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Fate and Choice

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"There are things we don't want to happen but have to accept, things we don't want to know but have to learn, and people we can't live without but have to let go." - Criminal Minds  

~~~~ 

twelve years ago  

Haley wept quietly in his arms, her own clutching uselessly at her belly. He dipped his head into her hair, eyes squeezed tightly shut, as the door quietly closed behind the doctor as he left to give them privacy.   

"What did I do wrong?" she sobbed.   

Hotch didn't trust himself to speak, just clutched her closer as his shoulders shook.   

"I thought it was just a fever, I should have- I should have-"   

"Haley-"  

"Aaron, I'm so sorry."  

"It wasn't you," he whispered, voice cracking painfully. "It just-"   

People just died, sometimes. With his job, that should have been easy to say. He'd held dead children before, reported their deaths to parents. It had been much simpler to tell them what had happened, coax them through the shock, and get the necessary information he needed from them. Empathizing was necessary, but truly understanding their pain was impossible.  

He had never been on the receiving end until now. And the grief tore him apart in a way he would have previously been unable to imagine.   

"Harry," she cried out softly in a last requiem. What did you say about someone you'd only known for less than a year? Someone who had unconsciously trusted their entire lives to you, helpless as they were? Someone you had failed? "Harry..."  

---  

eleven years ago  

"It's him," Petunia said, horrified, as she backed away from the baby Vernon was holding at arm's length. It was nothing short of a miracle that the baby did not survive the last dark lord's curse only to meet his end by falling to the tiled floor and cracking his head open. "It's that monstrous child my blasted sister took in."  

"Well," Vernon snapped, "what do we do with it?" Dudley was screaming in his crib upstairs and both parents glanced up. "We're not raising two, we're certainly not raising your dreaded sister's boy. Hardly our fault she..." He cut himself off, seeing the muted pain in Petunia's expression.   

She blinked rapidly, ferociously ridding herself of any trace of mourning. "Without that child, she would probably still be alive."  

"What do we do?" Vernon repeated. He paused. "No one knows it's here, right?"  

She stared at him. "Perhaps..." A few knew. But this was the muggle world and accidents happened...   

Yet the magical freaks knew things, and they could do things Petunia could only dream of.   

"We'll...watch him for a little while. Any signs of...freakishness and we'll..." She sniffed, hiding the sign of sorrow with a disdainful look. "Well, we'll deal with it then."   

---  

ten years ago 

The bedroom was empty when he woke up. There was a dim light coming from under the door, and he quietly got up. It was too faint to be the hallway light; upon opening the door, he saw it was coming from another room. He left the master bathroom and passed a bathroom, intended to be shared by children, and came to a stop outside one of the vacant rooms. As the closest, it had been designed as a nursery. 

Haley was sitting in a rocking chair by the unused crib. Her lands were limp in her lap, eyes staring morosely at the folded baby blanket in the crib, new two years ago and never wrapped around a child. She looked up when she heard him enter, then turned back to the crib.  

"I don't want to try again," she said quietly. "I know... I know you wanted to..." 

He shook his head, moving to rest his hand on her shoulder. She clasped hers over his. "I don't think we could survive this again," he replied, just as quietly. "I don't even know what we'd do if it miscarried." 

"He was so healthy," she whispered. "Even the doctors... Even they said they'd never seen anything like it. Not even the smallest sniffle or fever... He should have made it." He squeezed his hand briefly and she rested her head against his arm, taking a deep breath. "Let's adopt." 

"No," he said gently. She looked up at him in surprise. "You're just saying it because of me." 

She frowned. "We could do it." 

"We couldn't do a baby," he pointed out, silently adding not after Harry, "and any older would be much more difficult. Especially if I get this job at the BAU - you would be raising him or her mostly by yourself."  

She sighed and turned back to the crib. "I suppose." She gave a short, mostly humorless chuckle. "We'd probably be helicopter parents after Harry anyway. What kid would want us?" 

Hotch smiled slightly. "Probably." 

She patted his hand and stood up. "That's that, then. I'll clean out this room over the weekend." 

--- 

nine years ago 

At two, Harry was deemed old enough to move out of the crib. Vernon immediately deposited him in the closet under the stairs after Petunia gave it a very brief cleaning. A full year later, Dudley was finally getting his own bed, his restlessness giving them cause for concern as he tried to escape the crib.  

"Do you think it's sanitary in there?" Petunia asked nonchalantly, gesturing with a spatula towards the closet under the stairs.  

