trickle of dread flowing down his spine.

He was just—nervous, maybe. He was just—inventing things. He’d had fits so often over his life, maybe this was just another…

But all of his fits had led to something real. None of them had been unfounded, even when they’d been used against him. Every time his scar had hurt, every time he’d seen something in his dreams or in his mind, it had come true in some way.

Voldemort was dead, and his scar wasn’t hurting. And there was still something pulsing in his chest, like heartburn or anxiety, but alive, rippling like dark water disturbed by a boat. By corpses.

Tom Riddle’s smile.

He looked away when Bill, frowning, caught his eye. He’d—mention it later. To Bill. If no one else had seen it, he might be imagining it. He’d slept maybe three hours a night the past two weeks. He’d just killed someone, had a breakdown that afternoon.

Maybe it was all in his head. Maybe it wasn’t real.

Robards sat with a sigh, rubbing a large hand across his chin, scratching his beard. Harry forced himself to look at Robards, to ignore the little shocks of pain in his hand, running up his arm.

It’s not real. You’re not losing it.

Tom Riddle was still there, leaning against the tree across the path, his smirk private and taunting. The nails of Harry’s left hand dug into his knee.

“Harry,” Robards said gently, “I’m going to be honest with you.”

Harry’s heart jumped even higher up in his throat.

“I know you didn’t mean to kill Gregory Goyle. Your account matches what we found at the scene, and as he was formally charged with multiple counts of murder and battery earlier today, I’m inclined to believe him fully capable of attempting to kill you.” He looked up, his dark eyes filled with a strange kind of sadness. “The formal investigation will take some time, so this isn’t official, but I’m not going to charge you with anything. Neither is anyone else from the Office of Magical Law Enforcement. What you did, you did in self defense.”

Anger flickered up like a candle’s flame stirred by a breeze. “But I… It doesn’t matter what I meant—”

“It does, actually,” Kamau interrupted calmly. “Motive always matters.”

Harry looked between them, blinking rapidly as he tried to regain his bearings. “I killed someone.”

“On accident,” Robards said, a measure of authority entering his voice again. “If you’ve been lying to us for the past thirty minutes, and you actually did intend to murder Gregory Goyle when you left the Ministry tonight, please—tell me. Even if I thought you were that kind of person, which I don’t think you are,” he added as Harry tried to interrupt, “I still think you’d be honest about it if pressed. Am I wrong?”

He hadn’t told his friends about being a horcrux, but that was different, right? That only involved him. And the thing with Ginny…

Yes, he was keeping secrets. But this was bigger, surely.

A strangely distant thought drifted through his mind, You didn’t mean to. They don’t want to punish you. Why are you asking for it?

Robards waited, but Harry kept his mouth shut, his jaw clenched tight against the chaos of thoughts battling it out in his own head.

“I didn’t think so,” Robards said quietly. “And even if I weren’t inclined to believe you, there’s something else going on here, something which complicates your situation.”

A strangled laugh bubbled up in his throat. “Something else?” he managed.

Felicity Burbage leaned forward, an awkward twist to her mouth. “This is where I come in. Not just here for kicks, right?” She cleared her throat and continued, more solidly, “Four hours ago, at approximately one in the morning, our office received word that a small explosion had gone off in the center of London, near St. Andrew’s Gardens.”

His stomach dropped a few more miles down into the ground. “St. Andrews,” Harry repeated, not even surprised, really.

Felicity nodded, her expression grim. “We normally don’t respond to random emergency calls—we’re trained to take down threats and neutralize attacks which could get out of hand quickly. Volatile dark wizards, riots, that sort of thing.”

He nodded. Hit wizards had taken Sirius in after Wormtail framed him. They’d responded to the riot during the Quidditch World Cup.

“This one was flagged for us, though, because not only was the level of damage too extensive for the normal Magical Law Enforcement Squad or the Improper Use of Magic Office, but reports from the scene indicated that a dark witch was involved, and present at the site. I was the only one in the office at the time, so I went on my own to investigate. Only, it wouldn’t have mattered when I arrived, because…” She hesitated, a look of deep unrest crossing her prim features. “The entire building was in the process of collapsing due to a curse known as the Disintegration of Morgan Le Fay.”

Harry went very still. The last time he’d heard that phrase he’d been hundreds of miles away in a cold, dark tent with Hermione, going over the possible ways they could destroy horcruxes for the hundredth time, retreading ground rather than sitting in silence. One more in a list of increasingly horrible and improbable ways to damage something so thoroughly nothing could fix it.

“I’ve never seen it in the field,” Felicity continued over the strange ringing in Harry’s ears, “and as far as I know, it’s been out of common dark practice for,” she laughed nervously, speaking fast, “well, centuries. The only reason I recognized it is because I spent years studying Archaic Medieval Cursework, specifically that which pertained to the attempt to recover knowledge lost in the Norman Conquest, when the last of the Great Celtic Sorceresses died, for my post-N.E.W.T. concentration in—”

“Felicity,” Robards said gently.

“Right. Sorry.” She grimaced. “It was very lucky I showed up, but even then, I would have had no idea how to stop it from the outside. I’m not sure anyone does. It can’t be dispelled or countered, you see. You just have to get people away as fast as you can and minimize the damage.” She shot Robards a dark, haunted look. “By some miracle, though, the witch who cast the curse didn’t seem to understand what she was doing, because the moment I arrived, seconds after the complaint had come in, I saw her panic and try to stop.”

“It’s impossible,” Harry muttered. “You can’t stop it. It’s—pure destruction.”

Felicity’s eyes widened. “You’ve heard of it?”

Harry nodded. “It’s like fiendfyre.”

“Right, it is.” Felicity looked like she was holding herself back from asking anything more, as if she saw Harry’s expression and realized he wasn’t in a sharing mood. “Unlike fiendfyre, though, the caster has a very small window of opportunity to reverse the spread, to pull it back into themselves. Fiendfyre will burn for a long time, but it will stop, eventually, once it runs out of fuel. This curse doesn’t have the same limitations. The last recorded incident occurred in 1605, when an entire island in the Hebrides disintegrated and vanished into the ocean, along with the fifteen hundred people who lived on it.” She fiddled with her glasses, skin gone pale. “I can’t even imagine what it might have done here, in London. The level of destruction—”

Robards cleared his throat.

She straightened up and shook her head. “The witch must have regretted it immediately, activating the reversal right away. It didn’t stop the spell from starting, though, and the swiftness of the spread was astounding. Half the building was destroyed in less than a second. It’s down to luck that no one was killed.”

“Were there,” Harry swallowed, “any injuries? Are they…”

“One man lost his right foot, and an old woman a few fingers, but otherwise, none of the tenants were seriously wounded. Before I left I heard one man complaining about losing a chunk of his hair. The dark witch, however, lost her wand arm and a good portion of her face. Not badly enough to kill her, but she’s in a secured room at St. Mungo’s right now. The healers say she’ll live, though I’m not sure what’s going to be done with her. The small failsafe is designed to consume the caster should they try to reverse the spell. Frankly, she shouldn’t be alive. I’m inclined to think the spell was improperly cast, if she could do anything to it at all.”

A whole arm. Bloody hell. “Who… Can you tell me who?”

Felicity looked to Robards, who nodded. “Her name is Millicent Bulstrode,” she said grimly, “and I think, Mr. Potter, that you know where this is going.”

The name smacked into him like a fist, what little composure he’d managed to regain gone in a sharp, painful exhale. He didn’t know who he’d been expecting, but not another one of his classmates… He knew her.

He didn’t know why it was such a surprise, why it rocked him to the core. So many people had wanted him dead over the years, had tried, and nearly succeeded. Shouldn’t he be used to this by now?

He bowed forward over his legs, shoving his good hand into his hair as goosebumps erupted over every inch of his skin.

“Sorry, I’m lost,” Bill said slowly, hand resting gently against Harry’s shoulder. “How does this—”

“My flat,” Harry said raggedly, voice small. “I had a flat in the building. I just bought it. Before the trials started.” He shook his head, chest constricting. “I hadn’t even told anyone yet. I didn’t think…”

“Ms. Bulstrode managed to confess one thing,” Robards said gently. “She was working with Mr. Goyle, or they were somehow allied, however it seems the curse not only works on a physical level, but a mental one as well. She had a few lucid hours after being stabilized at St. Mungo’s, but it became clear quickly that her mind was deteriorating, fast. By the time I arrived to question her myself, she was confused, rambling. She couldn’t remember her own name, let alone what her motivations were or if anyone else was involved. The healers don’t expect her to regain any cognitive control or lucidity, due to the nature of the curse.”

Harry stared at the rug between his bare feet, counting the rings of rough-spun wool where they looped over one another—orange to red to brown to mauve and then back to orange, all of it spiraling in a uniform, constricting oval. It was faded and worn through. Well-loved.

He’d seen Millicent that morning. She’d glared at him from the group of Slytherin girls, tall and imposing and stone-faced. He’d given her five seconds of thought, maybe. How had he missed her intention to…kill him? To destroy his home? He’d only had the flat for three weeks. Three weeks.

Bloody hell. Had it really only been three weeks? A life should have taken longer to fall apart.

Stupid, that little voice in the back of his head said, your life’s always been a joke. You can’t break something that was never whole.

It took him a moment to realize someone was saying his name. He looked up, saw everyone in the room staring at him with various levels of concern or fear.

“I have to leave,” he murmured, his feet already pushing himself up from the couch. His legs protested and he winced, though most of his pain was still centered in his hand and chest. He wavered on a moment of vertigo, good hand reaching out for balance on the arm of the couch. “I can’t be here. Can’t—stay here. Not with—”

Not with Teddy so close.

“Harry, steady,” Bill said, face a mixture of anger and worry, “you’re not going anywhere. You can’t even manage to stay on your feet.” He stood and braced Harry when he swayed, a fit of nausea making him dizzy. “You can’t just rush out and—”

“This isn’t the Burrow or Shell Cottage, Bill,” Harry said, voice stronger than it had been in hours. “Anyone could find me here right now if they wanted to, if they were really serious about it. I’m not staying here with my godson in the next room. Not when people are—are destroying buildings to get to me.”

“Where the hell are you going to go, then?” Bill’s voice raised, sounding sharper than Harry had ever heard it.

“Actually,” Robards interrupted, standing now with his full, imperious height, “I have a thought on that. We don’t know who else might be involved, if this was just the grudge of two schoolmates or something bigger. Until we know what we’re looking at, you’d be safer—”

“No,” Harry said before he could offer.

Robards blinked, startled. It was a strange look on his stoic features. “Excuse me?”

“No,” Harry repeated, something like adrenaline pumping through him, lending him strength. “I’m not going to the Ministry.”

“You’d be under the protection of the entirety of the Aurors’ Office. There isn’t anywhere more secure—”

He cut Robards off with a look. “I broke into the Department of Mysteries when I was fifteen. That’s how secure your Ministry is.”

The silence in Andromeda’s sitting room was painful. Harry held Robards’s gaze, seeing in his eyes the indignation and outrage of Scrimgeor before him, and Fudge before him.

At best, Robards was being naive. No one in their right mind who’d been through what Harry’d been through the past three years would trust the Ministry of Magic for any kind of protection. Even if Harry did think the Ministry had his best intentions at heart, which he most certainly did not, Harry would be stupid to think they could do more than slow down whatever was coming for him next.

At worst, Robards wanted Harry under the Ministry’s control. After what he’d done today, he knew full and well that Yeats, when she found out about this, would be more than happy to lock him up somewhere, hold this over him so they could get his endorsement and finally silence him.

He could see it now in the old man’s face, in the disbelief and frustration, the hurt pride. He didn’t think Robards was a bad person. He seemed decent, compassionate, competent. In a kinder world, Harry would be more than willing to set aside his own misgivings to give Robards a chance. But Harry didn’t know him. He was just another old man who was trying to place Harry on his board. Harry was just another piece in his game, even if he didn’t mean him to be. Even if he didn’t know that’s what he was doing.

And if he couldn’t even trust Kingsley anymore, he wasn’t going to trust Robards.

Harry had had enough of trusting old men who claimed to have his best intentions at heart.

“I have a place,” he said, trying to straighten up. He shrugged Bill off as gently as he could. “I’ll—I’ll go there. It’s in London. Kingsley knows about it. Bill too. I’m not trying to skip town, I just…” He looked at Bill, saw the struggle in his eyes. “Until we know if there are more people trying—to get to me, I’m not staying anywhere near anyone else.”

Bill’s expression remained hard, his blue eyes disconcertingly similar to Ron’s in their frustration.

“I won’t, Bill,” Harry repeated, slowly. “I’m not letting anyone else—”

“Protect you, yeah,” Bill muttered, shoulders sagging. “I remember.”

It was a strange thing, to feel the shift in power. Bill had always been someone Harry looked up to, a good man. Over the summer they’d gotten quite close, and Harry couldn’t help but imagine what it might have been like to grow up with a brother like Bill. Someone who’d look out for him, help him. He wished he was still tired and scared enough to trust what he’d felt only a few hours ago, but he was clear-eyed now and he knew exactly how much danger anyone would be in while they were with him. He wouldn’t risk it.

Standing in the little, quiet sitting room, looking up at a man who was nearly a decade older, someone he admired, Harry felt more of the tethers of his childhood slip away. He’d been of age for over a year, and on his own without help from any adult for most of that time. He’d seen more struggle than most would ever see in their whole lives, gone through worse than most people could possibly conceive.

It hadn’t quite hit home yet, though. Not until tonight. He felt an echo of the certainty he’d gained after Dumbledore’s funeral, the knowledge that there was no one else who could shield him. No one else he’d let.

Back then, he’d been facing down Voldemort. Now it was the whole world, an unfixed, horrible kind of specter he couldn’t see and had no idea how to fight. He almost longed for the simplicity Voldemort had embodied. Harry had had goals, concrete plans he could put into motion while knowing where it all led.

Now he was trying to catch smoke in the palm of his hand.

Harry turned back to Robards, whose expression had shuttered again to a remote and cool consideration. “I give you my word I’m not fleeing, or anything.” He hesitated. Might as well drive it home, then. “I’ll wear a tracking cuff, if you want me to. If you’re going to put a curse in it, though, you might as well throw me in a cell.”

Robards’s eyes narrowed as Kamau actually smiled. “No,” Robards said after a long pause, “no, I don’t think that will be necessary, Mr. Potter. If I thought you were a flight risk, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You’re not being charged with anything, so I can’t force you. You’re a free man.”

Harry nodded. “Right. You want me to check in, or—”

“You’ll be checking in with me twice a day,” Bill said giving Harry a look of bare frustration, “so I’ll be more than happen to pass that along. If you like,” he added to Robards.

Robards inclined his head. “That’d be most helpful. I’ve decided to keep this investigation quiet. All the witnesses at your building have been questioned, and no one but the landlord seems to know you were the owner, and she’s sworn to keep quiet in accordance of the agreement you both signed. As such, it will take time to do this properly, without drawing more attention.”

Harry’s brow raised. “How are you explaining away half the building disintegrating?”

Robards leveled him with a hard glare. “As you’ve no interest in Ministry protection, I’m not inclined to share details of our investigation until it’s concluded. We’ve handled it.”

Harry said nothing, properly chastised. Felicity gave a small, awkward cough. Kamau was still watching Harry like he was a puzzle she couldn’t quite figure out.

“I only have a handful of aurors working on this. Might take a while to make sure you’re out of the woods.”

Harry swallowed the morbid urge to laugh.

Of course he wasn’t out of the woods. He still sometimes felt like he was lying on the mossy, cold ground in that dark clearing. Like he’d never left.

“Until then, I’d ask you to lay low and keep quiet.” The last Robards emphasized with a frown. “I’ll be blunt, Mr. Potter. Your penchant for honesty and transparency can only hurt you right now, and I don’t think I need to tell you that there are more than a few people at the Ministry who don’t think very well of you after your performance at the trials yesterday. The fewer people who know you were the target of two attempted murders last night, the safer you’ll be, and the easier it will be to carry out our work.”

Harry waited to feel guilty but it never came. He just held Robards’s gaze. “Are you going to tell Yeats, then?”

Robards closed his eyes with a heavy sigh. “I will have to eventually, yes.” When he looked at Harry again, he could see conflict in the old man. So it wasn’t just Kingsley who’d found what was going on distasteful. It seemed a lot of people were opposed, actually.

And yet Harry’d been the one who spoke out first.

Robards said, “I’ve already informed the Minister, and he’s elected to allow me to conduct this investigation in secret, for now.”

Harry’s jaw clenched. How nice of him.

“Whatever you think about Prunelia Yeats,” Robards said quietly, “she’s a decent woman, who understands the need for discretion when it comes to sensitive matters.”

It took a great deal of effort not to laugh out loud at this. “If you say so,” he finally ground out.

Decent. Sure.

The room filled with another charged silence. Harry thought Robards was fighting the urge to say something else, but it was hard to read that stony face.

Finally, Robards looked away over Harry’s shoulder. “Thank you for letting us use your home, Andromeda.”

The guilt Harry had been waiting for returned with a vengeance. How long had she been listening?

“Of course, Gawain.” Andromeda’s voice was cold and clipped. “You know you’re welcome here.”

Robards inclined his head, gave Harry another long, searching look. “We’ll be in touch, Mr. Potter.” He turned on his heel for the door.

Felicity, face flushed, did a half-bow as she shuffled along after. “It was an honor, Mr. Potter. Truly.”

Kamau took her time, giving Harry a long, considering look. “I hope one of these days we meet under happier circumstances, sweetie.” Her large dark eyes seemed to bore through him. “I’m sorry to say that you’ve more than lived up to your reputation.”

Harry couldn’t help a scowl.

Kamau just smiled and winked at him, flicking her gaze to Bill and then, presumably, Andromeda where she was standing in the kitchen doorway.

When they were all gone, and it was just Harry, Bill, and Andromeda, Harry felt a little like all the strings holding him up had been cut. He sat down heavily, swallowing a grunt of pain. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Andromeda approach, Bill take a few paces away from him before he turned back.

“Your hand,” Andromeda said, voice efficient and without inflection. “If you’re set on leaving, I’ll need to do a bit of preliminary healing to make sure the bones set correctly.”

Harry watched her face closely, but he saw nothing in her eyes. After a tense silence, he directed his attention toward Bill.

Bill wasn’t bothering to hide his frustration and misgivings, but he looked resigned. “Were you planning on apparating to—”

“Don’t,” Andromeda said quietly. Her wand glowed yellow and green as she did something to his hand which made Harry painfully aware of the precise placement of his fine bones. “Don’t tell me where you’re going. The fewer people who know, the safer you’ll be.”

“Andromeda—,” Harry started.

“I’ll have Bill check in on you tomorrow to make sure your hand’s healing correctly. You’re going to have to do the Skele-Gro yourself.” She pierced him with a black stare. “Every eight hours for the next twenty-four hours. After that, you’ll need to sleep as long as you can. I’ll send you with something to help. Don’t try to do anything more strenuous than walking. Not for a few days.”

Harry swallowed. “Yeah. All right.”

“When you’re feeling better, floo me. If it’s been more than three days and I still haven’t heard from you, I will find out where you’re staying and I will come myself.” She studied his face, something like fear tightening the fine lines around her eyes. “I mean it, Harry. I understand why you feel the need to leave and I won’t keep you here, but I—” She exhaled softly. “I’ll feel better if I know you’re healing properly.”

Eyes burning, he nodded.

Andromeda sighed, face tightening up before she stood. “I’m going to rewrap your hand. Everything seems fine, but I’d rather be safe.” She left him and Bill alone, the tension in her shoulders clearly visible.

Bill sat down next to him, staring forward. Harry could practically hear him swallowing everything he wanted to say about Harry’s choice to leave. The fact that he cared that much made something inside Harry shrivel up in shame.

“The Fidelius Charm broke, Harry. I’m not sure how much safer you’ll be there than here.”

“It’s still unplottable. And there are a few leftover spells from when Mad-Eye—” Harry blinked away his tears, trying to sound certain. “Kreacher’s there too. He’s a lot more willing to help these days.”

Bill took a deep breath. “And you’ll be on your own.”

“I can’t risk them getting hurt,” Harry whispered, wincing at the sounds of Teddy eating in the kitchen, the clatter of his spoon and the squeak of his high chair. “If…anyone else is involved, they’ll go to Grimmauld Place first. Assuming they know about it. But it wouldn’t be too hard to trace me back here, if they had a reason to go looking. I’ve already… I won’t put them in danger, Bill.”

“You think this might have something to do with the Death Eaters? Retaliation?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” Harry closed his eyes. “I’m not exactly popular with a lot of people these days.”

Another shroud of silence settled over them. Harry stared down at his pulsing right hand, the yellow and green light of Andromeda’s magic coating it with a slight shimmer—like a glove of liquid citrine.

“Are you planning on telling anyone else?”

Harry frowned. “No, Bill, I’m not going to run off and tell the Pr—”

“I mean Ron and Hermione,” he said gently. “Though, I can’t help but think they’d both bolt over before you even finished explaining. That would ruin your plan to lock yourself away on your own.”

Tension built in his chest, expanding through the back of his mind.

Part of him wondered if Bill was right, but he knew Hermione and Ron would drop everything if he asked. Even after his fight with Hermione, he knew that. How many times had they done the same? How many times had they insisted on joining Harry even when he knew they’d be safer if they just kept away? Wasn’t that the reason he’d broken things off with Ginny in the first place, why he’d kept quiet about the horcruxes even when people he loved and respected tried to help? He’d sent Remus away for the same reason, refused to tell Bill or Molly or Arthur what he’d been planning.

Hermione and Ron would come running. He should have counted it as a blessing, a comfort, to know he had friends who would always be there for him. They’d come through a war together, hadn’t they? He shouldn’t be afraid of telling them anything, asking for their help, again, when they’d already done so much for him.

He wished he was the same person who could ask his friends for that kind of sacrifice.

But he wasn’t. He’d stopped being that person the moment he killed Voldemort. He knew better now.

“I can’t tell them,” Harry whispered.

He couldn’t bring this kind of trouble to them as well, ruin their lives because more people wanted Harry dead. They didn’t deserve that. The war was over for them. He wouldn’t pull them back in just because Harry didn’t know how to exist in this post-war world. If he wasn’t allowed to have a normal life, he wasn’t going to take that from them too.

“If that’s what you want.” Bill shifted on the couch next to him.

Harry kept staring down at the rug, a horrible, gnawing emptiness slipping down the cavity of his chest and settling at the bottom of his stomach like sediment in a dark body of water. Tugging him down with a heavy, horrible weight.

Bill’s warm hand closed over Harry’s knee. “You can’t do it all on your own, Harry,” he said quietly. “Not even you.”

A drop of water fell into the still pool of his mind. The echo spread, rippling, and then it was all stillness once more.

Hermione’d said the same thing only yesterday.

He couldn’t drag them down with him anymore.

“I have to, Bill.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Seek me where the corpse light fades.
Seek me in the hallowed ground.
Seek me in the sacred tree where my love’s forever bound.

Follow me into the air.
Follow me across the sea.
Follow me through veil and shadow, please, love, remember me.

 

An old Welsh folksong sung on the night of Calan Gaeaf, thought to be based on the romance of Merlin and Nimue, and to have originated from the settlement of Dinas Dinlle. Others believe the song references Angharad Golden-Hand and her true love, Peredur...

 

PART TWO

 

When Harry finally succumbed to sleep after a harrowing twenty-four hours of Skele-Gro, fending off Kreacher’s attempts to force feed him, the disorienting experience of passing out in thirty minute bursts only to wake with the bones of his hand attempting to wriggle out of his skin, reassuring Bill that he was, for the tenth time, perfectly fine and able to be in the house on his own, he dreamed of a white beach.

His dreams since Voldemort’s death had been vague and unfixed. Filled with a low burning anxiety which was weak enough he could brush it off come morning. He still dreamed of his mum’s screams and Sirius’s smile as he fell back through the veil and Remus’s peaceful expression where he lay on the blasted stones of Hogwarts like he was just sleeping. They were mixed in with all the other dreams of kids in shackles and a room full of black robes.

He hadn’t dreamed anything clear enough to know he was actually in a dream, not like how it used to be when Voldemort was still alive.

The white beach was quiet and cold, the waves lapping at the sand before his feet. The sky was grey and bright and he thought he heard a voice on the wind singing. He walked for a while, toward something he couldn’t quite name. He recognized the coast and then it shifted the pebbles taking on a shining, pearly light. There was something ahead of him. A thread pulling at him maybe, or a lighthouse. A glint far off in the distance.

There was someone waiting for him.

From the haze of soft white, a figure appeared.

Harry tried to get closer and see who it was, only the farther he walked the more distant the figure seemed to get. All at once it was vital to learn who was waiting for him, who had brought him here to this quiet, shining, desolate place. Who wouldn’t let him get close enough to see…

A tall, thin slash of light amidst the soft expanse of sand and sea. They were just standing there. Waiting. They seemed to notice him after a while, not turning exactly, but Harry felt their attention.

A broken, empty laugh reverberated across the silent coast.

“Of course. Of course it’s you.”

The voice was small and familiar, breaking, raw.

“Why is it always you?”

It sounded like it came from just behind him. Harry turned but with an unsettling shift the world turned with him. He spun around again. The light fractured as a noise like a whine cut through the stillness.

“No.”

Harry’s chest tightened. There was fear in that voice. It was even more familiar now, hitting some tender part of him he hadn’t prodded in a long time.

“Stop it.”

Harry opened his mouth to call out but no sound came. The dream vibrated and he felt something pushing, pushing—

“Don’t, I don’t want to, don’t make me, please—”

Harry ran, pushing back, trying to find the source of the voice. He had to find the voice, a different voice than one he’d heard plead with him when he was trapped in a cave with dead all around him, but it was just as urgent, just as horrible to hear it now, like this, because he had heard this voice break before—

A high, cold laugh broke the sky. Harry flinched back, fear rising in his stomach like fire. The laughter was echoing all around him, shifting from one voice to another, both of them cruel, both of them horrible in different ways. He’d expected one but he’d never heard the other, not like this, and it made no sense because she—

Perhaps you need more effective incentives.

The beach fell away. The waves turned to shadow and the sand to hard, cold earth. The sky painted itself darker, roiling now with clouds holding black and grey shadows. The sound of lightning cracked in the distance.

Harry knew at once that something was wrong. This new place felt strange. Dreams always wiped clean your sense of doubt. You were where you needed to be because the dream put you there. You weren’t supposed to feel out of place. He had enough awareness, though, to recognize that it wasn’t the same feeling he’d had every time he dipped into Voldemort’s mind. He’d always felt like he belonged there, as horrible as it was.

Harry didn’t belong here. Or—perhaps he simply wasn’t expected.

And when the disorientation wore off, he remembered he was terrified.

He looked down, filled with an uncanny sense of backwards deja vu—it took him twice as long to see what he was supposed to see, like he caught the flash of a camera and had to wait until his sight returned to see who’d taken the picture.

He wore sharp black trousers over fine, pointed shoes that might once have been lovely but were scuffed and splashed with what had to be acid burns. The sound of sharp heels echoed from the stable behind him—the stable? He’d never been in a stable before, but of course he had—why was he being so unreasonable?

Why was he trying to convince himself this was normal?

Why was he making this harder than it needed to be?

His hand was shaking around his wand—his wand, Harry realized, but not yet, because it still belonged to—

“You’re getting better. If only you weren’t such a coward, you might become something one day.”

Harry’s throat closed and his eyes went wide in panic. He hadn’t heard that voice in months. He wasn’t supposed to hear it anymore, its owner was dead, he’d killed—

The smell of acid and sulfur snaked into his nostrils and he fought the urge to vomit. He couldn’t vomit because it would just make everything worse. He’d be punished and he couldn’t bear that room with the screaming again, so much screaming—

A dark figure appeared beside him so close he flinched. A knuckle brushed softly against his cheek, a perversion of the same gesture which used to bring him comfort, make him feel safe and loved when it came from— But coming from—

On the ground a body twitched. It was bloody and naked and he couldn’t tear his eyes from the face. He’d done that to her face…

“I see we still have work to do.” A tsk of disapproval. The person beside him leaned up and whispered into his ear, “Between you and I, I admit I enjoy getting to finish them off myself.”

Harry watched in horror as another hand swam into his vision, pale, bony fingers clutching a thick black wand. It flicked and the woman on the ground screamed, writhed, and he knew it would keep going and going until she finally gave up and—

Harry broke through his fog and wrenched back in horror.

