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Run by Toujours Padfoot

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 31
Word Count: 133,958
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Contains Slash (Same-Sex Pairing), Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme, Contains Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Lupin, Snape, Lily, James, Tonks, Crabbe Jr., Cedric, Fred, Ravenclaw, Slytherin
Pairings: James/Lily, Remus/Tonks, Other Pairing

First Published: 02/20/2012
Last Chapter: 09/05/2012
Last Updated: 01/21/2014

Summary:
Amazing banner by Lucie Longhorn  ||  2013 Golden Paw Winner for Most Addicting




The village of the dead is not as peaceful as it seems.


2012 Dobby winner for Best Action/Adventure and Most Original
2012 Golden Snitch winner for Story of the Year, Best Plot, Best Plot Twist; runner-up Most Memorable Scene; finalist in Best Characterization, Best Description


Chapter 1: Newcomers
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Disclaimer: I am not  the magnificent JK Rowling. She owns everything you already recognize, including the quote you are about to read, which is from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, USA edition, page 297.






To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

- Albus Dumbledore


Cedric Diggory had been wearing trenches in the sand dunes for fifteen minutes at least, but when reflecting on the scope of things, he’d been waiting much longer than that. He’d been informed many long months ago – the previous April, in fact – that Cliodna’s Clock was to acquire a slew of new residents. Although the informant, Cassandra Trelawney, seemed quite unfazed about the mundane regularity of this sort of news, Cedric could not help but enquire after more details.

“Who?” he had asked at once, barring the woman’s path as she attempted to swerve past him. “Do you know any of them?”

“I’ve never met them, I’m sure.”

He attacked her from a different angle. “When are they coming? Did you see a date when you heard the crows? Anything concrete?”

“You ask a lot of questions.” She side-eyed the corner of Odo’s pub with a peevish demeanor. “I’m late for something.” She made to pass him but he held his arm out again.

“Do I know any of the newcomers?”

Cassandra stared at the sky, squinting. Whether she was squinting because she was annoyed or because she was analyzing her visions, Cedric couldn’t be certain. All he knew was that this was simultaneously the best and worst scrap of news that he’d gotten in a painfully long time. As much as he enjoyed Quidditch matches in the orange grove alongside Gideon and Fabian Prewett, Sirius Black was an infamous cheater and he nearly always bewitched the Quaffle. In Cedric’s own opinion, the man was just jealous that he’d never been a Quidditch Captain in his day. Cedric was a Captain as well as a Seeker, thank you very much, and all he ever asked of his mates was for a nice, clean game without anyone whistling at him just as he was about to dive for the Snitch. He had yet to have his wishes granted.

And besides that, he was lonely.

“Some are students,” she replied slowly. “Some are not.”

Cedric’s heart stuttered. “Students? Hogwarts students?”

She nodded, her movements still incredibly sluggish. She always floated around in a trance whenever she was in the middle of a fit of visions (which generally lasted for about three days, on and off), and it was a right pain trying to get any straight answers out of her. “Did you see any faces? Hear any names?”

She pursed her lips, definitely frowning now. “All I know is that a few of them turn up right after the tulips in Rowena’s garden bloom. And some of them come before that, but their arrival dates are vague.”

Cedric was not satisfied with this answer and continued to hound her. It wasn’t until after Professor Alastor Moody (although the old man barked at Cedric not to call him a professor) showed up, a snowy owl perched on his left shoulder, that Miss Trelawney had another vision. This time, two names were quite clear in her mind. It was these two particular people Cedric was waiting fervently for when he walked past Rowena’s front garden every morning, hands clasped behind his back. The stems took ages to slither up out of the ground, not helped in the least by Mr. Gryffindor’s standing under Rowena’s window all the time, bellowing sonnets up at her.

Cedric, growing desperate, stamped small fences in the ground around the tulips in efforts to keep them from being smashed. He even ventured so far as to knock on Godric’s door one evening and inquire very reasonably if the latter could please keep his humongous feet away from Miss Ravenclaw’s flower bed, as he was impeding something important. Godric had responded by setting his cat on him, which never seemed to like the boy. Perhaps it was because the narrow-eyed cat often watched Cedric pet Benjy Fenwick’s basset hound over the picket fence after his afternoon walks and decided to dislike him on principle.

While hurrying all over Cliodna’s Clock on these expeditions, hunching in the pouring rain and rambling to himself, he frequently glanced up at the village’s namesake – a tall, curved clock in the shape of a blackbird. Whenever someone who was destined to end up here died on earth, the clock tolled one crow for every year of that person’s life. Moments later, they would arrive on the beach with bewildered, unfocused eyes. Sometimes Cedric stood on the jetty that faced the depot, annoyed that he couldn’t swim out to pester the station attendant and demand more precise answers. He’d tried it many times over the past couple of years and no matter how hard he kicked his legs, no matter how long he continued to paddle, the depot always remained the same distance, looming on an island tauntingly far from him.

It was a one-way voyage, and he’d already made his.

Cedric owned that his desire to hurry the process was a little bit wrong. After all, these two people he knew were coming were familiar to him. He’d seen one several times and his old friends used to delight in making fun of him and the way he skipped around with a camera held up to one eye. The other newcomer was a boy he hadn’t been exactly friends with, as Cedric had heard him sniggering about him on more than one occasion, but he supposed bygones were indeed bygones and his Quidditch team was missing a Beater.

On April twenty-seventh, Rowena's tulips had successfully climbed out of the soil, petals curling tightly over their hearts to block out the sun. Cedric paced a bit more than usual, glowering at the flowers and occasionally shouting things at them to try to hurry them along (earning him incredulous stares and some catcalling from people lying in the gutter outside Odo’s, who always seemed to be drunk no matter what the hour), but it was useless. The tulips would bloom whenever they wanted to bloom, and no amount of harassing shadows that tried to take up residence along the brick siding of Rowena’s house, blocking out the rays of day, would make anything happen.

Therefore, on the second day of May, it took three full trips around the block for Cedric to finally see the blossoms peeled all the way out, pink with splashes of yellow. The enormous clock situated in City Center opened up its sharp beak and began to crow. Once, twice, thirty times. Fifty, sixty, a hundred. It continued to crow until everyone clamped their hands over their ears, attempting to smother the ringing sound. People streamed into the streets, exchanging worried looks and shouting to each other over the caws of the clock. What was going on down on earth?

Cedric wasn’t overly concerned about this. He was single-minded, having both dreaded this day and anticipated it. “That’s them! They’re here!” he cried, running down the pavement and skidding to a halt just before he could hit Phineas Nigellus Black. Phineas was busy stumbling around into things as usual, his body half-transparent from where he spent so much of his time paying attention to his portraits back on earth. He was forever bumping into houses and people because he forgot to pay attention to his immediate surroundings.

“Who’s where?” Phineas echoed with idle curiosity, his silvery profile quivering as he rejoined his physical form. Before he could materialize completely in the flesh, however, Cedric had already pushed past him, long legs darting down to the beach.

“Hufflepuffs,” Phineas muttered disgustedly.

*


Rolls of blue.

That was the first thing Fred Weasley became aware of when he opened his eyes. He opened his mouth, too, inviting in a swell of frigid water. His mind tunneling in every direction, trying to figure out how he’d gotten to this new location, he whirled around in the water and launched himself off of the sandy floor. Bits of broken shell floated around his shoes from the current he’d created. His body shot upward through the clouds of mossy green and cerulean, fingers splaying against cold liquid. Sunlight penetrated the faraway surface, reflecting underwater starbursts around him like prisms.

Last he knew, Fred was dueling Augustus Rookwood in a corridor. His hand could still feel a wand that wasn’t there, the handle cutting into his skin as he gripped it. He was still tense, tendons on edge. He couldn’t make sense of what had happened. Perhaps someone had cast a spell that flooded the corridor, turning the classrooms aquatic? His head finally broke the surface and he inhaled a great gust of oxygen, tossing the sopping fringe out of his eyes. Treading the waves and turning himself in a circle, Fred saw a small building on stilts sticking out of the water. It was the only structure surrounding him that he could see, although part of the vista was broken up with a skinny harbor.

Fred swam over and flung himself onto the dock, the warped boards hot and dry in the white sun. Before he could cough up the water in his lungs, it had already disappeared; before he could shake the beads from his hair, the ginger strands were already dry.

