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Life goes not backward

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Sunday 14th March 2010

Harry had been away for five years.

He had managed to stifle the desire to leave many times before; directly after the war, through the trials, a repeated seventh year at Hogwarts, and all the way through his Auror training. So when, aged twenty-five, he was offered a secondment with the Pan-European Protection Force, he had accepted without a second thought.

He told himself it wasn’t running away, but it did feel like freedom.

Five years away from Britain. Away from the journalists hiding in bushes, in bars, disguising themselves with Polyjuice and inveigling their way into his company when he was out dancing. Away from strangers who pointed and stared, and worse, touched him, or talked to him and shared their tales of grief as though he was just a vessel in which to pour every agony they carried. Away from the rumours of power, and magic, and salvation. Away even from his friends. Away from the empty seat at the Weasleys’ table, away from Lavender's scars, away from Ginny as she watched Neville’s every move, away from Ron and Hermione as they orbited ever closer, away from the terrifying depth of Teddy’s eyes.

It had been what he needed. And he had loved it, had loved being abroad, seeing new places, and eating new food. He’d loved being an almost-nobody. Even though his team and their handlers had done the research on him, most average European witches and wizards didn’t really recognise him. He’d loved going to bars and meeting people and telling them stupid stories about his ‘funny scar’. He’d loved kissing people and knowing it was nothing to do with fame, or infamy. He’d loved sleeping around and suffering no censure, no press coverage, no judgement except for the occasional wink and high-five from his team-mates.

He had loved it until his fortnightly weekends back home started to feel less like dipping his toe back into the piranha-infested waters of hero-worship and paparazzi, and more like something warm, and welcome, and soothing, that he looked forward to. Until the sight of Teddy’s smiling face made him want to stay, to be around for every new game, every excited declaration that he would be Head Boy once he started at Hogwarts.

He had loved being away until Ginny started going out with Blaise Zabini. Which meant Harry saw Malfoy at pub nights every time he was home, not just like a ship in the night at Andromeda’s when he visited Teddy. It meant he had the time to realise that the bastard was actually sharply attractive now—not pointy—and that his old petty dramatics had evolved into entertaining everyone with the kind of stories and jokes that involved lots of gesticulating and very mobile eyebrows.

He had loved it until a year ago when he was back for a full week and spent the time taking Teddy to the seaside for a holiday along with Malfoy—Teddy’s cousin and joint favourite grown-up along with Harry apparently—where he realised that, fuck, he fancied Draco Malfoy.

He had loved it until eight months ago when he finally, finally, got his shit together and asked Draco out for a drink, and Draco had said yes.

After that, he came back every weekend.

He’d spent two months meeting Malfoy for drinks, then dinners, that quickly turned into hot, sensual nights and surprisingly comfortable mornings. They shared time with Teddy before he headed off for his first year at Hogwarts, took trips up to Hogsmeade, visited with the Weasleys, and visited the seaside again; the East Coast this time, where Teddy ran screaming into the water and Draco’s hair in the breeze was like so much tangled silk.

For those two months, Harry spent his weekdays counting down the hours until he could take his International Portkey back to drizzly, grey, wonderful Britain. It took those two months for Harry to realise that getting home a couple of weekends a month wasn’t enough. Not for Harry. Not for building anything real. Not for the future he thought, he hoped, might be waiting for him there. The future he felt ready for, now.

So he had written to Kingsley, and told him he was done with his secondment. Then it had taken the next six months to get it to actually happen.

Despite the fact that he was impatient and impulsive and raging at every moment of delay, now that he was finally ready for it, Harry made the most of his half-year of waiting. He’d spent the time coming back every weekend. He’d taken Draco as his plus-one to Hermione and Ron’s wedding. He had worried that it would be bittersweet, seeing them take that step together. But on the day, standing beside Ron and Hermione as magic and soft red silk joined them together for life, Harry’s heart tasted only the sweetness of joy. And Draco had smiled at him from his place in the circle of chairs around them, something summer-lovely and heavy in his eyes.

Harry had taken a week off that September to give Draco a tour of Seville, his home for the last five years. He had kissed him under trees heavy with orange blossom, and watched his face transform with curiosity and pleasure as they wandered the palace of the Real Alcazar. He’d basked in the sight of sunlight filtering through the filigree of carved white stone, falling across fair skin, and high cheekbones, and eyes like smoke. He’d spent the week quietly unravelling at the way every sight of Draco had taken his breath away. Watching him pour coffee into a pair of cups on the tiny table on Harry’s tiny balcony, watching him wander the tiny streets, watching him drink in the history, the sunshine, the scent of jasmine, the sneak peeks of hidden courtyards.

Harry had arrived back home, properly, last week. Three months away from the Aurors stretching before him, full of potential, and promise. He had planned on spending the time figuring out his next step. Spending time with Draco, with Ron and Hermione, and Teddy too when he came back from Hogwarts for Easter. He had planned on home-cooked meals, and strolls around London. He had planned on finding out how Draco felt about sharing more than drinks, and food, and lingering nights, and indulgent mornings together.

Harry wanted to know if Draco preferred the town, or the country; what he thought about sharing a home; if he believed in marriage. He wanted to know if the hopes and dreams that had blossomed in his heart every time he landed from his International Portkey and found Draco waiting for him at the Arrivals Portal for the last eight months were ones Draco shared. It hadn't even been a year yet—and long distance, too—but Harry felt sure. He felt ready.