The dream fractured. Two figures stood in the glow of a lantern, the sky cracking with thunder and a cold, biting wind. The woman on the ground went still. The figure swathed in black let out another laugh. The other one…

Harry reached out and pulled, hand finding purchase on the thin, shaking form—sharp and white and flickering, they gasped.

“Wait!” Harry cried, but they were gone, so quickly he wondered if he hadn’t imagined them.

The stable dropped away in a dizzying rush of darkness. He was nowhere, caught in that unreal space of unconsciousness and dreaming, standing in a vast black space as endless as the sky. He wasn’t alone.

His head turned and his vision split like a mirror swinging toward his face.

He was staring at himself, only it wasn’t him—the eyes were too large and the antlers… He had antlers sitting atop his head. A massive rack of antlers, too large, much too large for any animal to carry. As he watched, paralyzed, his mirror image smiled. Its mouth split wide, too wide. His whole head was separating. The inside of his mouth was a tunnel of dripping black ichor. His eyes burned green, the sickening, lightning green of death and sure enough the whistling sound of a scream cut through him—not his mum’s voice. It was someone else screaming.

Something white flashed in his periphery. He turned, lunging for a way out, and stumbled into a long corridor with flickering lights on the walls, candles. A figure raced down the hall and Harry followed, willing himself to go faster, to escape the thing chasing him, to catch up to the figure in white. He still felt its mouth pulling wide behind him, eyes dripping with green light.

The slash of white disappeared behind a door. Harry ran, wanting to cry out but afraid that if he opened his mouth he wouldn’t be able to close it again. He’d drown in that oozing black. He held out his hand—white light seared into him, cracked his palm open.

Then a door slammed shut, finally jarring him awake.

Harry jerked upright, sheets tangled around him. He was drenched in sweat. He gasped for breath, bending over as his chest throbbed from his barely healed ribs. His room was dark, the only sounds his own breathing and the quiet, ever present creaking of Grimmauld Place around him. He fumbled for his wand on the bedside table only to see it light up on the other side of the room, peeking out from the bottom of his dirty jeans. The light blossomed bright enough for the room to pulse with a soft, blue-white glow. It was comforting. It reminded him of his patronus.

It took him a long time to calm down, left hand pressed to his forehead just in case it started pulsing. It reminded him of the moment after the splitting pain of a headache had faded, when you could feel the phantom sensation lingering behind your eyes and in your temples, braced for it to assault you again. He was so focused on his scar, in fact, that he almost missed the state of his right hand.

The bandages had come off yesterday when Bill pronounced him functionally fine. He’d come straight from Andromeda, apparently, who had given him the all clear after one more course of Skele-Gro. Bill had, mercifully, left soon after, sensing Harry’s need to spend the next year unconscious in an attempt to make up for all the sleep he’d lost, but only once Bill had agreed to leave him alone until the investigation was through. He wasn’t going to have Bill or Andromeda stopping by when there was still a chance someone would come looking for him. Maybe Harry just looked that crazed, but Bill had relented. He told Harry to try to get some sleep. By the time Harry finally threw himself into the bed on the far side of the room he’d shared with Ron during fifth year, made up in clean sheets he was pretty sure he’d had no hand in preparing, he was starting to go well and truly mad.

Now, however, with the deadened feeling of a person having just awoken from a century of sleep, he could see things quite clearly. Specifically, the silver, branching scar on the palm of his right hand. It followed the lines on his palm. He tried to remember something from their section in Divination about palm reading, but either he was still out of it or his brain had decided to throw it out in the intervening years. Probably around the same time Trelawny had pronounced his life line was broken or something and he was in imminent danger of being squashed by a falling piano.

Tentatively, he flexed his hand. It didn’t hurt anymore, thank Merlin, but it felt—odd. Not as odd as his arm had felt the week after he’d had to regrow all the bones inside it, but not normal. He ran his thumbnail along the lines, taking it in with a kind of resignation which should probably worry him. He had the almost comforting thought that it looked more like a tree than the lightning bolt on his forehead and the blast on his chest.

It was from whatever he’d done to kill Goyle, obviously. If it’d been unconscious magic, or some kind of wandless spell he’d cast without thought, he hadn’t the faintest idea, but it had marked him.

Just like Voldemort had marked him. Twice marked by death, once by murder.

Was that the catalyst, then—magic going wrong, casting unchecked? He knew almost nothing about magic cast innately—it wasn’t an acceptable course of study at Hogwarts, understandably—but he did seem to be able to do it, rather easily too.

He stared for a long time. Long enough for the light to shift and the sun to come up.

If he were the superstitious kind, it might have unnerved him. But what was one more scar, really? He had so many at this point, it kind of made sense. He wouldn’t be surprised if one day he looked down in the shower and found himself covered in them.

He grimaced. The level of morbidity was a bit much, even for him. Curious, he compared the silver branches and roots on his palm with the twin puncture holes on his left forearm. They’d faded since second year, Fawkes’s tears not quite erasing the memory of the basilisk’s fangs and the venom which had nearly killed him.

They looked different anyway, the skin around the circular marks taking on a darker, more yellowish hue than his normal light brown skin. The marks on his chest were newer, but the first was more like a burn, red and purple and warped a bit where Salazar Slytherin’s locket had burned into him. The other over his heart, from Voldemort’s second attempt in the forest, was just like the scar on his forehead, right down to the slight green tint it sometimes showed in the right light. Just like the scar on the palm of his hand.

He was saved the trouble of comparing them to the words carved into the back of his left hand by a crack, followed closely by a fussing Kreacher.

Harry found himself sitting down at a table covered in food fifteen minutes later, leveled by Kreacher’s baleful, expectant gaze. Andromeda had sent over a letter with Bill. Her status as a Black, even one considered to be a blood traitor, gave her more than enough influence to get Kreacher to do what she wanted. Harry could order him not to, of course, but he didn’t have the heart. Plus, the food looked every bit as good as what he’d been treated to at Hogwarts. Better even, because now that Kreacher was exercising his full skills and talents, it turned out he was more than capable of providing feasts fit for kings—or highly discerning racists who liked to scream at people who dared intrude on their home. Same thing, really.

Today there was kipper with fried eggs and rosemary-roasted potatoes, smokey baked beans served next to toasted sourdough slices which still steamed with heat, and a full English breakfast complete with three different kinds of sausage, seared wild mushrooms covered in butter, garlic, and thyme, fried black pudding, and caramelized tomatoes.

As Harry filled his third plate, feeling full for the first time since he’d left Shell Cottage, he wondered if Molly wasn’t hiding out in the kitchen waiting to spring out and shove a whole roast ham down his throat. The guilt of that thought slowed him up a bit.

Kreacher looked healthier as well, his skin a bit more pink than grey and not as sagging as it had once been. Apparently, he’d improved along with the house. As he ate, trying to ignore Kreacher’s fierce and silent attention, Harry wondered if the house was as sentient as other wizarding homes. The Burrow should have fallen apart years ago, but you could feel the spirit of the house the moment you walked in, the warmth and comfort, like it was more than happy to hold itself together for its family. It was the only example of a wizarding home he had any extended experience with. He’d only been to two others—Luna’s and Malfoy’s, so he wasn’t exactly sure, and it’s not like he’d been to either place long enough to sit and take full stock of the general atmosphere of the house.

His stomach turned the moment he thought of Malfoy, halting his fork and knife altogether for the first time in thirty minutes.

Goyle had been Malfoy’s friend, once upon a time. Harry had no idea what happened to them after Hogwarts, but he’d been there for the death of Crabbe. He’d seen what it had done to Malfoy in the immediate aftermath.

And how had Goyle thought Malfoy was somehow working with Harry? Because he’d turned against the death eaters in the final moments of the battle? Because he chose to surrender after instead of run? That had nothing to do with Harry.

It couldn’t have anything to do with Harry.

Robards would have to announce Goyle’s death at some point. He might be keeping it quiet to protect Harry and uphold the facade of order the Ministry had achieved during the trials, but he wouldn’t cover it up, not for long.

Did Goyle even have any family left? His father’d been a death eater, but as far as he knew, Goyle Sr. had died sometime before the Battle of Hogwarts. What about his mother? He had one, presumably. The thought of Goyle’s nameless mother sitting in a cold, dark house, waiting for her son to return—

“Is master wishing for something different to be eating?”

Harry startled, getting ketchup on his t-shirt when he bumped his plate and one of the sausages made a break for freedom. He shook his head, trying to think of nothing at all. “Ah. No. Sorry, Kreacher, I think I’m full.”

Kreacher glowered at him. “Kreacher is needing to make Master Harry eat. Mistress Andromeda was being very clear with Kreacher that—”

“I know,” Harry sighed, leaning back in his chair, “I know, and I’m grateful, really, but you can’t expect me to eat all this. This is enough for ten people. It’s amazing, really, I’m—this is beyond what I’d ever ask of you, but I can’t eat anymore. I’ll get sick.”

Kreacher looked for a moment like he was going to argue the point. Harry almost wanted him to for the novelty of it. But he seemed mollified. For now. “Is there anything master is wishing to be eating for lunches and dinners now that he is awake and feeling better?”

“Er, I mean, what you’ve been making so far is fine?”

“Master is wanting to eat breakfast for every meal?”

“No, I mean…” He trailed off at Kreacher’s small, somewhat malicious smile. If he didn’t know better, he might have said Kreacher was teasing him. “Right. No. As long as its edible and tastes all right, I’m not picky.” He paused, considering. “You don’t know how to make pumpkin pasties, do you?”

Kreacher shot him an offended look. “Master is meaning to insult poor Kreacher, asking him if he can’t make pumpkin pasties!”

“Oh, stop it.” Harry frowned, reaching for the cup of coffee Kreacher set down for him. “You asked. That’s what I want. Treacle tart too. If you’re up for it.”

Kreacher hummed and muttered under his breath, but it was too low for Harry to hear.

After draining his third cup—Kreacher had realized quickly that Harry liked it strong and sweet, and now Harry was in danger of developing a habit it was so good—he sat there listlessly, staring at the peeling wallpaper and hazy light filtering in from the front sitting room. There was less dust today. Come to think of it, he hadn’t coughed once since he’d gotten back.

Now that he felt a bit more like a person, he was realizing quickly that he’d landed himself back in Grimmauld Place, alone with nothing to do but think and drive himself crazy. The desire to crawl back into bed, to lay down and close his eyes and just stop trying to be all right when he wasn’t and never would be was so strong he felt gravity increase around him, pressing him down into the chair.

The only thing waiting for him would be the image of Goyle’s blank, twisted face. And though he couldn’t remember what he’d dreamed about last night, he didn’t think his subconscious would be gentle with him this time. It hadn’t been nice, whatever it was. Or…not entirely.

So he got up, showered, organized his things to see what he’d brought with him and what he’d left at the Burrow and Shell Cottage, and sat down to write to Andromeda and Bill. As the two pieces of parchment were swallowed up in the floo, he struggled for a moment about whether he should write Hermione and Ron.

He should. He knew he should. They were the closest thing he had to family—no, they were his family. He had no reason not to tell them.

No reason beyond the curdled shame in his stomach and the hard knot of fear which had taken root that blood-soaked morning he’d chosen not to tell them the truth about the horcruxes. Layered one on top of the other, they doubled and expanded—his heart started to pound fast against his sternum the longer he stared into the flickering green flames.

Not yet, he told himself, dousing the fire, dispelling the floo shut, and putting the quill and parchment away. He would, one day. When there was no danger of them risking their lives to protect him. They might be angry with him, in fact he knew they’d be angry with him, but if it kept them safe, he’d take their ire.

Also, he suspected they weren’t too happy with him right now in any case. He’d asked Hermione for time. Maybe they needed time too.

The problem was, after that, he had nothing else to do. He stood around for a few minutes in silence, his awareness of the empty house growing taut. He could try to find a book to read? Desperate times…

“Kreacher,” he said before he could think better of it, “do you—”

Kreacher popped into view. Harry only just managed not to jump out of his chair. “Is master needing something of Kreacher?”

“I…well I realize this is a bit odd, but I was wondering if there was anything I could do to help you…with the house.” He gestured with both hands, as if Kreacher might be in danger of not knowing which house he was talking about. “I’m not much use, I know, but I’m… I can help. If you like.”

Kreacher stared at him, milky eyes going wide and, to Harry’s horror, wet. “Oh-oh, is Master Harry finding fault with Kreacher’s tidying up?”

“What? No, no of course—”

“Kreacher is trying but Kreacher is only one elf! Master must know that—”

Harry started to reach out before he thought better of it. He had no idea if Kreacher was the kind of elf who welcomed physical expressions of comfort. Maybe it just set him off. House-elves tended to react in ways that made no sense sometimes. “Kreacher, I didn’t mean that. You’re doing an amazing job, really. I’m—very proud of you.” The last he managed to eke out without grimacing, but only barely. “The house looks better than I’ve ever seen it. Truly.”

Kreacher blinked up at him, expression crumpling.

“I meant—I have nothing to do and I can’t leave for a few days. Is there anything I can, I don’t know, organize? I don’t want to clean anything out or throw it away,” he added when Kreacher’s face twitched, “I swear. I just need something to keep me busy. I can polish dishes, if you like.” He softened his voice, bending down to pat Kreacher on the shoulder. “I just want to help. That’s all.”

Kreacher looked at Harry’s hand, and then back at his face. His eyes narrowed, still a bit shiny. “Master is not spending much time here in the noble House of Black since he inherited. Kreacher is thinking Master doesn’t like the house. Like Master Sirius.”

Harry swallowed the spike of pain. He didn’t blame Kreacher anymore. Not entirely. It was more Harry’s fault that Sirius had left that night for the Ministry, not Kreacher’s. But it was hard.

“I miss him,” Harry said honestly, “a lot. This…place reminds me of him. It’s sad. It makes me sad. But that’s not your fault, or the house’s. I just miss him.” He hesitated, hoping he wasn’t pushing too far. “Like you miss Master Regulus, I’d wager.”

For a long moment, Harry felt the weight of a large, ominous presence surround him. Like the house itself was weighing his words. It probably was, he allowed. This house more than anywhere else he’d ever been seemed to live and breathe and ooze feeling. The uncanny silence was jarring, because it went further than the absence of creaking and wind moaning somewhere far above in a drafty attic. It was like the house was holding its breath.

A light flickered on in Kreacher’s eyes and he sniffed. “Kreacher understands. Master is remembering people he lost, just like Kreacher.”

“Yeah,” Harry breathed, relieved. “Yeah. I didn’t mean anything by it, I swear.” He didn’t know if he was talking to the house at this point or Kreacher, but maybe there wasn’t really a difference.

Kreacher rocked back and forth on his little bony feet, the movement so reminiscent of Dobby it made Harry’s chest hurt. He hummed in consideration, one hand reaching up to clutch at the fake locket Regulus Black had swapped for the horcrux while the other patted his eyes dry with the corner of his clean pillow case. “Master is wanting to organize?”

“Sure. I can do that.”

“And master is not going to throw anything away?”

“I swear I won’t throw anything away without getting your permission, all right?” Harry realized belatedly that that was a big promise to make, one he might very well regret in the future, but the look of growing happiness in Kreacher’s eyes made him ignore some of his misgivings. Kreacher would never look innocent or cute, but he looked in that moment the same kind of recklessly hopeful that Dobby had looked sometimes.

Kreacher nodded, humming in a gravely voice. “Yes, Kreacher is thinking of something Master Harry could do. Something important.” Kreacher eyed him warily again, as if he too were reconsidering. “Yes, yes, all right, master is wanting to be helpful, to organize. Kreacher will show him.”

Before Harry could blink, Kreacher grabbed the hand still pressed awkwardly to his shoulder and disapparated. The sensation of being squeezed through a very small hole was oddly not as nauseating as normal. Maybe it was something to do with house-elf magic.

When they were on solid ground again, Harry looked around and felt his shoulders sag.

They were standing in a room which might have been an attic once, though it was hard to tell because every single inch of it was crowded with boxes. Not just boxes, Harry saw with a grimace, but large cabinets and chests, a few bookcases shoved to the point of bursting with books and parchment and scrolls. It looked, oddly enough, like the Room of Requirement. There were fewer busts of old wizards and piles of discarded treasure, but it carried the same sense of immense, chaotic knowledge which had built over hundreds of years.

“Ah, Kreacher,” Harry started, pulling his eyes from a stack of parchment so old it looked like it might burst into dust if he so much as breathed on it, “when I said I wanted to organize, I more meant cutlery or clothes or—”

“Master will be following Kreacher,” he said pleasantly, tugging on Harry’s hand before disappearing into the large stacks of books. “Kreacher is knowing something Master Harry can be helping with.”

Harry had to duck several times to avoid overhanging shelves and contort himself into a few strange positions just to follow Kreacher on a little winding path through the forest of forgotten books. The farther they went, the more Harry felt like he really was going to get lost in here.

“Where are we, Kreacher?” he asked, nearly clipping a creaking cabinet full of garishly purple books decorated with fleur de lis, all of which seemed to be chronicling the adventures of Ogier the Dane, whoever that was. “I didn’t realize there was an attic this big up here.”

Kreacher stopped so quickly Harry had to brace himself on a highly unstable-looking armoire that buzzed the moment he touched it. Remembering their long and arduous campaign against the doxies of Grimmauld Place three years ago, Harry balanced as best he could and moved away at once.

They stood now in a small alcove tucked off from what Harry had begun to think of as the main thoroughfare. A rather questionable looking desk sat nudged into a wall of books, accompanied by a gas lamp, a quill, and an ink well.

“This room is being hidden by Kreacher after Master Sirius returned.” Kreacher’s voice was low, though he didn’t sound at all ashamed. More like he didn’t want to make Harry angry by outright insulting Sirius. “When Kreacher is learning that Master Sirius was wanting to purge this noble and ancient house of all things reminding him of his family, Kreacher is wanting to protect some things. The house is asking Kreacher to hide them.”

A small, painful knot squeezed in Harry’s stomach. He remembered their frustration and anger when they found out Kreacher had taken something and hidden it, how he’d believed Sirius when he said that Kreacher was a mean, spiteful thing who only wanted Sirius to go away and serve his dead mistress.

Thinking back now, he wondered how much of the purge had been them making the house safe and how much had been Sirius trying to burn away the memory of his family.

“Are there more rooms like this, Kreacher?”

Kreacher looked up at him furtively. “If Kreacher is saying yes, is master going to be punishing—”

“No, no,” Harry said quietly. “No, I won’t punish you. If there’s something dangerous you’re hiding, as in something that could blow up the house or something, I’d ask for you to let me know, but otherwise…” He sighed. He couldn’t exactly tell Kreacher to turn out his pockets for anything dark. Harry was a fucking horcrux, after all. “Look, I just want to make this as easy on us as possible, yeah? You, me…the house,” he added, stopping himself from eyeing the rafters. “We’re all stuck here together. I don’t want to make it worse.”

Kreacher’s eyes glowed in the dim light, like a cat’s. In the shadows, he almost looked like something else, a being older and sharper and more strange than the world around them. Like he was smaller and…less than he should be.

Harry blinked, alarmed at the sudden wealth of disquiet this thought carried, but then Kreacher was himself, looking unsure and hopeful at the same time.

After a long pause, Kreacher snapped his fingers and a stack of books appeared on the desk, followed closely by a few reams of parchment.

Harry noticed at once that these were much better cared for. Their leather bindings were tight and clean, the small details of metal gleaming in the light from the gas lamp. The pages were crisp and flat, and each one seemed placed delicately, purposefully, one on top of the other, ascending in size from largest to smallest until a black notebook bound with a length of red velvet rested atop the rest.

“Before Master Regulus is ordering Kreacher to take him back to the—cave,” Kreacher said, his voice wavering, “he is asking Kreacher to hide some of his things from Mistress Walburga and Master Orion, in case he…in case…” Kreacher’s voice broke a bit, and he had to take a moment to compose himself. “When Master Regulus is not returning, when he is ordering Kreacher to leave, Kreacher is doing as he asked.”

Harry looked slowly from the stack of books back to Kreacher, a strange prickling of awareness making the hair on the back of his neck rise. “These are…they belonged to Regulus?”

Kreacher nodded. “They are including his notes.” He gestured to the stack of parchment, which looked like they hadn’t even been written on. “In the last weeks of his life, Master Regulus is spending all of his time reading and taking notes. He is sending Kreacher to bring him books and books and books. He is barely eating, he is so intent on them.”

“And you want me to look through them?”

“If master wishes, he may start here. Kreacher is not being able to help much with the library, as Kreacher is not being able to read.”

Harry’s brow lifted. “You can’t—read?”

“Kreacher is never being taught.”

“I’ve seen you write messages before, though.”

“Kreacher is knowing how to say things on paper when his masters need him to but Kreacher is not being able to read for himself.”

Harry didn’t know how to respond to that, another wave of guilt souring his stomach. He truly didn’t think he’d ever be able to accept the absolute servitude of house-elves, and he didn’t think he wanted to. “Right. Well. I can certainly look through them, if you want.”

Kreacher nodded, his grim face breaking into something that might have been a smile. “Master Harry was wanting to finish what Master Regulus began when he defied the Dark Lord. Kreacher has been wanting to show this to Master for months, but Master has not been here…”

“Yeah. Sorry, Kreacher.” Harry grimaced and stepped up to the desk, hoping it was sturdier than it looked. “I’ll—I’d be happy to look through this stuff.”

Kreacher looked like he was about to start crying again, but thankfully he pulled himself together. He chewed on his bottom lip, long bony fingers playing with the edge of his clean pillowcase, as if making a decision.

“Master should be having this, then,” he said quietly, holding out his hand as a shimmer of gold appeared in his palm.

It was a ring. A large ring with a thick band, threads of differently-colored metals twisting around it in patterns so complex it gave the impression that the band was a living, undulating thing. Harry picked it up slowly, surprised by how cool it felt to the touch. On the flattened face there was some kind of crest surrounding a cameo of what might be a dog or a wolf. Frowning, Harry tried to read the tiny letters, seeing only that it was a phrase written in a script he didn’t recognize, a motto of an old house, maybe.

“What is this, Kreacher?”

“Kreacher is not knowing. It is something Master Regulus is treasuring above all his other fine things. He is wearing it all the time, twisting and turning it. Master Regulus is making sure that Kreacher is hiding it especially.”

Harry looked up to Kreacher, seeing a hesitant kind of longing in his eyes. “Thank you, Kreacher. For—trusting me.”

Kreacher’s eyes grew wet again. “Kreacher is leaving Master Harry to his organizing. Kreacher is making pumpkin pasties for dinner.”

And with a small pop, Kreacher was gone.

Harry stared at the place he’d disappeared for a long time, rubbing the ring between his thumb and forefinger. He considered putting it on, just to see if it fit, but it’d be his luck if he got stuck with a cursed ring after everything else. Better to keep it off, for now. He slid it into his pocket. With a distracted sigh, he eased down into the chair, staring warily at the gas lamp. He assumed it wasn’t real fire. Kreacher wouldn’t risk Regulus’s things being so near an open flame, even one caged in by glass.

“Well,” Harry said to himself, frowning, “not sure what I expected.”

There was nothing for it but to start, he guessed. Carefully, he slid the first piece of parchment off the stack, feeling rather guilty for reading through the notes of a dead man.

But if these were Regulus’s notes in the weeks leading up to his death, Harry guessed what they must be about, and if anyone deserved to read them, it’d be him.

With a growing sense of apprehension, Harry began. Regulus’s handwriting was small and compact, neat and sparing. He recognized it from the scrap of paper in the fake locket. There was no obvious organization to them, just lines and lines of cramped script interrupted at times by lists. He saw with a frown that much of it was written in other languages. French, he could recognize, and German, he guessed, but there were a few more he had no idea about. He thought he saw a bit of Russian, maybe. Or it might be Polish, he couldn’t be sure.

The impression he got, however, was one of fevered, thorough research. More than a few times it looked as if the quill had broken where Regulus had pressed too hard, large splotches of ink in the middle of a paragraph, tiny rips in the parchment. As he flipped through more of the pages he saw slight discolorations in places—water marks, he realized with a lurch.

Regulus had been crying.

Harry leaned back and rubbed his face. This was insane. All of this was done. Voldemort was dead. It didn’t matter anymore what he knew about horcruxes.

Excepting the unavoidable truth, of course, that he was still a horcrux. Or he might be. He didn’t actually know. He had been, obviously, before Voldemort tried to kill him in the Forbidden Forest, but was he still one? Voldemort had died, so clearly…

Clearly nothing. He didn’t actually know much about them, considering his life had revolved around the finding and destroying of them for over a year. Hermione had read up on them, but she hadn’t explained much beyond the basics, that they could be destroyed.

Only by damaging them beyond repair.

The phrase hovered at the front of his mind, taunting him.

As Harry sat there, staring up at the dark ceiling of this hidden room, he wanted nothing more than to send an owl for Hermione. She’d know where to start. She’d know how to figure out what it meant that he, Harry, had been a living horcrux his whole life, how that must have changed him. She’d know what to make of all of this. He could picture her, her face done up in determination with a fierce light in her eyes, ready to lose herself in a pile of books like she was charging into battle.

He wanted to so desperately he felt his eyes burn with unshed tears. Why wasn’t he telling her, and Ron? Why did he think this was any different than what they’d already been through? He could tell them about being a horcrux, and he could tell them about Goyle, and Millicent Bulstrode, and…

And they would lose what little peace of mind they’d been able to regain since the day he’d killed Voldemort. He could take that away from them. He could make them afraid again. Again, he could pull them down into his world of death and dark magic and make them live through it just like he had to live through it. It was bad enough knowing Bill and Andromeda knew pieces of it, knowing they were worried about him. That they were in danger because of him.

You can’t, a little voice whispered into the back of his head. You know you can’t.

He straightened up and wiped away his tears, breathing shakily as he bent to the task.

If he couldn’t confide in his friends, maybe Regulus Black could help him one more time.

 

 

It took Harry three days to fully understand how Voldemort had crafted his bid for immortality.

He hadn’t meant to walk himself through it, not at first. He’d meant to just organize the books, to see if there was anything worth reading, but he quickly learned that Regulus hadn’t just translated the tomes searching for references to horcruxes. He’d tried to reverse engineer them. As if the thought exercise would better prepare him for the moment he turned on Voldemort.

Because that was almost immediately clear to Harry as he bent over page after page of cramped notes. Regulus had a tendency to ramble to himself, his neat cursive so small Harry had to nearly press his face to the parchment to read it. The longer Harry sat in this attic room the more he felt as if Regulus were here with him. He wondered, sometimes, if Regulus’s ghost hadn’t come back to haunt his home. It was mental, obviously, because Sirius would have known if his brother’s ghost were roaming the halls. So would Kreacher. But he must have left something of himself in the pages, in the drops of ink and tears amidst a sea of churning cursive, in the trail of his thought process as he realized just how deep his new master’s darkness went.

The notes began rather like a school paper, a record of his musings as to what Voldemort was up to. Apparently, Regulus had gleaned a lot about Voldemort’s comings and goings on his own, his travels, his penchant for experimentation. Harry had to stop a few times. The callous, cold words about killing and maiming and performing dark arts made him want to pitch the lot of it into the fire. After a while, though, he thought he could sense a forced quality to them, as if Regulus were trying to play at being the good little death eater, trying to see the worth in what Voldemort was doing, and near the end, trying to convince himself.

The night Harry realized this, he spent longer than he would have liked trying not to think about Malfoy, and how similar they must have been. Regulus was only a teenager when he’d signed up. Even younger than Snape. Malfoy had been every bit as confident as Regulus sounded at first. The bloke on the train who casually hand-waved about taking the dark mark might as well have been a different person than the boy Harry caught crying in the bathroom. Regulus was every bit as confident, gloating, even, as he wrote to himself about how he was the only one who’d figured out what Voldemort’s plans really were. There was none of that by the end. By the end he sounded scared.

Just like Malfoy in the Astronomy tower.

Harry had to take a break that night, turning up the wireless as loud as it could go and pacing in an attempt to get Malfoy’s pale, shaking reflection out of his head.

The first reference to horcruxes by name didn’t come until the fifth page of notes, and even here it seemed as if Regulus were performing a thought experiment. Harry caught passages which reminded him of Secrets of the Darkest Art, the book in which Hermione had found the process of making a horcrux. Sure enough, as Harry sorted through the books, mostly separating them into ones he could read and ones he couldn’t, he found a copy of the book nestled between another text with a long German title, and one which was unlabeled but gave off a faint heat whenever Harry touched it. Like it’d just been sitting outside in the sun or near a fire, like someone else had just been reading it.

He lingered on the last book, staring intently at the symbol branded into the front. It felt—important. He didn’t know how else to describe it. It felt like it was something he was supposed to recognize but every time he tried to open it he lost his nerve. It didn’t have anything to do with horcruxes, though, so he set it aside for the time being and went back to the ones he could actually read.