He looked down at himself. Completely dry. So dry that he could never have been wet. So far, this was turning out to be a fairly impressive hallucination. Fred surveyed the plain square building on stilts, wavering slightly in a heat-induced mirage. There was an irresistible pull toward its door, a call of welcome. The door opened of its own volition and Fred could think of absolutely nothing else he wanted to do besides enter.

A swarthy man around Charlie’s age was standing behind a gleaming desk just inside the building, perusing a book laid out before him and scratching his jaw with his quill. Curls of ink were left behind, but he didn’t seem to notice. Although he seemed to not notice Fred, either, Fred got the keen feeling that he was being ignored instead. “Hello?” he offered, shuffling inside. He turned to shut the door but it didn’t budge, no matter how hard he pulled on it. The handle became as hot as coals, burning his fingers, and he jumped away.

“The door doesn’t like being told how to do its job,” the man spoke, not looking up at Fred.

Fred simply gaped at him for a moment before gathering his wits about him. It took three strides to greet the back of the tiny room. “Who are you? What is…” he gestured around the room with one swirling finger, his breath coming up in short, panicked bursts, “this? What is this and where am I?”

“You’re at the depot. I am the station attendant and I’m the one who gets to tell you where to go.” He cleared his throat, two lazy green eyes wandering up the wall. “Over there is Cliodna’s Clock.” He gestured to the wall behind his desk, where Fred could see nothing except for a nondescript painting of a landscape hanging crooked against grayish paneling. “And over there is the Grotta, but there’s no point in discussing it because you won’t be going there.”

Fred hesitated, scanning the brass buttons on the station attendant’s waterproof. The man was wearing a bucket hat as well, even though Fred was positive he hadn’t been wearing it just seconds before. “Where am I going?”

The man rolled his eyes in exasperation, releasing a loud sigh. “Well if you’re not going to the Grotta, then you’re obviously going to Cliodna’s Clock. You can thank your chocolate frogs for that, too, since I’ve been getting boatloads of those people all day. You’ll do well to know that your side is winning.”

Fred gazed at his clothing, remarking to himself that he looked just as he had when he was dueling. He was covered in dirt, sweat, and rubble, as if he’d merely stepped through a tapestry while fighting and emerged in this strange place. And although he hoped that he’d only been struck in the back of the head with something heavy, due to wake up soon from unconsciousness, he remembered the overwhelming impact of stone and wood against his body from an excruciating blast; and there was a silver mist that swam through the air, eating its way across his flesh, sizzling when it made contact with droplets of his own blood. He felt the mist reaching through his ribcage, five fingers finding their way around his heart; it held it still, keeping it from beating.

But it was certainly beating now. Fred could feel his pulse racing.

“Am I dead?”

“Yes.” The man continued to scribble in his book.

Fred absorbed the shocks of that answer for approximately two seconds before saying, “Excuse me?” He placed his hand over the man’s book, insistent. “Did you just say what I think you just said?”

The attendant’s head snapped up, his quill spinning dexterously between his fingers. “Did you just ask what I think you just asked?”

“I asked if I was dead.”

“And I gave you a positive confirmation.” He clucked his tongue. “Really, now. With brains like yours, it’s no wonder you snuffed it.”

Fred backed away slightly. “But I can’t be dead. I was just…” One of his hands reached up to graze the back of his hair. He’d already forgotten where he’d been.

“You were in the Battle of Hogwarts, according to my records,” the attendant prompted helpfully, although he didn’t sound the least bit interested.

A flood of memories washed over Fred and he clicked his fingers, eyes growing huge. “That’s right! That’s exactly right –” He paused for a moment, thoughtful. “That’s what they’re calling it? The Battle of Hogwarts?” The words drifted out one wide-open window, splattering across the sea. “Not very creative.”

“You should consider yourself lucky that the timing of your death fell on such an epic occasion,” the attendant quipped, flipping his book shut and removing it to a shelf along the wall. “They don’t build monuments for people who fell off of brooms, do they?” He examined the face of his watch, the corners of his mouth twitching. He held it to his lips and breathed on it, fogging up the glass. He then wiped it on his waterproof, leaving the imprint of a dirty circle clinging to the slick material. “Or for people who got eaten by a nundu.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

“No matter,” the man chided, waving him off. “Sit down, George. You’re not set to leave directly, you’ve got to wait for another passenger. Should be here shortly.” He consulted his watch, which was already dirty again. “Indeed, he is late. Someone must be having a hard time letting go.”

“Who?” Fred questioned. “And my name isn’t George, it’s Fred.”

“Oh, really?” He pulled his book off the shelf and thumbed through it, thick eyebrows arching. “Says right here that you’re George Weasley.”

Fred snatched up a magazine lying on one of the nearby chairs and lifted it up to cover his face. “Hmph.”

“Hello?” someone yelled from outside. The voice was very close.

“And there’s Mr. Creevey,” the station attendant said brightly. “You boys would do well to hurry. Probably won’t want to be here when Mrs. Lestrange comes in.”

“Mrs. Lestrange?” Fred repeated sharply, but was interrupted by the clomping of shoes. Colin Creevey stuck his head around the door, mousy brown hair in scattered disarray.

“Has anyone seen Dennis? My mum will never forgive me if I’ve lost him.”

"Colin?" Fred asked hoarsely, his face paling. Colin turned to him, meaning to respond, but another voice cut smoothly over his.

“Dennis isn’t the one who’s lost. And you won’t be seeing him for another twenty years,” the man replied matter-of-factly. “Now that you’re both here, just sign this form and you can be on your way.” He pushed a slip of parchment and a quill at the young men. "Hurry, now. I've got more visitors arriving and you won't want to see that lot, I assure you."

“Twenty years?” Colin asked in a whisper, his complexion as white as a sheet. “What does that mean?"

"This is why they should teach mathematics in magical schools," the attendant said. "It means that he's going to be thirty-five when he kicks it. If you prefer to look at the glass like it's half-full, then compare your lifespan with his. Sixteen is a far cry from the years he's going to get, wouldn't you agree? Still not exactly splendid news for your brother, though.”

"I'm dreaming," Colin replied firmly.

"Wouldn't that be preferable?" He snapped his fingers, pointing at the still-blank forms. Fred and Colin both signed their names with equally bewildered expressions, their minds drifting elsewhere in a confused daze.

"What happens to him?" Colin wanted to know. "What's going to happen to me?"

“And remove all the mystery? Give you all the answers? I think not.” The man led them outside into the blinking afternoon that should have been midnight, taking care to step with one foot right in front of the other so that he didn’t topple off of the narrow dock. He pointed to a long mauve canoe bobbing in the glassy water, thumping Fred on the shoulder blade with his other hand. “There you are. That’ll take you to Cliodna’s Clock.”

Fred and Colin looked at each other, neither one quite believing their situation, and wordlessly dropped into the canoe like two heavy stones. The man grinned at them, his hat vanishing again. The canoe pushed away from the dock, backwards, and by the time they were several feet out, the grinning station attendant had disappeared altogether.

Fred glanced around as the boat’s velocity increased, feeling suddenly ill. A far corner of his mind wondered where the Grotta might be, as he couldn’t see anything; before he could dwell properly on this or on the fact that a strange man had just told him he was dead, the canoe slammed into a solid wall. Colin jumped in surprise, making the boat wobble.

But where there surely should have been wall, as both boys could hear the boat plinking off of it every half-second, there was only air and an everlasting expanse of ocean. Cautiously, Colin stretched out his fingers and felt at the air, testing for a barrier. He found glass and curled his hand into a fist, rapping twice on it. It echoed, reverberating throughout an invisible shield. A familiar voice on the other side laughed. Fred thought it sounded disturbingly familiar.

“Oh, I forget that you can’t see the island at first,” the voice said. Colin thought that it sounded like the speaker was shaking his head and smiling. “Your mind can’t process what it looks like for a few minutes. But don’t worry, soon you’ll be able to see me just as plainly as I can see you.” Two hands reached across the void; one grasped Colin, the other grasped Fred. Neither one of them could see the invisible person pulling them along, and they struggled to fight their way through the glass wall. It was leisurely melting, becoming malleable.