Monday 15th March 2010

“I thought you were happy for me to take this sabbatical, Kingsley. I’ve only been home properly for a week, and it’s taken long enough for me to even get to this point.”

Harry watched as his old mentor shifted paperwork around his desk, eyeing the set of the man's shoulders and the firm line of his mouth. It was all he needed to see. This assignment was going to happen, regardless of any prior agreements, or Harry’s protestations.

“Look, Harry, this landed on my desk this morning. It came from Minerva, and I’m no more inclined to deny her than you are. Quite apart from the fact that this could be our first diplomatic contact with the Fair Folk in more than a century, I don’t think either of us want to let her down.”

Harry leaned forward to take the offered letter, and already felt the fight draining out of him. If Shacklebolt had just bloody led with the fact it was McGonagall asking for help, he wouldn’t have even questioned the assignment in the first place.

Dear Kingsley,

Please excuse the informal letter; I’m writing with some haste before I attend a meeting with the staff ahead of the new academic year. But I felt it necessary to pass this information to you as soon as possible, and will be available at your disposal to further discuss matters this afternoon.

This morning I received a summons to the edge of the Forest by a quite unexpected visitor; a representative of the Fae. Of course, I was initially suspicious—and remain so—but decided to investigate their intentions.

They were courteous, made no offers or invitations, and only one demand. They have requested Harry, by name, to attend a meeting of their council as a representative of the wizarding community. I explained that his role is that of Auror, not diplomat, but they were particularly insistent that he was the only individual from the Ministry of Magic that they would engage in discussion.

I know that Harry is just returned home from Spain, and I am loath to disrupt his long overdue break. But as you know, the Fae can be difficult to deal with, and they have rarely reached out to communicate with the wizarding world in recent centuries. I believe it would be prudent to see what they have to say before we make any decisions that might be irreversible.

My Floo is open to you, as usual.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall

Headmistress, Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry

Wizengamot Elder

Harry sighed heavily, and sat back in his chair. He’d thought that maybe now he’d nearly reached the ripe old age of thirty—so unimaginable when he was seventeen that it still stunned him when he actually thought about it—that his life might stop resembling nothing so much as the Knut Nasty stories which Teddy adored despite their appalling predictability. But no. He hadn't even been back in the country for a full seven days, and he was already being roped into Merlin-knew-what kind of business with the Fair Folk.

All he knew about the Fae was that they were tricky, and clever, and utterly unrestrained by any mortal notions of morality or law. They were powerful, and weird, and easily offended. They were the diplomatic definition of fine china—that happened to have magic that could control the earth itself—and Harry was self aware enough to recognise that he was very much the bull in this equation.

“Okay. Just to be clear—I’m not arguing with you, or Minerva—I understand they’re asking for me. But really?” Harry gestured at himself. “Am I really the right person for this? Shouldn’t you be sending someone from the Diplomatic Division? They’d at least know some history. Are there even rules of engagement for what it’s like to deal with these people?”

Shacklebolt grinned, and leant back in his huge leather chair. “Don’t worry, Harry. I’ve already assigned Unspeakable Granger to give you a crash-course so as to avoid starting an inter-realm incident. I feel confident in her abilities, and I’m sure you agree.”

Harry couldn’t argue with that. So he just rolled his eyes, if only to maintain the illusion that this hadn’t all been decided as soon as he heard it was Minvera asking for him. It wouldn’t do to let Shacklebolt think he was that biddable. As much as he was an old friend outside of the Ministry, while he was working in his official capacity Kingsley had no compunction in trying to get Harry to commit to far more than he wanted to.




Tuesday 16th March 2010

Ron slouched across the sofa, a wry grin on his face, and a bottle of strawberry cider dangling in his fingers as he watched Hermione fuss over Harry.

“You mustn't, you mustn't accept anything from them, Harry. Not food, not drink, not favours, and definitely not gifts.”

“Alright, I get it.” Harry shot Ron a glare from the corner of his eye, only to receive a salute with his cider bottle in response.

No, Harry, this is serious. If you give even the hint that you are accepting a gift, they will assume you owe them something. And that something could as likely be a pound of flesh as a cup of sugar.” Hermione had moved from her normal lecture voice, into the kind of panicked urgency she reserved for when she really thought Harry wasn’t listening to her.

“Merlin, I understand, Hermione!” He held out his hands, sticking a finger up for each point he proceeded to make. “No giving them my full name, not that it's not clearly public knowledge. No accepting gifts, or favours, or consuming anything they offer. No offensive magic, or pushing the fact that they don’t actually own the bloody forest. No discussion of politics, or treaties, the school grounds, or anything involving my wand. Don’t bring anything with me that’s made of iron, and don’t mention how bloody weird they look.” He grinned, waving his hands after his recitation of her advice. “Did I miss anything?”

She sighed, clearly eager to continue urging him to be careful, but unable to deny that he had recited her advice accurately. So Harry reached out and pulled her into a rough, one armed hug. “Come on, Hermione, I’ve got it covered. I promise I won’t balls it up, and if they get weird I’ll just say I need to go and then bring you back with me. How’s that?”