Harry read the pages describing how to safeguard one’s horcrux against destruction, how to prepare oneself for the murder, but there wasn’t much on the theory behind it, and the book said very little about what happened to the vessel when a horcrux was put into it. There was no mention of what might happen to a living person.

It wasn’t until he started looking through the books himself, following Regulus’s process as he tried to understand what Voldemort was doing, that he started to learn how a horcrux was formed.

In The Nobleman’s Guide to Necromancy, Regulus had stuck on a passage focused on the nature of ghosts and the departed souls of those who had died, how they needed to prepare themselves for remaining on this plane before they died in order to exist outside their own body when it failed them. The author had also warned would-be necromancers to ensure that the soul had truly left the body before attempting to reanimate it, as the base nature of an intact and unbroken human soul defied cohabitation within the same physical form as the spark of false life one needed to conjure to animate a dead body.

In Curses of the Olde Worlde, Regulus had noted how it was best to be careful that the soul of one’s victim remained in its body to ensure the full effect of the curse, that the human soul could attempt to save itself by burying deep into the human psyche, to effectively lobotomize itself in the case of extreme psychological or emotional damage, thereby rendering any curse focused on the mind to become null and void.

At this, Harry had a long walk around the attic, wandering aimlessly through the stacks as he thought of Frank and Alice Longbottom, their distant stares and broken minds.

The part which made him want to include Hermione most was Regulus’s abstract and near-incomprehensible musings on the nature of magic and where in the body it was stored. Harry had always assumed it was a blood thing, the underlying justification for pureblood supremacy. But there seemed to be something else, something Regulus wouldn’t move on from—only here Regulus lapsed into German, his notes presumably mirroring the text he’d slotted in with all the others, and Harry could only guess at what conclusion he’d come to. In the same vein there was a book all in French sporting some truly terrible drawings of what he could only assume were meant to be outcomes of spells, or more likely, curses. Regulus had mapped a few out in his notes, but they were all labeled in French and though Harry knew a bit thanks to Fleur, he couldn’t make much sense of them. Whoever Madame Chastel, the author of the spell book, was, she’d clearly been a sadist.

Again and again Regulus circled back to the relationship between body and soul, how one might manipulate it to push further the boundaries of what humans considered to be life and death. He had started getting messy at this point, his notes growing chaotic, his writing slanted. Three more books were mentioned, Physical Mastery for the Modern Magician, Thy Body Be Thy Wand, and Dueling to the Death, all of which confirmed the connection between soul and body, how a wizard must ensure a strong harmony between his mental, emotional, and physical self before attempting to fight with his magic. How mastery over one’s physical self ensured mastery over one’s opponent.

Regulus had lingered on the Albanian practice of roje zemre, marking oneself with runes to shield against possession by malevolent spirits, though Regulus seemed to think it more a binding of your soul to your body in an attempt to strengthen the bond between the two, a kind of enchantment placed permanently on your body to allow a witch or wizard better protection against malevolent forces. Here, Harry got caught again, because in the margins Regulus had written, This wandless magic could, of course, be employed in countless ways—to allow one’s soul to exist outside the vessel while the body remained alive, to exchange one soul for another, or even to lay in specific guarding spells such as could be activated without one’s casting of a conscious spell. A shield charm? A permanent hex to any attempt at disarmament? Check against Dueling for any references to wandless magic pertaining to binding the body. Possible other avenues of inquiry might be African/Caribbean Hoodoo practices—Marie Laveau, Hi John the Conquerer.

Harry stared at the page for a long time, thinking through the ramifications of having a shield charm permanently fixed to your body. The level of control you’d need to keep that kind of magic up long term was daunting. But maybe it was like Occlumency, where a true master was able to block someone else out even when they were sleeping. It just took time and work, and perhaps an inherent ability to cast defensive magic.

A way to be sure you couldn’t be disarmed…

He had to force himself to keep tracing Regulus’s notes. Regulus turned then to bigger, more theoretical concepts, which Harry struggled to follow. Here a Russian (or Polish, he still had no idea—it might be some other Slavic language for all he knew) book seemed to cause Regulus quite a lot of frustration, but he’d taken to writing in whatever that language was, just like with the German book. Harry only gleaned a few things from the sparse English phrases; The body is ephemeral. The soul is not. Soul = something foreign. Comes from—? Doesn’t follow the normal laws of magic.

It tread very close to what Dumbledore had believed about Harry’s power over Voldemort. How his love for the people in his life was what kept his soul whole. How it made him stronger, better than Voldemort, whose soul had been broken and splintered into different vessels and whom Dumbledore believed was incapable of love.

But if anything, Regulus’s notes just confirmed that no one seemed to have any bloody clue what was true or not when it came to the forces surrounding love and the soul.

Regulus abandoned this line of thought when he circled back to the physical creation of a horcrux. Essentially, it seemed to be the same process a person might go through to ensure their ability to become a ghost, with a more sadistic and cruel bent in the form of blood and other dark substances being consumed to ensure the soul was at its weakest before you attempted to slice a piece off. You had to prepare your body for the soul’s departure, to be able to catch it with the horcrux, somehow, and hold it before it went…somewhere else. Beyond, presumably.

To that world behind the veil in the Department of Mysteries, maybe. If that was the afterlife.

It wasn’t easy to keep the soul on this plane, however. Its natural inclination seemed to be to leave and disappear, and while there were many ways to split one’s soul or duplicate it in the case of sympathetic bonds between two willing people, to force it to remain, to manipulate it, you had to corrupt its very essence and master your own soul. In turning it immortal, you changed it, so while you would live as long as that piece of your soul remained safe, you’d never again be a true, normal person. You would be something else.

What that meant for him, Harry had no idea. He hadn’t meant to not die. Did it still count if he was unwilling?

He was so distracted by this, he nearly missed the last and worst detail of Regulus’s notes.

In between fevered scribblings on other sources he might consult, he had stopped to write out a short list of items Voldemort might have chosen to create his horcrux. Regulus hadn’t guessed that Voldemort might try to make more than one horcrux, the idea inconceivable even to Regulus, so his list was short. There was the locket and the diary, the latter of which had apparently been gifted to Regulus before Lucius Malfoy had taken ownership of it. A few more things Harry had never heard of—a selkie shroud which had belonged to Merope Gaunt’s mother, a pair of gold bands which had been a gift from Bellatrix. Regulus seemed to come to the same conclusion as Harry on these two—that Voldemort hadn’t cared about his grandmother or Bellatrix Lestrange. They were both meaningless to him. All he’d wanted was to prove he was better and more powerful than every other wizard alive. He wanted prestige and recognition. Not anything that reminded him he was just a sad little boy with no family, a man who refused to admit he was in any way weak like the people around him.

And at the bottom sat a cramped scrawl of words pressed so deep into the parchment there was more than one puncture mark. The ink was smeared in places, but Harry was able to read it.

(?) Nagini Animagus Maledictus — Souls would come into conflict (antagonistic bond must be present to create horcrux but only between caster and victim, not caster and vessel) - Dark Lord cannot possess another’s body while he is bound to his own, even Nagini’s cursed form. Vessel must be empty, OR his soul must be fully unbonded, capable of ethereal(?) transportation and manipulation. Body-Soul connection too strong to allow bonded soul to inhabit another body which is already bound. Two intact souls cannot exist within same vessel—imprecise and needs more proof, too much doubt regarding afterlife limbo post-death-state. Fundamental nature of souls remains elusive. Willing vessel makes a difference? re. Nobleman’s Necromancy, if the living vessel’s body is dead at time of casting, He can create a horcrux at moment of death and reanimate the vessel. Unknown how vessel would be effected, though control a predictable outcome, corruption—unbound soul/body would deteriorate over time? False or Recalled life moment after death would suffice to trap vessel’s soul before moving on, facsimile of a true binding—necromancy best bet as Recalled life (true resurrection) never recorded with validity. Consult Ancient Greek source re. astral projection, potensimency.

Harry had to reread it, and then read it again, before he began to understand.

To create a horcrux, you needed an empty vessel, an empty body. The body was empty only when the soul had been severed, separated. Only when the person was dead.

…if the living vessel’s body is dead at time of casting…

If the living vessel’s body was dead at time of casting.

He stared down at Regulus’s notes, rereading again to make sure he wasn’t misconstruing something. A soft, persistent ringing began somewhere between his ears. Like he’d been hit by a bludger, his vision swimming and his world knocked sideways as he fell into the uncaring air, but without the pain to let him know he was still conscious.

Harry had—died—that night in Godric’s Hollow.

He must have, or Voldemort couldn’t have made him into a horcrux. And whatever magic had been wrought when his mum died for him, it had brought him back. It, and the shard of Voldemort’s soul, reanimating him. Before Voldemort reclaimed his body he could have possessed as many people as he liked, but he shouldn’t have been able to after… And yet Voldemort could possess him, even if it was excruciating, even if he couldn’t bear whatever Dumbledore’d meant by Harry loving too much, but he could do it. By the end, he wasn’t even trying to, but it was still happening. He shouldn’t have been able to possess him in the first place, if Harry wasn’t… If Harry hadn’t…

Two bonded souls cannot exist within the same vessel.

Neither can live while the other survives.

It must have happened again in the Forbidden Forest. His sacrifice—whatever magic it’d given him—had fucked with his soul again, because he’d died, he must have.

A horcrux could only be destroyed when its vessel was damaged beyond repair. He’d always wondered…because it didn’t make sense, did it? If he was a horcrux, he should have needed to be beyond saving. He should have been well and truly dead for Voldemort to die.

But if he’d been walking around as a reanimated corpse his whole life, that must count for the same thing. Easy to see how dying might destroy one’s body, metaphorically.

It was the only thing that made sense. Harry must have truly died in the Forbidden Forest as well. He’d come back due to a weird and inexplicable quirk of magic no one understood, but for a tiny, infinitesimal moment, his soul had no longer been connected to his body. It explained the lapse in time between Voldemort cursing him and waking on the forest floor. He’d been dead.

Harry had died. Twice.

He couldn’t help but remember Dumbledore’s urgency in one of their last conversations.

…he was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole.

Dumbledore had armed him with love and the crafted certainty of a pure, unbroken soul and sent him off to do the one thing which would damn him forever. To rip his own purity apart.

Of course, Dumbledore thought Harry would die in the attempt. Dumbledore had needed Harry to die for his plan to work. He wouldn’t care what would happen to Harry’s soul after he’d killed Voldemort. Because Harry would be dead. It wouldn’t matter.

Dumbledore, in all his quiet machinations, all his scheming, all his subtle manipulations of people into the web of his grand, silent war, had never counted on Harry coming back a second time.

And Harry had bought it into it just like everyone else.

It was an elegant plan, now that Harry could look at it from a distance. Play on Harry’s need for approval, his desperation for someone to look after him, and insinuate himself into Harry’s life. Hell, he’d thrown Harry to the Dursleys and hadn’t that primed him for the moment someone finally decided to show him a kind smile and a blue-eyed wink behind half-moon spectacles? He had always said it was to protect Harry, to give him a normal life away from the spotlight and the hero worship he would have gotten were he raised as a wizard. To ensure his mother’s protection continued as long as possible. But you couldn’t deny that cutting Harry off from the Wizarding World made it a hell of a lot easier to mold him once Dumbledore finally stepped into his life. It’d kept him naive and ignorant. It’d kept him wounded. Because normal people wouldn’t just walk calmly to their deaths, would they? A normal, healthy person would balk at the idea of killing themselves, even if they knew it was the only way to save the people they loved.

Harry hadn’t balked. He’d gotten angry, sure, shouted a bit, destroyed a few of Dumbledore’s trinkets, but it only took a few minutes after hearing the prophecy for Harry to accept his role in all of this. And he hadn’t felt much of anything when he learned where Dumbledore had led him. He’d swallowed whatever objections a healthy, happy person might make at learning the only way to finish it was to die, and he’d walked into the forest. He hadn’t even considered an alternative.

All that talk of love and purity, of Harry’s innate goodness, had been the perfect way to make sure that Harry believed wholeheartedly that he was the right person to do it, to take up Dumbledore’s crusade. He’d further isolated Harry, telling him to keep his mission secret, to ignore the help offered to him by older, much more experienced wizards. But he couldn’t have told anyone else, could he? Because if Harry had told Molly or McGonagall or Remus, they would have objected right away to Dumbledore’s sending three teenagers off into the world on their own with little more than a vague goal and a fool’s conviction, tasked with the death of a wizard so powerful no one, including Dumbledore, had been able to stop him from ascending.

He’d been given so many signs, from Dumbledore’s unreliable and fickle confidences to his willingness to trust a man who would have been happy to watch Harry die a long, painful death, from the past he’d kept secret so Harry didn’t know he had a history of viewing people as objects, as pawns, to the moment his own brother told Harry that Dumbledore didn’t give a rat’s ass about his life. Albus Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his generation, of the last century, was first and foremost a clever, clever man. He had to know what he was doing. He had to.

Maybe he’d come to be fond of Harry. Harry didn’t think Dumbledore was callous or cruel to his core, not intentionally. He may have even believed in what he’d said.

He’d certainly believed enough in Grindelwald’s vision of the world. Grindelwald, the boy he’d most likely loved, and who had, before Voldemort, been the single most destructive wizard to hit Europe in centuries. You didn’t just fall into love with someone like that. Not someone as clever as Dumbledore. Even as a teenager, he would have known Grindelwald was dangerous. Maybe that’s what he’d liked about him. Perfect Albus Dumbledore, head of his class, the brightest wizard of his age, destined for greatness and hungry for it after a childhood of poverty and disappointment and death.

Gellert Grindelwald would have been a light in the darkness, a fire, purifying and raw, confident in his own supremacy and seeing in this ambitious, beleaguered boy an equal. Someone he wanted by his side when he burned down the world.

Of course Dumbledore had known what he was doing. Of course.

Harry’s eyes burned with unshed tears, anger creeping up his throat like a serpent and coiling, tightening, strangling.

Maybe he had loved Harry. Maybe he’d hated himself for what he was doing to a child who’d lost everything before he was even two years old.

It didn’t change anything. Love hadn’t saved Harry. It’d brought him back to life, maybe, but it hadn’t saved him.

He didn’t feel saved. He felt broken.

And the worst part was he couldn’t stop feeling. Some fucked up byproduct of his existence had conspired to make it so that his soul was broken and tarnished and bloody, corrupted by the deaths of his parents and the darkness of the man who’d marked him as his equal, but he felt just the same as he had when he’d mourned for Sirius. When he’d dragged Cedric’s body back to Hogwarts. He felt like he was on fire and he couldn’t understand why. He shouldn’t be both. Either he was a broken shell of a person or he was whole and hurting. He wasn’t natural, he was something horrifying, but he was still screaming inside just like a normal human, and he didn’t know why.

His fingers brushed over Regulus’s notes, as if they might reveal this lie for what it was, as if he could prove it wrong, somehow. As if the ghost of Regulus Black could tell him he hadn’t died as a baby only to be reanimated by a scrap of Voldemort’s corrupted soul. His eyes burned and he screwed up his face so he wouldn’t cry. He wouldn’t. He shouldn’t be able to feel this. How many times had Dumbledore told him he was good and pure and fucking human? He wasn’t human. He was a mistake. A flaw in the plan. He was what happened when brilliant men trusted too much in their own cleverness and didn’t take into account that the universe was a hell of a lot crueler and more chaotic than they thought.

He’d died.

He’d fucking died.

“Sorry, Professor,” Harry muttered, anger nearly choking him. “Turns out you were wrong after all.”

He thought of Dumbledore’s obsession with the Deathly Hallows, the deaths of his parents, his little sister. How this must have been his ultimate goal, to bring someone back. To bring his sister back after he—or Grindelwald, had killed her. He would have wanted this desperately. The secret of resurrection. Of returning life.

How fitting that the boy he’d molded to die for his greater good would turn out to learn the one secret he never could, to achieve the one thing he’d wanted more than anything.

How to resurrect a person and make sure their soul didn’t pass on. How to break them just right so they were trapped here.

The words on the grave of his ancestor Ignotus seemed to laugh at him.

The last enemy which shall be defeated is death.

He’d gotten all the hallows. He’d done it all, the impossible, by anyone else’s standards.

Harry was the Master of Death. What a fucking joke.

The ever-burning lamp cast a pale, flickering blue light over the pages. As if he were underwater, far, far beneath the surface of a dark lake. And there were dead here, too, just like those who still waited in the cavern where Regulus had met his end. There were specters in the books all around him, on the pages in front of him. Memories of people who were long gone, whose names were forgotten. But he wasn’t home here among them. He was something else. Something that shouldn’t exist.

One must die at the hands of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.

It wasn’t an either or. It wasn’t either Harry died and Voldemort lived. It was both.

Both lived. Both died.

And what did that mean for Harry now that the other half of his doomed bond was finally gone?

He sat there until Kreacher arrived to call him down to dinner. When Harry got up he felt like part of his tattered, broken soul got snagged on Regulus’s notes as he left.

 

 

He spent an indeterminate amount of time wandering listless through Grimmauld Place. He fell asleep a few times, but he stopped counting right away. It didn’t matter. The house seemed quieter now, less ominous. Kreacher seemed to be watching him all the time, there with food whenever it looked like he might sit down long enough to let Kreacher approach. Harry ate because he didn’t want to worry Andromeda or Bill, who were still sending him daily, sometimes more than daily, messages checking up on him. He was worried at first they might come in person so he shut off the floo, but they never mentioned anything in their letters about trying to come in. They were waiting just like he’d asked.

He was alone in the house. Living, because there was nothing else for him to do.

He couldn’t help but picture Sirius doing the same, drifting through the halls of his childhood home, hating every room with its moldy plaster and peeling wallpaper, wanting nothing more than to get out of this mausoleum and fight. Wanting it so badly he’d left to save Harry.

At least he hadn’t needed to come back here, after everything. If there was one thing to be said for dying, it meant an end to all the pain and anger you held onto in life.

Except for Harry. For him, dying just meant breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.

He’d asked Sirius if it hurt. What a stupid fucking question. How could dying be worse than the life he’d lived? He’d actually been scared. And here he was, alive and broken and hurting so badly he sometimes couldn’t breathe.

He kept returning to the attic even though he couldn’t look back through Regulus’s notes. He wanted to, the part of him which could still want things, but he was too tired. He wanted to sleep. But when he laid down and closed his eyes all he saw was Goyle’s broken neck, Millicent’s missing arm, on and on until the row of Harry’s dead made his chest hurt so badly he couldn’t think for crying. Not even the dead. Malfoy cropped up again and again—bleeding out on the floor of the bathroom, hand shaking as he faced Dumbledore, staring, terrified, at Harry over the corpse of his aunt.

Ron and Hermione were there too, just like Ginny and Luna and Neville, the Weasleys—all of them showed up and died. Molly’s boggart had showed her the deaths of all her family members, flipping through them one by one.

Harry wondered what his boggart would look like now. Would it still be a dementor? Was he afraid of despair anymore? He had a feeling it’d be something a lot less simple now.

So he lay down but didn’t try to sleep, staring up at the canopy of his bed with dry, gritty eyes. He couldn’t move. He just watched the light creep back through the crack in his curtains, forcing himself to breathe. To keep breathing.

It was getting hard to remember why it was so important, though.

After a few days—or maybe just one, he couldn’t remember—he found himself crouching in the small clearing Kreacher’d made for him in the center of the attic. His empty plate of sausages and eggs sat on Regulus’s table. He was eating. He’d keep eating. Even if he couldn’t really taste it anymore. He’d been drawing in the dust by one of the older stacks of parchment, finger tracing the triangle, the circle, the line, when he froze.

A noise, faint and distant, caught his attention. It came with a strange sensation on the back of his neck, the hair rising like he’d just gotten a chill. There again, only this time it was much louder.

There was a loud banging coming from the first floor.

The crystallized fog of his depression shattered and it was like icy air rushed in on a wave of panic.

The moment Harry stood up, he felt dizzy, his legs protesting something fierce, his body hunched and refusing to straighten out. “Fuck,” he exhaled, bracing himself on the chair to keep his balance. How long had he been up here? He started shaking too, like he was getting a cold, pulses of aching heat rippling under his skin as he blinked his vision clear.

The banging grew more urgent and Harry forced himself to hobble out of the attic and down to the house proper. As the banging grew louder, he wondered if the house had changed its mind about him, its good will toward him finally run out and it was attempting to collapse the whole thing on top of him.

The moment he got to the first floor, though, he realized it was someone banging on the front door.

“HARRY! I know you’re in there! If you don’t open this door—you stupid git!”

Harry froze at the end of the front hall. It was Ron. Ron was at the door.

“I’m coming in there one way or another even if I have to blast this bloody door down! I don’t care—” The door lit up with purple light, followed by a sharp yelp of pain from the other side. Ron was actually trying to break in. His muffled voice shouted in frustration. “Let me in! Come on!”

The fear of whatever this house might do to intruders made Harry ignore his growing tension and start down the hall. He might not be looking forward to the forthcoming conversation, but he didn’t want Ron to get a face full of pixies or blasted by a curse.

“I’m warning you, Harry, if you don’t—”

Ron nearly face planted when Harry opened the door. It was dark outside, the light from the street lamps soft and orange.

He hadn’t realized the sun had gone down.

Ron caught himself before he could fall and straightened up, face red as he pushed past Harry into the hallway. He opened his mouth but was cut off by Walburga Black’s shrieking voice.

“BLOOD-TRAITORS IN MY OWN—”

Harry flicked his wand at the curtains and they slammed shut at once. At least the house still liked him.

Ron stomped around, shoving a hand through his close-cropped hair. He must have gotten it cut recently. “The fuck is wrong with you? I was out there for thirty minutes! I’m surprised I didn’t get any muggles calling their po-leesh men on me!”

Harry watched him take a few more aimless steps, brush a bit of what looked like ash from his shirt. In fact, Ron looked a bit charred, some of his hair still smoking where it stuck up in the back. Apparently the house had tried to repel him a few times.

“I…sorry,” Harry muttered, closing the door, “didn’t realize. I was upstairs.” The silence sealed shut and they were left in what felt like a small bubble. A pocket of tension. Harry wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep for another three days, but he knew this had to happen sometime. Might as well do it now.

He should have gotten something ready.

Ron snorted darkly. “And you thought I’d leave before you had to drag yourself down here, didn’t you?”

Harry waved his wand at the light on the wall, lighting up the hallway so they weren’t just talking in the dark.

Ron was standing there, fists clenched at his sides, looking livid, like he was ready for a fight. Harry recognized this look well. He’d seen it more than a few times in his life, the last being in a cold tent right before Ron ditched him and Hermione.

“Five days,” Ron started, voice unsteady with the anger Harry knew was ready to burst out of him. “Five fucking days. If you wanted to sulk in here by yourself, that’s fine, but you don’t get to ignore me and Hermione just because you’re angry.”

“What are you talking about?” Harry asked with a frown. “I’m not…”

Had it really been five days already? With a growing sense of alarm, he counted back the mornings. He remembered them all, but they’d blurred together in his mind, his sense of time warping the longer he spent in the attic. He wasn’t forgetting, it was just that time had ceased to mean anything to him. He’d stopped paying attention to it.

“Don’t play dumb,” Ron snapped.

Harry scowled. “I don’t know what you—”

“Like fuck you don’t know,” Ron said, taking a step toward him. “Merlin’s bullocks, Harry, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for five days, and you’ve been ignoring me. Your floo is closed. Or did you just forget to open it back up and accept the eleven owls I sent you?”

“I did, actually.” He wasn’t even lying. He’d closed the floo but he hadn’t known Kreacher was holding his mail. “I didn’t know you were trying to reach me.”

He didn’t add that he would have ignored Ron. Probably. He’d been getting letters from Bill and Andromeda. Apparently Kreacher had decided not to tell him about the others. Or, more likely, Andromeda had asked him to let Harry rest rather than bombarding him with questions from people he didn’t want to speak to right now. He felt a small swell of affection for her, quickly doused when he caught Ron’s expression.

Ron made a noise of disgust. “That evil little toad’s been hiding your—”

“Oi,” Harry said harshly, anger flaring up past his fatigue. “Don’t talk about him like that.”

Ron stared, his eyes narrowed and his mouth slightly open. “Are you saying you ordered him to keep back all your mail?”

“What if I did?”

“Did you also ask Bill to tell the rest of us to piss off and leave you alone?”

Harry exhaled. “No.”

“So, then, why does he seem to be the only person you’re talking to right now?”

Harry didn’t know how to answer, so he just crossed his arms, trying not to shiver too much from the exertion of standing. Circe’s tits, he was tired. Maybe he should have postponed this for a time he didn’t feel like collapsing to the floor and never getting back up.

“The fuck is this about, Harry? Why does Bill seem to know more about whatever the hell is going on with you than I do?”

Harry forced himself to hold Ron’s gaze, trying not to lose his temper. He had no ground to stand on here. He felt like shite for keeping things from Ron and Hermione. He’d fucking murdered someone, again. He was clearly in the wrong.

But it wasn’t enough for him to tell Ron. Especially when Ron looked like this.

“It’s nothing. Seriously, it’s not—” Harry swallowed the knot in his throat. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing,” Ron repeated. “Okay. Sure. Because it’s always nothing with you, right? You seriously expect me to believe that?”

A chill settled into the pit of Harry’s stomach. “Believe whatever you want, Ron.”

Ron exhaled slowly, closing his eyes as if for patience. “Fucking hell, Harry, this is a lot. Even for you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Harry snapped, angry now.

“You know exactly what it means!” Ron’s voice raised until the whole hallway was filled with it. “You just gave an interview to the fucking Quibbler about how the poor purebloods are being unfairly punished and then you lay into Hermione like it’s her fault you went and blew your own life up! You lose it in front of the whole fucking Wizengamot, then you shut yourself in here so you don’t have to deal with the fallout, because apparently you’re too much of a pansy to face up to the fact that you just defended the people who were trying to kill us a few months ago.”

Ron looked like he was trying hard not to slam his fist into the wall. Or into Harry’s face. Ugliness seeped into the twist of his mouth. “And apparently my brother is your new best friend now, which is just… I’m trying to understand, mate, I really am, but I don’t fucking get it.”

He paused, seeming to gather himself. “So you’re going to explain it to me, because I’m not going anywhere until you do.” His voice flipped into something frantic, eyes wide. “Is it a pride thing? Do you feel like you have to be the bigger person or something? Because you don’t. They don’t deserve that, and you know it.”

It wasn’t that Harry had forgotten about the trials, but they seemed so far away now. They seemed to have happened to a different person, one who hadn’t killed a classmate and found out he’d been dead the past seventeen years.

He felt suddenly cold where his anger was normally hot and burning. It was like he’d sunk so far down into himself he’d let the embers go dark and all that was left was this frigid, churning mass of disdain. He was untouchable down here. Frozen. Dead to the world. It was still hell, but he couldn’t pretend he cared much about anything else.

“And screaming at Hermione in front of the whole bleeding Ministry? Screaming at Kingsley?” Ron shouted after he’d taken a deep breath. “What the bloody fuck, Harry?”

“Is that what Hermione told you?”

“Of course not. She just came home and burst into tears and blamed herself and told me you wanted nothing to do with her and I, that you picked a fight with Kingsley over Malfoy.” He spat the last. “You and I both know Hermione doesn’t lose it like that unless you lost your mind at her, unless you tried to hurt her.”

“You’d know better than I.”

Harry’s voice was quiet, but even to him it sounded unnaturally cruel.

Ron’s expression froze and he blinked a few times, like Harry’d thrown freezing water in his face. “What’s going on with you?” he asked, voice ragged. “Why are you being such a fucking tosser to everyone in your life who cares about you?”

This hit the hard exterior of his stillness, but it didn’t break through. Was that what he was doing? He hadn’t been trying to, but now…

“You know my mum’s been out of her mind worried about you, right?” Ron added. From the look on his face even he knew this was a low blow. “She’s been asking me all summer what’s wrong with you, why you fucking left the Burrow for Shell Cottage. She thought she’d done something to scare you off!”

“And what’d she do to scare you off, then?”

Ron recoiled. “What?”

“You left for London two weeks after we got back from Hogwarts. You and Hermione left. So don’t you fucking talk to me about disappointing your mother.”

“I came here for George, you idiot,” Ron said, voice failing. “You know, my brother? The twin of my other brother who died?”

Harry said nothing, warring with himself. Of course he understood. Ron would want to be with his brother. That only made sense.

His brother, and not with Harry.