The glass was turning to pearly ice and the ice was dripping with condensation, thinning away to form a texture like film. There was a ripping noise as Colin and Fred broke through the film, their eyes adjusting to the brightness of someone’s teeth.

He’s smiling, Fred thought. How can he be smiling?

The teeth were followed by lips and then a nose, and then a pair of eyes. Pigment flushed the sunlit air around the beaming smile, tinting it with skin that wasn’t there before. Arms and hands and legs were painted with beige strokes, familiar yellow and black clothing sealing itself over top, and then the vision was complete. Behind the figure, a setting of cobalt-blue palm trees and a staccato succession of roofs of all shapes and colors was beginning to etch across a canvas of salty sea breeze.

There were winding paths and arches and adobe houses built into cavern walls; there was a towering ivory fountain in the shape of lilies that twisted up into the sky, sprouting vines of frozen water that glistened. It was a quaint little village that shimmered with clouds of spells, deceased witches and wizards going about their day with flicking wands and clinking teacups and trails of laughter that leaked out of one doorway and crept into the next.

It looked like a massive mosaic, all of the pieces falling together with miniscule clicks, fitting into place, as one's pupils dilated wide enough to finally see it happen. Perspective. It required the perspective of standing on the edge in order to see it as a whole. Surrounding it all, and soaking the atmosphere itself, was the ripe flavor of something strong coming. Something expected and desired, sailing on the wind that ruffled Fred’s hair and sent a shower of goosebumps down Colin’s arms. Something that everyone wanted, even Colin and Fred, although neither had any idea what it might be yet.

“You’re just in time for the races,” Cedric said.





*Edited June 2013* After a recent spike in plagiarism of my stories, this is a friendly reminder to any would-be story stealers that I routinely check the Internet for plagiarism. It is very easy to find. It is also very easy to report. If you try to steal my work, I am coming after you with a vengeance to rival Lord Voldemort. Godspeed!


Chapter 2: Like Dreaming
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She twisted around in the air that was no longer there, clutching a wand that had since slipped from her fingers. Retaliation was a second away…a lifetime away…and then forgotten.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, for years and years, Tonks always assumed that there must be some golden connection, an untouchable, unbreakable bond that entwined around aunt and niece like sacred strings that couldn’t be severed. She’d endured many threats, of course, and while on missions for the Order of the Phoenix, Tonks could recall Apparating twice to a target location just in time to see the wide eyes of Bellatrix Lestrange dissolve into smoke, her cackling laughter plaguing vacant space. She didn’t think her aunt would try so hard to kill her that she would actually achieve it – she thought her aunt meant only to taunt, to scare…

She’d been wrong. Her aunt had not been bluffing and now the young woman found herself rolling along the exterior of a lake of sorts, face-down with her back bowing, floating high enough to feel a warm breeze. She could feel the heat of the sun searing through her robes, so scorching that she instinctively spread out her arms and burrowed down deeper into the water. A stream of bubbles appeared below, toward the bottom, followed by a pair of hazel eyes Tonks knew very well.

She let out a blood-curling scream that was instantly muffled by the salty current.

“No!” she shouted, pumping her legs hard to back away from him. “No!” He was already there, however, his hands grasping her waist, pulling her up, his expression unreadable. Tonks didn’t want to be pulled up. She wanted to remain exactly where she was, allowing water to flood into her lungs. It would fill up there, heavy, and anchor her to the floor. Perhaps all she had to do was dig through the floor and she would be out. Free. For surely one of them should have been permitted to stay behind.

The blistering sunlight permeated her hair and clothing, stinging through her closed eyelids as Remus brought her to the surface. She sobbed into his shoulder, her fist pounding against his other one. He stroked her hair, saying nothing, but she could feel his heart beating rapidly, thumping away against her own chest. “Not both of us. Not both. Not you…”

And just like that, he was gone. Disappeared right out from underneath her.

Tonks slipped back underwater, eyes flying open as her hands clutched the empty air for substance. She began to tread the waves, shaking the hair out of her eyes as she did so, and curved around and around clockwise. There was a square building rising like a boulder out of the crashing waves, attached to a long dock; and from a distance she thought she spied a canoe with two figures inside of it, sailing away from her. One of them had red hair, the sun seizing it and switching it from garnet to flaming gold.

“Remus?” she called frantically, still working against the water. She’d never liked swimming and hadn’t devoted much practice to it; still, she dove underwater again, her skin relishing the cool retreat from the boiling atmosphere above. There was no flicker of brown hair, no whip of a coat. She could feel his absence as it burned inside of her, terrified tears springing to her eyes. “Remus?” Fear was rampant in her voice as the single word rippled away from her mouth in a deluge of bubbles. Each of them sparkled a brilliant white as they caught the sun, floating away from her to congeal with sky and sea and infinite space.

She shot up, lungs rising and falling with liquid screaming inside of them. “REMUS!” Tonks began to lose control of her arms and legs, thrashing in the water while hiccups made her ribs spasm. She began to think, ‘Yes, he’s gone back! Someone’s woken him up!’ But at the same time, there was a stab of aching loneliness, of being faced with the prospect that she was in the middle of open sea in a place too tangible to be imagined, all alone. When movement below made the water swirl faster around her legs, her thoughts deflected instantly to Remus, guilty for half-hoping it was him. You are not this weak, she thought forcibly. You are an Auror and Teddy needs him more than you do.

But it was not Remus, much to her relief and dismay. The hand on her ankle was thick and strong, dragging her down just far enough for her to see a scalp with short bristles of black hair. A young man was struggling to swim, tugging on her like a life preserver.

Tonks’s feelings of self-pity disintegrated involuntarily and before she could dwell for another moment on the teal-haired infant sleeping peacefully in his cradle, she had doubled over in half and extended both arms to grab the boy’s shoulders. He looked wildly up at her, probing the pockets of his robes for something he couldn’t find.

She pulled harder on him, signaling with a toss of her head to stop resisting. He continued to fight her, yanking her down to his level. Tonks had run out of air by this point, her lungs shriveling up in pain; she alternated between urging him upward and wrestling her leg out of his iron grip. Her cheeks were turning blue, veins throbbing with a rush of blood that felt close to bursting right through her skin. Tonks released the last bite of breath she’d been saving, shouting at him to let go. Sparks and stars popped around in her vision, everything narrowing like the shrinking shutter of a camera. It was getting very still and quiet, her hair fanning out around her face…

There was someone else. A shadow. The shadow passed over the boy and Tonks abruptly broke free, drifting away. Detached from her surroundings but still lucid enough to fight for survival, Tonks wafted to the surface. Seconds later, Remus joined her.

“Where did you go?” she sputtered, falling into him for support. He sank slightly lower with her weight, the creases in his forehead deepening, but he offered her a tight grimace he hoped might resemble a smile.

“I was needed elsewhere.” He let go of her with one hand to wipe the water from his eyelashes and eyebrows, squinting against the brilliant light. “Here, let’s go over this way.” He motioned toward the dock and Tonks followed suit, gaining enough of her own strength back to be independent from him. Several feet behind, the boy with bristly hair had come up as well and was looking rather disoriented.

“Hot,” he gasped. “Hot!”

Tonks didn’t have enough room inside her head to be concerned for him. She couldn’t spare a second thought for the boy, not when Remus was with her and she was with Remus and no one was with Teddy. No one was with Teddy. Tonks’s arms felt hollow without the warm little bundle cuddled there, his petal-pink lips yawning wide as his gray eyes flashed open. The baby would blink and the eyes would suddenly be brown, and while he slept his hair changed colors to reflect the people he saw and the emotions brought to him in dreams.

“Teddy,” she moaned, and instantly stopped swimming, slipping down under. Remus made to hold her upright and help her clamber over onto the dock, but she extricated herself from him. Angling her face away from him, Tonks helped herself up without his assistance. She could hear Remus’s shoes making squelching sounds as he joined her.

“He’s gone,” he told his wife dejectedly, swinging both legs over the edge and burying his face in his hands. She’d never seen him looking more defeated, despite not glancing at him. She could feel his movements rather than see them, his form so familiar that it was very nearly her own. “Or we are, rather.”

“Where did you go? Just now?”

“It was Harry. He had a Resurrection Stone and he used it to call me and Sirius and his parents to be with him.”

“Sirius?” Tonks’s face paled. “His parents? Harry called his parents back to him?”