Vernon didn't even look over. "Probably not. Maybe he'll get sick and die." 

Petunia smiled briefly. "We wouldn't even have to do anything. He's quieter than I expected." 

Vernon grunted, pulling out the paper. "Seems just quiet enough to me. Out of the way is just the place for him." He turned the page, not finding anything of interest on the front. Then he paused. "He isn't...unusually quiet, is he?" 

Petunia stopped. The bacon hissed on the pan in front of her. "I don't know... But that can't be...that, could it?" 

Vernon frowned.  

In the closet, Harry was listening carefully to the voices. He didn't quite understand what they were saying, but he knew that he needed to hide the books if they came closer. They didn't like it when he came out, but it just got so boring sitting there in the dark. People kept giving his cousin all those gifts, and he played with the games all the time and never even glanced twice at the books. He never noticed when Harry swiped them and brought them down to his closet. They were small enough that he could hide them under his blanket or under loose flaps of wood and his aunt and uncle wouldn't notice if they looked in.  

Usually, the light through the grating on the door was enough for him to see by, but when it got dark in the evenings he had more trouble. Just when he couldn't read anymore, a small ball of light formed over his head, and he could continue flipping pages until he couldn't keep his eyes open. He didn't think his aunt and uncle would like to hear he was up late reading - they sometimes got upset at Dudley (for being up late, not reading) - so he never mentioned it. 

--- 

eight years ago 

Haley closed her eyes one moment, head rested against her pillow and arm across Aaron's waist. Then she opened her eyes and she was sitting in a cramped space, faintly illuminated by light filtering in through a grate on a small door beside her. She was facing a small boy, maybe four or five, with a book in his lap. His head drooped down comically, slower and slower until it hit his knees, and then he jerked upright and shook himself firmly.  

"Go to sleep," she said, and he jumped at the sudden voice. He looked around wildly, as if he couldn't see her.  

"I can't," he finally replied, still bewildered. "Where are you?" 

"I'm right here," she said, similarly confused. "What's your name?" 

"Harry," he said bluntly and something lodged itself in her throat. 

She had to clear it several times before she trusted herself to speak, and even then her voice broke halfway through. "Well, Harry," she said, "why can't you go to sleep?" 

"Because I have to put my books back tomorrow," he said sadly. One finger mournfully traced the edge of the cover in his lap. "They didn't know I took them in, and I'll get in trouble if they find out." 

She smiled even though he couldn't see her and swiped a stray tear off her cheek. He looked like such a beautiful young boy... "Who will be upset?" 

"My aunt and uncle," he said. "They already found out I took some food today and they weren't happy." He shrugged. "They're sending his books to a distant relative, since Dudley doesn't use them." 

Her hands passed through the bangs she tried to move from over his eyes, and she frowned in frustration. This was her dream - she should have been able to interact with it. She had dictatorial powers here, right? "Do they ever read to you?" 

"No..." 

"Well, how about this. If you put the book down and turn it towards me, I can read it for you. You're just going to have to turn the pages when I'm done with them."  

He looked up, eyes almost meeting hers but not quite on target. "Are you a ghost?" he whispered. 

She laughed, successfully managing to keep the bitterness out of her voice at the unfair irony. "No, no..." 

He put the book on the floor between them, and she started reading out loud. Once they were done with it, she tried to convince him to go to sleep, but he was adamant that he go back through all of them. They were the only thing he had - there weren't any friends to speak of. Finally, what felt like hours later, he was beginning to slump backwards as she read until he was resting against the wood behind him.  

Haley reached for him and was shocked to find, in his unconscious state, that her hands were able to touch him. His skin wasn't quite smooth, due to a layer of grime from the conditions of the closet, but it was pleasantly warm, not like the overwhelming heat she had felt the last time she held him. In the awkward confines she found herself in, she managed to maneuver him until he was lying down. She tucked away the books until they were back where Harry had pulled them out, and she ran a hand over his head. He was like a miniature Aaron, she thought as she smiled to herself and pressed a gentle kiss to his temple. Though, to be fair, she'd never have described Aaron's features as 'adorable.' 

--- 

seven years ago 

Petunia was correcting his handling of the spatula for the sixth time in two minutes. "Get it right," she snapped. "Don't burn anything!" 

"He's useless," Vernon muttered from the table. "Why did we keep him?" 