It was petty and cruel and selfish, and Harry wished more than anything that he didn’t care who Ron chose. He wished it didn’t feel like he’d chosen someone else, over Harry. He wished it didn’t hurt that Ron had only come and confronted him now, after he’d publicly exploded, rather than at any point in the last few weeks.

What had Bill said? He felt like everyone was just watching as Harry lost his mind?

He knew, he knew, that if he would have asked Ron, Ron would have showed up. Hermione too. If Harry had asked, they both would have been there for him.

It wasn’t fair, not by a long shot, but he couldn’t get it out of his mind now he’d thought of it.

He didn’t want to ask for a family. He was so tired of asking people to love him.

Ron carried on over Harry’s silence, building steam. “Hermione went to retrieve her parents after she sent them away so she could help you. And you’re pissed we left you alone? Why didn’t you fucking say something instead of disappearing and shacking up with Bill and Fleur?”

“There was nothing to say,” Harry muttered.

“I can think of a few things you could have said,” Ron said around a harsh laugh. “How about we start with you ditching my sister. Again.”

“You knew Ginny and I—”

“Of course I bloody knew,” Ron spat, offended. “You pop off for a month to the coast and Ginny spends all her time flying and visiting friends and being anywhere except with you, and then when you finally turn up in London you never even mention her. I cracked it, yeah, because it was pretty fucking obvious you’d ditched her and didn’t want to talk about it. I was going to bring it up after the trials were over, because I guessed even then that you were gearing up to go mental.”

Harry didn’t flinch, but it was a close thing.

Well. There it was. Ron had known. And he’d done nothing.

“I didn’t think you’d try to take everyone else out with you. I didn’t think you’d start in on the Minister for Magic. And don’t you dare try to shove off what you did to my mother. She’s frantic because you had a mental breakdown in front of hundreds of people and you’ve shut yourself up in this fucking tomb and they can’t come check on you. The only reason she and my dad haven’t come over here yet is because Bill won’t let them. Bill sat us all down and told us to leave you alone because Bill is the only person you’re talking to now.” He shook his head, desperation and pain in his eyes. “Seriously, Harry, this isn’t like you. You don’t hurt people just because you’re upset.”

“No,” Harry said quietly, “that’d be you, wouldn’t it?”

Ron did flinch at this, but he rallied at once. “At least I’m man enough to admit it when I do something stupid and selfish. You probably don’t even realize that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re taking out your own shite on everyone else because you can’t deal, and you’ve probably convinced yourself it’s for some noble reason. That you’re protecting everyone else. Fucking playing the he—” He cut himself off, looking away, jaw clenching.

And any leftover guilt Harry had been feeling died in his chest, unspent.

“No,” Harry said forcefully, stepping toward Ron, “keep going. What were about to say? That I was playing the hero? That I’m just having a temper tantrum and sulking in here? Go on and say it, if that’s what you think!”

“I think you’re cutting everyone out because that’s easier than dealing—”

“Because that’s so insane?” Harry shouted, finally letting his temper loose. “You ever think that maybe I’ve had enough of taking it all on me? Have you ever thought, after all this time, that maybe I’m done trying to be there for everyone else? Maybe I’d like to fucking live without everyone wanting some piece of me?”

“That makes no bloody sense, Harry,” Ron said, throwing out his hands in frustration. “What does that have to do with Kingsley—”

“They killed a fourteen-year-old girl, Ron! They killed her, and they threw her friends in jail, because they were scared and alone and their parents were dead. Fucking fourteen, Ron.”

“That girl attacked—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Harry shouted, furious enough to make Ron flinch again. “It doesn’t bloody matter what she did. She was a kid. A child. And they killed her. If you think that’s fine, great, bully for you, but I will not accept that and I sure as hell won’t dance around and smile for the people who would justify doing that. I won’t stand there and let them use me as a fucking prop. I get enough of that from everyone else.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Of course I have to! I walk outside and I can’t go two paces without someone coming up to tell me about their dead gran or kid, or about all the horrible shite they heard about what happened to me, or asking me what it was like to kill someone, like it’s so fucking heroic! Everywhere I go, I’m reminded of who I am and what I’ve done and how many people I’ve lost and I’m fucking done with it, Ron. I don’t want that anymore!”

“So you’d rather bury yourself in this mausoleum than be with the people who love you?”

“YES!”

Harry and Ron stood there staring at each other, both of them breathing hard, making the silence all the more horrible. That same gulf he’d felt between him and Hermione in the atrium bathroom had opened up between him and Ron, and he felt all at once a stranger. Ron had no idea, no idea…

“Well,” Ron managed, his voice tight, “at least you finally admitted it.”

Harry didn’t know how to respond. He wanted to kick Ron out and just walk away, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it yet, like there was still some part of him that thought it was mad the way he was acting.

He could still tell him. This wasn’t unfixable. Not yet.

“We’re all cracking, Harry,” Ron said after a long pause, voice choked. “We all went through the same war, mate. I know you’re hurting—”

“No, we didn’t,” Harry said harshly, realizing with horrible clarity how thoroughly Ron could never understand. His anger shifted into something sharp and pointed, and he didn’t want to make excuses. He didn’t want to care about Ron’s feelings or his own guilt. He was angry. He was broken. Might as well just lean in.

The fire was warm. Might as well appreciate the flames while they lasted. Before he sank again into that cold black abyss.

“We didn’t go through the same war,” he continued, carving his words into daggers. “You didn’t go through what I went through. You haven’t dealt with what I’ve dealt with. You have no bloody idea what I’m going through. You couldn’t.”

“Of course I could. I could if you’d just fucking talk—”

“No, Ron, you couldn’t. I’m not hurting, or cracking, I’m—”

Broken.

That’s what he was.

Ron, who had grown up with parents who loved him, with a home and a family and a place to fall back on, a place he belonged just because of who he was, who hadn’t been shut away in a cupboard because he was so unwanted, who had never spent countless nights listening to the sound of his mother dying, who had never lost every person who’d ever been close to something like a parent, who had never been betrayed by the person he’d thought was his best and last protector.

Ron, who had never died, only to come back tainted with the shadow of a man so evil even death didn’t want him, who had never walked to his death, knowing there was nothing left for him to do but give over everything, everything he had left. That his ultimate utility was just to die. That his life was worth nothing unless it was being taken.

Ron, who wasn’t a broken shell of a thing who was only alive because his soul had been mangled so much it no longer obeyed the rules of normal magic.

Ron knew what it was to fight, but he didn’t know what it was to fight knowing he would die. That if he didn’t let himself be killed, he’d be responsible for the lives of everyone he’d ever cared about. That if he failed, people he didn’t even know would die by the hundreds, the thousands.

“You’re right,” Harry said when he finally found his voice. “I’m being selfish. For once in my fucking life, I’m being selfish. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to talk to you or Hermione, or anyone else. I don’t give a bloody fuck what you think about my feelings or my life. It’s my life. I don’t owe you anything. I don’t care. So piss off.”

The moment folded in on itself and suddenly Harry was standing in Dumbledore’s office amidst the shattered pieces of the things Harry had broken in an attempt to make his own pain stop.

You do care.

Harry could actually hear Dumbledore’s voice in his ear, that soft, patient voice, a voice Harry had clung to for so long because it was the only thing he had, the only thing he could trust.

You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it. Of course you care.

Had it been real? Or was it just Dumbledore making him think it was better for him to be an emotional wreck, better to be an open wound? Maybe he thought letting Harry get himself killed would be a blessing. Maybe he thought, if he could push Harry so far to the edge that he was barely hanging on, Harry would want to die. Maybe Dumbledore thought he was doing Harry a favor by telling him he had no choice but to accept that his life was nothing but a series of stabs through his broken, tainted heart.

The memory of Christmas night standing in front of his parents’s grave stood out sharply in his mind.

Maybe it would have been better if he’d died in Godric’s Hollow with them. If it meant being spared this…this horrible, ragged longing for something he would never have, maybe it would have been better.

“So, what,” Ron started, his voice wavering even as he screwed up his face, “I’m just supposed to leave you alone? We’re just going to pretend like you’re not imploding? You expect me to just walk away and leave you in here by yourself? You think I’d do that? After all the shite I’ve been through with you, you think I’m going to just—leave you here on your own?”

Harry shook his head, swallowing the immediate retort that of course that’s what he expected. That’s what Ron did. He left. It didn’t matter then that he’d always come back. Nothing mattered.

He probably wouldn’t even come back, now. Harry thought he’d done enough damage to possibly crack that bridge for good.

And wouldn’t that be better, anyway? Harry wasn’t going to have a normal life. He couldn’t. Ron could have a normal life. Ron could live. He could live an easier life without Harry.

Ron was right. He was playing the hero. Like always.

Maybe it would have been better if Harry had died with his parents. He was a thing that shouldn’t exist. He should never have come back.

“Harry, we won,” Ron pleaded. “It’s over, mate. You don’t—”

“Just get out,” Harry muttered, turning his back and making for the stairs, every step seeming to rock the foundations of the house. His dead godfather’s house. “I’m done.”

“Harry!”

Harry ignored him, dousing the lights as he went. Each one of them snuffing the last flames in his heart, leaving him cold and dark and alone.

“Fine! FINE! If you want to be like this, don’t be surprised when you decide you’re done destroying yourself if you’ve got no one left! You want to be alone? Fine by me!”

Harry gripped the banister, listening to Ron pace for a while—and then the door opened, the sound of wind and cars and the city beyond rushing into this space of grim silence.

He felt the shudder through the bones of the house when Ron slammed the door behind him.

Harry stood there for thirty seconds before he sat down hard. The weight of his body seemed to weld him to the wood beneath his legs and feet. He waited to get the urge to call Ron back, to apologize, to fix this while he still could. But it didn’t come. Maybe some of that had been true, then. Maybe he really did want to be alone.

A soft pop of noise signaled Kreacher’s arrival. “Master Harry is wanting dinner? Kreacher is not wanting to disturb Master while he is reading so intently, but Mistress Andromeda—”

“Yeah,” he said hollowly. “Yeah, thanks, Kreacher. I’ll… I’ll be right down.”

“…Is Master wanting Kreacher to keep his letters? Master is getting a few every day, and Kreacher is putting them in a box…”

Eyes dry and chest tight, Harry shook his head. “No. Bill’s and Andromeda’s, you can keep, but the rest…”

His heart was beating hard—he felt like he was hurtling forward, thrown toward a barrier he knew was coming but couldn’t see.

“You can burn them.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Harry spent the days after Ron left searching through the stacks, looking for something to occupy his time.

He’d never really seen the appeal of Hermione’s obsession with knowledge, but he started to understand—spend enough time in someone else’s head and you start to forget your own problems.

It’d take even the smartest and most enthusiastic of bibliophiles years to begin to make sense of everything hidden in this attic, but Harry started. And after a while he stopped thinking of Hermione every time he picked up a book he thought she would like, which was most books, granted.

He began to look at this attic as something closer to the Room of Requirement than a disorganized library, wandering through and letting his subconscious pick out books or scrolls or errant parchment from the whole jumbled mess. Most of them were written in another language or focused on a topic in which he had no interest. Copies of old grimoires by wizards and witches he’d never heard of, detailed family lineages for what seemed like every pureblood British, French, and German family going back a thousand years, books filled with diagrams of intricate and completely incomprehensible magical artifacts. He set aside the ones which looked mostly intact, placing the rest in a pile to go through later to see if there was anything worth salvaging amidst the mold and dust, the books whose ink had faded so long ago all that was left was a faint indentation of words. He didn’t have a chance in the world of understanding the last, but he wanted to keep them, just in case. They seemed too valuable to just discard off hand.

Letting the attic lead him didn’t work all the time, though. He’d been collecting what he thought was a series of memoirs which reminded him of Lockhart’s books, only to realize to his immediate horror that they were not fanciful accounts of a wizard’s travels through the Orient, but were actually hundred-year-old erotic novels. He’d been collecting a bunch of porn for the better part of three hours. After his initial shock, he flipped through a few of them, curious despite himself. The second realization which made him feel like the collar of his jumper was attempt to strangle him was that they were all, seemingly, about gay men. Not that Harry was offended by them being gay—he didn’t have any problem with blokes liking other blokes, obviously. It was more the shock of flipping through an otherwise tame, if flowery, book only to read the line, and when his member split my buttocks in twain, that made him want to hide from his own embarrassment. Perfectly reasonable to drop it like it had burned him. Also, perfectly reasonable, to keep an eye out for more. Maybe they’d be worth something if he could find the whole set.

He did manage to pick out a few interesting books after a while, however. One ancient-looking spellbook full of charms pertaining to the hiding and guarding one’s effects. A cursory flip through told him it was very advanced stuff, far beyond the level he’d learned in school, before he landed finally on what Harry realized in surprise was the Fidelius Charm. A quick read through made him pause. He’d always thought the Fidelius Charm had to be some seriously complicated bit of magic, but the instructions were relatively simple, if vague, like they were missing half the instructions. Frowning, he checked the publication date, only to find there was no publication date, because this book had been made before the invention of the printing press. In fact, as he tried to decipher the handwriting in the front, it had been scribed and bound by a wizard named Bede at the Jarrow monastery…in 686 AD.

He was holding a book that was older than Hogwarts.

Harry had never before wished he’d paid more attention in History of Magic. He sat there frozen for a while, wondering if there was something to the idea that the initial spell, this ancestor, had been far simpler than the one he’d heard about, the one Dumbledore had cast on his parents’ house and Grimmauld Place. He closed the book carefully and set it aside for later perusal. He’d thought about figuring out how to hide this place again after their disastrous escape from the Ministry last year. It was still unplottable and warded, presumably, but he didn’t know how thoroughly. Now that he seemed fated to live here, at least for now, it was something to look into.

Of course, he’d never expected to not have Hermione to help him.

He found a potions book focusing on Eastern European recipes and ingredients, outlining the history behind each potion and the more notable potioneers. Under a pile of decaying newspapers, the charms on the front long gone dead so the images were stationary, he found a box which contained three books bound in white leather, with embossed engravings of an eye, an ear, and a mouth, respectively. The first two he recognized the moment he opened the books—tomes on the study of Occlumency and Legilimency. The third he’d never heard of—Potensimency. Presumably it was related to manipulating the mind and thoughts of either yourself or someone else, but he didn’t bother sitting down to read more than a few pages. He’d never been able to do the other two, so he figured this would be beyond him as well. He kept them, though, in the growing pile of books on the small table just inside the attic, next to the history books and the books on magical artifacts and, to his continuing shame, the old erotica. Out of curiosity, presumably. Sure.

He didn’t let himself think about the stack of books he was making for Hermione, or the small collection of things he thought Ron would get a kick out of.

A few days into the unofficial project he stumbled on a new section of the attic, or he thought it’d been a few days—he’d taken to sleeping on a cot he’d conjured rather than make the trip downstairs every night and back up every morning, and Kreacher was delivering his meals up here now rather than down in the kitchen. Really, this house was far bigger than he remembered it being. Even the ceilings seemed to be taller, the halls wider. Maybe he was just getting used to it, but the claustrophobia he always used to feel in Grimmauld Place was ebbing ever so slightly.

Or maybe the house was finally warming up to him. He didn’t know what to think if this was true, because while he didn’t hate the house anymore, it still didn’t feel like somewhere he’d chose to live for the rest of his life. This, crazily enough, made him feel a bit guilty.

The new section he found had been hiding behind a huge armoire stuffed to the brim with field journals from an unnamed dragonologist. He’d been levitating the whole lot over to the Keep pile, thinking Charlie might be interested, when he spotted a hole in the back of the armoire. Peering through, he saw with surprise a small window and the corner of the attic. He’d reached the end.

He managed to transfigure the armoire a bit smaller, shifting it out of the way so he could make a little entrance for himself. The open area was a few yards square, the muted light of the grey morning outside giving it an almost cozy feel. Two sides were normal walls while the others were tightly-stacked books. Harry wondered if this hadn’t been some kind of sitting area in years past, noting scuff marks on the wooden floor which looked a bit like the legs of a chair had been dragged repeatedly across it. His gaze caught on the view outside the window. There was something odd about it, like everything had shifted slightly to the left, or something.

A small green box sat under the window, about the size of a large book. Harry got closer and saw a simple but fine gold locking mechanism holding it shut, a bit of embellishment painted on the sides and top to resemble vines. It was very pretty, and looked remarkably well kept. He reached out to pick it up, only belatedly having the thought that it was probably enchanted to resist the normal wear of age and perhaps he should have remembered this house had a history of keeping things which liked to bite anyone who touched them—when something stabbed into his middle finger.

Harry hissed and fell onto his arse, recoiling at once. “Bloody hell,” he bit out. But it was just a small prick, a tiny smear of blood over the pad of his finger, like he’d accidentally jabbed himself with a needle.

His attention caught on the box, because where there had been a simple gold lock there was now faint, dark red light. Slowly, a line of glowing red spread out from the center of the lock, illuminating the grooves and seams of the wood. It crawled up to the surface where, Harry watched in growing fascination, the outline of a tree appeared as…his blood drew it into being. The tree was large, stately, a thick trunk separating into two sections from which the rest of the branches spread. The pattern ended on a symbol nestled in the roots. Some kind of rune, maybe, or—

A faint flash of red light illuminated the lock, which then popped open gently.

Harry stared at the box for a long time, a weird sense of familiarity settling over him, like he’d seen this box before, when he knew for a fact he hadn’t. He’d never seen anything like this.

Except…that was wrong, wasn’t it? The door to the Chamber of Secrets had looked a bit like this. Where the box was decorated in roots and branches and leaves, the door had been entirely covered with snakes. But the way it opened was…similar, for some reason. A coppery taste filled his mouth as his tongue seemed to want to form words in Parseltongue, even though there was no snake to talk to.

No. Not…Parseltongue, but something similar. Like there was another language sitting in his head, waiting impatiently for him to figure it out.

He ran the pads of his thumb and middle finger together, managing a simple healing charm to stop the blood welling up. Something about his blood must have opened the box. Just like the passageway to the cave had opened for Dumbledore when he bled on it.

Old magic. Crude, Dumbledore had told him, the idea rooted in the weakening of oneself to gain entry.

Harry didn’t feel weaker, though. It was more like—he could sense that something inside the box had been waiting for someone to open it. For someone to offer.

If felt more like he’d been given a gift.

“This is stupid,” he muttered under his breath even as he edged forward on his knees until he was sitting in front of the box. “You know this is stupid. You shouldn’t mess with this.” Magical items that opened at an offering of blood sat firmly in the list of things Harry knew, from experience, would later come to bite him in the arse. Riddle’s Diary had sucked in thoughts and feelings and life, hadn’t it? But if this box were a horcrux, shouldn’t he be able to tell?

“Stupid.” He bit his lip, shook his head. “So, so, stupid.”

Carefully, he used his other thumb to brush the top of the box.

Expecting some flicker of darkness like he’d felt from the horcruxes, he was shocked when a cool breeze wafted under his nose, smelling of growing things and sunshine.

He pulled his finger away and the sensation faded.

That… That was rather nice.

He glared down at the box for another minute, trying to convince himself to leave well enough alone, but in the end his curiosity wore out. It was just a box. He’d be careful.

And if there was a small part of him that thrilled a bit at the idea of doing something reckless, something he knew without a doubt that both Ron and Hermione would soundly oppose, Harry didn’t much care right then.

The box was cool to his touch and smelled like spring. He traced the symbol at the base of the roots with his thumbnail, breathing in that fresh scent, reveling in the sense of being outside for the first time in days. Before he could stop himself, he opened the lid of the box. Sure enough, inside sat a book.

A book with a wooden front plate, into which was carved the symbol from the outside of the box, followed by a few lines of runic script.

He was staring so intently at the cover his eyes started watering before he realized he hadn’t blinked.

Exhaling deeply, he frowned, something tugging at the back of his mind. He’d seen this…

Harry closed the box and picked it up, carrying it with him as he made his way back through the labyrinthine paths to Regulus’s desk. Harry had put the books he hadn’t been able to read on the floor next to his chair, and as he approached and sat down, he found what he was looking for.

The book which had warmed slightly to his touch, with a symbol he hadn’t been able to read, was an almost exact copy of the book he’d found in the green box. Carefully, he set them side by side, placing the box on the floor. Both of them had covers made of wood, their symbols different enough to notice, though they were clearly done to a pair. The book from the green box was a light, buttery shade of yellow with slight wavelike patterns in the wood. The writing looked like it had been just barely cut into the surface and traced with a very faint hint of green ink.

The other book was heavier, the wood strips of dark gold alternating with cool brown in neat, regimented sections. The lines were precise, firm, and this writing had been burned, or soldered into the wood with an impressively clean stroke. As Harry left his hand on this one, he felt again that warmth emanating from it, but now that he was focusing, he could also feel…solidity. A hardness to the warmth that felt steadier than the breathy fresh scent of the greenwood book. A kind of security and ownership.

Between the two of them, the second felt darker, or at least less bright and safe than the greenwood book. And if he was going to do something stupid, he might as well be smart about it.

He set the darker book aside for the time being and opened the greenwood book. The pages inside weren’t pages at all, but more thin sheets of the same buttery wood. Looking closer, he could see faint metal bindings along the spine, holding it all together like a spiral notebook. And on the pages he found what looked to him like incantations.

The language was still entirely illegible, but there were symbols on most of the pages, lines around them which looked almost like diagrams. They didn’t look like wand movements, but for a book this old, which it had to be, he could almost feel the age, there might not be wand movements anyway. Most Wizarding cultures had only adopted wands in the last few centuries, and there were still parts of the world where wizards didn’t use them at all.

The longer he stared, actually, the more he came to be sure they weren’t wand movements, but finger and hand movements. The diagrams suddenly made much more sense as he recognized hands, arrows detailing which position flowed into the next, the twist of arms and palms directing energy of some kind, symbolized by more of that faint green ink.

Harry found himself mimicking the finger poses absently, trying to contort them into something resembling the diagrams. It was hard, as it seemed like he kept hitting a wall where his fingers would not move like he wanted them to, and the diagrams grew impossible to read. Really, some of them looked downright impossible unless he was supposed to detach them and move them that way.

Well, it had opened with his blood. Maybe it wasn’t so far fetched.

But he kept going, flipping through the thin wooden sheets, getting an impression of distinct workings of magic. There weren’t many, maybe eleven that he could differentiate between with any confidence. The first seemed to be the easiest, though, because he started seeing the same positions and movements mirrored in later sections, added to other forms and complicated.

It was exhilarating as he continued to study the book. He felt, impossibly, like the more time he ran his fingers over the pages, the more time he casually attempted to replicate them himself, the more he could intuit the meanings held within.

There was something…bright about them. The small fluctuations in finger movements staccato and slight, like a bird flitting around the diagrams. By the time he got to the end of the book, his hands were cramping up and there was a throbbing between his shoulders from his hunched position. But he couldn’t stop. He felt like there was something there. Something which felt like Parseltongue, like an innate ability to do…something connected to the source of magic inside himself, like casting spontaneously, or wordlessly. Magic had always come easily to him, but this was different. With a wand, it was nearly effortless to concentrate and channel his magic. This was harder, like he was trying to climb a cliff face with his hands and feet tied together. He could barely get a first hold to pull himself up. He could feel it, sitting there inside him, but he couldn’t figure out a way to grab it and wield it, and then how he would control it with any kind of mastery. That was the danger with wandless magic, as every professor at Hogwarts had mentioned at some point during his time there—magic undirected was volatile. Wands allowed a wizard to direct his magic with intention, not intuition. Wordless and wandless? Downright lunacy to attempt.

The last page of the book looked, at first glance, to be blank. Harry frowned, clenching and unclenching his hands as they spasmed. He took his glasses off to rub his eyes, gritty and aching from so long sat staring at the bloody book—

There was writing on the page. He blinked, startled, slid his glasses back on—and it was gone again. Confused, he tipped his glasses up, and there it was. Faint, just like the carvings on the top of the green box, more the impression of invisible words than true lettering. He chewed on his thumb for a while, leg jostling.

Blood magic was old and untaught at Hogwarts. He’d heard it mentioned once or twice by Snape in sixth year, but other than asides meant to make everyone feel like they knew nothing, Harry had assumed it was too dangerous to be taught to kids. This didn’t feel dangerous, though. It just felt big. Bigger and older and, if he were being honest, wilder, than the kind of magic he was used to. It felt primal, a base, ancient kind of magic that went beyond incantations and spells and wands. It felt like truth, like simplicity, when his life for so long had been complicated by lies.

And some part of him wanted it. Badly.

Gritting his teeth and muttering, “Sod this,” he picked at the little scab which had healed over on his middle finger. A drop of blood welled up again, and before he could stop himself he pressed it onto the page where he thought the writing began.

It took longer for the blood to catch this time. Harry felt the slight tug too, where he’d been too startled to feel it before. It was like a string attached to his…everything, or his mind, the sensation of himself as a thing separate from the rest of the world—it was drawing out something inside of him, and he could sense that he could stop it, if he wanted, and that it might be unpleasant but not deadly. He didn’t feel like he was losing anything, anyway. More like he was exchanging—a tiny bit of blood for whatever was hidden on the sheet.

Slowly, his blood spread like a shadow across the sheet. He pulled his finger away when he thought he’d held it there long enough, watching with a mixture of apprehension and awe when three words appeared above a symbol—a simplified version of the symbol on the front cover.

The words were written in the same language as the rest of the book, only this time, they looked more like letters, letters Harry could recognize.

He leaned forward, squinting down without his glasses, and read,

 

KRUWOS TU GLANOI

 

He took a deep breath, exhaled—and his mind went very quiet. He stared at the words, that impression of clean wind and lightness and relief from a great burden stirring under his nose. His fingers twitched again, like they were already mimicking the patterns he’d been practicing without any kind of intention, moving on the desk as he focused on the sheet. The words sat on the tip of his tongue, sounding them out in his mind like he was trying to remember a language he’d never learned. He saw again the tree in his mind—swaying in a sunny breeze, small cones dangling and jostling, clacking together softly amid the bright green leaves, the trunk splashed with faint white patches all along its length. It stood on a hill, one of—

A tiny, barely audible whoosh startled him. He blinked as he was jerked out of his head, realizing with discomfort that he had been staring too hard again. His eyes were burning. His neck ached and his entire spine throbbed as he lifted his head. The fingers of his left hand were stiff and frozen, the bones cracked a bit when he tried to stretch them.

Under his right hand, where his fingers had been absently moving, tracing along the table, a small circle stood out. Inside, there sat a patch of gleaming, freshly cleaned wood. Where the rest of the table was worn and scuffed, covered in the remnants of countless layers of ink and damage, the circle was clear, the wood under all of it a deep, dark reddish brown.

He shook his head and put his glasses back on, making sure he wasn’t going crazy, but it was still there, clear as the rest of the room. He rubbed his fingers together and a fine shower of dust or dirt drifted back down to the table. It stayed clear of the clean patch, though, almost as if it were protected by an invisible dome.

Heart beating fast, Harry looked back to the book and this time he could clearly see all the writing even with his glasses. On a hunch, he flipped back a bit, noticing details he hadn’t before, connecting diagrams with symbols and text, patterns where there had only been confusion. It was as if those three words had been a cipher, and now that he had the secret he could begin to understand the rest of the book.

He leaned back, hands trembling slightly as he pushed his hair off his forehead and held it. He’d just…done something, clearly, some kind of magic so innate he hadn’t even realized he was doing it. He bent over to grab Regulus’s notes, hoping he’d missed the details of that other book, the one with the darker, striated wood.

Finally, he found the page where Regulus had written small notes next to the list of books he’d gathered, but on this one, the unnamed book with the symbol burned into the front, there was nothing except a single sentence; Grandfather Arcturus’s collection, see: Jedza Gvozdenzuba, Moravia.

Nothing about its contents or why Regulus had deemed it worth including with the others. Harry frowned, wondering if Regulus had known about this second book. If the attic had been this chaotic when he was here, probably not.

Harry closed the greenwood book and sat back. The tree on the front was the one he’d seen in his head. He didn’t know what it had to do with the magic inside, but it was like they were connected, like the magic originated from the tree, or existed because of it?

He rubbed his eyes, wincing as tension began to tighten at his temples. His mind seemed to throb in fatigue, shutting down before he could overthink himself. He felt wrung out and tired.

He shoveled food into his mouth under Kreacher’s watchful eyes before stumbling into his bed, feeling a small kernel of something he might call purpose ignite in his chest.

The moment his head hit the pillow, he dreamed.