“But it was the strangest thing,” Remus prattled on, focusing with powerful concentration on the white-capped waves. “I could see Harry and walk with him, but all around me I heard so many other voices. Molly was there. And two of her sons – Ron and Bill, I think. They were coming from above me, like I was lying down.”

“Harry resurrected you?” Tonks repeated, furrowing her brow. “I don’t understand.”

He sighed. Several days seemed to pass between them before he said, “Harry’s gone into the forest. He went to seek Voldemort and end the fighting.” Tonks began to exclaim, rising to her knees as though she thought she could run back to Harry and knock some sense into him, but Remus squeezed her wrist. “It’s what needs to happen. If we want any peace for our son, it needs to happen.”

“But he can’t go into the forest, he just can’t. He’ll unravel everything we’ve just been trying to do, all of it. You and me and everyone else, everyone who’s died, it will have been for nothing. He can’t just surrender –” She was about to say more, but stopped talking when she realized that her clothing was now completely dry. The boy, who Tonks could see was quite large in breadth, rolled onto the dock with them and was staring at the couple as if he’d never seen anything quite like them in his life. His mouth dropped open, his thin lips cracked from dehydration. Stinging scarlet burn marks circled around his right ear, fading just as Tonks began to notice them.

“Well, well,” Remus said quietly. There was a sad tint to his tone; as if he’d been waiting for days for a knock at the door, and when he finally heard one, he ran down the stairs and flung it open only to find it empty. Only to find himself in bed, where he’d been dreaming all along. No door, no knocks. It was a curious sensation, and Remus still wasn’t altogether positive that he wasn’t dreaming up every drop of scenery, right down to the burn marks on the boy that were no longer discernible. “Mr. Crabbe. It is unfortunate to have you here with us.”

The boy closed his mouth and got to his feet. Something like revulsion flitted across his face as he said, “I remember you. You’re a werewolf.”

It wasn’t a question. “Yes.” Remus swallowed all of the accusation in the boy’s eyes, the ignorant prejudice projecting from him, built over time with layers and layers of chain-linked words. An aunt’s story, a father’s nasty remark, an illustration in a musty old book in his grandfather’s study. None of these hateful thoughts originated inside of the young man, but they now belonged to him and he readily claimed them.

Remus couldn’t hate him and all that he didn’t know. He understood hate very well, having spent a great deal of his life hating himself. He and his wife watched the boy enter the building, his clothes now void of water as well. Tonks leaned into Remus, closing her eyes and breathing him in, smelling the lingering cologne of wintergreen soap and flayed leather from his briefcase. He pressed his lips to her temple in what could have been a kiss. “You shouldn’t be here, either.”

Tonks’s eyebrows arched, pulling away to appraise him with critical eyes. He lifted his eyebrows, too, daring her to speak her mind, and she turned her nose toward the sun. They hadn’t even had this argument yet and already neither of them had won it. It was as easy as loving each other, this arguing. They would voice their opinions without having any effect whatsoever on the other, pretending to be open to the other person’s suggestions as they waited with folded arms to refute whatever was being said. “Next time you can stay at home while I’m out fighting for my life, and see how it feels to sit and wait while your mother’s watching you like you’re a ticking time-bomb.”

He made a noise, a convulsion, like he meant to chuckle but didn’t have the will to. “There won’t be a next time, Dora.”

“It didn’t have to be both of us,” she went on. “If you hadn’t been constantly turning around to look at me, you would have been fine. It’s why I left the courtyard, so that you could concentrate better. My aunt found me, you know.” She shook her head, imagining what her mother would think when she heard, how she would react with one hand over her heart and the other over her mouth.

Andromeda carried distant, rose-colored memories with her that Tonks didn’t have, and knew the girl with shining black hair and a love for foxes that used to be Bellatrix before she strayed into a disease so vast that it consumed her. Tonk’s mother couldn’t help but harbor shallow optimism that her sister would do the right thing in the end, and that she would find her mercy at last – especially regarding her own family. Andromeda’s rage would be tempered with disappointment for what would surely happen to Bellatrix’s soul. Such unnecessary loss. Such waste. “She always said she would get rid of me.”

Remus didn’t have to ask which aunt his wife was referring to. “If you’d just stayed at home like we’d agreed, I never would have had concentration issues,” he said flatly. “But it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re here now, and wherever you are is where I need to be. If you hadn’t died, I would have managed to stay alive somehow. I’m sure of it. I made up my mind when I saw you at the battle that I was taking all of my cues from you.”

She stared at him, dumbfounded. “How can you say such foolish things?”

“Did you really think I wouldn’t follow you?” he returned softly.

She wanted to be angry with him for dying and leaving their son all alone, but of course she’d done the same thing. She permitted Remus to hold her for just a little while longer while she racked her mind for people who could potentially care for Teddy, if there would even be a world left for him to live in when everything was said and done. Harry in the forest! Harry with You-Know-Who! It was too astonishing to be real. There was too much destruction, too many people to worry about. So many children who didn’t need to put themselves in harm’s way, who should have been sleeping in their beds with worries no greater than exams, and they were dying and losing loved ones – right under the noses of their parents and teachers. It was complete madness.

Students should not have had to throw themselves into a war just to level out the playing field against trained Death Eaters. Tonks could perfectly envision the mass of young bodies with their wands aloft, casting spells they hadn’t yet mastered, the colors of their jinxes echoing against desperate shouts and painting the walls with flares like torchlight. Children sacrificing their lives when they didn’t even realize what it was truly like to live yet.

Teddy.

The sound of his tiny cry, the image of his fists flailing as he kicked a yellow fleece blanket off of him, was branded into her brain. She could think of nothing else. Could Andromeda look after him? She would be so distraught to lose her daughter, her son-in-law, and her husband in such a short space of time. Tonks wasn’t sure if her mother would be emotionally stable enough to care for an infant.

She trusted Kingsley, she supposed, but it would be such a burden on him and his job would be all the more dangerous if their side lost. For all Tonks knew, he was already dead. There was Molly, too, but she had so many children already. Teddy was just one of many children who would be made into orphans by the time the sun rose, after all. He was so impossibly small, so easily looked over that it was easy to fear he might be lost in the shuffle…

What was she thinking, bringing a child into the world amidst all this chaos? The chaos felt so far from them now, years away from her peaceful perch by the sea, and Tonks hated it. She was separated from her son, on the flip-side of the universe, and it was all because her reflexes weren’t quick enough. It was all because she’d tripped. Thwarted by Bellatrix, who’d been silently studying all of her weaknesses.

Next to her, Remus was inwardly lamenting that if Harry lost, and if Voldemort crowned himself with the power he’d spent decades searching for, then it was a tragedy Teddy hadn’t passed on, as well. Here they were, safe from the Dark Lord, and their infant son was left vulnerable to the bloody claws of a crumbling society. This situation was exactly like what had happened to Lily and James all those years ago, all over again – and just like then, it all came down to Harry. A seventeen-year-old boy was their son's only hope.

When Tonks and Remus finally made their way into the building, the boy Remus referred to as ‘Mr. Crabbe’ was arguing heatedly with a girl who looked to be around thirteen years of age. She was wearing a waterproof and a bucket hat and her green eyes were narrowed piercingly, gazing down the bridge of her freckled nose at him.

“It’s very clear where you’re supposed to go,” she said, scratching out something in an open book lying on the desk. “It’s already been decided for you.”

“But I want to go where my father is!” the boy hollered, bringing his fat hands down upon the table. “You said he’s somewhere else, at that Grotta thing. If this Clock place isn't where my father’s at, then I don’t want to go there.” The girl didn’t flinch, but her voice was cool when she spoke.

“I suppose that part of your punishment is that you don’t get to reunite with your family.” Her eyes were dead as she sorted through a stack of papers, and Remus thought to himself that she carried herself quite remarkably for someone so young. “Can’t have everything, Vincent.”

Remus was still observing the girl as Tonks stepped forward, clearing her throat. “I might not be real, and you might not be real, but I’m going to ask you a question, anyway.”