“I don’t think that’ll be an option, Harry. And they might even try to insist you take a gift...without knowing why they are insisting on you attending this gathering it’s almost impossible to know what the protocols will be.” She tapped her finger against her lip, thinking. “If they do try and give you something—and I think they might—you have to be explicitly clear that there are no strings attached. If you leave them a loophole, they will exploit it.”

“Alright, I’ll be careful, take my time. Make sure I have my Hermione-hat on.” Harry tried to make his voice reassuring.

She hummed in approval, then looked up at him, and the look on her face was the same sort of determination she used to get back at Hogwarts whenever they were going to break school rules ‘for the greater good’.

“You could always make them promise.” Her voice was thoughtful. “If you think they’re being manipulative. I was reading a book last night—I picked it up from the Archives just in case it might have any useful information for you—it’s by a chap called Jonathan Strange, he had dealings with the Fair Folk about two hundred years ago. He believed that you can make them swear on their name, even if you don’t know it, even said he had tried it successfully.”

“Perfect. I’ll see what they say, and if it feels like it’s going sideways, I’ll try that. As a last resort though, I don’t want to piss them off too much, and it sounds like that might be the kind of thing to rub them the wrong way." Privately, Harry thought that attempting to make a whole group of the Fair Folk swear promise on their sacred names would be a one-step recipe for disaster. But at this stage of the evening he was disinclined to get into a debate on the possible behaviours of a group of magical beings none of them had ever even met.

“Look at that, Hermione, our Harry is planning on de-escalating a situation. He hasn’t even mentioned the idea of hitting one of them,” Ron teased from his lounge on the sofa.

“That was one time, Ron! Hermione, tell him how it was only one time.” Harry laughed, so glad he was here on a Monday night, not alone in his flat in Seville. Even with the annoyance of his time-off being disrupted, and his impending audience with the Fae, he was happy. It was wet outside, and dark already, but inside Ron and Hermione’s house it was warm, and softly lit, and Harry was seized with sudden gratitude that he was home, for good.

Ron nudged Hermione with his foot, and held out his bottle to her with a conspiratorial smile. She grabbed it and took a swig, then smiled suddenly, and Harry knew he wasn’t going to like what came next.

“Ron’s right, you’ve come so far! Now, we need to talk about what you’re going to wear.”




Wednesday 17th March 2010

“Stop pouting, Harry.”

Draco’s voice was sharp, but his hand in Harry’s hair was gentle as he came around the sofa and settled next to him. Behind him trailed bottles of beer, and a queue of dishes drawn by his magic from the kitchen to neatly arrange themselves on the coffee table. Draco loved curry, loved it, but adamantly refused to eat from the takeaway containers. Every time they ordered in, he insisted on taking it straight to the kitchen and decanting it all into proper serving dishes, even if they were only going to curl up on the sofa together to eat.

“I’m not pouting,” Harry retorted, but even he could hear the whine in his tone. “I’m not. I’m just—annoyed. I’m being pulled back in and it’s everything to do with the ‘Harry Potter’ thing and nothing to do with me being skilled, or able, or the best man for the job. It’s exactly why I went to Spain in the first place.” He sighed. ”I’ve waited, and worked, for such a long time to be able to come home and just...be here. With you.”

Draco turned to face him, leaning against the back of the sofa. He looked soft and comfortable, his feet bare, wearing one of Harry’s jumpers, with the faintest flush on his cheeks blossoming at Harry’s words. He looked perfect. He looked like everything Harry had never dared to dream of. In moments like this, Harry wondered how he had ever managed to leave each Monday to go back to Spain, how he had dragged himself away from a Draco Malfoy who had become so integral to his life.

He was angry, and disappointed, and strangely sad that he hadn’t been able to properly extricate himself from responsibilities at the Ministry for Draco. He’d promised he would, and now he was already being dragged back into another bullshit assignment.

“Come on, Harry, it’s one day. You can handle one day-trip to Hogwarts, you’ll bloody love it, no doubt. And I think we can lay the blame on the Fae, this time, rather than the general wizarding establishment—cack-handed and ignorant, though they may be.”

“Yeah, but I promised you, didn’t I? That we’d have months.”

Draco reached out and pulled Harry towards him, as comfortable manhandling his body as he was commandeering his kitchenware. Once they were as close as could be—Draco’s leg draped over Harry’s, his arm wrapped around Harry’s shoulders, heavy, and warm, and strong—his hand found its way to Harry’s hair again.

“If your only reason for sulking is that you think you’ve let me down then I can take that particular weight off your shoulders, you idiot. We’ll still have months. Your sabbatical from the Aurors still stands, and Theo is still happy to take care of managing the shop for me.” He tucked a loose curl behind Harry’s ear, his fingers gentle against soft skin. It tingled. But it was delicate, not a prequel to heat, but a softness, a warmth that settled in Harry’s chest, not his belly. “You can get all dressed up in that bloody uniform I like so much, and have a day at Hogwarts. Enjoy the children staring at you with stars in their eyes, and breathe the fresh Highland air, and steal some of McGonagall’s secret stash of Pepper Imps. Then come home.”

Home.

It wasn’t official. But Draco’s clothes were already in Harry’s wardrobe. He had a selection of expensive and deliciously scented soaps and shampoos in Harry’s bathroom. He’d been keyed into the wards and the Floo for nearly a year, and he’d had a key since last September. And he used the word. Often. Home.