Bright green and white trees swayed in buttery sunlight, dappling the ground covered in leaves and flowers. He picked them as he went, his bare feet soft in the grass. The hum of bees and the distant chirping of birds made him smile. There was peace here. Cleansing and cool. He knew it was a dream—nothing could ever feel this simple in life—but it didn’t stop him exploring. The forest went on and on, he walked for hours.

Gradually, he grew aware of someone following him. Something of his consciousness flickered into being, wary and tense. His grip tightened around the flowers in his hand. He needed a wand. Where was his wand?

A flash of white caught his eye. He turned then, breathless in his anticipation.

The forest was empty. The soft green light was gone, the ground behind him turning red and brown like fire. The colors brightened until it seemed the whole forest floor was aflame. The sweet smell of rot filled his nostrils as animals rustled in the dead leaves, ran for safety. More rustling—something was shifting under the leaves, sliding toward him in a smooth, sibilant pattern. He stood his ground, staring, unwilling to look away in case the thing coming toward him rose and struck.

His wand. He needed his wand. But all he had was a handful of flowers that began to crack and age in his hands. The petals grew black and withered, the stalks going limp. They were dying, the forest was dying. A cold wind cut through him like a knife and he braced himself against a hollow numbness crawling up his legs.

The trees grew wider, darker, their fragile white bark gnarled and creased with age. Sap dripped down from their knots like blood and he could taste it on his tongue—sweet and heady and sharp with rust. The whole forest was dying. It was always dying, decaying, breaking, burning, raging against the end of all things.

Something wrapped around his ankle. He jumped and tried to shake it off. It tugged. He fell down to his knees, what was left of the flowers crushed beneath his hands. The rustling grew louder, pulsed with the quick beating of his heart.

Rest.

The word blew through on the wind with an ash-filled voice colored in the fire-bright leaves around him. His hands searched blindly over the ground for his wand. The thing coiling around his leg moved up, tracing his calf almost softly. Another joined it soon over his other ankle and they were circling up his thighs, between his legs, around his waist. His eyes threatened to close despite the panic beating a tattoo inside his chest. Fatigue curled up his spine and from his lips broke a gasp of mist, the first bite of frost chilling the air.

Rest, Harry.

He was fighting to stay up but he no longer knew why. It was so nice. It felt so nice to be touched like this, like he was wanted, desperately. He was being wrapped in a warm, loving caress, pulling him down into the forest floor to sleep amongst the dead leaves. He belonged there. Just another dead thing buried by time and dirt.

Not just another.

The voice was low and slick and it wrapped around his chest, coiling tighter and tighter like the embrace of a lover. He was held tight. He couldn’t move. He didn’t want to.

No, you’re special. You’re perfect.

He was gasping for air now, shuddering. His back bowed, his breath fogging the air. His hands kept searching but they were just as often clenching in the dirt, unconsciously seeking something to hold.

Master of Death.

There was a smile in the voice now, a direction. A cruel smile. Coming from behind him. Above him. His fingers brushed something cold, something white and curved. He pulled, dragged it out from the leaves. It was bone. No…the curved tip of an antler.

A joke, you said?

A shape pressed down against his back, a lean, long shape that was firm and taut and smelled of decay and ash. Arms wrapped around him, drifted lower to press against his stomach, to cage him between the ground and the pressure at his back. Fingers dug into the flesh of his waist. Soft lips brushed his ear. A hum vibrated through his chest, content and predatory. It was all Harry could do not to buck at the sound, at the feeling.

So sweet. So willing.

Something slithered up and around his neck. It was long and rough—different from the hands roving over his chest. His mouth fell open, gasping for air, moaning—something slid past his lips and his eyes rolled back into his head. It was in his throat, thick and cold, choking. He couldn’t think now. He couldn’t breathe and he didn’t want to, he wanted this, he wanted to sink down so deep nothing and no one could ever find him again. He wanted it to end. Oh, god, did he want this for an end.

Good.

Pleasure pulsed in his gut. The pressure on his back increased and he collapsed, letting the roots—roots, they’re roots—drag him under.

A flash of white cut through the haze around him and he remembered the promise he’d made himself never to welcome his death again.

Panic shot through him like fire and he jerked in the crushing grip. He was dying. He was letting himself be killed. He couldn’t, not after everything he’d gone through—he’d killed to survive and now he was just letting the forest take him again.

The roots cracked and shrieked, the ground seized as he tried to claw his way back up.

A hand caught his wrist. Pale fingers tugged—

When he opened his eyes, the dream was gone, but he couldn’t catch his breath. He could remember nothing, only the rabbit-quick beating of his heart and the curl of—something in his stomach. He didn’t know if it was nausea or arousal but it made him want to crawl out of his skin. He tripped into the bathroom and sat under the cold torrent of his shower for a long while, remaking himself one shiver at a time.

 

 

It took him the better part of three days to get a handle on the greenwood book. The spells inside were largely based around cleansing, refreshing, or renewing. Clearing out anything which prohibited the movement and transfer of magic. He got caught on the idea that he could somehow heal his soul, if that was possible, but the book seemed largely focused on removing things which stopped something from working properly, something physical which had manifested and gummed up the works. For all intents and purposes, Harry was working fine, and he didn’t trust he’d be able to work any spell so complex as healing a human soul. Harry was rash and reckless, but he wasn’t an idiot.

Old magic like this, in his limited foreknowledge, was rooted in innate understanding and specificity of thought. To fix or clean or renew something, you needed to understand it. That’s what he thought he could make out, anyway, as the script he could now comprehend wasn’t exactly writing in the way he was used to. It was a symbolic text, not a series of instructions, and it was so tied to the hand and finger movements that writing wouldn’t have been able to adequately convey it anyway, in the same way he had to work to speak Parseltongue when he wasn’t staring directly at a snake. It just wasn’t meant to be used outside its context.

He’d gained…something when he bled into, or activated, as he’d come to think of it, the book, but it wasn’t a clear translation. It was a way of thinking, of seeing his body as a tool and his blood as the form of transportation for his magic. Not so much something received as something revealed. Like he’d been covering his eyes with his hand his whole life and there was suddenly light peeking through the cracks of his fingers.

Flipping through the other books Regulus had collected, he saw some of the same theory popping up around the art of dueling and defense, of warding oneself against outside interference or attack. They were all old, at least five hundred years, so Harry assumed the school of thought had gone out of style. He couldn’t exactly deny that giving a bunch of eleven-year-olds the instruction to cut themselves and direct the magic in their blood might be somewhat jarring. Not to mention alarming to their parents. And it seemed like easy magic to get wrong if you didn’t do it confidently. Easy magic to abuse, too.

But Harry seemed to get the gist. The physical component was tricky, because his fingers were unwieldy and clumsy and seemed aggressively opposed to bending in some directions required by the book, but he was starting to feel it out. Every time he began a new series of finger movements he got a bit better, a bit less frustrated.

He understood now why wands had become the standard, at least in Britain. It was bloody hard to rely on your fingers.

The book opened with a simple cleansing ritual, variations on one theme branching off into two categories—that of the living, and that of the inert. Living here meant something which could act of its own will, and the inert as something acted upon. Harry guessed the line between the two was somewhat slippery, but he grasped the basic concept.

It was easier to affect the state of something if that thing was rid of anything else which might interfere with it. The difference between mopping a floor with all the furniture in its usual place, and a floor with everything moved out of the room.

He’d heard Hermione talk about spell interference and residual magic traces sometimes making charms or enchantments act strangely, but he’d never really seen it work in practice. This was very advanced stuff, not something he would have learned in the classes he took at Hogwarts. The closest thing he could think of was Potions and the possible adverse reactions some concoctions and ingredients had to others. You shouldn’t take a Pepper-Up Potion right after a Calming Draught, for instance.

Wrapping his head around this was hard. He wasn’t naturally inclined to this kind of spellwork, trying to run variables and permutations in his head of all the components of a basic spell with near infinite number of outcomes and reconfiguring them to work in ways which were not explicit in their casting. He usually just pointed his wand, said the right words, and magic came out, which he was quickly realizing had made him lazy. When that didn’t work, he fell back on just—doing it. Instinctually. Without any kind of intention. He was good at magic. Very good at defensive magic. He hadn’t needed to pour into the theory often because he’d been able to do almost everything without understanding how it worked, and those things he’d had to work for, like his patronus, or apparition, he’d just kept trying until he could do it. Simple trial and error.

He had a feeling this was more about intention than mechanics, though, and intention he could work with.

Because he’d decided the moment he’d risen from the staircase after Ron had left that he needed to recast the Fidelius Charm on Grimmauld Place.

There were still people who wanted to hurt him, and this house seemed to be the last place he had to fall back on. He wasn’t out of the woods because Voldemort was dead, and if he was ever going to figure his life out, he needed somewhere he could relax, where he could sleep without wondering if someone was going to try to destroy his building. He needed somewhere he felt safe. Hogwarts had been that for him, once, but Hogwarts was closed, and Harry didn’t know if the castle had been ruined for him completely. He hoped not. Regardless, he wasn’t going to be able to stay there forever, even if he could go back when it finally re-opened. If he wanted to go back.

Without knowing how the Fidelius Charm had been cast in the first place, along with all the other charms and wards the Black family had layered over the years, he didn’t trust himself to just cast a new charm on the house, mostly because he had no bloody chance of trying any version of the charm developed in the last century. He remembered Flitwick saying it was a tricky bit of magic, and if Flitwick didn’t know what he was talking about then Harry didn’t have a shot in hell anyway. If he could just…get rid of the fragments of magic that no longer worked or gave the house its demeanor of faintly-simmering malice, it might be easier. It might start to feel like something resembling a home.

And there was a strange sense of urgency when he thought of marking the house, claiming it with his own blood. It felt…well, it felt rather stupid when he stopped to think about it. Stupid and troubling. If he’d heard of anyone else using blood magic to make their house more comfortable, he’d probably think they were dangerous and most definitely involved with the dark arts. That or they were just mental.

But he couldn’t shake it, in the brief moments he had before he fell asleep on his little cot in the attic, his eyes throbbing and his hands twitching, little prick-points across his fingers where he’d drawn drops of blood stinging like bug bites. It felt right. It felt…like he was meant to do it. Like the house wanted him to.

Harry would have found it disturbing had he been told even a few weeks ago that his house was reaching out—he could feel the house responding to him. He’d walk into rooms and feel a strange sense of disconnect and then a doubling of his senses, like deja vu but more intense. Sometimes it would be something small, a lamp shifting out of the corner of his eye to better sit on a table, a bit of carpet smoothing after he’d tripped over it and cursed when he nearly fell. The house was brighter now, too, the curtains slowly drifting open to reveal warped glass windows and dust-covered sills.

When Harry let his mind go quiet after hours and hours of trying to figure out how to work this spell, he could feel the house more clearly than ever before. There was a presence in it, beyond just the malevolent energy left by Sirius’s mum and the Black family over the years, beyond the grime and the disrepair.

Something lived inside the house, something which was waking up, and cautiously testing its new owner.

It helped that reading more of Regulus’s notes seemed to confirm that this place had never really been cozy. Even Regulus, apparent perfect son, had found his home a bit unnerving.

After three days he felt ready to start experimenting. He began with a rotting plant Kreacher had produced from some corner of the house Harry had never seen. He trusted when Kreacher told him it wasn’t dangerous, that it had been a gift from Walburga to her husband in the final years of their lives. A special kind of flower Kreacher didn’t know the name of, which apparently only grew on the slopes of a mountain in Bulgaria.

It certainly looked like the kind of thing Walburga Black would deem a suitable gift—the stalks a putrid shade of brown and yellow, a bit of puss leaking from a few lesions at the base, the petals shriveled up so tight Harry had no idea what color or shape they were supposed to be. It was still alive, though, as the pot it was kept in wouldn’t let it die. After Walburga’s death, no one had seen fit to take care of it, and Kreacher had tucked it away safe somewhere until a member of the family returned to coax it back to life. Sirius had apparently scoffed at the mention, tried to throw it into the fire right away.

It was the first thing Kreacher had hidden when Sirius came back to his old home. The first of many, it seemed.

Harry beat back the voice telling him to abandon this insane idea at once, facing off against the plant like it was a rival player and they were high above a Quidditch pitch. He shook out his hands, bounced a bit on the balls of his feet, and began.

One small prick to his forefingers and a sharp lance of energy shot out into the air. He caught it before it could disperse, willed it into a bead floating in the space between his hands. With a grunt, he twisted his fingers, contorting his pinkies into an arc and then flattening his palms, pressing on both sides of the blood, the repulsion between his hands like that of two magnets. The bead rippled and slowly, so fucking slowly, smoothed out into a disc.

Harry let out a sharp laugh, grinning. Right. Wasn’t too hard.

He moved methodically through the rest of the spell, sweat building in the small of his back and at his temples. The disc continued to smooth out until it was a foot across and thin as a sheet of silk. It began to vibrate, the magic separating from his blood and falling down like snowflakes onto the plant in tiny dust particles of green and gold light. Where they touched, the plant twitched. A soft popping sound began to fill the air as more of the cleansing magic sifted down onto the withered and lesioned plant.

After what felt like an hour, the green-gold dust disappeared, shimmering over stalk and leaf and petal like fresh morning mist. Harry twisted his hands again, this time bringing his right thumb to his left palm, performing a series of contortions with the fingers of his left hand until he felt something connect like a key into a lock. He turned his right hand, and the disc of blood rippled into a steady stream, pouring down onto the plant like water from a can.

The plant shook and collapsed. Its leaves and petals crumpled and withered until it was no more than a pot of potpourri.

Harry exhaled in dismay—he’d done it all right, he could feel that. There was no reason…

As he stared crestfallen at his plant, however, he saw the detritus shift. A tentative bud popped out from the soil and refuse—deep red and oddly metallic. It rose higher, growing faster, and soon there were more buds sprouting beside it, twisting and intertwining together until the central stem was made up of smaller stalks covered in tiny barbs. They rose nearly a foot in height, much taller than the original plant had been, and began to split. Wide, serrated leaves grew out of the seams, their color closer to blood and veined in threads of black and brown. Petals blossomed over them, emerging as a single bud and then unfurling all at once to reveal shimmering indigo and violet flesh, expelling a faint cloud of shimmering dust.

Harry jerked back, belatedly realizing that he shouldn’t be sniffing what might be poisonous fumes. An odd tingling went down his spine and his face flushed, but other than that he felt no adverse effects. If anything, he felt a bit like he’d downed a glass of butterbeer too fast.

The plant expanded, its progress slowed slightly by the fact that there was no more room in the pot. It came to a rest when the stems reached a good foot and a half to either side, and crested two feet in height.

Breathing hard on the other side of the kitchen, Harry smoothed his hair back from his forehead. The room fell silent except for the faint shifting of leaves, like it was sitting outside and stirred by a soft wind. The smell—heady and smoky, with a deep, almost familiar sweet spice he could feel on his tongue—wafted through the room and Harry swore he could almost hear tinkling bells.

Harry closed his mouth where it’d been hanging open. His arms shook and a headache began to thrum behind his eyes, but he’d done it. He’d done something, anyway.

The air popped beside him and Harry jumped. “Kreacher, god, we talked about—”

Kreacher wasn’t listening to him, however. He was staring with wide, glossy eyes at the plant. As Harry watched, that gloss formed into tears which streaked down his face.

“Master is saving my dear Mistress’s plant,” he said, wobbly and rough.

Harry rubbed the back of his neck and caught his breath. “Yeah. I think, I mean… I’m not sure, mind, but I think it’s healed. Looks healed.”

As if it could hear him, the plant rustled, a few of the flowers turning toward him and doing something like a dance. That scent wafted over him again, and this time he found it pleasantly warm. He cleared his throat as it became too strong, growing smoky again and carrying a thread of spice and citrus, reminding him for some reason of tea and mist and leather.

“My Mistress is doting ever so much on this plant,” Kreacher added, rubbing his leaking nose on the end of his dish rag ensemble. “Kreacher cannot thank Master Harry enough for—”

“Hey, it’s all right,” Harry said, startled when the house-elf began to sob in earnest. “Of course, Kreacher. It’s…my pleasure,” he added with a wince. He had no desire to honor the memory of that old hag, but he was starting to understand Kreacher’s devotion to her. He was with her long after everyone else had left, and he’d been here alone until Sirius showed up. He was bound to get attached.

“Is there somewhere you’d like to keep it? I don’t think it needs…” What was he talking about? He didn’t have the first clue what it needed. He might have pulled an Exceeds Expectations out of his arse for Herbology, but he wasn’t exactly wild about plants. He made a mental note to owl Neville, before he realized Neville might want nothing to do with him after his violent defense of Slytherins at the trial.

“If Master is willing, Kreacher can put it in the greenhouse?”

Harry blinked. “There’s a greenhouse?”

“Oh, yes, next to the second dining room.”

“Right.” He hadn’t even known there was a second dining room. “Of course. You don’t happen to remember what the plant needs, do you? Like…light or water or…”

Kreacher shook his head with a watery smile. “Oh no, no, this plant is being a part of the house, Master, and the house is needing no water or light. It is only dying because of my Mistress, my Mistress…”

Harry gently nudged Kreacher around, trying to stop another fit of crying before it began. “All right. I trust you.”

The greenhouse Kreacher took him to would have looked right at home at Hogwarts. Well, if the plants had been alive. The rows of shelves were filled with dead husks, the soil parched and dry. It smelled of old leaves, warmer than the rest of the house but still with a stale quality to the air. Harry placed the pot with the newly revived plant on a shelf near the door and peered through the fogged windows.

He had no idea where this room was in relation to the rest of the house, if it was sitting in a courtyard or maybe looked out over a back porch, but he could make out vague shapes through the warped grass. They looked like trees, but he didn’t know how that could be possible. Unless there was a full forest sprouting within the center of Grimmauld Place. Which, to be fair, didn’t sound particularly impossible anymore.

“Do you know if this is some kind of illusion, Kreacher?” Harry rubbed the glass, but the fogged, grimy sheen didn’t budge. “Unless—those are trees, aren’t they?”

Kreacher walked up next to him, hopping up onto an empty ledge to get a better look. “Kreacher is not knowing…”

He trailed off and went very still. His large, red-rimmed eyes blinked rapidly, a look of confusion passing over his face.

“You all right?” Harry asked.

Kreacher didn’t answer. He looked through the glass, pressing his hands on either side of his face and leaning in. He began to mumble under his breath, not the vaguely threatening gripes he’d enjoyed when Harry first met him, but a string of words, hard and consonant, quick like a fingernail tapping on stone.

Alarmed now, Harry reached out tentatively. “Kreacher? Kreacher, can you hear me?”

When his fingers touched Kreacher’s shoulder, the elf startled and nearly fell off the ledge.

“Kreacher!” Harry managed to catch him before he could do himself a serious injury, letting go at once. “What the—”

“Kreacher is sorry,” he said, his low voice rougher and more gravelly than normal, “so sorry, Master.” The elf picked himself up gingerly, looking around like he didn’t know where he was.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Harry laughed. “You just…you gave me a bit of a scare, that’s all. You feeling okay?”

Kreacher was old, maybe he was starting to go senile. It was a wonder he wasn’t completely mad having spent decades in this place with only a shrieking portrait for company.

“Kreacher is… Kreacher is fine, Master Harry. Kreacher is merely—he is getting lost in his thoughts.” Kreacher shook himself, eyes unfocused and wide, staring at something Harry couldn’t see. “Kreacher… Kreacher is getting dizzy. He is needing rest. Yes. Rest.”

“I think that’s a good idea. Go…have a nap, or something.”

“Yes, yes…” Kreacher turned and walked out of the greenhouse, moving slowly like he was drunk. “Kreacher… Yes…”

Harry listened to the sound of Kreacher’s mumblings move away, frowning. He didn’t know how old Kreacher was, or what happened to house-elves when they reached a certain age. The heads which used to be stuffed and mounted in the front hall told him what the Blacks used to do. But he’d never needed to know the natural lifespan of a house-elf.

Dobby had still been young when he died.

Harry gave his new plant another wary look. It seemed perfectly content to remain here, snuggled up in its pot like it was a dog in a blanket. His hands were oddly tight and itchy, the remnants of the magic he’d used to cleanse the plant lingering in the lines of his palm and under his nails.

So. He’d done something approaching what he’d meant to do. Now he just had to do it to the rest of the house.

As he walked back to the kitchen, he could swear he heard a happy tinkling of china or glass.

 

 

Two days later he was kneeling on the cold, damp floor of what might have once been the cellar of Number 12 Grimmauld Place, but seemed now to be a breeding ground for every kind of spider Harry could imagine.

His circle of light, reinforced with arania exumai, was holding them off, but he could hear them scuttling beyond his sight. They stirred up a bunch of childhood fears he’d thought he’d gotten over, but they were nothing to the presence lurking at the very edge of the cellar. Over the past two days he’d come to the realization that there was something else inside Number 12 along with all the boggarts and doxies and ill-tempered house-elves, and it seemed to dislike Harry very much.

He knew a bit about poltergeists, it was hard not to know some things attending Hogwarts for six years with Peeves. Remus had touched on them briefly in Harry’s third year, but went no further than explaining how dangerous they were, and how hard they were to banish. If possible, it was better to make nice with the restless spirit and figure out how to cohabit. And if you couldn’t, it was probably best if you left the house to the spirit. Much easier to pick up and move than deal with an angry poltergeist.

The strange thing, though, was that while it’d made its presence known the moment Harry had started going round the house testing for where the foci of the house’s magical energy was located, it hadn’t done anything to him besides give him a general sense of malign interest. It was watching him, and it went beyond the strange chills he sometimes felt walking through barely-used rooms or past cabinets filled with old Black family treasures. This wasn’t the house. The house still seemed to like him, or tolerate him, but there was something else with him now. Kreacher had been no help either, still confused and unwell. Harry had told him to stop working so he could rest, and, perhaps most alarming of all, he’d listened, and not simply because he was compelled to do so.

He’d searched for two days, sleeping little, until he’d found the hidden door to this underground place. Part of him thought the house had taken pity on him and shown him the way, which he took as a good thing. If the house liked him, and wanted him to cleanse it, maybe it’d step in before this…thing…whatever it was, could stop him.

He didn’t like to think why it had shown itself now, after being here for so long. How it might have everything to do with the fact that he’d started practicing blood magic a few days ago.

But he wasn’t just blindly following someone else’s words, not like with Snape’s potions book or Riddle’s diary. He understood the magic he was performing. He might not understand how he understood the magic he was performing, but he wasn’t being entirely stupid. He knew it like he’d known the moment he touched his wand that it belonged to him.

Also the distressing knowledge that an angry spirit was living inside Grimmauld Place had only been unearthed once he did a bit of blood magic, so it was all a wash anyway.

Harry kept his eyes down, knowing nothing would be there even if he did look. It was just darkness and emptiness, a wide berth left by the spiders scuttling around him. Getting away from whatever it was. Truly, it would be his luck if a basilisk was living under the cellar of Grimmauld Place. Why not? At least he’d know how to fight a basilisk, assuming he could find a sword somewhere made by goblins. The Blacks probably had one stashed away somewhere.

Hands shaking slightly, he pushed his hair back where it had gotten stuck to his face. Sweat had pooled in the small of his back and under his arms. It was cold and damp down here in the cellar, but the act of drawing the diagrams, intricate, horribly complicated things, seemed to draw on something more than artistic ability. He compared his sigil, his fifth attempt, to the one in the greenwood book, unable to find anything wrong with it.

And all the while that thing had been lurking down here with him, scaring the spiders, watching him so intently Harry felt like it was breathing down his neck. Every once in a while he swore he heard a low, rough sound, like grinding stone or a growl.

He breathed deeply and slowly until his hands stopped shaking. The spell itself was as simple as the one he’d used to Cleanse the plant, but it was going to draw a lot more from him than a small bead of blood. He didn’t know how much, though. Enough to overpower this thing, the dark presence which had lingered in this house since the moment he walked in the door. Probably since Sirius was young as well, maybe even longer. It felt old, whatever it was. It’d had plenty of time to grow mad and desperate.

Hungry, he thought with a grimace, shaking himself one last time. “Nothing for it,” he muttered, flexing his hands and cracking his fingers.

He didn’t prick himself this time, focusing on the essence he’d layered into the sigil. Ring by ring, he activated it from the outer line to the middlemost, repeating the words, “Kruwos tu glanoi.”

A hum built in the back of his mind—the silent resonance of a bagpipe held on a single note, the vibration of bees over a flower garden, the static absence of sound before the first strike of lightning in a storm. It hung there, weightless, as he willed it into life, different from and wilder than the magic he’d worked on the plant. He was calling to something here, in the foundations of this home, rousing it from sleep. Intention pulled at him, instinctive and raw as he tried to layer in his own desire, his need for help from the house he’d only just started to think of as a home.

The entity rippled beyond his sight, the darkness shifting until Harry felt eyes on his sweating face. Quite a few, actually. Definitely more than two.

With every ring activated, the others grew brighter—white light threaded through with spring green, bringing a scent of trees and open air, a potential, a kind of ecstatic violence. It made his brown skin look almost gold in the light.

The first barrier sprang into place when he reached the center ring. A discordant shriek stabbed at him from behind. He gritted his teeth, holding the magic in place as the outside force tried to knock it loose.

Just under his right elbow his skin neatly split, running nearly five inches before it stopped. A line of blood welled up and fell, steaming where it met the sigil. It brought power, though, and with it Harry shoved the interference away. Exhilaration flooded through him and he pressed forward, his words growing stronger and faster. He could feel it now, how the ancient cleansing spell was spreading out from him and into the rest of the house, crawling up from the foundations to cover every surface and nook, every dusty hallway and mold-ridden banister. He felt all the places which had been hidden for so long, the darkened corners and the rooms tucked away so as to preserve them. He felt the lingering emptiness of the house rise up from the ground—its isolation and pain when Sirius had come back only to rip it apart and treat it like it meant nothing.

And this was the thing Harry had been dreading. He knew how Sirius had felt about this place. He’d agreed, and part of him still understood with sharp clarity just how much weight this house carried, and wouldn’t it just be easier to go somewhere else, to leave all of this behind?

But he couldn’t now, could he? With every drop of blood and gush of steam, every shouted word as the black, shapeless thing tried to claw him, to rend him, he felt the house like a network of lights, each one humming and gentle like fireflies. All that magic was still there, the first foundations bringing to him images of rolling green fields beside an ancient, sprawling town, a river snaking through little hills and glens. He was dwarfed by the age, the hundreds of years of ghosts and spirits and ambient energy all forming into a strangely innocent collection of rooms and doors, stairs and windows, creaks in the wood and the slightly pealing wallpaper.

Under it all rang the truth, both wanted and unwanted, that this house belonged to him now, and that he could either accept it, or abandon it forever.

Another barrier rose and hummed, layering its toneless harmony onto the first. Fresh green and yellow light spread out from his hands and curled up from the steam where his blood ran along the sigil.

The entity roared, blowing back Harry’s hair and forcing him to close his eyes or else be blinded by dust. He felt, rather than saw, the third barrier slam into place. The fourth sent shockwaves through the house as steam curled up through the cracks of the floors and windows, bringing small motes of gold to brush over the walls and the furniture. The fifth dropped his stomach—leaving Harry with the immediate knowledge that there would be no turning back after this. Either he saw this through, or he and the house would forever be at odds.

Harry gritted his teeth as the pressure on his mind increased. A surge of magic rushed through him, the same kind of magic he’d felt when he’d killed Goyle. A searing white to cut through the black entity trembling and shifting, form splitting apart only to come together again, losing a bit more of itself every time.

The sixth barrier sprang into place, and everything went quiet.

Harry knelt on the dirt floor at the base of Grimmauld Place, arms tight and hot as they leaked his blood, his life force, out and into the house. He looked up. The black entity hung in the air, still for the first time. There was no malevolence any more, no fighting will.

It was mad, but Harry could almost feel relief as it drifted toward him. Eagerness. Fatigue. The desperation was still there, but its tone took on one of entreaty and hope, not fear. A sentience presence which had only been an unfocused influence—it now felt like…someone. Someone who had been trapped for a very, very long time. Longer than Harry could comprehend. He glimpsed some of it, the maddening, horrible tightness, the claustrophobic anger of absolute helplessness. The longing for something to change, to end, perhaps, if it was lucky.

It felt, Harry realized with startling grief, like a child who had been locked in a cupboard all his life.

The tightness along his forearms faded as heat spread down his face. Tears, though before they could fall they formed tiny crystals and lifted up into the air. Like frozen beads of dew, catching light and softly reflecting it back to him.

The entity—which now had the vague outline of a person, a body, at least—sank lower until it was almost kneeling in front of him. Something brushed his cheek. An old, horribly tired sigh broke the silence.