"Because it was that or an orphanage, and you know what the orphanages are like." She didn't know the first thing about the situations in orphanages, but it sounded good. More importantly, Harry's eyes widened at the scary word he didn't know. His next attempt to shuffle the eggs around was much better.  

Vernon scowled at his paper. Dudley was scribbling with crayons next to him, oblivious to the frustration of his parents or the dilemma of his 'cousin.'  

There was a screeching of metal and Petunia looked back just as Harry yelped, drawing his hand back. Too much pressure on the spatula at one side of the pan caused it to tilt precariously, and it had finally slid off and splattered the eggs onto the floor. While he'd tried to steady the pan, Harry had grabbed the hot base and was now curling his fingers around his red palm. Petunia scowled at him and snatched the spatula away. She smacked him over the head with it and he stumbled back, more out of reflex than anything else.  

"Stupid!" she hissed, then pointed down. "Look at this-" 

But the mess was gone.  

Her eyes shot to Vernon, and he got slowly to his feet.  

"What did you do?" she demanded.  

"Nothing!" he insisted, still cradling his hand. "I didn't do anything!" 

Her other hand tightened around the handle of the pan. "What did you do?" she demanded again.  

"Nothing! It-it just happened..." 

And Lily's death had "just happened" too, all because of the wretched boy.  

She swung the pan and Harry threw both arms up over his head. The first blow collided with his shoulder and he stumbled to the side, hitting the island in the middle of the kitchen. She smacked him again and it hit lower along his exposed rib cage. Harry tried to keep covering his head while now protecting his stomach, but he had to curl up to do so and he left his back completely exposed to Petunia's rage.  

The pan smashed down on his back- 

And shattered against something, a barrier, that flashed blue for the faintest of moments before it vanished.  

Petunia stared at Harry, who tentatively looked out from between his arms. Vernon stalked around the island and grabbed Harry by the back of the shirt, dragging him out of the room and into the hall. "Don't upset your aunt," he snarled. "She's done more for you than you deserve!" He threw the closet door open and shoved Harry inside. "If you come out before we let you, you won't be eating for a week." 

Petunia was waiting with the handle of the pan in one hand and a spatula in the other. "He's got to go," she whispered as Vernon came to a stop in front of her.  

"Are your sister's freaky friends still watching?" 

"I don't know... But it's been years. Maybe not." 

"Let's try it now." 

--- 

six years ago 

Since the first dream, Haley regularly found herself encountering Harry on what was almost a monthly basis. Usually it was fleeting, and she only saw him for the briefest of moments. Almost every time he was in the confined space, often on the brink of sleep, and if she knew she didn't have long then she would just sing softly for what little time she had. In all, she'd only had three conversations with him that were as long as the first one, and that was over two years. She never mentioned it to Aaron; she couldn't even imagine how she would broach the subject of her wistful dreams.  

"Harry," she said warmly as he began to wake up. He blinked - adorable! - and rubbed at his eyes. 

"Good morning, miss," he said courteously and she grinned.  

"My little gentleman," she replied, grinning. What she wouldn't give to see that boy every day while she was awake. He began changing clothes, and she did her best to duck out of the way of his swinging limbs even though he couldn't touch her. "In a hurry?" 

"I have to make breakfast," he whispered. "I'm still not very good at it, though. Can you help me?" 

She frowned. "You have to make breakfast?" He couldn't be more than six now. "Says who?" 

"Says Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon."  

Her frown deepened as Harry finished changing and opened the closet door. Haley had to get down onto her hands and knees to quickly crawl out after him before he shut it, and she got to her feet as he closed it quietly. For the first time, she was able to get a good look at the house. Only once before had she seen it without Harry, and that had been when he was upstairs swiping some more books from Dudley. (The Boxcar Children series. Haley was beginning to wonder if Dudley could even read.) 

No other sounds came from the house, and she assumed everyone else was asleep as she watched Harry start to get eggs and bacon from the refrigerator and bread from the counter. "Did you finish the books from last time?" she asked. He had read them out loud to her that time, and she had smiled through each of his stumbles over unfamiliar words.  

He nodded quickly and whispered, "They were good. I got a few more from the library. I told them I don't have a card but they don't mind." 

"Oh? How far is the library?" 

"Um, half a mile, Aunt Petunia said." 

Her eyebrows came together. "They let you go there?" 

"Yeah, Uncle Vernon said it would be good. He said I hoped I got caught in a car accident." He frowned in concentration as he broke an egg on the side of the pan and opened the contents on it. Behind him, Haley clasped both hands over her mouth in horror. "What's a car accident?" 