“You are exceedingly real and so is this,” the girl replied. “As for myself and whether or not I’m real, it wouldn’t matter if I told you I was or if I wasn’t, or if this is real or isn’t. I really couldn’t say what’s real, to tell you the truth, but I do know that I didn’t make you up in my head. And if I didn’t make you up in my head, then clearly this is all you. So you tell me, then. How much of this is real?” She paused, drumming her quill against the desk and ignoring Vincent’s left shoe tapping against the floor in frustration. “You were just about to ask how it’s possible that you’re dead and yet you nearly drowned a few minutes ago, am I correct?”

Tonks’s jaw went slack, her fingers that had previously been grasping the table loosening and falling to her sides.

“You would not have drowned,” the girl told her with a small smile, pushing a pad of paper at them. “And that’s the truth. Sign here, please, all of you. And legibly, or my boss is going to have a fit. But as to what you were thinking, Mrs. Lupin, I will say that there is only one way to die on Cliodna’s Clock, and that is if you come in last place in the races.”

“But I thought we were already dead?” Remus stepped forward now, head tilted to the side in confusion. He strongly disliked being so far inside of things that he wasn’t able to see his way out. While puzzles were sources of delight to Tonks, and her readiness to accept the unknown was something he often admired, he could not be so easily satisfied with indistinct answers. “Am I wrong? Are we still alive?”

“We can’t be,” Vincent interrupted, his bitterness cutting the air. “I asked her where I’d just Apparated and she told me…” He hesitated, glowering, before turning to sulk in silence. His fingers continued to curl and knot in agitation, the machinery beneath his skull consumed with the memory of fire. Fire across his arms, blazing a trail over his tongue and all the way down his throat. He still felt the unbearable temperature settling in a tattoo under his skin.

“I told you that you hadn’t Apparated anywhere, and that obviously you are a dunderhead since everyone knows you can’t Apparate inside the grounds of Hogwarts.”

“What’s going on?” Tonks demanded at last. “Just tell us. Are we dead?”

“You are, by earth’s standards. But for Cliodna’s Clock’s standards, you are very much alive. Only one person dies here every year, on July first.” The girl straightened herself up importantly, eyeing them each in turn with the air of one about to reveal a marvelous secret. “The person who dies is the person who finishes the races in last place. Your timing is just awful if you’re planning on signing up, you’ll only have a month to prepare before it begins.” She didn’t seem at all sorry about this.

“What’s the races?” Remus questioned, just as Tonks said, “What happens after they die?”

“Nothing,” the girl replied simply, scrutinizing the signatures they’d given her. She slid the sleeve of her waterproof down to her elbow and glanced at her watch, lips thinning into a straight line. “And I mean that literally. They cease to exist. It’s essentially how we purge, you see. Even the afterlife gets crowded, and someone must be eliminated to make room for the next person.”

Remus and Tonks said nothing, exchanging troubled looks. It was quite a lot to wrap their heads around, and secretly they were both still waiting to wake up.

“Look,” the girl snapped impatiently, ushering all three of them outside into bright sunshine. “This is the second-chance place. You get a little extra time that you didn’t get to have before you died; because let’s face it, a lifespan of a hundred or so years isn’t really a fair shake. Play your cards right and you’re basically immortal. Be the one who cares the least when it counts the most, and you’re gone for good. That’s just how it goes.” She nodded her head at a canoe that was slithering quickly toward the dock, its interior unoccupied. “Your carriage awaits.”

“Wait!” Vincent said quickly, his voice trembling. “What are we supposed to do?”

The girl regarded him shrewdly. “You want some advice?”

He didn’t answer her, still processing her question. Behind them, Remus heard the boat clink against the pier with a frenzy of wind. Tonks’s stomach felt like someone had twisted it up into knots; she was going to be sick, she could feel it. Remus alone stood utterly still save for his fluttering stands of hair, head tilted to the side as he always did when he was listening very carefully, very intently.

“Don’t make any friends.”

The girl’s lips coiled into a smirk, eyes as sharp as a lion springing to strike. The ghost of a laugh hung between the three of them long after she vanished from the dock and the building and everywhere else, the last four words she spoke glimmering in a web of sunshine.


 













Thank you for reading! If you have time, please leave a review. I apologize for the redundancy of this chapter. Unfortunately I had to explain to the Lupins that they were dead before the plot could proceed. Things should pick up in the next chapter. ^ ^ 


Chapter 3: In Plain Sight
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“So a historian, a Healer, and a house-elf walk into a bar,” Regulus began airily, lifting his glass at the three people who’d just joined him.

“Dobby is not a house-elf, sir,” Dobby said staunchly, taking great care to straighten his thin shoulders as he sat down. “Dobby is only an elf. You is being very lazy, Mr. Black. You should be ashamed of yourself, sitting around all day when valiant Harry Potter is saving the world from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!” He very pointedly turned away from Regulus, who stifled a smile, and folded his arms over yet another new jumper he was wearing. Melinda Gladrags was constantly designing clothing for the elf, as he was her most enthusiastic model, and she never seemed to take the temperature into account. Dobby was presently wearing ugly orange wool and long sleeves on a warm summer day.

“It’s true, it’s true,” Regulus drawled, clearing his throat noisily and then shaking his head back and forth like a wet dog. “The lifestyle of a wine connoisseur is paved with misconceptions. I can see how others would consider me lazy, when in fact I am merely very dedicated to my craft.” He looked thoughtful, swirling the contents of his glass. “But now I’m quite confused, Dobby. All along, I thought you were a big You-Know-Who supporter. Switched sides now that the game’s changed, eh?”

Dobby took the bait, as usual, and turned his head around so fast to scowl at Regulus that one of his batty ears knocked Bathilda Bagshot in the face. “Never! Never in Dobby’s life! Dobby has always supported Harry Potter, he has never liked bad wizards and You-Know-Who is the very worst bad wizard of all, yes he is!”

“Oh? So the rumors that you used to work for Lucius Malfoy aren’t true?” Regulus’s eyes glinted. Bathilda pursed her lips at him disapprovingly, but he simply couldn’t help himself. “Abraxas says you were a spy for the Dark Lord, trying to swindle secrets out of the Chosen One.”

Dobby’s eyes flashed wide; he started making spitting noises. “That is not true! Dobby has been Harry Potter’s greatest friend! Dobby has helped Harry, yes he has, and he has been most important and useful.” He nodded fervently, hands slightly shaking as he straightened his new pinstripe beret. “More useful than some other people Dobby can think of. Yes, he has been Harry Potter’s very best friend!”

“Some friend,” Regulus remarked. “I heard you stole his letters once.”

“Oh, stop, Reg,” Dilys Derwent chided, taking up her usual stool between Bathilda and Dobby. Lily Potter, who was sitting on a stool at the far end of the counter and was busy mixing her gillywater with her pinky finger, didn’t so much as crack a smile. Normally she’d laugh at just about anything.

“Something got your goose, Potter?” Regulus inquired. “It’s a great day, I hear. You should be out making a racket with your old Order mates. At the very least, you could swim over to the Grotta and rub it in their faces that they lost. I heard tell from Mad-Eye that boatloads of people have been arriving over there all day long. Shouldn’t have moved so close to the coast, myself. They don’t ever shut up as it is and it’s only going to get worse. I won’t get any sleep for weeks.”

She didn’t appear to have heard him, and gave no reply.

“Well, something’s certainly got my goose,” Dilys Derwent began, spinning her wand toward the pub owner. Odo, who had been wiping grime away from the sterling silver tap over a barrel of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky, noticed his shirt tails un-tucking from his trousers and lifted his eyes to Dilys. She smiled at him, knowing full well that he disliked it when she got his attention that way.

“Something I can get for you, Dilys?”

“Oh, sure,” she said breezily. “I’d like a red currant rum, if you’re not doing anything else.”

Regulus snorted into his drink. “At two in the afternoon?”

“Don’t give me any of that tosh, Black. I’d wager my wand that you haven’t got regular old pumpkin juice in your goblet.”

He rolled his eyes but didn’t deny it. Bathilda turned to the witch with stately silver ringlets. “What were you saying about a goose, dear?”

“Hogwarts is in chaos,” Dilys confided in a low tone. “If you ask me, they’ve got a solid twelve months of repairs ahead of them. I've no idea how they’re going to put it all back together by September – might have to ship the students off to Durmstrang or Beauxbatons for a short spell.”

“Oh, is that true?” Bathilda answered in an equally grave voice, eyes sparkling with a demand for gossip. “Someone said – I think it might’ve been Armando – that the Quidditch pitch was destroyed.”