A voice like the ocean crashing, like mountains shifting, like a deep, mournful howl, whispered, Tears to Break.

A symbol flashed before his eyes—an inverse of the symbol on the other wooden book sitting safely upstairs. It rang with a gong’s strength and cracked something inside of Harry, broke out of his chest in a violent cry. He didn’t even have time to be alarmed, though, before the symbol morphed, shifted into the other, familiar one. It was steady and solid and for a moment he felt the jagged edges where whatever magic had punched out of himself lingered, splintered and raw. But the feeling vanished and the cracks resealed, tightened, bound themselves in metal and blood. The seventh barrier fell softly into place.

And the entity was gone.

Harry blinked, face wet and body shaking. His consciousness dropped back down into the cellar. A shout sounded somewhere over his head, but he was already drifting. A chill seeped up into his bones and he realized with an absent kind of panic that this much magic channeled through his body might have killed him. His cheek hit the floor just as the house gave one final pulse. A sense of calm washed over him—and then he was out.

 

 

Harry’s dream was a formless, edgeless thing.

Standing at the base of a rolling mountain, clouds gathering at the top. Smelling the chill of sea water and rain as it cut past his face. He was needed, somewhere, somewhere that no longer existed. That belonging stretched until it was taut, the tether around him choking until he felt panic surge up like fire around him. A shout in the darkness, over the shrieking of beasts and the crackling of stone as it dissolved into nothing.

The beach again. Waiting for someone.

He awoke in fits and starts, awareness coming on gradually. His body throbbed. Pain lanced through his head. He screwed up his face to keep his eyes closed, his broken shout muffled by the dirt beneath him.

A fog of confusion settled over him. Not unconsciousness, just disorientation. Time slipping around him, behaving in strange ways. One minute he thought he could hear Kreacher ranting, his voice sharper and angrier than Harry had ever heard it, and then there was crying, someone whispering into their hands around choked sobs. Laughter brushed through his mind, followed by the tinkle of china and the warm sounds of conversation. His own voice shouting through the cavernous house, panicked and asking for Sirius. The sound of a door slamming.

Silence.

The last finally roused him from his place on the floor. He shoved a hand under his chest, shaking as he levered himself a few inches off the ground. Gasping for breath, he clenched his jaw against another scream, and managed to flip himself over.

Collapsing, heart pounding like he’d just ran up a mountain, he let another wash of fatigue pull him back down.

His mind flickered back on slowly, images slotting in as he thought through the last thing he remembered. Cleansing Grimmauld Place. The…thing being forced out—freed?

And then nothing.

He had dreamed of something, he knew that, and some part of his body bristled as he tried to recall. It was strange—he usually remembered his dreams. They were vivid to the point of prophetic, but he couldn’t…

Though, now he thought about it, it had happened before, when he’d finally fallen asleep after Goyle’d attacked him. But he couldn’t for the life of him remember anything beyond the few images he’d woken with. The fire, above everything else. Someone else had been there with him—the only thing he could recall a kind of elegant sharpness, a brightness that made him feel…

Untethered. 

He took a deep breath and braced himself, then he opened his eyes. It was dark, all sound muffled. The air was cold, but not overly so. It smelled of damp earth and old stone.

Craning his neck, he fumbled around for his wand only to have it light up on the other side of the room. He was still in the cellar, then. Which made sense, as this was where he collapsed when the ritual had been completed.

With another shout of effort, he pushed himself to a sitting position. His head swam and his stomach flipped and he had to lean over his knees to keep himself from fainting. He didn’t know how long he sat there, but he knew he would need to get up eventually, and it didn’t seem like he was going to feel better any time soon.

Belatedly, he realized he didn’t actually know if the ritual had worked. His wand wobbled over to him without him even realizing he was summoning it, brightening as Harry wrapped his shaking fingers around it. He sat there, faced with the challenge of trying to test whether the blood magic ritual he’d performed had worked to…cleanse his house of malicious spirits…or whatever the fuck it was supposed to do. At the time it made perfect sense, but now that he was on the other side of it—how the fuck was he supposed to find out if it worked?

A coughed laugh made his chest ache. His eyes watered as he wheezed—the whole thing was suddenly, absurdly hilarious. Bloody fucking stupid, and hilarious.

Blood magic. He performed blood magic to banish a malevolent spirit from his dead godfather’s house.

It took him a while to get his delirium under control, until his breathing was as close to even as he could get. As he sat there he felt a kind of peace settle over him. He frowned as warmth leaked up out of the dirt to steady his trembling legs. He stared at the faint wash of magic rising up over him—healing the dirty, jagged lines down his forearms. Harry swallowed the little bubble of alarm that sent up his throat. The blood was entirely dry, brown and flaky, and the edges of his wounds looked seriously wrong, even to his untrained eyes. But he was…healing. Apparently on his own.

No, not on his own. With the house’s help.

His mouth dropped open as a shiver of delight fizzled through him. As the house sent him a little wave of warmth.

He swallowed, strangling off the immediate shout of panic, and instead whispered, “…thank you?”

Another brush of…something…at the back of his head.

Harry sat there for a solid two minutes, trying to convince himself he hadn’t just gone insane. He supposed it made a kind of sense, when he squinted sideways at it. Wizarding houses were alive, in a way. Magical residue made the world around it change, grow more…active. Something had tainted the house, had corrupted it, and probably had lived here for a long time. Whether it was the combined presence of centuries of dark magic and bigotry handed down by the Blacks like family heirlooms or it was something else, it was gone. Now the house was free to… Well. He didn’t know what it was free to do now, because Harry had never before needed to consider the aspirations of a house, especially one he’d only recently decided he liked.

He stared down at the sigil under him, somehow still intact even as he’d apparently fallen on it and rolled around a bit—the dirt was disturbed, but the sigil looked like it had been carved into stone. He prodded it with his toe and felt the barriers he’d laid down flare ever so slightly.

Fatigue at even that small gesture made him nearly pass out again. “Oh, bloody fuck,” he groaned, head falling to his knees as he contemplated the walk back up to his own room.

Before he could so much as open his mouth to ask Kreacher for help, though, the air around him shifted, warped and popped slightly. The ground rotated to the side, like the house was tipping him out of a tea cup. Before he could get seriously alarmed, though, the ground righted itself and his arse hit something soft. He looked up and frowned, blinked—and he was in his room, three floors up from the cellar, sitting on his bed.

He blinked again, and a few more times, eyes flicking back and forth across the room. He waited for something to explode, or catch fire, or maybe one of the dressers would transfigure itself into a big hairy monster and jump at him, but nothing happened. He had the thought that he should probably see to his wounds, that whatever job the house—the bloody house, had done might not have been the most thorough, but the softness of his bed was a powerful deterrent.

“All right, then,” he muttered and, too tired to be more startled that his own house had just apparated him, or ported him, or something, he slumped back onto his bed.

 

 

When Harry next awoke, he felt…well, he felt tired as hell but otherwise, suspiciously good. He wiped the drool from his mouth and propped himself up on his elbows, confused for a moment as to why he was wearing his trousers and shoes in bed. It almost sent him down a spiral thinking he was back in the wilderness camping with Ron and Hermione.

Then he remembered. He’d nearly killed himself with blood magic. Right.

Harry exhaled shakily and extracted himself from the mess of blankets, grimacing at the dirt and blood smeared over everything. A cursory inspection of himself told him he wasn’t in immediate danger of infection or bleeding out. In fact, once he wiped off some of the dried blood and dirt, he saw almost nothing of the cut which had traveled all down his right forearm—just a scar, almost like it’d been weeks since the ritual had happened.

Before he could think of taking a shower though, his stomach contracted painfully, a fierce and distracting hunger making him groan out loud. He hadn’t felt this hungry in…years, actually. Not since he’d left the Dursleys’. Even on the run last year, he’d never starved. It might have been a slog to eat mushrooms for every meal, but he hadn’t minded. You learned not to mind the quality of your food when you were forced to watch other people eat while you stood in the corner.

After fumbling around for his glasses he opened his mouth to call for Kreacher, only to go still at the sight of a steaming cup and a spread of bread and jam on a tray sitting next to his bed. Concern wormed its way into the back of his head, but he ignored it for now. He was starving, and he couldn’t think clearly.

After inhaling the food, though, and downing three cups of coffee—the cup kept refilling on its own, the cheeky thing—he still wasn’t sure he was in full control of his mental faculties.

He was sore, but no more sore than after a grueling quidditch game. In fact he could recall more than one practice when Wood was still captain when he’d woken the next day to wonder if his bones all hadn’t started screaming and his flesh had been replaced with poorly glued on parchment.

“Kreacher?” he called, knowing full well that if anyone would know what happened with the house, it be him.

Harry sat there for a full minute, waiting.

“Er, Kreacher? Can you—I wanted to ask you something?”

Again, nothing.

A weirdly hurt feeling pricked at his chest. Harry knew full well that Kreacher had only decided to start liking him recently. The business with Regulus’s locket, and then his notes, had given Harry the impression that Kreacher at least cared something for Harry.

The idea that he was already reliant on Kreacher and his slavish devotion made Harry feel a bit sick.

A puff of smoke cracked the air a foot in front of him. Harry jerked back, nearly sloshing his coffee all over his pants, only to watch a slightly-charred piece of parchment float down to the bed. He eyed it warily, the whole effect reminding him of his own name bursting out of the Goblet of Fire.

He squinted at the small writing, summoning his glasses so he could actually see. In scratchy, compact writing, it said, Kreacher is not feeling well. He is asking for Harry Potter to allow him time off to get better.

It took Harry a while to work past his surprise. Kreacher wanted time off? Obviously, he could have as much as he liked. Harry would have offered before this if he thought Kreacher was inclined to the idea.

But the house elf had burst into tears once when Harry suggested he might make a pie on his own one night, threatening to chop his own fingers off in penance for what he assumed was a failing on his part, so Harry had assumed suggesting anything close to time off would be tantamount to torture.

Harry cast around for a quill to respond, but the piece of parchment was ripped from his hand, disappearing once more into a puff of smoke. Another ten seconds, and one more, slightly larger, piece of parchment popped in to Harry’s lap.

Kreacher is being grateful to Harry Potter. The house is more than happy to assist in whatever ways Master Harry needs. Harry Potter should not worry about Kreacher. He will be sending Master updates whenever he can.

Harry stared at the scrap of parchment, feeling oddly bereft.

He rubbed his eyes from under his glasses, scowling at the throbbing of his brain. He didn’t have a headache, exactly, but he felt wrung out and fuzzy and a bit nauseous even after the food. Right. One thing at a time.

He rolled himself out of bed, toeing off his shoes and discarding clothes as he trudged his way upstairs to the bathroom—not the bathroom on his floor, because the pipes in the third floor bathroom liked to smack him in the head sometimes if he took too long. As he passed, though, he felt a weird tingle on the back of his neck. Out of the corner of his eye, he…felt something move. He didn’t see or hear it, but felt it.

He turned, wondering if this was how he was finally going to die—by home invasion when he was starkers and dumbly carrying nothing but his toothbrush.

But the hallway was empty. Actually, it was more empty than it should have been. The walls were higher, the floor a bit wider, and where there had been a tattered and faded runner of indeterminate color, there was just wood floor—rich and buttery and gleaming like it’d just been freshly polished.

He might have stood there staring at the floor for hours, if another weird tug hadn’t pulled his attention to the door he was standing in front of. The door of the third floor bathroom, which he could already see had also decided to shift while he was asleep. The white tile was soft and luminous, no strangely threatening yellow stains along the edges, and there were towels hanging on a rack which had refused to lie straight the few times Harry had attempted to fix it. Now, it looked more than happy to stay in one place. The clawfoot tub, whose porcelain had been cracked and fixed along one side sloppily was whole, its feet a lovely blue now instead of rusted iron.

Harry closed his mouth with a snap, blinking furiously.

“Am I going mad?” he asked after a long minute of deliberation.

No one answered him, but the towel on the rack flipped up its end, as if to dismiss the very thought. The floor creaked as well—not the kind of creak Harry was used to, that sounded like Grimmauld Place would like nothing more than to die a painless death, but the kind which put him in the mind of Mrs. Weasley when she sighed good-naturedly at him after he’d asked if he could help her with something.

He nodded, accepting an answer he was definitely not sure he’d been given.

“Right. So. You want me to use this bathroom?” he asked, feeling like the world’s biggest prat for thinking his house could understand him. But once again, the house seemed to respond, the door opening up a little wider followed by the sound of a tap turning on and a shower curtain being drawn.

And really was this so much crazier than everything else which had happened to him the past few weeks? At least this was nice. A definite improvement in this house, which he was very likely to never leave again. He eyed the room warily, still waiting for a poltergeist to pop out of the mirror and strangle him with the new curtain. The room smelled like mint and lemon, clean and bright and soothing.

Yeah, he was going to count this as a win, even if he had no idea what he’d actually done to gain the house’s respect. Beggars, choosers, all that rot.

The water struck his skin, scalding and steaming and wiping his mind of all thoughts for one blissful second. He ducked his head and stood under the faucet and scrubbed his face, letting the water score down his neck and chest, over his stomach and legs. Merlin, this was nice. The heat did something to his back, letting him unwind and relax, as if all the knots there were working themselves out under the violent ministrations of his shower head. He wondered absently if this was the house’s doing as well, if there was some drug in the water that made him calm down. It certainly seemed willing to let him stand under the water as long as he wanted. Even the other shower gave him problems sometimes, turning cold in sharp bursts to let him know his time was up.

He massaged his shoulder, rolling out his arms as he rotated his neck, reaffirming that each body part still worked. There were faint scars on each forearm, but they weren’t angry. They looked long healed over, like he’d had them for years. Even so, the blood magic must have nearly drained him. Stupid, he told himself half-heartedly. It had been stupid, but he couldn’t argue with the results. His house liked him and that thing downstairs was gone. The whole feeling of Grimmauld Place had shifted overnight, or…over two nights, really. He didn’t regret that.

And if he started worrying about not doing things that risked his life, he’d probably have to legally change his name.

His eyes slid shut as his hand drifted low across his stomach, a weird tension fluttering to life inside him as he drew a long wet line down his navel. When was the last time he’d had a good wank? Not for a while. And there was something antsy in him, like something had gotten knocked loose in the cleansing ritual. Whatever it was apparently made him remember that he had a cock, and that, would you believe, it felt rather nice if he tugged on it for a while.

He hummed as he gripped himself, sliding down his shaft slowly and thumbing the head, hissing when he ran the side of a nail across his slit. He didn’t do this often, for some reason. Maybe he’d thought it was indulgent or something. Or maybe it was that lingering religious fear his aunt had tried to hammer into him every Sunday—that was, before he’d turned eight and they’d had to switch churches because the pastor had noticed Harry one day and asked Petunia why he looked so sickly and small when his cousin practically oozed excessive health.

Bloody hell, it had been a while. He’d never treated getting off as a competitive sport like the other boys in his dorm did. Also, by the time Harry felt it more as an urge than something nice to do sometimes, the object of said urges was his best friend’s sister, which kind of dampened things when he knew there was a good chance Ron would hear him and open up a whole Pandora’s box of nightmare-scenario conversations.

He leaned forward and braced himself against the shower frame, bringing himself off slowly, almost leisurely. Indulging in a way he really hadn’t thought he’d needed to, before. Images flicked through his mind—guilt following after immediately because thinking about Ginny now felt weird. He frowned in frustration and just let his mind drift, hand moving with more intent as he reached below and brushed his balls, exhaling sharply as he tugged, rolling back his foreskin. For a while he didn’t think of anything in particular. He just let himself feel. And fuck if it wasn’t a hell of a lot more feeling than normal.

He set his forehead above his arm for leverage as his back bowed, lips opening on a strangled gasp. He increased his pace, ignoring the usual embarrassment he felt whenever he’d committed this much before. The sound of wet slapping was almost obscene in the newly calm quiet of the house. It was building faster now, the sweet pressure in his stomach more intense, more hot. God, it was like he was rising atop a geyser.

All at once his mind grabbed for something, tightness and heat building until his legs were trembling and his toes were curling. The motion of his hand became detached from the feeling. The water insulated him and a heady, strange disconnect brought everything into focus, like he was imagining someone else’s hand in its place. Someone else jerking him off like this. He bit his lip, closed his eyes. He was close. Fuck, but there was something there, someone…

Pale skin. A smirk like a slash of light. A long, lean body pressed up against his back, just the impression, close but not close enough. Lips brushing against the shell of his ear, warm breath ghosting over his heated, wet skin. A low, familiar voice nearly making him whine, a face to match made entirely of angles and shadows, staring down at him with—

Grey eyes.

Harry shouted as he came, as he shuddered, more violently than he’d ever before. It was like the orgasm punched out of him, and he didn’t even know if it was pleasant anymore, just—shocking in its intensity.

He gasped for air as his cock softened, watching a few valiant spurts of cum wash over his hand and slip down the drain. When he was spent, he reached out blindly and turned the heat down, letting the cool water drill some sense into him. He breathed until the steam was gone from the air and he didn’t feel like he was going to fall over if he tried to move.

What the fuck?

He cleaned the rest of himself off with shaking hands, feeling both like he was about to faint and like he had electricity running under his skin. He was so twitchy he nearly broke his glasses as he shoved them back onto his face and tried to comb out his hair with his fingers. He dried himself cursorily, the wet drops of water from his hair a little chill every few seconds where they slid down his neck. He paced in his bedroom after noticing his sheets were clean and his sweats and ratty t-shirt he normally wore to sleep were sitting folded and neat atop them—the house was doing his laundry now, apparently, since Kreacher was off on a holiday, which was a very weird thing to just accept as normal now—biting his nail to work out some of the energy still crackling through him.

He was almost—disappointed, if he had to pin it down. It was maybe the best orgasm he’d ever had, miles away from the pathetic excuse for sex he’d had with Ginny, and it’d come about because of a vague impression of…someone. Someone Harry knew, or… Maybe not. It was like an itch at the back of his head, under his skull, imprinted on his brain. Problem was, he didn’t know any girls who were taller than him except for Fleur, and he knew without a doubt it hadn’t been her. It’s not that Harry wasn’t immune to her charms—they’d met when he was fourteen, so it wasn’t like he hadn’t tugged one off to her at some point in his life, as scummy as it made him feel now—but she was more like an older sister at this point.

Had he just imagined a random girl, then? One who was tall and wire-fit and had a deep voice? He never thought that’d be his type, if he was being honest, but then… Having a type implied that he’d given any kind of thought to the issue. Which he hadn’t, really.

Harry came to a stop and stared at the ground, the obvious answer floating up like an innocent cloud.

It’s not like he’d ever decided on hard and fast rules for himself as to who he liked to look at. He’d liked Cho, but thinking back—it’d been her flying that caught his eye first, not so much her looks, though she had been very pretty. Ginny’d been a fixture in his life for a while before his body decided to go postal over watching her snog Dean, so it was never a conscious choice, was it? And, again, he’d fancied Fleur in the same way he fancied ice cream, because who the fuck didn’t fancy ice cream? So theoretically he liked girls who could fly, girls who were fit and—tall?

But none of it specifically applied to girls, did it? Maybe… Maybe it didn’t need to.

He’d never sat down and had a serious conversation with himself about…this, and honestly, he’d had very little time to think about romance in his life, sixth year withstanding. Bit hard to worry about who you wanted to snog when you suffered from the frequent misfortune of nearly dying once or twice a year. And even in sixth, when did have space and time and energy to devote to losing his mind over someone he wanted to kiss, he’d thought about Malfoy and what he was doing more than—

The conclusion of that thought slammed into him like a brick wall.

No.

Absolutely not.

Malfoy was just on his mind. That was all. Had been all summer but that was understandable, considering what’d happened after the Battle at Hogwarts and then the trials and Goyle…

He was confused. He was tired. He’d just done some seriously dangerous blood magic and his mind was a bit wonky. Or, wonkier than usual. It wasn’t…

A tiny thread pulled at his chest as he remembered the terrified look on Malfoy’s face in the courtroom, as he watched Harry descend the elevator with a strange light in his eyes, the smile and the approval in the atrium which had made Harry feel like a fire’d been lit inside him—it was just—odd. Unsettling. It wasn’t that he…

“No,” he told himself out loud, resuming his pacing, toweling his head off in an attempt to shake the thought from his mind along with the rest of the water from his hair.

So it turned out Malfoy wasn’t a completely evil git. He’d done some things to begin to make up for everything wrong he’d done and thought in his life. So it made sense he’d be confused every time he saw Malfoy. That he’d feel a strange urge to prove himself every time Malfoy looked at him. That he could go months without feeling much of anything at all only to lose his Godric-damned mind after one conversation with him.

He’d saved Harry’s life a few times too, hadn’t he? That changed how you thought about a person. The war had changed all of them. It just put Harry off, that was all, and his life was an unmitigated disaster at the moment and he was…

He was going mental. He’d been cooped up in this bloody house too long.

“Lovely as you are,” he added out loud, shooting a nervous glance behind him as if the house were about to hit him with a frying pan. Which wasn’t exactly out of the realm of possibility, so his concern was warranted. Although, could it understand his thoughts, or was that something he needed to say out loud, or…

The house didn’t answer, because it was a house and right, fuck, yeah, he needed some fresh air. Okay. That was the priority. Once he heard back from Bill and Robards about the investigation, he was going on a very long walk. At night. When it was cold. Where no one would see him or hear him while he reassured himself that he did not, in any way, feel any kind of attraction to—

Better to just stop thinking about it, really, because he’d been through a lot recently, and he was allowed a few moments of lunacy. He’d earned them, with the kind of life he’d lived.

Malfoy was on his mind. That was all. Harry had just killed one of his best friends. Of course Harry was thinking about him.

And, predictably, that did it.

Crippled by a wave of fatigue, he sank onto the floor and let his limbs all fall to the side. The wood was cool and grounding, the smell of it resinous and sweet, like the first green of growing things in spring. He traced the lines in the ceiling to drown out the deadening thoughts pulling him back under.

He’d just killed someone’d he’d gone to school with and he was worried about whether or not he fancied blokes? The fuck was wrong with him?

With a heavy exhale he almost laughed. Everything. That was the problem. To even be thinking about this, now, when he’d been nearly killed and his flat destroyed, when he now knew exactly how aberrant he really was, when nearly every person he cared about thought he was mad or raving or self-destructing…

It was selfish in a way Harry’d never been able to justify being. Cruel, dismissive, arrogant. So many things he’d once thought were his virtues had fallen to the wayside, but this one stuck around. He didn’t get to worry about shite like this. Who was he kidding, really? This—trivial bullshit like who he might theoretically not be opposed to looking at for more than a few seconds was what other people worried about. People who weren’t reanimated corpses and repositories for evil, broken souls. People who weren’t being hunted down like dogs, even after the war they’d fought and won was supposed to be over. People who’d never killed before.

Back, before the end, he’d thought one day he might have time to think about it. To go through all the normal teenage phases of life after he’d done what he was supposed to do and he was free to grow up like everyone else.

He was eighteen and his life had already ended and begun again twice. Maybe that was as much as he was allowed to get.

The silence was unbearable. Grimmauld Place was almost too quiet now. There was no rattle of pipes or creaking of wood. No odd noises coming behind closed doors unopened for decades, brushes of fabric and tiny whispers that could have been mice or wind slipping through the cracked windows. Only two years ago this house had reluctantly held plenty of people, most coming and going, but people. Their ghosts had been here too, but after the ritual, the air smelled new and clean, and the shadows were just shadows, not places where dark things and thoughts lurked.

It was nicer. Harry couldn’t deny that. But he also couldn’t deny that without the shroud of darkness this house had lived under for lifetimes, without the ominous presence—it felt more like a house. Just a house. A house who still seemed to be perfectly capable of some degree of sentience, but it was still unfamiliar. At least the house in which Sirius had lived and died a little every day until his true, final death had held something of those he’d lost. Like the two-way mirror. Even shattered, it reminded him of Sirius. It might have been broken but there were still traces of his godfather in the cracks.

Suddenly fearful, Harry got quickly to his feet and went to Sirius’s room. The door looked freshly polished and for a moment Harry didn’t want to open it, he didn’t want to see the room with bare walls and clean carpets and windows which let in light. He wanted it to be exactly the same. Even if it hurt, he wanted…

The door clicked open of its own accord. He swallowed the tight knot in his throat and forced himself inside—and a sob broke from his lips.

It was all still there. The posters, the records, the clothes and the trunks and the broken quills and crinkled toffee wrappers. Cigarette butts sat in the stained glass dish on the bedside table—an heirloom, had to be, it was crystal, and Sirius would have gotten a kick out of using something that valuable as a glorified bin—and the blanket Harry had curled up in that first night back here only a month ago was still stretched across the foot of the four poster bed, gold and red and threadbare.

He leaned against the doorframe, closing his eyes and tamping down on the mingled relief and fresh, taunting pain.

“Thank you,” he mumbled.

The house didn’t respond, though he did feel something like warmth in an ambient breeze.

His ghosts were still here. He probably shouldn’t feel as relieved as he did about it.

He was still alone, but he could pretend it meant something. For a little while, at least.

 

Chapter Text

 

For the first time in four months, Harry dreamed of Voldemort.

Not the monster he was at the end, nor the unsettling child in the orphanage. He dreamt of Tom Riddle, the handsome schoolboy, with his devilish smile and glittering black eyes.

Harry dreamed they were together in the Room of Requirement, staring out over the mountains of lost things, forgotten secrets. Abandoned and alone, they were just two more vagrant souls thrown into the uncaring mass.

A flash of white at the far edge of the room caught his eye—the shape indistinct but tall and thin, a person, maybe—but when he turned to look it was gone.

“That will happen from time to time,” Tom Riddle said in a smooth, liquid voice, strangely echoing as if from another room. “Petty little ghosts rising up out of the darkness. So many broken things wind up here, Harry. So many small, weak things. Some of them are bound to want blood.”

His eyes flicked to Harry and held.

The reverberation of that contact shot down Harry’s spine with force. Tom’s mouth twitched, a mirror of the grin he’d given Harry over Goyle’s dead body, only this time Harry could feel it, the amusement, the conspiratorial intent, like a whisper on his neck, a tendril of thought snaking into his ear.

“Blood’s the thing, isn’t it?” Tom’s voice dropped. “And aren’t you just singing for it?”

The thought of having Tom Riddle stand next to him and smile at him with a companionable twist to his mouth and a knowing look in his eye should have made Harry want to flee. He should have been backing away, running, trying to put as much distance between them as possible.

But his alarm felt weak, something he could brush aside like a finger of smoke. In the soft, sibilant world of the dream, he only felt a weird kind of discomfort. An emptiness. A longing.

“You could give them someone else’s, you know,” Tom went on, leaning in, his words languid and gentle, velvet over Harry’s gooseflesh-pricked skin. “You don’t have to open yourself up all the time, spill your blood to save the world. It doesn’t have to be yours. It never has to be.”

Harry’s pulse quickened as he found himself leaning in as well, a hook somewhere deep inside him pulling him forward—toward Riddle, the handsome, charming, utterly captivating boy who seemed centuries away from the monster who’d killed Harry’s parents. Here, he was the same age as Harry. Eighteen and vital, confident to his core. Slender and tall, all neat black and white lines and angles which sat gracefully on his handsome face.

He was so handsome. How had Harry not realized that before?

Heat flushed up his cheeks, heart pounding. He could feel his pulse in his fingers it was so strong. Like he was being dragged to the edge of a cliff and he didn’t even mind.

“It doesn’t?” he found himself whispering, the space between them shrinking. He felt edgy, nervous—like he was about to jump out of his own skin. Like he needed something to hold onto him.

Or someone.

Tom’s smile shifted into a smirk, hunger flashing in his eyes. Harry swallowed, heat licking up his spine. That look made his body riot, a conflicting storm of desire and disgust that began to coalesce into something that should have scared him. It shouldn’t make him feel like—this. Pinned and impatient and so, so willing. Tom was just a bit taller than Harry, tall enough to look down with hooded eyes as he took a step closer. Harry had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop whimpering. He was scared. He was furious. He was…

“Of course not,” Tom murmured, so close now Harry could almost feel the sleek line of him against his own body.

Cold fingers slid around Harry’s wrist, serpentine and soft, moving with a proprietary ease. The chill of Tom’s skin made his heart jump. His lips parted—mist formed in the air between them. He was so hot, he was burning, and the room was just getting colder. Tom tilted his head, eyes glittering in satisfaction when Harry’s head tilted to mirror his, following without thought.

“Haven’t I taught you anything, Harry?”