"Something you should never get into," she whispered. "Be very careful when you walk to the library, okay?" 

"Okay," he replied, sounding confused.  

"If a stranger offers to take you somewhere other than the library, or here, or-or the police station, don't go with them. And stay away from the street. Only cross when the cars aren't moving." 

Harry split another egg into the pan. "Miss, you don't sound okay," he said carefully.  

"Promise me you'll look both ways before crossing the road?" 

He nodded. "I promise."  

She glanced down the hallway. No one, and it was still quiet. "How early do your aunt and uncle get up?" she asked.  

"Soon. Is everything okay?" 

"Harry, put down the spatula and come with me," she said urgently.  

"But...breakfast..." 

"Never mind that," she said. "Turn off the stove." He did so and rested the spatula on the counter, a look of complete befuddlement on his face. "Okay, okay... Be quiet, but follow my voice. We're going to go out the front door. Don't say anything until we get outside." 

Harry silently went with her, but tugged uselessly on the door. "The lock," she whispered, although she knew no one but Harry could hear her. "Above the handle, get the- Yes." The door opened, squeaking slightly and causing both to wince, and then Harry was stepping onto the front porch. He shut the door behind them. "Okay, let's go. Do you know any of your neighbors?"  

"Mrs. Figg," Harry said uncertainly, "but she's kind of strange."  

Haley wracked her brains for an idea. If Mrs. Figg knew Harry, she might be more likely to believe him, but if she knew his aunt and uncle well, she might also be more inclined to believe them. "We're going to go to the library, okay?" 

"Miss, I can't leave breakfast to go to the library," Harry said. 

"We'll just walk in that direction, okay?" This town couldn't be that big. Hopefully they would pass a police station and she could direct him in, and she could tell him what to say and- 

The door swung open, revealing a portly, red-faced man.  

"No!" Haley screamed in frustration, uselessly throwing out a hand to try to push him back. It went straight through him.  

Vernon grabbed Harry and dragged him in. Haley shoved herself through the fat man to get in, wincing at the discomfort of walking through him, just before the door slammed shut. "What the bloody hell are you trying to do?" Vernon demanded, shaking him roughly. Harry moved limply with the rough action, unable to do anything against his much larger uncle. "Just thought you'd wander around the neighborhood, did you? Show everyone how freaky you are?!" 

"I'm so sorry, Harry," she whispered. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." 

"Uncle Vernon, I-I just- I thought maybe-" 

"Speak up!" he roared. 

"You thought he'd want more bacon and maybe Mrs. Figg had some," Haley said suddenly.  

Harry glanced in the direction of her voice before looking back to Vernon. "I- I dropped some bacon on the floor, so- so I thought, maybe Mrs. Figg had some more... I thought I would be back quickly..." 

Vernon huffed and shoved Harry towards the kitchen. "Don't bother Mrs. Figg at this time of day. She deals with you enough," he ordered. "Go back to making breakfast." 

Haley let out her breath and followed Harry back to the stove. Vernon went upstairs. "I didn't mean for you to get into trouble," she whispered. "I'm so sorry..."  

"It's okay," he murmured.  

A woman who could only be Petunia came down the stairs, a box of sleeping pills in her hand. From the look on her face, she knew what had happened. She only briefly glanced at Harry when he greeted her with a "Good morning," and then grabbed a few glasses out of the cupboards and carried them over to the faucet. She filled all of them up with water, then brought them to the kitchen table. 

Haley frowned and glanced at Harry. He had breakfast well in hand, so she moved over to watch whatever Petunia was doing. The aunt opened the box she'd brought down and dumped out a handful of sleeping pills, then tipped them all into one glass. Haley stared at her, shocked, and then quickly moved closer to peer at the instructions. One was the recommended dose for an adult. There were six in the glass, slowly dissolving.  

With Harry focused on the stove, Petunia grabbed a spoon and began stirring the drugged glass. Haley had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she glanced at the front door again. Vernon was coming down the stairs now, and he met Petunia at the table. She muttered something to him, too low for Haley to hear. 

Harry glanced over his shoulder, and Haley realized what he was looking for. She moved to stand on his left and watched him cook for a moment. He had grossly underestimated his own skills, especially considering he couldn't quite see the contents in the pan. "I'm still here," she whispered comfortingly. "Still here..." 