“Oh, yes. It’s definitely gone. Not a single blade of grass from the gamekeeper’s hut to the front gates, the way I heard it. And my knowledge comes from a very reliable inside source, a reporter by the name of Skeeter. She was talking about it right in front of me to the Healer-in-Charge of the Dai Llewellyn Ward, since, as you know, I have a painting in St. Mungo’s as well as Hogwarts.”

Dilys loved providing confidential information that not many others were privy to. Phineas already knew about the level of damage, of course, along with several others, but they were all out on the streets celebrating with the rest of Cliodna’s Clock. The crowd who usually occupied Odo’s Pub had decided to come back today just as if it were any other normal day (excepting Helga Hufflepuff and Broderick Bode, who never missed a party if they could help it), and Dilys eagerly looked forward to lording suspense over Bathilda and Regulus. Only one lone figure sitting at the end of the counter looked out of place in Odo’s Pub.

“Lily?” Dilys asked sweetly, leaning across Bathilda to lay her prying eyes on the young woman’s face. Lily moved her shoulder infinitesimally – just enough to brush her hair over her shoulder to obscure her downcast eyes from view. “They won. I’m sure you’ve heard already? There’s nothing to be worried about anymore. It’s all over.”

“I’ve heard.” Lily’s voice was quiet. “I know.” She shifted her elbow, laying both palms evenly upon the counter. Her outfit was slightly out of character for her – instead of the usual jewel-tone robes, she was wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches over a faded yellow dress. From a distance the color of her jacket looked periwinkle, but upon closer inspection one could see that it was woven with tiny pink and blue stitches overlapping each other.

Dobby beamed brilliantly. “Harry Potter has won! He has defeated the most terrible evil wizard and now the world is saved! No more of that bald old man and his horrible snake!” His long fingers reached up to his ears, instinctively wanting to pummel them in punishment for speaking ill of Voldemort (as Voldemort was closely connected to Lucius Malfoy, Dobby’s old master), but he gained control of himself. Regulus grinned at him. The elf had gotten awfully brave since he’d arrived in Cliodna’s Clock, now that he was far away from the clutches of danger. “No more of that horrid old flat-faced wizard. That cruel, smelly, bad, double smelly –”

“Now that’s no way to talk about your old friend,” Regulus started to say, but Dilys subtly shot Petrificus Totalus at him. Stiff as a board, the man keeled backwards off his stool and hit the floor. His eyes, large and surprised, didn’t blink.

Bathilda and Dilys laughed delightedly. “That should shut his trap. You don’t mind lying down there for a while, do you Reg? It’s just that you’re putting a bit of a damper on our party here. This is Harry’s day. Let Dobby talk about the poor brave boy as much as he wants.” Dilys raised her rum in Lily’s direction, offering her a rueful smile. She and Bathilda both had a fair inkling as to what sort of thoughts currently engaged Mrs. Potter’s mind.

Odo placed trays of fish and chips in front of each of them without having to be solicited, even Regulus, whose empty stool he gladly ignored. Dobby frequently tossed vindictive looks at the frozen man on the floor, his broad mouth twisting up into a smile. The elf would personally never dare do such bold magic on an old war hero who had evidently gone to extreme lengths to pose as a Death Eater to gather information, when, in fact, he was not a true Death Eater at all (which Regulus had taken to flaunting about often), but Dobby adored seeing other people with no such qualms giving Mr. Black exactly what his foul mouth deserved. A war hero he very well might be, but his voluntary mission to infiltrate Voldemort’s inner circle had not ended very well. Dobby thought to himself that Regulus must have made a rather pathetic spy.

“Oh, there’s James,” Bathilda mused casually, bringing a teacup to her lips. Lily spun around, eyes growing three times in size, just in time to see her husband passing by the rows of frosted glass windows, one hand reaching toward the door handle. By the time her tumbler of gillywater crashed to its side, drenching a pile of napkins with drink, she had already flown behind the counter and crouched beneath it.

“Is Lily anywhere about?”

“Yes, Mr. Potter, sir, I has just been seeing Mrs. Potter just now –” Dobby piped up proudly. He looked around for the missing redhead, puzzled, but Bathilda coincidentally jabbed his basket of chips with her knobby elbow and sent them scattering all over the floor. Dobby hastened to pick up the mess, apologizing profusely over his shoulder to Odo. “Very sorry, sir. Clumsy Dobby. Don’t worry, sir, Dobby is tidying it up. No need to bother yourself.”

“Lily,” James repeated anxiously. He was a young man who looked even younger than his twenty-one years, what with the glasses sitting crookedly on his long nose and the charming smile he always wore. With very good reason, however, he looked much older than usual today. He was pinched and exhausted from worrying all morning over his son, his complexion still as pale as death. “Has anyone seen her?”

“Nope,” Dilys replied loudly. “Can’t say that I have.”

“No Lily here,” Bathilda added.

James looked perplexed, grazing a hand through the hair on his crown and frowning. “So have you seen her or haven’t you, Dobby? She’s been gone for the past few hours.”

Dobby made to speak, but Bathilda kicked the basket of freshly-collected chips with her shoe, sending them flying all over the tiles again. Dobby rose to his knees and did a flustered little dance, hands clenched maddeningly. “Dobby did not do that this time! Dobby is most certain!”

“Well, all right…” James said slowly, eyes roving over Regulus’s stiff body on the floor. One could almost hear Regulus mentally shrieking at him, pleading for help, but for whatever reason James chose to ignore him. “If you do see Lily, will you tell her I was looking for her?”

“Yep.”

“Of course.”

“And tell her that I’m going to go search for Remus, will you?”

“Certainly.”

“Will do.”

James left then, and the two ladies witnessed through the frosted panes of glass that James headed off to the right, presumably to check Florean Fortescue’s new ice cream parlor for any signs of his wife. As soon as he was safely down the street, Bathilda boomed over the counter, “I do believe someone’s looking for you.”

Lily grudgingly trudged out from behind her hiding post, looking every bit like a sheepish scoundrel. Odo raised a bushy eyebrow at her, as her jacket was now smeared with dust and dirt, but said nothing. “Mrs. Potter!” Dobby cried shrilly. “There you are!” Dilys clapped a hand over his mouth, reducing him to a squealing pile of hysterics.

Lily mumbled something unintelligible that sounded like ‘thanks’ and quickly ducked out the door, keeping her head down. “He went right!” Dilys shouted just before the door closed. Lily hesitated for a moment before turning left, briskly widening the gap between herself and her husband.

Bathilda clucked her tongue. “Poor girl. I bet she’s been dreading this day for quite some time.”

Lily hurried down the busy avenue, glancing back every so often to ensure that James’s messy head hadn’t popped up over the crowd, and found solace in Amelia Bones’s garden shed. It was in a different location today than it was two days previously, as buildings and walkways and trees sometimes disappeared in one spot on the island and reappeared in another – rather like the stairways at Hogwarts going in different directions.

She could hear the witch’s rocking chair creaking against her patio on the other side of the house, but Lily knew that if Amelia found her she wouldn’t ask any questions. The citizens of Cliodna’s Clock were rather used to catching Lily doing odd things with no sensible explanations tied to them. She and James sometimes amused themselves with leaving each other gifts in strange places, sending each other on scavenger hunts, and it wasn’t an unordinary thing to find one of them digging around in someone else’s kitchen drawers or climbing marble statues in the park.

The garden shed provided a decent vantage point for viewing the festivities beyond, even though she knew that the person she was really hiding from wouldn’t be out and about with the others, shouting for joy. She closed her eyes and sank against the damp corner next to a row of rakes, feeling the crumbling moss and mud seep into her clothing.

She wasn’t exactly avoiding James, per se. She just didn’t want to see him or speak to him until she could get herself together. In truth, all day long, every time she saw anyone with black hair her heart stuttered in her chest and her face got extremely hot. She’d heard over and over about the finer details of Severus Snape’s life through Cassandra Trelawney, and the lengths he had gone to in order to protect her son. But he hadn’t done it for Harry. No, Albus Dumbledore had made it perfectly clear over a cup of tea and a dish of scones with raspberry jam, smiling just as nice as you please, that Severus had, in fact, done everything for Lily.

For her.