Chest rising and falling, fingers trembling, Harry simply stared at Tom as he lifted Harry’s wrist, splayed his bone-white fingers along the back of Harry’s hand until they were lined up with his, his thumb resting across the veins beneath Harry’s palm—the palm with the lightning scar.

Just like the one over Harry’s heart, the one carved into Harry’s forehead.

Harry watched, transfixed, as Tom Riddle kissed the inside of his wrist. The contact made Harry’s eyelids flutter as a heady wave washed over him. It was nothing, barely a whisper, but it vanished any more doubt from his mind. He wanted this, wanted him. He wanted—

A hum of pleasure echoed through his mind.

Good boy.

A taut string inside him snapped, cut—and it was all he could do to keep standing. He exhaled a moan as Tom licked a stripe up his palm, strands of emerald magic swirling in the air and twisting down into the heart of him.

Tom’s smile was a drug, a lovely, wonderful drug and Harry wanted to drown in it. It was darkness and desire and every ounce of furious longing Harry had been holding inside himself for years. An offer to let go. To just…stop fighting. To give it all up and let someone else look after him. He was so tired of being angry, of being alone, he was so lonely…

“I could teach you so many things,” Tom murmured, snaking his other hand around Harry’s waist. The nail of his thumb pressed into Harry’s wrist until blood welled up and dripped down his forearm, black and shining like the pupils of Tom’s eyes. It hurt, but it didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

Will you be good for me?

“Oh,” Harry whispered, helpless, following as Tom’s hand on his back moved with purpose and pressed him closer. He was cold, so cold, but the fire inside Harry felt like an inferno and he needed relief, he needed— “Oh, god—”

Tom’s smile went wide in triumph. “I know, Harry. It’s all right now. Just let go, and it will all be over.”

His thigh nudged between Harry’s legs and Harry let out a strangled noise of pleasure, incoherent now as his breath came fast, as it grew harder and harder to breathe, every exhale ringing through the cavernous room. His back arched, his legs opened wider, his mind growing sluggish as pleasure pulsed slowly through his veins like poison, Tom’s words low and intoned like an incantation. They drifted over his face like a series of kisses, settled just behind Harry’s ear.

“You’ll never have to be alone again.”

Be mine.

Harry’s throat burned, and he was unable to stop the small motions of his hips as he chased that feeling, that cold, clawing hand pressing ever more firmly against his lower back, caging him in place. He wanted to. Oh, how he wanted… He was so lonely…so empty…

Say you’re mine.

He closed his eyes, surrender in the sagging release of his body. Anything, anything for this… He opened his mouth—

Another voice, pulled up from some well buried deep in the heart of his mind, said, No.

The dream fractured, a crack in a mirror that split Harry’s mind in two and vanished the drugged-out bliss of the moment before.

He felt the compulsion in Riddle’s words, the sick, twisted violation of something Harry hadn’t even known he wanted. He was angry. He was so bloody angry. In fear and panic, he lashed out with a wave of that same horrible white magic spilling from him now in waves, the sound of roaring filled his ears. Angry and empty and confused, he couldn’t breathe. He had to run, to get out of here. He was hot, so hot—no, that was the room.

The Room of Requirement was filled with flames, shrieking and spitting and howling—fiendfyre. Except it wasn’t Crabbe who’d set it loose this time. The grey and white figures—witches and wizards and horses and dragons—all of them screaming their horror, belonged to Harry.

The image of Tom Riddle rippled, smoking around the edges. He opened his mouth, absolute rage twisting his face.

Harry blinked. The image shifted. Amidst the fire and smoke, over the popping of his own skin as it burned and sizzled, another form materialized, more slender, brighter. He saw grey eyes, wide with alarm and desperation, with surprise.

The ground shifted as an explosion rocked the castle. He fell back, reaching out—and something grabbed his hand.

He woke shaking, the dream slipping quickly away as if someone ripped it from his still semiconscious mind.

Drenched in sweat and heaving for breath, he choked down a scream. Fear thrummed through him, violent and wild, kicking his heart into a gallop as every fiber of his being wanted desperately to run. But there was nothing there. Nothing chasing him. It was all in his head. He couldn’t even remember anything beside the fire and screaming and fear, the weird nausea in his gut.

He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes to stop himself from crying and fought to hold himself together. He wanted to break apart, to smash something, to shout at the top of his lungs until his voice was gone and the pain was just physical. Until he couldn’t worry anymore because he was too tired.

Grimmauld Place didn’t scare him, not like it used to, but he could feel its outline, the skeleton of this house, caging him in. Even a lovely house could be a prison.

It took him nearly an hour to settle down, to get out of bed and find something to eat. He ate a few slices of bread as he tried to convince himself the dreams, the horribly vivid and yet completely transient dreams, were just a side effect of doing so much strange magic. Maybe he needed to slow down, maybe he needed to give himself time to rest.

But every time he sat down and tried to relax he smelled smoke, and he felt a prickling sensation of breath on the back of his neck. He felt like someone was watching him.

The feeling stayed with him all day and well into the night.

Trouble was, he couldn’t tell if the attention was wanted, or if it wasn’t.

 

 

When it came down to it, the Fidelius Charm wasn’t actually all that complicated.

Not the version Harry was working from, anyway. He’d looked through the library upstairs to try and find any newer spellbooks just to compare, but the latest one he’d come across was Darrington’s Guide to a Well-Kept Home which was published in 1890 and, though it mentioned the Fidelius Charm, it was only in passing and to suggest that any wizard wishing to guard his home from prying eyes might do better with a suite of Discrete Decency Charms, as shielding one’s home made it rather more difficult to entertain guests. He read and re-read the old spell in the ancient book, gleaning a bit of comprehension from his work with the blood rituals to cleanse the house. Again, it seemed to come down to intention here, and strength of will. More than once he had the painful thought that Hermione would have hated this. It felt a lot like Snape’s notes in Advanced Potion Making, before Harry’d learned who the Half-Blood Prince was. Hermione would have said it was too vague, the theory behind it thin and subjective, at best ineffective and at worst dangerous—there were too many risk factors involved with such a simple spell.

This only made Harry want to do it more.

So much of what they’d been taught at Hogwarts was regulated and driven by concrete rules and procedures. But the spells they’d learned, the ones in their textbooks and taught by their professors—they had to have come from somewhere, and it was silly to think magic hadn’t changed over the centuries. Just like wands had been invented to allow easier control of magic, spells must have evolved to be more streamlined and easily reproducible. It was wild to think how one might trace the concept of a spell back to an original source, one ancient word or action or will, that unlocked this whole world for whoever that ancestor had been.

If he was being honest, though, Harry didn’t think he’d have appreciated any of this while he was still in school. There was a necessary level of consideration and introspection, specific to whoever was doing the casting, that he would have found too nebulous and boring to understand. It would have been too big to wrap his mind around. Whatever understanding the greenwood book had given him, he wasn’t so intimidated anymore. A door had been opened in his mind, showing him a whole new room of space to fill.

He wasn’t the same person he’d been in school, relying on his natural talent and ability to skate by. He’d worked hard, of course he had, but he’d never devoted himself to anything unless there was a concrete reason. He’d learned how to cast a patronus because he didn’t want to hear his mum’s dying scream in his head every time he looked at a dementor. He’d mastered expelliarmus and stupify because he needed them to survive.

Strange, to realize how all that had shifted over the past year. There wasn’t a line anymore between magic he knew because of school and magic he knew because it meant the difference between him or the people he cared about being hurt, being killed.

It was all important now. If his forced isolation in Grimmauld Place over the past few weeks had given him anything, it was the knowledge that he knew next to nothing about the magic inside him, the magic derived from Voldemort and his deaths, the magic that pumped through his veins with his blood.

He wanted to understand it. He wanted to know exactly what he was and what that meant. He wanted to be able to defend himself when he next met someone who wanted him dead or hurt.

Because there would be a next time. He was under no illusions on that front. If there was an after for him, after the fighting and the pain and the surviving, it was a long time coming. But he wouldn’t count on it. Not anymore.

So it was with this determination that he cast the Fidelius Charm. And really, after what he’d done down in the cellar, it was simple.

The house was alive now, and it was listening. All he did was ask it to hide.

The feeling was odd and slow—standing in the center of the parlor on the ground floor, a shimmer in the air around him as a string of pearlescent beads of light floated out of the tip of his wand and sank into the walls and the floor. Just like in the cleansing ritual, he felt the outline of the house, the shape of its staircases and foundations, the pipes that hummed like veins in the walls. Where before he’d been wrestling with it, trying to purge whatever darkness had lingered in the house over the years of neglect, now it felt as simple as casting lumos. He was filling Grimmauld Place with light. It was every bit as invigorating as the first time he’d picked up his wand and felt his magic. It was so fragile, so precious, this thing that came from inside him and out of the air, up from the ground, shaped by his own words.

With everything he’d been through, especially the past few months, it was nice to be reminded that it was a gift. Sometimes he forgot what it’d been like, before. He never forgot the loneliness and the anger, the caged, helpless feeling of knowing no one wanted him and no one cared. But this—he had the power to change the world he lived in. And even if everything else felt like it was unraveling, like everything he did was taking him further off the path and deeper into the forest, this was still good.

The pearls multiplied until he felt them settle, hovering in the air and humming at a frequency he could only just hear as a distant ringing, like the sound produced from running a finger around the mouth of a glass. He stood in the middle of a furiously bright room, the beads of light refracting like tiny stars.

He took a deep breath, letting the image of himself standing amongst a sea of stars settle his nerves, and whispered, “Hoc arcanum mea fidelissimus est ego solus.”

The pearls snapped into place, rooted where they hung in the air and inside the walls of the house. Harry sent his mind out, finding each mote and activating them. Beams of light lanced down to the tip of his wand, each one of them another facet of the house, honing them inward to a single, overarching thought. The secret that was Grimmauld Place.

It might have taken only a few minutes or an hour to find them all and to grasp them, but Harry kept on until every single bead was connected to the tip of his wand. He felt them all hanging there waiting, a brilliant, refracted mosaic of white light.

Tilting his wand with the utmost care, he gathered the thread-beams together and murmured, “Ego singularis servo. Fidelium. Fidelius.”

With a gentle twist, the beams of light flashed and sped inward—the secret being drawn together and coalescing into a single point of intention. He sketched a small circle in the air with his wand. Like a key in a lock, the secret clicked into place, and all the pearls winked out.

Harry stood in the center of the parlor which now seemed dark compared to the brilliance of only a moment before. He was breathing hard. His mind felt a bit like someone had reached in and scrambled all his thoughts around—but then it settled. And there it was—the secret sitting there in the back of his mind. Innocuous. Quiet. For some odd reason it reminded him of the winged key he’d needed to catch in first year to get to Quirrell.

It was almost anticlimactic. The house looked the same as it had before. It felt no different either, and he wondered if maybe he’d already done the hard work by ridding the house of whatever that darkness had been with the blood ritual. He mentally poked at the secret. It certainly seemed to have worked. The secret felt hidden, the wholeness of it a weird sensation he couldn’t really explain, but knew on some level deeper than expression.

“Well.” He frowned at the empty fireplace, which looked freshly swept and cleaned. “That’s sorted, then.”

He had hidden himself away from the world. It was what he’d wanted, but it still sat heavy in his stomach. He wondered if everyone who’d known where this place was would realize right away, or if they’d be none the wiser until they tried to remember where he lived, only to find a blank space.

He didn’t regret doing it. More than one death eater had known about this place, and even if most of them were dead or behind bars, he didn’t want to chance it. If people were going to come looking for him, he’d be stupid not to protect himself. Grimly, he thought Moody would approve. The last time he’d seen the man had been in the entrance of this house. Nearly a year ago.

Fucking hell. A year.

Slowly he recognized the sinking guilt, knowing that Ron and Hermione, the Weasleys, would all know eventually that he’d barred them from his home. At least until he could tell them again. Though…

Maybe he’d never get the chance. He had to leave this house eventually, and if there’d been two people out there who still wanted him dead, who knew how many more were waiting?

How many more of them would be people he’d known, people he’d gone to school with?

He crossed to the little table sitting by the wall and scratched out two notes, one for Andromeda and one for Bill, letting them know he was all right, and not to worry if they’d suddenly forgotten where he lived. He’d already set up an enchantment on his floo to hide the location of his fireplace but keep it connected to the larger network, and it didn’t stop him from sending things out. The enchantment was tedious though, and it required him checking regularly for any incoming letters. He should think about getting an owl. For some complicated reason no one had ever been able adequately explain to him, owls, the special ones which carried wizard post and parcels, didn’t need to know the exact location of a person to deliver mail. One could hide oneself from an owl through a variety of different kinds of spells, but the owl couldn’t convey the address to the person sending mail even if it wanted to.

But he still couldn’t bear thinking about it. Hedwig was gone, but he couldn’t imagine replacing her.

The notes flew into the green fire, swallowed up neatly with two small pops of embers. Harry stood there for a while, not expecting answers right away but unable to move. He’d done it. He should feel happy.

He’d been running his thumb over his wand, the little groove in the wood where he’d mended it with the Elder Wand—when he felt something splinter ever so slightly.

Alarmed, he looked down. He nearly missed a small flicker of red light near that same groove. A line of red, faint enough he wouldn’t have noticed had he not been looking, ran quickly along the groove, shot off one small spark.

He hadn’t seen his wand break in Bathilda Bagshot’s house, but he remembered the feeling. Like some string in his mind was cut, a discordant shriek vibrating in his teeth and up his arm.

This wasn’t nearly so strong, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something had slid out of place. He cast lumos, frowning when it came out every bit as bright as it normally did. The feeling lingered, but as he went through a few more easy spells, levitating a book from the table, cleaning a bit of dust from the shelf in the corner, there was nothing wrong with the magic. Had the strain of the spell pushed it too far? The Fidelius Charm was powerful, even if it hadn’t been particularly difficult to cast. And after the magic he’d conjured to kill Goyle…

Maybe his wand wasn’t so whole after all. He shook his head, unable to stop a pained smile. Yeah, that sounds about right.

 

 

Three days later he finally got the all clear from Bill.

The investigation was over and Robards wanted to debrief Harry, but he could leave Grimmauld Place. He’d been feeling tense and anxious since casting the Fidelius Charm, and he should have been thrilled to get out, but it still took him some time to work up the courage—standing in front of his floo and watching the green flames flicker like they were taunting him, daring him.

Grimmauld Place might be lonely and quiet, but it was safe. Or, as safe as Harry was ever going to get. Leaving would mean reentering the world where he’d alienated and hurt his friends and insulted an entire government, reentering the world where he was a killer, twice over. Where he still didn’t know what he was going to do or what he wanted. Once he stepped into the fire he would be confronted with the fact that he didn’t know who he was supposed to be anymore. That he had no bloody idea where to even begin.

He frowned, checking his appearance in the mirror of a bathroom which had only appeared two days ago on the ground floor—he was averaging two or three new rooms a day, which was both disconcerting and strangely comforting. Grimmauld Place didn’t know who it was supposed to be either.

The bags under his eyes gave him a manic, tired look, and his hair seemed even more wild than usual. With the leather coat he’d taken from Sirius’s closet and the only pair of semi-intact jeans he’d been able to find in the mess of clothes he’d dumped and promptly ignored the minute he arrived—there was a rip in the right knee but he truly could not give less of a fuck—he looked a bit like the teenagers he’d seen walking around London at night before he’d been forced into hiding. Cigarettes in their mouths and chains on their trousers, their boots thick and black and intimidating. Overlarge t-shirts and faded plaid flannels and worn out jeans. It wasn’t a bad look. It was different, definitely, but not bad.

He’d never particularly cared what clothes he wore—he was still a bit thrilled by the fact that he could buy his own clothes, ones which didn’t drown him. And it was a mark of how much he’d been eating that these jeans were almost a bit too tight round the hips. One day he might actually stop looking like a scrawny, starved kid. Maybe that was something he could deal with while he sorted out the rest of his life. And Sirius’s closet was still full, so…

He was stalling. He needed to just get in the floo and go. This wasn’t going to get any easier the longer he stood there feeling like a prat.

He nearly missed it as he walked through the main hall, but an odd prickle at the back of his neck made him stop and turn. For a second he didn’t see anything amiss, but then his eyes stuck on the place where Walburga Black’s portrait hung.

Or, the place where it had been hanging.

The moth-eaten, moldy curtains were gone. The imposing portrait of Sirius’s mother, a fixture of this house from the moment he’d entered it three years ago, was also gone.

In its place hung another painting. Fields of green, swaying grass and wildflowers. A sky so blue it looked like it was shining. Clouds drifted past with a soft wind and in the far distance he thought he could make out a darker line of trees.

It was the same image he saw out of the greenhouse windows. It looked—well, it looked like an open doorway which led to a place that shouldn’t exist. He stood there, staring, for what must have been minutes, until he smiled.

“Hey,” he said softly, putting his hand out to the wall, “thanks.”

A tiny vibration went through his palm, a little bead of warmth, like a dog pressing its nose into his hand.

The house was trying. Harry could do at least as much.

Late and trying to pull himself together, he went to the fireplace. He shook his hands out, grimacing at a small twinge in his left, braced himself, and stepped through the floo while saying clearly, “Gracemorrow Cottage.”

It took him a moment to adjust, a strange sense of stepping through another barrier as he left Grimmauld Place overcoming him. The connection was still there, but it was like he’d set the house aside for the moment, freeing up his mind.

The smell of coffee hit him first, followed closely by the sound of idle conversation, voices low and calm—the latter cut off the moment he stepped through the flames.

He blinked his vision clear of ash and sparks, getting only the vague impression of a small group of people gathered on the other side of the room, before the loud cry of an enthusiastic toddler pulled his attention.

Andromeda was holding Teddy in the door of the kitchen, the boy squirming and reaching toward Harry in a demanding, imperious way.

It was like his whole chest had been wrenched pleasantly around. It was the longest he’d gone without seeing Teddy since meeting him, and it was almost painful, the flaring of joy he felt.

“Hey, Teds,” he murmured, walking over before he hesitated, not sure if Andromeda wanted him near her grandson after he’d—

“There, see?” Andromeda said, giving Harry a small smile before hitching Teddy up on her hip. “Told you he’d be back.”

A knot of heat rose up Harry’s throat and he blinked a few times against the heat pricking in his eyes. He let Teddy grab his hand, his tiny fingers making a fist around Harry’s thumb before jerking it up and down. He hadn’t realized how quickly he’d gotten used to seeing them both. How much he’d missed them the past two weeks.

“None of that,” Andromeda chided him gently, her gaze knowing as she lifted Teddy and handed him over to Harry. “You’re here now. No need to punish yourself.”

Harry still wasn’t sure he could reply without losing it entirely, so he just gave her a grateful smile. Teddy began reaching up for Harry’s hair, babbling incoherently as he took great chunks and tugged. He did manage a bit of a hug while doing it though, so Harry didn’t mind. He felt more fragile than the last time Harry’d held him, or maybe it was Harry who was shaky and nervous. Teddy was all chubby arms and a weirdly soft, simple smell and Harry was grateful and guilty for the relief he felt knowing the boy still liked him.

Andromeda sent her keen gaze over him, dark eyes growing tight as she no doubt saw the strain of his isolation, the barely concealed anxiety which was so close to the surface of Harry’s thoughts now.

“I’m all right,” he mumbled, shifting Teddy carefully to the side so he wasn’t as distracted by the kaleidoscope of colors battling for ground on the boy’s head. He usually favored teal or some variation thereof, but it was still a journey sometimes.

Andromeda said nothing, but her hug was almost too firm. She gave him one more cursory look over before she let him go. Almost like she couldn’t help it, she smoothed back his hair and gave his cheek a gentle pat, concern flickering like a flash of lightning behind the dark grey of her eyes.

It wasn’t the first time Andromeda had shown him this kind of physical affection, but Harry still didn’t know how to handle it. Teddy was one thing. He was a baby and babies were grabby little monsters. But Harry had never learned how to not feel like he was about to jump out of his skin whenever someone did something like that—absently touching him, hugging him. He still felt that way with Ron sometimes when he gave Harry a playful shove. Or, he had felt that way.

Ginny had never been overly affectionate when they were dating, and while Hermione’d started fussing over him during their year on the run, it still wasn’t something he was used to and the discomfort remained even when he was grateful for it. And neither Hermione or Ginny had ever given the impression of mothering him. It was different with Andromeda. She probably didn’t realize, but it meant something he couldn’t quite express. It was the same feeling he used to get when Molly included Harry as an unofficial family member.

Feeling the silence behind him more acutely now he no longer had Teddy as an excuse, he cleared his throat and turned.

There were only three people in Andromeda’s sitting room this time. He’d figured this might be more quiet than the last meeting. Bill, Robards, and, to Harry’s surprise and immediate wariness, Kingsley. Though, maybe he shouldn’t be that surprised. He’d killed someone only hours after making a scene in front of the Wizengamot. Kingsley was probably here to give Harry a warning. Maybe more. Harry wasn’t going to put up much of a fight either way.

Bill gave him a warm smile, doing his own cursory examination of Harry. He did a good job of hiding it, but Harry saw the spike of concern. He must look worse to everyone else, not having grown used to the hardness settling over him the past two weeks. At least Harry wasn’t covered in blood this time.

Robards was just as professional as he had been last time, nodding his head toward Harry. “Thank you for meeting me so early, Harry.”

Harry would have nodded his head too, but Teddy was currently trying to twist his hair into some kind of eldritch knot, intense concentration on his tiny pink face. His left eye slowly shifted into Harry’s green while the right remained his normal brown.

“Course. I don’t exactly have a full schedule,” he added, looking again at Kingsley.

Robards smiled, something solemn in his gaze.

Harry extracted a piece of his hair from Teddy’s mouth, more as something to do than an actual deterrent. If the kid wanted to eat his hair, he was going to eat his hair. And it wasn’t like Harry couldn’t stand to lose a few inches anyway.

Kingsley looked every bit as steady as he always did, his presence calm and commanding and utterly unflappable. Harry thought he might see some tension in his eyes, but it wasn’t in his voice when he spoke. “I asked Gawain if I could be here while he talks this all out with you. I hope that’s all right.”

And if it isn’t? Would he leave if Harry shouted him out? Did Harry want him gone?

He said nothing out loud, but he couldn’t help but wonder how useless the sentiment was. Kingsley was the Minister for Magic. He could go anywhere he bloody liked.

Harry dropped his gaze, not really knowing how he felt about Kingsley’s being here and too keyed up to care. “Sure. That’s fine.”

For a long moment they all stood in silence. Even Teddy went quiet, only humming pensively as he mouthed at the collar of Sirius’s jacket. Or, Harry’s jacket now, he supposed.

They were all staring at him, waiting. It struck him right then that he didn’t feel like he used to when older witches and wizards, people he trusted and respected, would turn to him to ask what he was doing, what he needed from them. It used to make him want to prove himself, to live up to the expectation he saw in their eyes. How many times had he asked to be treated like an adult, not wanting to be babied or coddled? Dumbledore had trusted Harry—why wasn’t that enough for everyone else? He used to think it was insulting for anyone to assume he wouldn’t be able to do what needed to be done. He used to get so angry…

Funny. He was eighteen now and he was only just starting to realize that he wanted nothing more than to never have to prove himself to anyone ever again.

Bill was the one who finally broke. He took a purposeful step forward, giving Andromeda a reassuring smile. “You can stay if you’d like, but I don’t think this will take very long.”

Andromeda crossed her arms, eyes sweeping unerringly over Kingsley and Robards. Her head tilted and a ghost of the pureblooded Black family came into her pose. “I think I will. Coffee?” she asked Harry.

He felt himself want to smile. Rather than disconcerting, it made him weirdly grateful to have her on his side. “Yeah, thanks. Er, black and—”

“Drowning in sugar, I know.” Her lips pursed in distaste as she went into the kitchen.

Robards took the same chair he’d occupied before while Kingsley took the one next to him. It put them both on the opposite side of the room as Harry, who had no choice but to sit on the couch as Teddy squirmed and began to protest the sudden change of position.

“Ease off, little man,” Harry muttered, producing the bracelet of colorful glass beads—large enough that they weren’t a choking hazard—he’d found last night. “Chew on this for a while, yeah?”

Bill eyed the bracelet with alarm. “That a—family heirloom?” His expression faltered for a moment, presumably stumbling over Grimmauld Place. Right. That was going to need some explaining today as well.

“I checked it for curses already,” Harry said quickly. “And I cleaned it, so it’s fine.”

“Wait a bit for it to cool off,” Andromeda said, setting down Harry’s cup and taking the only other chair left. She stopped when she saw Teddy’s new distraction, an oddly amused look lifting her face. “Is that…” She touched one of the beads not yet covered in toddler drool and exhaled a soft laugh. “This was my aunt’s. Goodness…” She trailed off, eyes distant.

Harry blinked. “Oh. That makes sense, actually.” At Andromeda’s raised brow, he added, “I found it in Sirius’s stuff. It was hanging round a dash ornament.”

Bill frowned into the silence. “The things on cars, you mean?”

“Yeah, there are—er,” Harry hesitated, feeling acutely the eyes of both Robards and Kingsley on him, “so muggles sometimes put small figurines at the front of their car that sort of—wiggle, when they drive. It’s kind of a joke, I think.”

“Wiggle,” Bill repeated.

“I think there’s some kind of spring involved? They move when the car moves.”

“And Sirius had his mother’s bracelet hanging on one?”

Harry had accepted Sirius’s odd collection of random and mildly offensive muggle items long ago, items meant specifically to piss off his family, but he wondered how best to phrase it to everyone else. “It was—well, a woman in a bikini and a hula skirt. Pretty sure he kept it there to be an arse.”

Bill snorted and Andromeda smiled.

“Ah, I understand now,” she said, taking a seat. “Are the posters still up as well?”

“Yeah. Permanent sticking charm,” Harry said, focusing on Teddy while his heart panged.

Harry glanced at Robards, knowing he’d been an auror at the time the Ministry was looking for Sirius, but he just looked implacable. Maybe a bit uncomfortable, but Harry guessed that was more to do with him being eternally severe.

Kingsley wasn’t smiling, but there was something sad about his eyes now. Harry found it odd to think of Kingsley as he had been then—a double agent for the Order, protecting Sirius from the same Ministry he now led. The difference a few years could make…

The air in the room shifted as Robards straightened. “So.” He met Harry’s gaze firmly. “I’m afraid we haven’t learned much more than what we were able to tell you the last time we spoke, however it seems as if Goyle and Bulstrode were working together. We managed to trace them both back to an apartment in Swindon, where it seemed they’d been staying together for at least a few days prior to their attempts on your life. From there it gets murkier.” Robards paused, seeming to mull something over. “They had little with them, almost nothing, in fact. Just this.”

Robards produced a small box from his pocket and placed it on the table, murmuring a spell and expanding it until it was the size of an average suitcase. “I’ve had a few people working on this. Felicity Burbage you’ll remember, as well as a private consultant more familiar with—this kind of thing. He’s been working with us for a while, so we know his information is good.” Nothing about his voice changed, but Harry caught the small flick of his eyes toward Bill, Bill’s slight shift and the momentary tightening of his hand.

A private consultant.

Of course.

He should have guessed.

Harry felt like his mind was sinking down the back of his spine. A slow, inevitable plummet into that cavern of darkness which had opened up inside him two weeks ago.

He managed to stay present, to keep listening to Robards, but only because Teddy was sitting on his lap, his tiny, warm, ferociously alive body making it harder to disconnect from reality.

“No one besides the people who were in this room when we last spoke know of the events which occurred last week involving you, Harry, but we have formally charged Millicent Bulstrode with destruction of public property, intent to commit harm, and a breach of the International Statute of Secrecy, while Gregory Goyle’s case has been closed, as we’ve determined he did in fact kill the muggles for which he was charged by the Wizengamot. Millicent, in her current state, will likely be sentenced to hospice care for the rest of her life, as there is little chance of her recovering enough to function on her own.”

He reached into the box and produced a stack of parchment and a few rather tarnished books, laying them out in a fan on the table.

Harry should have expected what was coming next, but it still surprised him when he saw himself walking through the frame of a large photo on the front page of the Daily Prophet.

He had his hood up, his shoulders slouched, and as he walked past he threw a glance over his shoulder, like he was checking to see that no one was following him. The headline was something about him disappearing from Wizarding Society after the war, dated over a month ago, before the start of the trials. Beneath the first page they were more, clippings of him or stories about him, speculating on where he was, what he was doing, who he was seeing, what his plans were, if he was hiding something, et cetera.

They were the records of someone trying very hard to learn how and where he spent his time. Someone who had watched him for weeks and weeks before they finally made their move. He knew Goyle had known enough to seek him out in the park. It only made sense he’d put in some work.