Haley glanced back to the Dursleys, but they were still muttering to each other. As if sensing the observation, Petunia nodded sharply to Vernon and turned away as she fell silent. "Boy," Vernon said sternly. "Come here." 

Harry set down the spatula carefully and walked over. Haley followed him nervously, eyeing the drugged water again. "Yes, sir?" 

God, she wanted to punch Vernon in his funny-looking face.  

"You're in trouble for this morning," Vernon snapped, then picked up one of the glasses of water and handed it to Harry. There was a faint tremor running through Vernon, apprehension. "Drink that and get back under the stairs. Don't come out for anything." 

"Harry, stop!" Haley hissed as Harry tilted his head back and made to sip some of the water. "Don't!" 

He stopped, eyes flickering to the corner of his eye to try and see her.  

"What are you waiting for?" Vernon demanded. A sheen of sweat had begun to break out across his forehead and Haley glared at him. They knew what they were doing. "Drink it already!" 

"Come on, get it over with!" Petunia snapped. She was tightly gripping the back of a chair. "We don't have all day!" 

"Harry, please, don't!" Haley begged. She couldn't handle losing him again, not even in this terrible dream. Harry hesitantly lowered the glass from his lips, but he was cowering in on himself, shoulders hunched as if it would make him less noticeable to Vernon and Petunia.  

"Drink it!" Vernon shouted. "Now!" 

"If I have to tell you one more time," Petunia started.  

"Come on, already!" 

"Don't drink! Harry, don't!" Haley shouted over the other two. 

"Do it!" 

"You'll regret it if you don't!" Vernon hollered, reaching out grab Harry by the scruff of the neck. Harry grimaced in pain and raised the glass again. "All of it!" 

"Yes, there you go," Petunia said as Harry glanced at the glass.  

"Don't, Harry!" Haley screamed. Vernon shook him and Harry hurriedly raised the glass again. "No, put it down! Harry-" He opened his mouth. "Harry, stop! It's poison!

His eyes widened and he startled, the glass dropping from his hands and shattering to the floor. There was a moment of silence as Petunia and Vernon glared at him, and then Vernon threw him to the side and into a wall. It stunned Harry long enough for Vernon to swing a fist at him, connecting solidly with his stomach and knocking the breath out of him.  

"No!" Haley tore at Vernon frantically, hands passing through him uselessly. She screamed in frustration as he kicked out, driving his foot into Harry's crumpled form again and again. "Leave him alone, you monster! Get your hands off my son!

Vernon glanced at Petunia, who pointed with both hands towards the set of kitchen knives and the box of sleeping pills. Vernon hesitated, then gestured towards the latter. She nodded and dumped a handful of the pills straight from the box into the glass. It was more than six.  

"Stop, you bitch! Don't you hurt him!" Haley screamed, fingers stretching through the air and through an oblivious Petunia. "No!

"Haley- Haley!" 

Her eyes flew open and she heaved in deep gasps. She was still struggling, still fighting, but now she realized her hands were still clenched into fists and she was beating them against Aaron's chest. In such close quarters, there wasn't much damage she could do, but he was staring at her in concern while he tried to soothe her down.  

"Haley, what's wrong?" he demanded, finally succeeding in grabbing her fists.  

Her breath came out in a sob. "It's- It's Harry, they're going to kill him, they're going to- It's my fault, I told him to leave the house and get the police, and they- they caught him- Aaron, they're going to kill him, they-" 

"Shh," he whispered, pulling her close while she held onto him. "He's gone. He's gone, Haley." 

She screamed in anguish, muffling the sound against his shoulder. 

--- 

five years ago 

He hadn't heard from the mysterious woman in over thirteen months. He was beginning to think he'd just imagined her, had made himself believe he could feel a warm, loving hand stroking his hair or rubbing his back in the minutes before he went to sleep. All until that last fateful day... 

 On the fourth night under the stairs as punishment for not drinking either glass of water, Harry had begun sneaking out and getting food when no one was awake. By the end of the week, he was growing desperate, and he began frantically hoarding food in the closet to eat during the day. They must have begun to suspect what he was doing, because a lock was put on the door and was firmly set in place. A few days passed in which he hung on by a thread, eating the last of the food he had stored away and mulling over the books he'd read at least three times by now.  

Finally, there was a sharp knock on the door and Vernon's snapped, "Boy." 

"Yes, Uncle Vernon?" Harry weakly croaked out.  

There was a surprised pause on the other side, like he hadn't been expecting an answer.  