How was she supposed to greet the man who’d spent the last twenty or so years pining for her? Who’d sacrificed moving on and ever trying for a life of his own, given up on the prospect of finding love with anyone else, all because of his fixation with Lily’s memory? It was startling and baffling and Lily couldn’t make sense out of why he’d never given her up. She was endlessly thankful for everything he’d done for Harry, of course, even though Cassandra sometimes gave her the impression that Severus wasn’t always very polite to him during their interactions. Still, despite it all, the fact remained that Severus was still in love with her, even after all this time.

Somehow the words ‘thank you’ didn’t seem like they would suffice. Thank you, Severus, for risking your life over and over, existing on a razor's edge, to act as a spy for Dumbledore because you love me, but I’m not sure I’m the person you think I am. Thank you, Severus, for helping my son keep surviving until he was old enough to kill Voldemort himself, but I’m still with James. I’m still married, and I still love him. I still do not have those feelings for you. Sorry about all that, but there isn’t much waiting for you here.

Lily swallowed. She couldn’t bear a confrontation with him, couldn’t bear for his black eyes to scrutinize her, for the weight of bitterness and darkness to lift from somewhere over his heart as he gazed at her. He always had a certain way of looking at her that wasn’t like how anyone else ever looked at her, even James, and it made her uncomfortable. It made her feel like Severus was seeing everything she didn’t want him to see, and things about her that didn’t even exist, all melded together in one rose-colored image of perfection. Lily in the flesh would never match up to the Lily of his memory, especially not when he’d spent the past sixteen years turning her into a shrine.

Would he regret spending his life that way when he saw her and remembered the Lily she truly was, and not the distorted girl in his dreams? Reality would pierce him like a sword as soon as he laid eyes on the woman who had not aged a day since she was twenty-one years old. And he, Severus, who was now thirty-eight, couldn’t be shielded from the truth that even in death they could not turn back time.

She’d been avoiding him much longer than several hours. She’d been avoiding him for years. Thirteen times she had been back to earth, and thirteen times she had briefly considered visiting him before making up her mind that no, absolutely not. There were rules, after all, and to a shallow extent she was able to delude herself into thinking that she was only keeping to the rules by steering clear of her childhood friend. Even if she wasn’t allowed to be seen and even if she did everything in her power to conceal her presence, she was certain that he would just know, that he would feel her there. He always had a way of knowing, being the astute wizard that he was, and what would he do if he found her out? If he discovered the deceased Lily Potter watching him from a shadowy corner?

It was enough to smooth her shame so that she could effectively steer clear of him. She allowed him to continue loving her even though he shouldn’t, repressing her guilt in favor of pretending Severus acted as Dumbledore’s right-hand man and Voldemort’s left-hand man for his own personal reasons that had nothing to do with her. Thirteen times she had been to earth on July the first, and not a second was spent in Spinner’s End.

The opportunity for a fourteenth visit was looming, and Lily felt distinctly uneasy. Soon, Severus would know that Lily was something of a legend because of how many times she’d won the Devil’s Duel – usually referred to as ‘the races’; and that she’d had the opportunity in the past to see him if she so wished. Would he ask her if she ever looked him up? Would she lie about her answer? She could feel the heavy, heavy imbalance in their relationship. He’d devoted most of his life to making up for initially choosing the wrong side, and in turn she had tried her hardest to forget him.

And now he was here, in Cliodna’s Clock. He had to be. Those thirty-eight crows were for her, calling for her. It colored the air with red and warning and Lily ran; away from James, away from the merriment and packs of joyful witches and wizards. The last time there had been this sort of celebrating, it was right when Lily and James arrived at the depot. It was only fitting that history was to repeat itself in the streets of the village of the dead right when Severus came, as well. It felt like two ends spaced universes apart were finally meeting, drawing to a tense close. He was here and he would see her, and she would eventually have to see him.

Coward,” she muttered to herself. Sirius would be ashamed to call her a Gryffindor.

She opened her eyes and moved over to a hole in the shed’s wall. Instead of alighting upon a swarm of boisterous people, however, there was only the sting of salt and a bright white sky. Nearby, waves crashed against a familiar stone cottage, the waves dotted with petals of lavender from a flowerbed on the south side that served as a peninsula. She realized that the shed had once again relocated, rearranging itself within the fabric of Cliodna’s Clock. It would take ages for Amelia Bones to find her shed out here, on the outskirts of the island next to Regulus and Sirius’s house.

Lily sighed and opened the door, inviting in a swell of warm wind. She shed her jacket and draped it over one of Madam Bones’s shovels before drifting outside, certain that Sirius would find it when he came snooping around. From out of nowhere, a Ravenclaw-blue paper tumbled through the air and landed in the pebbles at her feet. Lily bent down to retrieve it, although she already knew what it would say.


It’s that time of year again!

All residents of Cliodna’s Clock are eligible to sign up for the Devil’s Duel, the most exciting tournament the afterlife has to offer. Compete for the chance to win 24 hours on earth! But be warned: Second place in the final round is last place. Entering is not advisable if you are not wholly prepared to accept the possible consequences.

Register no later than the 31st of May. Our office is open day and night.


 
Lily let go of the paper, her green eyes following its journey over the ocean. A smaller island just a little ways away, a fortress of bare trees and a tall, curving fence of iron, was also cheering in celebration today. A hand reached over the wall, just barely discernible, and snatched the paper. Moments later, there was a whoop of glee and an explosion of voices.

The Grotta didn’t need a tournament to purge one person a year. Their island didn’t rely on people like Lily, who were so desperate to see loved ones living in another world that they would risk their souls over and over to see them for just one day. They were different from the people of Cliodna’s Clock in that they weren’t immune to death save for coming in second in the races. They could die at any time, their souls forever stamped out. They were constantly killing each other off, so there was no need to hunt them to keep their population low. And although they weren’t permitted to participate in the Devil’s Duel, they were allowed to watch. It was the only time people from the Grotta were able to mingle with people from Cliodna’s Clock, albeit highly supervised mingling, and they made the absolute most of it with lots of uproarious shouting and catcalling meant to intimidate.

The words scrawled across the flier stayed in Lily’s mind, and she found herself wondering if she deserved to enter the races at all. If someone like Severus had no one to win for, no one left to see on earth, then did Lily, the woman who inadvertently stole his life, have the right to win such a prize?
 


Chapter 4: Double-Edged
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Cedric had taken it upon himself to make Colin’s and Fred’s transitions into Cliodna’s Clock as smooth and speedy as possible. And while in life the charismatic Cedric had been patient and selfless, he’d lost a bit of that while waiting for so long at the window seat in the boardinghouse where he lived. He’d watched the seasons change from that position on the lumpy pink upholstery, eyes glazing over with the passing of people and time, neither of which had any effect on him.

He didn't stick out as one of the youngest residents anymore. James and Lily were both very young, to be sure, but they had each other and could spend weeks wrapped up in their own games, free from the world around them. Here were two boys around his own age – boys that he knew – and it was difficult to hide exactly how excited he was to finally have real friends again.

Perhaps his new self-assigned post as the person meant to show Fred and Colin the ropes would be more successful if he could manage to keep tabs on either of them.

He understood it, of course – the need to detach from everyone and wander around, making sense of the circumstances. He’d done it himself after his own untimely death. He could recall his first few days being spent in a blur, sitting in trees and walking through alleys at night in order to avoid lingering gazes. People tried to lay hands on his shoulders, offering him kind condolences and sage advice, but he would have none of it. He politely excused himself and set off faster than before, making sure to find a hiding place where he would not be disturbed from his miserable thoughts again. Over and over, he recounted the graveyard with a ghoulish green cast to the atmosphere, the cold sensation of something horrible and imminent cropping up all over his skin like dew.

There were a dozen things he could have done differently. He could have shot off sparks from his wand in the maze when he realized that Krum had been Imperiused, and put a temporary stop to the tournament. After all, a small voice in his ear had whispered while he was running between fog and vines that it wasn’t quite fair to continue with the competition when one of the other champions had been struck with an Unforgivable Curse. Still, he had kept going. It was what his father wanted and what his friends wanted and what he wanted more than anything in the world. The desire to win was so paramount that, looking back, if he’d been able to return to the maze and redo things, he might have a hard time not racing for the trophy.