They had talked about it, at Christmas. About how convenient Harry’s house was, how it was big enough for them to have their friends over after pub night as the base for ill-advised raids on the local corner shop, and making the last call from the Chinese takeaway on the highstreet. How, really, Draco’s flat was too small for birthday parties. And Teddy had outgrown the small spare room there. They hadn’t made any formal arrangement—not yet—no announcement.

But Harry had planned, had hoped, that his homecoming would be the time for Draco to really make this house his home. Officially. He knew that Draco would say yes, he knew that. But he wanted to hear it. He had wanted to make the invitation properly. He had wanted to make it romantic. But maybe it could be as easy, and simple, as every other step he had taken toward Draco over the last year.

“How many Imps do I need to bring back?” he asked, instead.

Draco grinned, a flash of white teeth and soft grey eyes. “A whole bloody handful, you can risk it, for me.”

And Harry knew he was teasing, the kind of silly melodrama Draco indulged in when he was with people he loved and trusted. But he still couldn’t hold back the weight of his heart on his tongue when he replied.

“I’d risk anything for you. And when I come back home, you’ll be here?”

“Merlin, you’re too much.” Draco laughed. “I won’t, actually, I’ve been strong-armed into visiting Pansy. But—” he paused, and ducked close to plant a soft kiss against Harry’s downturned lips. “But I’ll be here on Saturday morning, and I’ll bring some croissants, and my luggage.”

“Your—?”

Draco’s hum of agreement was lost between their mouths. Harry couldn’t help the smile that grew on his face, even though it ruined the rising heat of the moment—but maybe it wasn’t ruined—because Draco just laughed against him and dropped gentle kisses all over Harry’s face instead. It felt like sunshine.

“Brilliant,” Harry whispered.




Friday 19th March 2010

Harry arrived by Floo in McGonagall’s office at nine o’clock sharp, and walked with her through the school. They talked as they went, but he left her in the courtyard, where late winter sun warmed the air and children passed them on their way down to the greenhouses.

He felt more than a bit ridiculous in his full dress uniform here at Hogwarts. But the flamboyant Ministry Ambassadorial Assistant that Shacklebolt had insisted he consult with had agreed with Hermione’s suspicion that the Fair Folk might take offence if it appeared Harry wasn’t treating their meeting with the fullest of respect. So here he was; wearing deep red robes buttoned up to his chin, every war and service medal he’d been awarded shining upon his chest, golden buttons, freshly polished boots and gloves and dark leather wand harness. He was even wearing the ostentatious cloak; crimson, with gold epaulettes, a fur-lined hood, and satin lining.

He’d only been back to the forest once, since the war. Until now.

It had been a year after Voldemort died—after Harry had died, too—and he had asked Ron and Hermione had come with him. They had held his hands as they retraced the path he had taken, as he had told them about the Resurrection Stone, about Hagrid held down and weeping, about the way it had felt. They had been there with him for every other step of the war, until he had walked alone into the woods, and afterwards he wanted them to know all of it. He hadn’t cried as he retraced the path he took to his death, but Ron had. Big, heaving sobs that had left his face blotchy and his eyes bloodshot. He and Hermione had both hugged Harry, fiercely, and even though he was standing at the spot he had fallen—where his last breath had shivered on the air, where his heart had laid still and silent for long moments—Harry had felt alive, and loved, and glad of it all.

He set off across the grounds towards the Forbidden Forest. The land around Hogwarts was beautiful in the early sunshine, a watercolour wash with the purple haze of heather and the vibrant green of new-season grass. In comparison, the mass of trees rose before him like a dark wave. He’d died in that forest, but he had been granted life there too—had chosen it—and walking towards it, once again alone, he remembered why he made that choice. He had people who loved him, who he loved in return, and even after every loss, he knew life was worth the risk.

The boundary between dew-soft grass and dark forest floor was one of sunlight to shade, warmth to coolness, the freshwater scent of the Black Lake to the earthy urgency of trees coming out of the winter months.

Harry’s eyes adjusted to the dim, and he spotted a figure, obviously waiting for him. He couldn’t quite tell if they were a man or a woman, and Hermione hadn’t quite covered the social norms surrounding Fae gender, so he wasn’t even sure those categories would apply. They were beautiful though, and strange. A high forehead, skin that shimmered with the faintest blush of green, and earth-dark eyes with no white at all. They stood, silent. Harry waited for several long moments, to see if they would break the impasse. But they didn’t.

“Hello.” Harry wasn’t sure what kind of formality they expected, but he figured that sounding confident would be half the battle. “I am Harry Potter, I’ve come at your request.”

It was like he’d cast a spell, or given them a password, because the placid stillness of that alien face dissolved into a smile, albeit a disconcerting one. They had sharp, pointed teeth.

“Greetings, Harry Potter, and welcome to our forest.” Even their voice was strange, it seemed to echo, as though more than one person was speaking. “You may call me Marell, though it is not my True Name, I am here to guide you.”

Harry bristled slightly at the implication that this forest belonged to anything other than Hogwarts itself, but he successfully tamped down the scowl he could feel gathering in his eyebrows, and followed in Marell’s wake as they turned to walk away. Their robes looked to be woven from ferns, and as they walked they never so much as snapped a twig. Low-hanging branches dipped and bowed out of their way, clearing the way for them both to pass.