"Are you thirsty?" Petunia asked, a strange tone to her voice.  

"Yes, Aunt Petunia." 

There was movement, and he could hear them filling a cup with water. The lock was opened and Harry took a deep breath of fresh air as the door swung out. He immediately coughed as the air hit his dry throat, and when he opened his eyes he saw Petunia offering him a glass of water. His gaze flickered uncertainly between the two, and he hesitantly reached out to take the glass. He quickly drank it all down, though there was a strange taste to it, and handed back the glass. Vernon nodded to himself and shut and locked the door again.  

Hours later, he'd begun to throw up violently. Despite his weakened state, he had pounded frantically against the door. He had figured his body just didn't know what to do with the water after so long without it. Vernon had finally opened the door, muttered something about him just needing food, and shoved some bread at him. Harry thought it crunched strangely on the way down, like there was something else in it, and there was another strange taste, a metallic tang. An hour later, he was throwing up again, but this time, blood came out. The Dursleys didn't open the door to his renewed banging.  

Three days later, he woke up to hear a loud curse overheard. His head rolled weakly on the floor and he looked up, but saw nothing. "Are you back?" he whispered.  

"What?" was the response. It was male.  

Harry didn't say anything, instead clamping a hand over his mouth to stop himself from hurling. It felt like his throat was all scratched by throwing up so much already.  

"Are you okay?" the voice asked, bewildered. It was much deeper than the woman's had been, and it was a bit unsettling to hear so close to him. The only three men he had ever met were the postman, who ignored him; the librarian, who was cheerful towards him but had bad eyesight and was likely to accidentally hit him with a stack of books; and Vernon.  

Harry moaned softly. He just wanted this to be over. If they offered him the glass of poison again, he'd gladly drink it.  

"What did you eat?" the voice asked. Harry swore he could feel a faint pressure on his shoulder, like someone had their hand there.  

"Bread," Harry whispered softly. There was a long pause. "What is it?" 

"Where did you get the bread from?" The voice was urgent now.  

"My aunt and uncle." 

"Don't take anything they give you to eat," it ordered. "Did they give you something to drink?" 

"Mmhmm. It tasted funny." 

"When was this? Did you throw it up?" 

"A day ago? And yeah..." He jerked to the side as his stomach rebelled against him again, expelling clear liquid flecked with something dark.  

"Don’t eat anything they give you," the voice repeated. "They're trying to kill you." 

The voice had coaxed him out of his misery and stayed for an hour, talking to him in a soothing tone and, after an awkward pause, singing in a rather untalented but surprisingly endearing tenor. It vanished mid-stanza in one of the songs Harry had heard from the woman. He later followed through on his promise, refusing the food and water Petunia tried to give him the next day, and he somehow managed to pull through. A week later, he actually felt mildly alive, much to his surprise.  

With his strength back, he began trying to get out of the cupboard again. Sometimes, it seemed like the lock hadn't been put in place - or at least, he thought so, but it sounded like the lock was moving out of place when he needed it to - and then he would go get food. A month after they had put him in there, the Dursleys relented and let him out entirely. The first thing he did was clean up the dried puke. The Dursleys treated him more warily after that, but they kept offering him food for the next few months. Harry refused each time, no matter what punishment he got, until they finally stopped. 

Somehow, he had managed to survive without food and water for days, and the Dursleys now only used the threat of taking them away sparingly. Instead, Vernon got more and more violent, and Petunia took to hitting him with the hot frying pan at the slightest mistake. 

The man's voice appeared again early one morning. He entered by making a startled noise, like he hadn't expected to be there. Harry was in his cupboard, nursing a split lip. The man spent the next half hour describing to him how to get some good elbow and knee strikes in to protect himself, and later that day when Vernon grabbed him, Harry elbowed him in the gut and forced him to let go. He heard from the man one more time, a few months later when Harry was in his cupboard panicking over Vernon's rage that he had instigated by dropping a pot of soup. Once more, the man took him through some basic strikes he could do, but he was cut off mid-sentence. Harry never heard the voice in the cupboard again.  

And then today happened.  

Vernon swung at him again, aiming at his already blackening eye, and Harry flinched away even as the blow landed. He staggered back and held up his arms against the next one...and it never hit.  

Vernon shouted in pain, holding his hand. Harry opened his eyes a fraction. Vernon swore, glared at him, and then punched out with his next hand. To Harry's shock, the blow hit a barrier between them and bounced off. Vernon grunted and stepped back, face turning red in fury.  