Still, that didn’t bother him nearly so much as who must have looked through these pages, who must have been called in to give his opinion…

He blinked, realizing that Bill was saying his name. “Sorry, what?”

Bill’s expression tightened, but he was clearly trying to be a comfort. He pressed a hand to Harry’s shoulder and squeezed.

Robards cleared his throat.

Right, so Harry had spaced out then. Okay.

“What I was saying,” Robards said slowly, a note of that deep-running kindness in his voice now where he’d been all business before, “was that we don’t think they were working with anyone else. Or the evidence we found in their apartment led us nowhere.”

Harry stared at a photograph of himself standing across a busy intersection, looking off to the side but not looking at anything as his hair blew slightly in the wind—the longest piece nearly brushed his chin. His eyes were vacant and hard at the same time, something pained about his expression. As he watched, a crease showed in his brow. He seemed so young. Which was insane, considering it’d been taken only a few weeks ago. He’d been through worse.

He wondered how long he could keep telling himself that before he gave up the ghost and accepted that worst for him was never the limit he thought it was. There was always something worse.

The longer he looked the less he recognized his own face. He was staring at a stranger, the person he’d been before he’d killed Goyle. He’d been so many people over his life, he wondered if after he peeled away all the layers of himself, of what people wanted him to be, of what he’d had to become to survive, there would be nothing at his core. Just emptiness. Just anger. Pain.

“What about—” His voice broke. Teddy looked up at him, a solemn furrow in his brow as he gummed at the bracelet. “What about their families? I know Goyle’s dad was killed in the war, but…”

Robards sighed. “Gregory Goyle has no surviving immediate family. His mother—we think his mother took her own life shortly after the end of the war. We were able to notify his aunt in Germany of his death, but they weren’t close.” A pause. “She was satisfied with the results of the investigation, and will not be seeking any further answers.”

Harry’s eyes remained fixed on the table, unseeing.

The only family Goyle had left was an aunt who wanted nothing to do with him.

Sometimes Harry wondered if the world didn’t bend every now and then just to make him bleed a little more.

His mother had killed herself. Bloody hell.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode knew nothing about their daughter’s plans,” Robards continued. “They were put on a watch list of those suspected of harboring death eater sympathies after the war, but they were cleared shortly after the trials began. Millicent had apparently been distant of late, spending more and more time with friends outside of their home. Presumably, it was Gregory Goyle. They were understandably distraught when they were told what happened to her, and why. They also accepted the conclusion. No one else will be looking into this.”

Harry nodded, because it seemed like something he should do. It was all going to hit him soon, he knew that, but for the moment he felt like he was floating through air, watching the ground pass under him, getting ever closer with every beat of his heart.

“Okay,” he murmured, the sound of his voice creating an echo inside his mind, “so they just decided one day to… I just…I still don’t know why…”

Harry should have been used to this by now. He’d never harbored any affection for Millicent or Goyle, he’d only ever seen them as adversaries if he thought about them at all. This shouldn’t be hitting him so hard. So many people had wanted him dead over the years. Why was this two too many? Why was this the question he couldn’t bear not to answer?

“We don’t know their motive, Harry.”

Kingsley’s voice pulled him back out of his fog. He frowned.

“Unless you can think of a reason besides revenge,” Kingsley said quietly, “I think we might need to accept that there was no greater motive here.”

Harry held his gaze, torn between wanting to listen and let that be enough, but he couldn’t. Not because he didn’t know how he felt about Kingsley’s presence, but because that couldn’t be it. If Goyle had wanted him dead, he could have found a better and quicker way of doing it than stalking Harry for weeks. Harry clearly knew less than he’d thought he’d known about Goyle, but Harry would bet money he still wasn’t the type to do this so subtly, to spend so much time working on it, only to fuck it up on the dismount. Nothing about those final moments with Goyle was calculated, planned. He was raving.

And if Millicent had wanted to kill him, she could have simply trailed him one day after he left the Ministry. She wouldn’t need to cast the Dissintegration of Morgan Le Fey, to put herself and so many other people in danger—and it’s not like they were trying to make a statement. As horrible as it would have been, it would have made more sense if Millicent was carrying out some terror attack. If she’d given a reason. It all seemed so…unnecessary. People didn’t just want him dead for no reason. Just for fun. They never had before, why would he start thinking so now?

But he wasn’t going to say that out loud. He had a feeling they would only try to reassure him, convince him it was a fluke. The product of two kids succumbing to hate.

Harry didn’t buy it. He wouldn’t.

He looked down before Kingsley could read his face, frowning as he shifted some of the papers away with one hand while he held Teddy. He’d dropped the bracelet in favor of Harry’s jacket and seemed to be trying to shove his head inside the arm hole.

Under the papers there were a few books, what looked to be a journal of some kind. Scraps of crinkled paper and tape formed the bulk of the contents. Harry couldn’t help but think of Regulus’s frantic scribblings in the last days of his life.

His eyes caught on a piece of paper sticking out of one of the books. The handwriting was…familiar. Part of it, anyway.

It was a receipt. On one side was a small list of things purchased from a gas station. Crisps, gum, a pack of cigarettes. On the other side were two lines of text. The first was big and blocky, rough, the pencil having ripped through the thin paper.

 

SUIVEZ LE GAVE DU BÊTES DANS LA BOUCHE DE L’ENFER - Y CHERCHER CE QUI NE SERA PAS TROUVÉ

 

Harry knew a few of the words, but he was saved the trouble of translating himself by the second line. This one done in elegant, scrolling script, slanted and slashed across the paper with a flourish of the ink at the end, as if the person had been taught to write deliberately, for show.

 

Follow the River of Beasts into the mouth of hell - Seek there that which cannot will not be found

 

Maybe it was just because he already knew who the consultant was, who it must have been, but he couldn’t mistake the handwriting as belonging to anyone but Draco Malfoy.

Malfoy had sat down and gone through the last records of someone he’d once spent nearly all his time with. Harry might have once thought Malfoy’s relationship with Crabbe and Goyle to be that of master and henchmen, but with what happened in the Room of Requirement, how unhinged and furious Goyle had been in the park as he beat Harry to death, he knew it had to have been more than it seemed. They must have been friends. Of a kind.

And he’d been brought in to comprehend Goyle and Millicent’s final ravings. He’d come in for Geraldine and Bradford too. A sin eater for Slytherin House.

The idea of doing the same for people Harry knew, for Gryffindors, was… He couldn’t imagine needing to sit down across from someone he knew personally and try to convince them that no matter what they’d gone through, how much they’d lost, they couldn’t fight. He couldn’t imagine being called in to look through the last notes of Hermione or Ron, trying to figure out what’d gone wrong and when, without even getting an answer as to who…

He was so lost in his own thoughts that he nearly missed the book this note had been wedged in. Another French title, faint enough where it was etched into the black leather that he had to squint to see, and a simple name engraved into the bottom of the front cover.

Madame Chastel.

The name pinged something in his memory. Chastel. Where…

One of Regulus’s books was written by Madame Chastel.

The disturbing one with the grotesque diagrams and cursework, clearly written hundreds of years ago. Hadn’t Felicity Burbage been surprised to see an old curse in action, one that hadn’t been used in hundreds of years? Were they connected?

He looked again at the title. Loup et Renard. Loup, he knew—wolf. The second sounded familiar, but he didn’t know why. Hadn’t—Kamau said Goyle might have been under the effects of a potion which simulated the effects of lycanthropy? Maybe he was just trying to find something to think about other than the obvious, disappointing truth, but he thought…

“Can I keep this?” he asked before he could stop himself, his voice rough in the oppressive silence of the room.

He glanced from Kingsley to Robards. “If the investigation is over, I’d… Well, I think it might help if I knew something. I guess.”

It was a thin excuse, and he could tell Kingsley hadn’t missed the shift in Harry’s demeanor. But Robards seemed none the wiser. That or he didn’t care.

“I don’t see why not,” he said, “though I’m not sure you’ll find any answers in there. Our consultant was very thorough.”

I’m sure he was. Harry forced himself to sit back and breathe out some of his tension. It helped that Teddy was trying to abandon ship and squirm to the floor, having sucked all the flavor from the leather jacket. “Okay, Teds, I hear you,” he muttered, setting Teddy down and letting him crawl across the rug, watching carefully in case he cracked his head on something.

“Right, so,” Harry exhaled, ran a hand through his hair, “what does this mean for me? I know you said—I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but this is… This is it? You’re not going to charge me with anything?”

He felt a little twist of frustration as Robards turned to Kingsley, as if yielding the floor.

“Frankly,” Kingsley said, leaning forward to brace his elbows on his knees, face stony, “you being the victim of these attacks isn’t so much the issue here, Harry.”

Harry narrowed his eyes.

“I mean that I’d still be inclined to keep these attacks quiet.”

Right. Of course he would.

A wry, pained smile pulled at Kingsley’s mouth. “Before you get started, you should know that it has always been my intention to minimize the amount of chaos the war left in its wake. Letting the public know that two Slytherin students attempted to kill someone the country thinks of as their hero would just fan the flames.” Even as Harry opened his mouth, Kingsley continued implacably, “I’m going to insist on this, Harry. For your safety and for the safety of the students you rightly championed in the trials.”

The silence held. He seemed to be weighing his words carefully, waiting. Harry wasn’t going to help him along, so he just stared.

“I know that I’m the last person you want to hear this from, right now,” Kingsley continued, voice solemn and soft, “but there’s nothing else to be done here. We’ve followed the trail, and it led us nowhere. Sometimes, that happens. There’s no evidence that this was part of some larger conspiracy, or lingering sentiment from Voldemort’s supporters. We’re not looking at a Neo-Death Eater retaliation against you.” It was almost like they were the only people in the room, Bill, Andromeda, Teddy, and Robards just impressions at the edges of his vision. “It was a crime of passion done in self defense, and in this case, Gawain is more than within his rights to close the investigation without filing any criminal charges.”

“And Yeats?” he asked, voice hard.

Kingsley’s chest expanded slowly but his expression didn’t falter. “I’ve discussed it with her. She won’t be pressing charges either.”

A hollow laugh broke from Harry. “Sure, I imagine she’s happy to let me off. Because she hasn’t—”

“I didn’t say she was happy about it.” Kingsley studied him, a crease forming in his brow. He was looking at Harry like he could see something just beneath the surface, as if Harry was so transparent. “Did you mean to kill Goyle?”

“It doesn’t matter what I—”

“It does, actually,” Bill said mildly, meeting Harry’s look with a pointed one of his own. “Intent matters when deciding how to charge a witch or wizard for committing a crime. So does the state of mind of the individual at the time the crime was committed. You were nearly incapacitated. You reacted without intent to kill. You notified a Ministry official within minutes of the act. Your wand was tested and every spell you cast was one of defense, a fact witnessed and attested to by several members of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. All of this matters.” His expression hardened. “And even if none of that were true, even if you insisted on undergoing examination, taking Veritaserum, allowing a legilimens to examine your memories, it’d be moot, because you have two senior Ministry officials from two different departments speaking on your behalf.”

Harry flicked a glance toward Kingsley, anger rising up.

“No, Harry.” Bill sighed heavily. “I don’t work for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, you berk.”

Harry blinked, caught off guard. “You—”

“Yes, me.” Bill’s face cracked with a small smile. “So go on and start shouting if you like, but I’m not changing my mind.” The hand he still had on Harry’s shoulder squeezed. “There is no legal basis for your being arrested or detained. Even if anyone wanted to arrest you, they couldn’t.”

Harry felt arguments swelling thick and hard in his throat. Bill was wrong. It mattered what he did, because he was no different than the kids they’d locked up for defending themselves, than the kids who wore reminders of their parents’ prejudices on their ankles. And they hadn’t even done anything.

It mattered. It had to matter. He couldn’t just walk away from this clean.

Not again.

“Harry.”

Andromeda’s voice cut through the panic in his chest. It was firm and steady and she sounded so much like her sister calling across a ruined courtyard that tears pricked at Harry’s eyes. It wasn’t the same. She wasn’t his mother. He barely knew her. But that didn’t stop some part of him aching with it.

He looked down, clenching his hands slowly, screwing up his face. He couldn’t say anything, so he just shook his head.

When Kingsley spoke, his voice vibrated it was so low. “It’s not your fault, Harry. Gregory Goyle’s death was an accident.”

Harry nearly flinched.

An accident.

A tragic accident, that’s how Umbridge had tried to explain Cedric’s death.

It wasn’t an accident. You couldn’t accidentally split apart your soul and take someone else’s life. You couldn’t accidentally kill someone. What happened to Goyle wasn’t a fucking accident. Harry had killed him. He didn’t know how, and he hadn’t meant to, but it wasn’t an accident.

But he seemed to be the only one who thought so.

His eyes came to rest on the scattered notes, the worn and ill-kept books, the handwriting he could recognize even if it’d been years since he’d last seen it.

Fine. If they were satisfied, he wasn’t about to throw himself into Azkaban in protest. He hated himself for it, but he didn’t want to be punished that much. He couldn’t do anything in jail, after all.

But he might be able to do something on his own. Just like always.

Robards cleared his throat. Harry looked up after a moment, when he was sure his face was blank, distant.

“Your apartment in St. Andrews was mostly destroyed, as you know. But we were able to salvage a few things.” From a pocket of his robes, he pulled out a few more items. Harry’s heart leapt into his throat at the sight of them.

The photo album Hagrid had given him all those years ago, with his parents and Sirius and Remus. The framed photo of his father, his mother’s letter to Sirius slipped in behind, the one he’d found in Sirius’s room after Snape had gone looking.

He took them from Robards, thankful for his downcast gaze. Robards might be stiff, but he seemed kind.

“Thank you,” Harry murmured.

“Did you have anything else you needed Harry for?” Andromeda asked softly. He felt her eyes on his cheek, but he was still staring down at the fragments of his family he’d thought were gone forever. “I don’t mean to be rude, but—”

“No, we won’t impose any longer.” Kingsley said as he and Robards stood.

“Thank you again, Andromeda,” Robards said quietly, his stoic expression creasing into something like a smile as he dipped his head. The imposing man turned back to Harry. He met Harry’s gaze with a frank sigh. “I realize we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, Mr. Potter, but you should know that my offer stands, should you ever decide you want to become an auror. What you did in the Wizengamot was brave. Brash and explosive, but…” He trailed off, sharing a solemn look with Kingsley. “Well. I think we could all benefit from a little more courage. I know I could.”

Harry didn’t know if he pitied the man for thinking a little courage would change things, or if he envied him to have that kind of faith in the people he worked with.

He was saved the trouble of responding when he turned and left without another word. Gawain Robards seemed like a decent man. In another world, he might even have wanted to work under him, to learn from someone like him.

Not this world, though.

He caught Kingsley’s searching gaze and waited, but it seemed the Minister had nothing more to say to him. That, or he didn’t think Harry would want to hear it.

“I’d like a word,” Harry said quickly, catching the urge and holding on before he could think better of it. “Alone. If you can spare the time.” The last was petty, but Harry wasn’t exactly interested in being polite at the moment.

Kingsley looked surprised. It was maybe the second time Harry had ever seen the man slip in his composure. “Of course,” he said after a long moment of silence.

Harry turned, picking up Teddy to deposit him on the couch before he could get himself stuck under it. “I’ll be right back,” he added to Andromeda when it looked like she might object. He threw a glance to Bill too. “Were you…?”

“I’ll be here when you get back,” Bill said, voice flat. “Obviously.”

Harry didn’t smile, but he was grateful for the attempt at humor. Before he could leave, though, he was waylaid by a suddenly distressed toddler, eyes big and green and growing wet as he watched Harry leaving. “I’m coming back, Teds,” he said, throat tight. “Here.” He shrugged out of the jacket, draping it over the boy’s shoulders. It swamped him, but Teddy seemed mollified for the moment. He’d forgotten how much he liked the taste of it, anyway. Harry smoothed down Teddy’s hair where it’d gotten mussed from his exploration of the ground. It’d gotten darker since Harry’d arrived. Strands of black joined in with the turquoise, and it was all Harry could do not to lose it entirely.

He exhaled shakily and made for the door, and only when he was outside in the brisk early autumn air did he realize that it’d been two weeks since he’d stepped out into the open air.

The sky was grey, but not gloomily so. The clouds were thin and high and they roamed over the long green expanse of fields beside Andromeda’s home. She lived on the western edge of Oxford, situated at the end of a humble dirt road. If he strained himself, he could hear cars in the distance, the sounds of a city waking up, but it was quiet out here.

It looked a bit like the strange view he’d seen out of the greenhouse windows back in Grimmauld Place. The vista now sitting in the entry hall where Walburga Black had once terrorized intruders.

He walked toward the hill from where Robards was just now disapparating. He didn’t bother to look back to make sure that Kingsley was following. The chill was brisk, almost uncomfortable, but he welcomed it on his bare skin, his t-shirt riding up in a sudden gust of wind.

Taking a deep breath, he turned back to Kingsley. He waited, watching the Minister for Magic, a man he’d once thought to be impenetrable and unwavering walk up to him—and Harry couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more separating them now than just space. More than sides in a war he seemed destined never to leave.

Harry had always been other, outside. ‘Special’ was the word Kingsley’d used, wasn’t it? He’d been able to convince himself sometimes that he wasn’t so distanced from everyone else. He’d had Ron and Hermione, Ginny and the rest of the Weasleys, his friends—all of them had gone out of their way to treat him like he was just another kid. Most of the time anyway.

It still slipped through, though, even if he knew they never meant it. He’d catch a look of awe in their eyes, a slight nervousness in the way they said something to him, or about him. He was the one who made plans, not joined them. He was the one at the front. Even with Ron and Hermione, he was the odd one out. But it had been all right. He’d taken it, knowing that one day everyone would realize he was just as stupid and weak and flawed as everyone else. More so, probably.

Meeting Kingsley’s gaze now, he felt the final brick laid in the wall between him and everyone else. Kingsley wasn’t looking at him like he was an eighteen-year-old kid who’d had a temper tantrum. It was more like Harry was an unknown quantity—there was pity there, sure, and a decent amount of shame and affection, but Harry felt it through the filter of separation between them. He was the Minister for Magic, arguably one of the most powerful people in Britain, and Harry still couldn’t be reached.

It made him sick, knowing that. It reminded him of Tom Riddle and his superiority. He didn’t want to be different. He wanted people to stop trying to make him so fucking special.

The silence hung between them. Behind Harry over the estuary he heard birds waking up. The muted sounds of voices calling to one another at the other end of the dirt road where the little village connected to Oxford proper.

Harry firmed up his resolve, trying to shove away the last inklings of his own guilt. “I just wanted to make sure we had an understanding.”

Kingsley waited, his patience an eternal thing.

“I won’t be working with the Ministry anymore,” Harry said. “I think it best if I keep my distance. I’ve got no interest in being a public figure or a mascot. I realize there’s little I can do to keep out of the papers, but I don’t want anyone in the Ministry thinking they can use my voice to win points or influence opinion.” A knot formed in his throat, but he forced it down. “You’ve got a lot of work to do, and I want no part in it. I know you’re trying—” He faltered, exhaling as he pushed his hair back where it’d got caught in the wind. “I hope you change things. I really do, but I need— I can’t be what you want me to be and I’m not interested in trying right now. Maybe ever.”

He didn’t know where the last had come from. His anger was built over regret and frustration, but he hadn’t realized how much saying it out loud would hurt.

After what felt like an hour, Kingsley nodded, his dark eyes unreadable. “I understand.”

“Good.”

“If I said I was sorry, would you accept it?”

A flash of anger nearly unseated him. Through clenched teeth, he managed, “Would you mean it?”

Kingsley’s eyes closed, and it was like his whole body shrank. Fatigue settled on his shoulders. Harry could see the tension all over him, the pain in the crease of his brow. He looked like he was barely holding himself together.

But when he opened his eyes, all Harry could see was Dumbledore’s regret. And it made him want to scream.

“Yes, I would mean it. I do mean it. I’m sorry. That wasn’t…” Kingsley shook his head. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, Harry. I never meant to put you through that. I’m sorry.”

A tight, hot coal was burrowing into Harry’s chest. Kingsley was standing there, debasing himself, admitting fault to Harry. He was treating Harry like an equal, and the only thing Harry could think was that he wanted none of it.

He didn’t care how many mistakes Kingsley’d made. He didn’t care that his entire understanding of the man was built on the assumption that the people who knew what they were doing would never fail him. That if they tried, if they meant it, they would never let him down.

He hated that it was a lie. He hated that he understood with perfect clarity exactly what Kingsley meant when he stood there looking like the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. He didn’t want to sympathize.

Because unlike Kingsley, Harry had never been given the choice.

“Well,” he said when he got his voice under control. “I guess that’s something.”

He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, feeling like he was about to jump out of his own skin. He felt like there was too much space around him, which was mad because he had only ever felt like he needed more space to breathe—one of the charming perks of living in a five by three foot room for the first eleven years of his life. His chest was so tight he thought he was about to snap in two.

He felt Kingsley’s stare heavy on him. Harry looked up to find him focused intently at Harry’s right forearm, where a long, straight scar now sat.

He fought the urge to cross his arms. He knew exactly what Kingsley was thinking, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t thought about it himself sometimes. Pain was a good way to clear your head, if it was the right kind of pain. But he’d never hurt himself like that. He’d never really wanted to.

And he wasn’t about to share any of this with the man who’d recently manipulated him into having a very public breakdown.

Harry waited until Kingsley met his gaze again. “You should also know that I’ve recast the Fidelius Charm on my home. The one I inherited from Sirius,” he added when Kingsley’s face remained blank.

Kingsley blinked, a slight furrow the only sign of concern on his face. “I see.”

“Thought it was just common sense.”

Kingsley studied him closely. “Usually, when a Fidelius Charm has broken, it’s impossible to recast on the same place.”

New tension trickled down Harry’s spine. “I’m not lying.”

“I didn’t say you were. Clearly, it worked.” A pause. “The Fidelius Charm is incredibly complex. I’m impressed. There aren’t many wizards who could do the same.”

An ugly resentment curled up inside him. He’d known the spell he’d cast was different. He shouldn’t be surprised at the reaction. He’d known how people would think he’d done something extraordinary and tell him so and expect him to thank them and be a good little prodigy.

“Yeah, well,” he said coldly, “I’m special, right?”

He was so fucking done with being special.

It was time to end this. He didn’t have anything more to say and he didn’t want to hear Kingsley’s excuses or attempts to comfort him. He didn’t want anything from Kingsley. Not anymore.

He’d only made it a few steps back to Andromeda’s when Kingsley said, quietly, “Harry.”

“What?” he said, not kindly, as he stopped and looked back.

Kingsley’s jaw was tense, and there was conflict in his eyes. “Find someone you can talk to.”

He couldn’t help it. He laughed. “I’ll get right on—”

“I’m serious.” Kingsley’s voice went hard, the look in his eyes almost urgent, imploring. “I’ve spent my whole adult life fighting dark wizards. I know what it’s like to go through hell. You don’t get through it on your own. All it does is sit and fester, and you might think you can handle it now, but you can’t in the long run. Take the advice. Seek help. Professional, if you don’t think your friends can do that for you. But if you do nothing with that anger and pain it’s going to eat you alive. I’ve seen it happen. One day, it will kill you.”

Harry stared at Kingsley, the world around him growing sharp and cutting. His mind was quiet like the moment before a storm broke. He smelled rust and fire—the disdain sitting like petrichor on his tongue. It would kill him, would it?

He knew nothing.

No one did.

“I don’t know, Minister,” Harry said quietly, the beating of his heart like a war drum in his chest. “If Voldemort couldn’t kill me, I’m not sure anything can.”

He turned before he could see Kingsley’s reaction. He walked away and he forced himself not to feel guilty, like he should take it all back and try to be someone Kingsley Shacklebolt could admire. It was still there, that purpose, that path. Robards would give him a job. Kingsley would help him. The window on that opportunity was closing, but he could salvage this. If he wanted to.

God, how he wanted to.

All he had to do was fix his broken soul and forget that he was screaming on the inside.

He took the gnarled lump of his feelings and set them aside, and he went back into Andromeda’s house.

 

 

His dream that night came on slowly. The world was white and soft. The sound of waves washing against sand filtered in gradually and soon he could see the ocean—tipped in white lace and colored the turquoise of Teddy’s hair.

The sky was vast and though it was bright and clear, there were stars above him. He picked them all out, the tiny diamond beads that spun images and meaning that left his head as soon as they formed. There was a cluster of them, making a shape that Harry couldn’t name…

“It’s cold.”

Harry nodded, feeling now the presence of someone beside him. Familiar, but…further away than he thought they should be. He dug his bare toes into the fine grey pebbles, the line of the ocean washing in and out, and then out again.

“Why are we here?”

Harry smiled and shrugged. “It’s nice.”

He saw the vague impression of the person beside him—with fine ankles and pale, nearly pearlescent skin. He knew that if he looked up they would vanish, so he kept his eyes forward, took in what he could from what he could feel.

Sharp and subtle, this intruder. He knew without knowing how that it wasn’t the first time they’d visited his dreams. Or perhaps it was the other way around. He couldn’t say what the difference was, really.

“It’s too quiet. I loathe the quiet.” The figure shifted, the space between them getting ever so slightly smaller. “Of all the places you could be, you choose this sad, lonely beach. I don’t understand it.”

“What’s there to understand?”

Their laugh gusted out into the air. Harry nearly reached out for it, wanting to hold it and listen to it again and again. It was so soft, surprised. Like a white feather.

The figure sighed. “So much. So, so much.”

It was the sadness that pricked Harry’s mind. Bits of the dream began to crystallize and harden, refracted as if through a prism. A tremble went through the beach and Harry nearly felt the oncoming dread of a storm.

He knew this person. He had to.

“How did you find me?” Harry’s voice was breaking, rough. The ocean waves crashed and the gulls over his head cried out in bell tones that something was different, changing. “Why—why are you here?”

I’m supposed to be alone here.

The figure asked, Then why did you bring me here?

Harry shook his head, eyes locked on the far horizon. If he kept looking, he would find out how to get there. To cross the expanse and just fly off the edge of the world. There had to be something better out there, something easier and warmer. Something that didn’t make him hurt just to feel alive.

Something brushed his cheek. A soft, gentle finger, catching the diamond tear which had slipped down Harry’s face.

A shaky exhale beside him. “You should be more careful with these,” the figure said, voice low and rough, the cultured tone of it shaking.

Harry’s head turned, not far enough to banish the figure, but he had to see something. He had to know…

“Don’t.”

Another tear slid from his burning eyes, and this time the figure kept their hand on his face, stopping his head from turning. A thumb moved gently across his cheek.

“Don’t—you won’t like what you see.”

Harry tried to shake his head again, but the hands holding his face wouldn’t let him.

“Close your eyes, Harry.”

“Why?”

“Please.”

So he did. He couldn’t not, when the sound of that word in this voice made something fragile in him break. And in the cracks there was fire. Heat poured into him, electric and burning, reigniting his blood and making him want so badly. Long fingers sank into his hair as he was turned, guided. Harry couldn’t breathe. His heart was beating so fast he felt like he was flying.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” the figure whispered, his unsteady breath brushing Harry’s lips. “I don’t know why I’m letting you— I have to—stop.”

“Don’t go,” Harry gasped, stepping forward. He reached out and caught lean arms, slender shoulders, the edge of a soft, unbuttoned collar. “Don’t go. Stay.”

“I—can’t. This isn’t… You’re not—”

More tears built behind his eyelids. His fingers dug into lean muscle under fine cloth as he framed the shape of this person, this visitor, fit his hands over ribs which were heaving. He found an elegant neck and a chest that tapered smoothly into a firm waist. He smelled deep, warm spice and dark berries like wine and it was all he could do not to press forward and bury his face in it, in him.

“Why?” Harry asked, urgent, grabbing the thread of thought and pulling. “Don’t leave. Don’t leave me—”

Recognition was on the tip of his tongue. He drew upright, opened his eyes—

You’re not real.

There was a flash of silver, and then there was nothing.

The beach grew calm again. The waves crashed gently. The prismatic fractures in the air around him smoothed out until everything was a quiet, soft blur.

His hands lingered in the air, the emptiness in them so, so much worse than it had been only a few moments ago. The numbness filtered slowly back into him, soothing his ragged edges and dulling the pain of whatever, whoever, had just cut into his dream and took something out of him. A sharp, silver thief and a soft, broken voice.

After a while, he let his hands drop. He turned back to the ocean. Tried to find again that sense of quiet.

His tears never stopped falling. They collected in a pile at his feet, discarded jewels sinking into the sand.