The Forbidden Forest had never appeared so open and welcoming, and it had never felt so unfamiliar. Auror training and a lifetime of vigilance had Harry noticing and cataloguing the way it was changed from his last visit. All along the forest floor mushrooms had burst through the leaf-mould, colourful and alien-looking, lining the path he and Marell followed like cheerful markers. Every bush had berries on it, even though it wasn’t yet spring; bruise-dark, red as Blood-Pops, pink and glistening; all of them delicious-looking, all of them probably deadly.

Even the trees looked extraordinary, grey bark glinted silvery in the dappled sunlight, dark leaves turned translucent and glowed like stained-glass above them, casting the whole forest into a kaleidoscope of verdant colour.

Harry had once been dosed with a potion when he was working undercover in a wizarding bar in Cadiz known more for its illicit deals than its dancefloor. The gang running the place had clocked him immediately, a new face in a secretive club. They had sent a handsome bartender over with a ‘house special’, and not given him much room to manoeuvre out of it. The drink had looked unremarkable, but within moments his vision had begun to sharpen, to warp, and dazzle him with colour and light. For the rest of the night he had had to blink hard and second-guess what he saw.

Walking through the Forest behind Marell felt like that night all over again. Everything was in technicolour, the forest unfurled around him in colour, and sparkling freshness, and luminescence. It was because of them, the Fair Folk. Their magic was waking the forest into an incarnation he had never seen before. It was more beautiful than ever before, but felt just as dangerous as ever.

They came to an opening in the woods, circular, and so neatly clear of undergrowth Harry couldn’t help but suspect that a new space had been created by the trees just for this moment. Around the perimeter stood twelve aspen, tall and soaring; their silver-paper bark swirled before him, their leaves shivered in a nonexistent breeze, spring-green, and translucent. Delicate flowers bloomed at the feet of the trees before his very eyes. Dark earth and rotting leaves gave way to tiny white star shaped flowers, golden blooms with heart-shaped petals, deep blue bells nodding on the breeze. All of them were scattered amongst grass so green, and so crisp it might have been blades; yet Harry still felt compelled to lie down in it.

In the centre of the clearing stood six more of the Fair Folk. Towering, willowy, sharp-mouthed, and uncanny. Cloaks of leaves, of feathers. One wore a robe that shimmered like Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, magic clearly woven into every thread; it rippled and wavered like water stirred by wind, brown like the peat-rich streams that ran down from the hills around them. They were all barefoot; high arches and long toes, the veins visible beneath their thin skin pulsing green-blue-silver-grey. Harry’s quiet guide moved from his side to stand with their people, settling beside the tallest of them all, crowned with brambles, and blossom, and blackberries. The leader, then.

Harry straightened his back, planted his feet, and dragged his attention from the bewitching sight of the forest around them to focus on the group before him. He stood his ground, waiting. Hermione had recommended he stay as quiet as possible, so as to avoid dropping himself into any conversational traps that they could pounce upon. So as not to offend. So as not to make himself easy prey.

The collected regard of the group before him was weighty, and the taste of their foreign magic on the air was formidable—sharp, sweet, ozone and petrichor—but he kept his chin up, and made eye contact with each of them. He might have to be polite, but he wasn’t going to pretend to be a cowering politician. They had asked for him, personally, so they could take him as he came. This was not, strictly, Hermione’s advice. But she had said they wanted respect, and if they wanted it, they could bloody well give it too.

“Greetings, Harry Potter.” It was the tall one, the leader, that broke the silence. Their voice was peculiar, whispery but deep, it was clear but gave Harry the distinct impression that he was only hearing part of the sound the Fae was making. “I am Torell—though that is not my True Name—and I am the one responsible for bringing you here. It was my request that was delivered to The Headmistress.”

Harry decided to cut to the chase, introductions done. “May I know why you asked for me, specifically? What is it you want me to do?”

Torell stepped forward, and the shimmering robe around them opened to reveal a lining of thorns, dark red, delicate and fine, but undoubtedly sharp. Harry stifled a shudder. Torell’s face was placid and smiling, they showed no sign of discomfort—or perhaps no recognition—of Harry’s instinctive response.

“We ask no boon of you, Harry Potter. We have come to offer you a gift.”

“A gift.” Harry paused, all of Hermione’s advice about taking anything from the Fair Folk ringing in his ears. “May I ask why you want to give me something?”

“Is it not obvious?” Torell replied, sounding confused. “We stand now in the same forest in which you Fell. The one you call Tom Riddle walked these woods.”

Harry started, unable to restrain his twitch at the sound of Riddle’s name. It wasn’t that people didn’t talk about Voldemort, or the war, but Harry felt caught out. He hadn’t expected it to be today’s topic of conversation, and immediately felt his hackles rise. It had been so long since he had been reduced to ‘the man who lived twice’. Even now he’d returned to Britain, the papers were more focused on the upcoming Quidditch World Cup than Harry himself. What if the Fair Folk wanted him to fix something for them? What if they had their own dark lord? What if they thought Voldemort had been right about Muggles? The Fae were notoriously ambivalent about them.