Harry stood there, frantically hoping that the barrier never fell. Vernon tried everything to get at him, grabbing pots and pans, and even snapping a few knives on the invisible force. Harry was beginning to feel drained the longer this went on, and he was almost about to slip off into unconsciousness when a pan broke through and caught him in the chest. He shouted, in surprise and pain, and staggered back. Vernon made to hit him again...and everything went black.  

--- 

four years ago  

Hotch held up his hands in a panic as Haley screamed incoherently at him. Her arms were up and waving, and Hotch was almost tempted to start looking for medication from the way she was acting. Finally, he managed to grab her wrists to steady her, but the result enabled her to yell closer to him.   

"Why couldn't you just answer your phone like a regular person?!" she shouted, trying to yank her wrists away. He let her.   

"I was at a crime scene, and then I was flying back!" he tried to explain.   

"And you couldn't stop between the crime scene and the plane to call?!"  

"Haley-"  

"Did you think this wasn't important? Why can't you be more responsible? Why is it always me? Again, and again, why is it always me who gets sacrificed?"   

"Haley-"  

"Because it's me again, and I'll bet I'm going to be doing this on my own again, and-"  

"Doing what on your own?"  

"I'm pregnant."  

He froze.   

She stared at him with blotchy eyes and a pale face.   

"Are you sure?" he whispered.   

"If this one dies too, do we count as neglectful parents or murderers? I can only be so unlucky, right?"  

---   

three years ago  

Harry slipped a scrap of bacon off the frying pan when Petunia turned her back. The hot grease burned his fingers, but he was too hungry to care. He was still in trouble for burning toast a few days ago, and he hadn't had breakfast since.   

Unfortunately, he hadn't taken Vernon into account, and a harsh blow caught him in the side of the head as a meaty hand shoved into his pocket and pulled out the strip. "Thought you'd steal from us, huh?" he demanded, waving the bacon in Harry's face for a moment. "I should call the police on you. They'd take you straight to a penitentiary for people like you."  

"Uncle Vernon, I haven't eaten since two days ago," Harry said, trying to sound as respectful as possible. It felt like his legs were shaking.  

Vernon didn't usually hit him anymore, not unless Harry didn't see it coming. That time, years ago when Harry had been protected by a mysterious force, had resulted in both Vernon and Harry being knocked unconscious. Vernon had ended up in the hospital with what the doctors said was a fractured sternum. The Dursleys had given him a wide berth after that. 

Vernon sneered. "And who are you going to tell? No one's going to believe you. And even if someone did, you know what would happen to you? They'd send you to your parents."  

Petunia gave a dismissive 'humph' sound behind him. "No, they'd send him to his father. His mother was a prostitute - last I heard, they had no idea where she was at. I think his father managed to bribe his way out of sexual abuse charges, though. I'm sure he'd love to take someone like Harry in. After all, the police wouldn't believe him if he said what his father was like at home."  

Harry felt the blood drain from his face. "Sexual...abuse...?"  

"Against one of his kids. Don't remember if it was his daughter or one of his sons," Vernon said gleefully.   

---   

two years ago  

Jack was born healthy. It felt like Haley and Hotch were watching his every move, waiting for some horrific disease or accident to crop up and snatch him from them.   

In the end, they should have watched each other more carefully.   

"Mom?!" Jack screamed over Hotch's shoulder as the agent carried his son from the house. His gun was two bullets lighter, but one had missed its target completely and the other had only hit a shoulder, and the perpetrator of the crime had vanished. "Mom!"  

A few agents looked at the pair with pity as Hotch took Jack to an ambulance to have him checked out, but neither noticed any of the glances. Hotch was thinking about the cooling body inside his home as Jack broke down and sobbed into his shoulder.   

"Mom..."   

---  

one year ago  

Harry stared at Hagrid in horror as the giant man shook off his theory, stating how well-respected Snape was and how much faith Dumbledore entrusted in the potions master. "You don't believe me," he finally said when the grounds keeper paused for breath.   

"Harry, it's just... Well, you see..."  

Harry shook his head and walked away, Ron and Hermione pausing for a moment in surprise at the abruptness of his action before quickly following behind. "Harry, what is it?" Hermione asked.   

"Why did they have to be right about this?" Harry was muttering to himself. "Why doesn't anyone ever believe me?" He looked up at the other two, jaw set. "We need to get the stone ourselves, before Quirrell gets to it."  