“He was an offence to the earth.” Torell bit the words out, eyes flashing. Harry relaxed, because they agreed on that, at least. “Some evils are unspeakable even in our realms. Some sacrifices are profound enough that we feel their power rippling through the fundament even when we are away on our Hunt. This forest has long been our land, and even far distant we felt the impact of your body fall when the Shattered-One rent you from this world.”

Torell moved closer still, and their wide, dark gaze was heavy. No longer angry, but intense, and questioning. Harry felt like he was being examined somehow, assessed; it felt like this was a test and he must, must pass it. He didn’t know if the Fair Folk could conduct Legilimency, but under Torell’s contemplation he felt like a child trying to keep secrets from one far older and wiser, like every thought was written across his face.

Internally he was reeling, memories of the day he died rising like a tidal surge. He was confused. All of the warnings from Shacklebolt and Hermione were moot, nobody had expected this meeting to be about the war. He didn’t know what the Fae wanted, he had no bloody idea what their agenda was, or why they had to bring up Voldemort, and what Harry had done to end it.

Most people didn’t even know what happened, not really. They didn’t know he’d died. The general wizarding public thought it had all been some clever plan. Or that Avada Kedavra had just...bounced off him like an ineffectual Stunner. They didn’t know that it had hit him, right in his chest, right in his heart. They didn't know it had worked. They didn’t know he had fallen, dead. And they didn’t know he had faltered in that hazy white no-place, that he had thought about staying there; thought about leaving life behind, and staying safe, beyond it all.

Torell blinked, scrutiny complete, and spoke again, their voice strong, insistent. “Here in our forest you gifted your life to the world of magic and mortal. Here in the forest we gift you life in return.”

With that perfectly inscrutable statement, Torell reached into their cloak of thorn and magic, and drew out a small package. Then they grasped Harry’s wrist, unfolded his clenched fingers to open his hand, and deposited their gift onto his palm with spidery fingers a joint too long.

Harry was careful to resist the urge to curl his fingers around the bundle. Any hint that he had accepted the gift might be a mistake. Hermione had warned him. Gifts from the Fair Folk were rarely bestowed, and they always came with strings attached, usually of the dangerous and eternal variety. ‘Double-edged sword’ didn’t begin to cover it.

He inspected the bundle in his hand. It was tiny. A crisp green leaf artfully folded around a single acorn. The sheen of the leaf caught the sunlight, deep, and vivid, and bright; and the gloss of the acorn was a polished golden brown. He could smell it, fresh and earthy. It was a beautiful thing, subtle but ingenious, delicate and natural. But why would they give him a nut?

“I can’t accept this gift. I thought you would need my help?”

The other Fae laughed, their voices low, and lilting, and high, and crackling like ice underfoot. It wasn’t an altogether pleasant sound, but Harry held firm and focused on Torell. They didn’t laugh, they simply blinked, nodded in understanding as though he was a student who had misunderstood a basic lesson, and spoke again.

“We need no help from you, Harry Potter. You have already served us all. This gift is yours, granted with no expectations or obligations attached. It is yours until you let it go.” They folded Harry’s fingers around the bundle, one by one, enclosing it in his fist. “This life comes through you but not from you, it will be with you but not belong to you, it is the arrow, you are the bow. A gift from the Forest and we, its caretakers.”

“I—” Harry began to protest, still clinging to his promises to accept nothing from the Fae.

“No, Harry Potter. I swear it on my Name. This gift was yours before it came to us, waiting for the moment you were ready—we felt your return to Albion, and you came when you were called, so you are ready—you owe us nothing but the care it will require.” Torell’s tone was final, and they turned from Harry.

They had sworn on their name, wasn’t that what Hermione had said he could use as a last resort? He knew enough about the Fair Folk to understand that they took true names incredibly seriously, they were as good as Imperio, or an Unbreakable Vow. If Torell was willing to make a promise against their name, then they must be serious.

“Okay.” Harry agreed, quiet. “I—well—thank you, then?”

“Farewell Harry Potter, the Spring Dance calls us away. Should you ever hear the call of the Hunt, we would be honoured to ride with you.”

Harry frowned, and between one blink and the next, Torell and the rest of the Fae were gone. Even as Torell’s voice echoed in the space they had stood, the forest dimmed around Harry, as though a light had been extinguished. Colours and textures faded back into normality, toadstools and flowers wilted, rotting in the space of a breath. The trees crowded back in around Harry, dark, and menacing, ushering him out of their way. He turned, palm carefully cradling his gift of leaf and seed, and began his walk out of the darkness of the woods.

Shacklebolt and Hermione were waiting for him along with McGonagall in her office when he returned. They all inspected the neatly wrapped parcel with eager eyes, and gentle spells under Harry’s watchful gaze. He wasn’t sure why, exactly, but he didn’t want them to touch it, or unwrap it. Something in his gut told him that it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the gift, to allow them to examine it more closely. It was his. To look after. To protect.

None of them could detect any curses or dark magic upon the gift, though they laboured over it for hours. There was magic in it, but nothing they could recognise, and Hermione was the first to suggest that as they couldn’t find any evidence of danger, Harry ought to just keep it, if he wanted.

Shacklebolt left first, relieved that no political requirements had been borne of the meeting. Hermione lingered, talking to McGonagall and debating the likelihood of a return visit from the Fae. It looked like they would be at it for a while, so Harry left after promising to visit again for a proper catch-up, and pinching a sly fist-full of Pepper Imps when Minerva was distracted calling for tea.

Harry headed straight home, still off-kilter, but grateful to return to his break from work. Grimmauld Place was still and quiet as he moved through the house, exhausted despite his light duties for the day. Dusk had fallen while he had patiently waited in McGonagall’s office as they cast over the tiny ball of green and brown. He could just call it a night. He wasn’t hungry, and he had no plans for the evening. Draco was having dinner with Pansy and Blaise, so he was coming over tomorrow morning for breakfast, and hopefully a long lazy day in bed.

He climbed the stairs to his bedroom, his eyes on the green ball still cupped in his hand. It wasn’t magically enhanced, not like the psychedelic colours and lights from his meeting with the Fair folk, it was real. Real. And beautiful for it. In his room, finally free of the perennial travel trunk he had lived out of for the last five years, he placed it carefully on Draco’s pillow. He wasn’t sure why, but he needed it to be somewhere safe, and soft.

He stripped out of his formal robes, slung them over the chair beside his wardrobe to be put away later, and lay down under the covers. He reached out to hold the acorn again, fumbling, and awkward. He was still confused by the strange urge to protect this parcel of the forest, by the pull he felt, by the scent of new growth and green leaves, of blossom and springtime that it carried into his bed. He was confused by the warm curl of hope he felt as he closed his fingers around it.

Before he relaxed and allowed sleep to claim him, he cast a Patronus with a message for Draco, to wait at his flat for him to come back from his night out with Pansy. It went well, I’m home, managed not to create an inter-species incident. They gave me a gift, but it’s fine, it’s just an acorn. Goodnight. I love you.




Saturday 20th March 2010 - the Spring Equinox

Harry swam towards wakefulness, squinting his eyes against the sunlight streaming through his still-open curtains. He hadn’t drawn them the night before, too tired and focused on his gift of seed and leaf. He was hot. He was hot, and there was a weight on his chest, and Draco hadn’t been with him when he fell asleep.

He opened his eyes, and swallowed, blinking hard, as though that might change the sight that greeted him.

There was a baby lying on him. A baby girl. A baby with long eyelashes that were a dark sweep against round, pink cheeks as she slept. Her tiny hands were curled into fists, held up close to her face as she rested, curled against his sternum as though listening to his heart.

He must have moved, or made a sound, or somehow disturbed her peaceful sleep, because she stirred, blinking awake and wriggling where she rested. He froze, staring, his heart racing. Soaring.

She tilted her little head, covered in dark, wispy curls, and looked up to his face. Wide eyed and quiet, she watched him. Harry couldn't speak. He couldn't think. He realised he was crying, tears were streaming from his eyes, tracking along his temples, and into his hairline.

A baby girl. Grown overnight from an acorn and leaves. Magic. Beautiful magic. The most enchanting magic Harry had ever seen—had never even dreamed possible—but she couldn’t be real. She had to be a trick. The cruelest trick Harry could imagine. Because one look in her eyes was all it had taken for his heart to leap—pounding in his chest—and settle, determined, adamant, on love.

He hadn’t known—hadn’t admitted—hadn’t allowed that most secret part of himself to ever see the light. Not after the cupboard, and the forest, and the painful realisation he would never marry Ginny, or any other woman. He had silenced that quiet wish. For family. For a child of his own.

He loved Teddy, adored him, but Harry never could or would even want to replace his parents. Being his Godfather was a joy, and he would always want to be in Teddy’s life. But he had dreamed, sometimes, of a tiny face with his own green eyes, or his messy hair. He had dreamed. Sometimes with all the blurred ambiguity of the unconscious that drained away like water in cupped hands as he drifted away from sleep. Sometimes with knife-sharp specificity that would leave him gasping when he woke, the sound of laughter in his ears, the scent of sunshine and warm skin in his nose.

And now here she lay across his chest, sticky-warm, eyes like sunlight through leaves, skin as golden-brown as his own, tiny mouth a rosebud pink, stretching around a smile as she gazed at him. Harry felt something shift inside him, looking into her face, something crucial. And it hurt, it hurt like healing, like a bone being set, like the burn of love when you let yourself truly feel it. He had never felt more powerful, and he had never felt so at the mercy of the universe.

This was what the Fair Folk had meant. Life in return for his sacrifice. A life. A baby. A daughter.

A gift.

Harry raised his hands to touch her, and his palms covered her tiny back completely, his fingers cradled her ribs as she breathed. She was warm, and soft, and so small.

“Hello.”

He whispered, worried he might frighten her, scared of breaking this perfect moment, but incapable of holding back from greeting her, from welcoming her. But he needn’t have worried, she simply smiled again, and gurgled in response. He was smiling back before he realised, grinning, unabashed, and unselfconscious.

His whispering was interrupted by the sound of his front door opening, then closing, quietly. Draco. Draco was here. And Harry had a baby. A magical baby from the Fair Folk. And Draco was coming up the stairs.

His tread was gentle on the creaky step halfway up. Draco was being careful, Harry realised, trying to be quiet so as not to wake him. They had been going to spend the day in bed. It was Harry’s first proper weekend home, they were just properly moving in together, and now he had a baby.