Ron and Hermione glanced at each other. "Okay," Ron said and Hermione groaned in resignation. "How?" 

An hour later, both of his friends had been forced to turn back while he went on alone. He didn't think to wonder if he was going to make it out alive or not, and it was only when Quirrell was bearing down on him that he began to truly panic.  

Then Quirrell was screaming, and so was someone else- 

The woman.  

"You will not touch him, you shit!

"Get him!" Voldemort howled.  

"Yes, master!" 

Before Quirrell's hand could touch Harry, he was staggering backwards from some force pushing against him. "Don't you dare!" the woman shrieked furiously. "I'll break your nose off, and you'll match the ugly thing on the back of your head!"  

Quirrell pushed forward a step, using all his will and magic to manage it. Voldemort was shouting orders, though he was unable to see quite what was going on.  

"Harry, put up a barrier!" the woman shouted. 

"I don't have my wand!" 

"You don't need one! I've seen you do it before!" 

Harry threw up his hand as Quirrell closed in on him, and the DADA professor hit a wall. He pounded against it futilely, but every hit burned him. A faint pressure touched Harry's shoulders. "You've got this, you've got this..." the woman whispered into his ear. "If he touches you, he's dead, okay? I won't let him." 

"It's harder...to hold the barrier against him than Uncle Vernon..." Harry gritted out as it fractured under another blow. 

"If he touches you...he's dead," the woman threatened again.  

A hand stretched out and managed to touch Harry's forehead. He screamed as pain split his skull, but he distantly registered Quirrell screaming in pain. Harry threw his hand up, pressing it to Quirrell's face and feeling it melt beneath his palm. He retracted it in horror, but almost immediately, Voldemort was pushing Quirrell to him again.  

"Harry, don't let him win!" the woman shouted. "You must survive!" 

He pushed his palm in this time, and Quirrell went abruptly quiet. Harry fell back, hitting the stairs painfully. A screaming voice flew away from him and the woman, and then vanished.  

Harry turned towards the woman. "You're back," he whispered.  

A hand stroked over his forehead. "Yes," she murmured. She sounded exhausted. "But...I'm afraid this may be the last time. I think...I think I have to move on now." 

"Are you a ghost?" 

"Something like that. I should have been gone last year, but..." He felt a gentle kiss on his head. "I wanted to see you one last time. You'll make it, Harry. Just find...oh...find him..." 

"What?" he said, trying to sit up. A sharp flash of pain ran up his back and he had to stop.  

For the first time, he saw the outline of the woman. Both hands were outstretched towards him, and her hair was trying to escape from the tie it was pulled back in. Her expression was sorrowful as it looked at him. She was entirely monochromatic, all of her form outlined in various shades of grey.  

"I think I need to leave now," she whispered, one hand moving to clutch at her chest, as if in pain. "Goodbye, Harry." A wind, one that only affected her, tore through the room. One moment she was there, and then her hair swirled around her and her clothes were tugged to the left... 

And she was gone. 

---  

earlier in the year  

"I had a brother?" Jack said softly, eyes opening in a combination of shock and trepid hope.   

Hotch paused, looking at the photo album Jack had been searching through for photos of his mother. One picture held Harry, soon after he had been born. There were very few pictures of him after he'd gotten sick, which meant they had lost the last week of his life to anything but memory. They had expected so much more time with him.   

Hotch sat down next to Jack, using the time it took to buy himself a few moments to think of an answer. He had to nudge a moving box out of the way - it had been too hard for Jack to remain in the house his mother had been killed in. "You did, but he was very young when he..." Hotch sighed and wrapped an arm around Jack, who leaned into him. "He got sick, and...we lost him."   

Jack rested his head back against Hotch's chest. "What was he like?"  

"...Quiet, but he wasn't shy. He liked people." There wasn't a lot to say about a baby who hadn't had enough time to develop into his later self. "He used to cry whenever he heard someone else crying, but after a few months he started reaching for them. And he looked so serious when he did it, too. Your aunt's a master at crying on command, and she used to do it all the time around him to see if he still would do that." Harry had kept reaching for his mother in the last stages of his life, when he hadn't know what was going on but Haley had grown steadily more upset.  

"Are you leaving too?" Jack asked suddenly.   

"What?"  

"Mom and my brother left, so..."  

Hotch pulled him closer. "No, no. Never. I'm sticking with you, buddy."