He didn’t know how Draco felt about babies. Well, he did. Andromeda said Draco had been frightened and adoring in equal measure when Teddy was still a baby. And Harry knew he was brilliant with Teddy now, too. But did Draco want—because Harry wanted, he’d never wanted anything so much in his life as he wanted this—this baby girl, and Draco too.

Harry wanted to call out, to warn Draco, but what could he say? So he lay still so that she wouldn’t fall from her curl on his chest, and quiet as he waited for Draco to open the door.

“Harry?” Draco’s voice was low, and soft, as he came into the room, clearly expecting to find Harry sleeping.

He went completely silent though, when he stepped into the room and fixed his eyes on the bed. His gaze flicked from Harry’s face, to the baby, and back to Harry’s face. And if it had been even a year ago, Harry might have expected some kind of explosion. But he knew better now. He knew that Draco paused, these days, before he reacted. He knew that he had reserves of patience that ran shockingly deep when it came to the people he loved, and he knew that Draco loved him.

“Draco,” he whispered, still cradling the baby to his heart. “Draco, I woke up and—”

“Is this the gift?” Draco asked, his sharp mind already racing.

“I think she is. I went to sleep, and I was holding it, and I woke up this morning and—and she was here.”

Draco crossed the room, and settled on the bed beside him, no trace of anything but wonder on his face.

“She’s a girl?”

“Yeah.”

“I think—” Draco paused, dragged his eyes from her face to look at Harry, and his eyes were bright. “I think that today is her birthday. A Spring Equinox baby.”

“Oh.” Harry smiled, let out the breath he had been holding. His doubt and worry evaporated at the sight of Draco smiling down at her little face. “Sort of fitting, I suppose, being as how she started out as a little acorn seed.”

“Well, mighty oaks from small acorns, and all that. And this is mighty magic. To create life. Real life. Harry, this is incredible.”

Draco had that flush in his cheeks again, the palest rose-glow, and he was watching the baby as she wriggled and reached out towards him. Wordlessly, Harry pulled Draco’s hands to her tiny body, nodded encouragingly, and lay still as Draco lifted her into his arms. Harry thought he might cry, all over again, at the sight of Draco hunched over, curling his arms under her, cradling her little head in his palm, as delicate and as gentle as Harry had ever seen him. His chest felt like it was expanding, like space was opening there, space for something to grow.

“It is—are you—are we—?” Harry had so many questions, he couldn’t ask a single one of them.

Draco slanted a glance at him from under his eyelashes, before gazing back down at the baby in his arms.

“I did bring croissants, you know, they’re down in the kitchen.” He leaned back against the pillows, brought his knees up, and rested her against his chest. His fingers were careful, tender, and pale against her warm brown skin. “I brought my luggage too.”

“Yeah?” Harry sighed, relieved, because Draco had heard his silent queries, and answered them all.

“Mmhmm,” Draco hummed, as he stroked her little cheeks, her eyebrows, and smiled helplessly when she giggled in response.

Harry rolled to his side, curled against Draco, and rested his head on his shoulder. He pulled a blanket up from the bottom of the bed to nestle around her little body.

“We’re going to need to get her some clothes. Maybe Andromeda still has some of Teddy’s?”

“I’m sure she does. And I’m sure Mrs Weasley will be knitting a personalised blanket just as soon as she finds out the news. But, Harry, she needs a name first.”

Harry was still staring down at her face, but he could hear the smile in Draco’s voice. A name. Of course.

“What do you think we should call her?” He asked, not sure where one even started when it came to naming another person.

Draco hummed. “I think...I think that you should name her. I’d only suggest something ridiculous and overwrought.”

“No, you wouldn’t!” Harry laughed, but he knew Draco was right. He’d want something ludicrous, or steeped in Malfoy history.

“I bloody would. You should choose, she came to you, so you should be the one to gift her her name.”

For a moment, Harry thought of carrying his own family history into the present, and calling her Lily. It was a pretty name, and it would be a way to honour his mother, to carry the golden thread of her existence forward. But almost immediately, he decided against it. His mother was always going to be in his heart, but to carry her name and all of the history and grief attached to it would be a weight he couldn’t bring himself to lay on tiny shoulders. He knew well enough the ache it was to carry the relics of his parents; his mother’s eyes, his father’s hair, his body and its survival a memorial to them.

The baby—his baby—she deserved more than being a testament to the dead. She was a new life, a new life created on the break of spring, a gift from the forest.

The forest was where she came from. And the first time Harry had gone into that forest, dark and forbidding but full of magic and potential, it was with Hagrid.

Hagrid, who loved and respected the forest, who protected it, and shared it. Hagrid who had carried Harry from it in his arms when he was seventeen, just like he had carried Harry from Godric’s Hollow when he was one, and from the shack in the sea when he was eleven. Hagrid who had given Harry his first birthday cake, home-made and messy and heart-felt. Hagrid who had shown Harry magic, who had gifted him his own true history, who was Harry’s first friend. Rubeus Hagrid.

“I...I want to call her Ruby.” Harry’s voice was low, as he carefully spoke her name for the first time. “What do you think?”

Draco rested his cheek against Harry’s head, a comforting weight, and cupped her little cheek in his palm. “I think it’s beautiful, Harry, I think it suits her. What do you think, Ruby?”

She smiled in response, all dimples and leaf-green eyes, and Draco was beside him, and Harry’s heart was full.

All was well.