That trophy glittered on the edges of his mind, beckoning him through a sheen of mist and jumping spiders, promising a lifetime of glory and recognition beyond any other prize that could be offered to students his age. It flitted through his daydreams in a constant reminder of what reaching out with both hands, not leaving one of them tethered to a stable surface, could do to him. Temptation. Victory. Fame. The Goblet of Fire had chosen him, and expected him to do well. It granted him an opportunity that would be irresponsible to take lightly.

He could have touched the Portkey and returned home after he realized what it was, rather than snooping around the tombstones like a curious customer browsing a shop. This way, both he and Harry could have turned out all right. Harry would not have had to suck Cedric through a starless vacuum so that his body could be gawked at by his family, teachers, and friends. Hundreds of eyes on him right after the tournament’s completion – exactly what he’d dreamed of – but it was warped into a horrific nightmare no one could escape from.

He could have let Harry take the Cup for himself.

But all of that was neither here nor there, Cedric tried to convince himself as he passed yet another advertisement for the Devil’s Duel signups. He’d first arrived in Cliodna’s Clock right during the middle of the races, just in time to watch a hag lose to a witch by the name of Dorcas Meadowes. The year after that, he was riding on the confidence of a new friendship with James Potter and together, they both decided to sign up. They were supposed to support each other, help each other, and Cedric viewed it not as a competition but a way of having fun with a friend. Everything was smashed to pieces, however, when Sirius Black showed up right in the middle of the races on the eighteenth of June. After that, James didn’t bother much with Cedric and eagerly found a way to get himself eliminated from the Devil’s Duel.

Cedric made it out in the third round and decided not to sign up the following year. After all, he knew all too well what it was like to be neck-and-neck with someone and fall in second place. If the same thing happened again, it would be more than his body that he would lose.

His hands clenched as he glided around a street corner, nearly knocking Bertha Jorkins sideways into a bakery, his eyes sweeping the landscape for Colin and Fred. In a stroke of pure luck, he passed Colin, who was sitting on a bench. He seemed to blend in with an obsidian house shaped into a chess bishop – Salazar Slytherin’s place – because of the black robes he wore. He hadn’t been wearing robes when he washed up on the beach, and Cedric wondered where he’d gotten them. His heart resounded with hollow pangs when he realized that they looked exactly like Hogwarts uniforms.

Cedric paused for a moment, looking down at the young man, before sitting. Colin made no gesture of acknowledgement, keeping his eyes glued to a wand that lay spread across his knees.

“Oh, I see you’ve gotten a wand!” Cedric said jovially, leaning over to smile at him. “Gregorovitch has to compete with the Ollivanders here, but his business doesn’t fare too badly. He set up a shop after he came here in September, and that’s where I got this from.” He reached inside his pocket and pulled out his own wand, admiring it. Colin still paid him no notice, but Cedric went on as though he were speaking to an enraptured audience. “My old one was made by Antioch Peverell himself, but it never wanted to do cleaning spells for me. My new Gregorovitch one is much better.”

Colin didn’t answer.

“Say, have you seen Fred Weasley anywhere about? He was in my year…I’d like to ask about a few of my friends and see how they’re doing.” He fell silent for a few seconds, wondering for the thousandth time what he would have been up to on a day like today if he’d been able to leave Hogwarts after seventh year just like the rest of his classmates, and what he might have gone on to do. Ministry work, maybe? The Ministry might’ve been a bit boring for him… He often considered going into something more unconventional that no one would expect, like opening his own restaurant or designing a new line of brooms. He smiled dryly to himself at the thought of what it might be like to turn twenty years old, the idea that he could still do things like opening a restaurant or designing brooms never once occurring to him.

“Do you think it would be worse to die when you’re too young to know what you’re missing, or when you’re just old enough to have your own family and a career and everything?” Colin asked suddenly.

Cedric looked up, having almost forgotten he was there, and studied him. The boy continued to look away, screwing up his face to observe an Herbology greenhouse across the street, diagonal to where they sat. Its bottle-green glass was cracked and dusty, the various veins resembling a map.

“I…I couldn’t say. I don’t really think there is a good time to die, you know?”

Colin made no response, deciding either not to listen to him or that he was dissatisfied with Cedric’s answer. A crease developed in Cedric’s forehead and he absently scratched his neck, swallowing.

“So, have you seen Fred, then?”

“Of course there is a good time to die,” a much louder and much deeper voice boomed. Colin and Cedric both jumped, swerving around to gaze up the shining black house to an open window. Salazar Slytherin stood staring down at them with his hands folded primly one on top of the other on his window ledge, two patterned lace curtains whipping behind his head like doilies. He arched an indolent black eyebrow at them, his haughty features rather less intimidating in broad daylight. “There is honor in death, is there not?”

“Don’t listen to him,” replied a fourth voice. It was a woman moving so quickly down the street that she didn’t appear to be walking, but floating. Her midnight hair was waist-length, twisted away from her pale face in rows and pinned with a rainbow of miniscule jewels. “He does this all the time. He’s just trying to get under your skin.”

Something soft passed over Salazar’s expression when he viewed her sauntering by, and then his lips quickly curved into a smirk. “You would take this one amusement from me, my dear Rowena?”

She smiled ever so slightly, patronizing but indulgent, and Salazar couldn’t help but lower his chin into one hand, elbow propped on the ledge. With the way that her hair and jewelry sparkled in the sun as she surveyed him from below, it was all he could do to remember his bitterness. Standing there like she was, gazing evenly up at him as though she talked to him all the time and might even be brave enough to talk to him when it was just the two of them conversing without anyone else around to act as buffers – it was easy to imagine that he didn’t hate her.

“Come now, Salazar. Leave the poor boy alone. He’s had a very rough go of it…so very young.”

Her pity, which Salazar considered a weakness, was enough to strengthen his resolve against slipping through her fingers again. “Shouldn’t you be out prancing around with Gryffindor, listening to him sing about his latest biography?”

The abrupt dismay in the way her mouth turned down at the corners, one heel inching away from her other as she made to turn, froze Salazar’s tongue. Cedric and Colin stared from one person to the other, not speaking. “My apologies, Miss Ravenclaw. I was merely brooding about the impossibility of avoiding death. It is all I have, you see. I tell people truths. The races are nigh and I believe it more imperative than ever that people continue to finish each other off in this barbaric fashion. If no one signs up for the tournament, then what will happen? The committee would start choosing residents at random. Our free will…my immortality…lost forever.”

“Tournament?” Colin repeated. “So that’s what the races are? Like the Triwizard Tournament?”

“The Triwizard Tournament and the Devil’s Duel are similar, it is true. Legend says that they originated in nearly identical forms in practice, but each has evolved over the years, splitting off in different directions. In our races here, there’s loads more champions and the stakes are a hell of a lot higher.”

“Have you ever signed up for this? For the races, I mean?” Colin wanted to know. Salazar's eyebrows lifted higher, looking severely on the verge of laughter.

“Are you off your onion, boy? I’ve already died once. Don’t really fancy doing it again, especially since I know I won’t be going anywhere afterward. You’ve heard that, haven’t you?” He leaned forward, strands of black hair falling against his jaw like deep shadows. “The runner-up dies. Rowena desires for me to be honest with you, and so I shall. It’s not at all worth the chance of a few hours amongst strangers, if you ask me.”

Colin’s mouth fell open. “Dies? But – but we’re already dead.”

“I did it a few dozen times,” Rowena chipped in, ignoring Colin’s remark. “Lost its luster after a while. What’s the use of going back to earth if you don’t know anyone there? Everything looks different – the trees, the grass, the sky. Most of it’s gone now, replaced with buildings. It’s too foreign for someone like me, who still remembers the world as it once was.”

Salazar’s eyelids lowered, but whether he was disdainful or thoughtful, Cedric and Colin couldn’t tell. He was an exceptionally tricky man to read when he wanted to be. “And would you consider it a good thing or a bad thing that you haven’t changed at all yourself, Miss Ravenclaw?”

She regarded him steadily. “I wish you could speak to me without analyzing your words beforehand thoroughly enough to fill them with double-edged meanings.”

“I wish you could speak to me without feeling sorry for me.”

“Oh, Salazar. I stopped feeling sorry for you centuries ago.” She hesitated, hands rubbing together. “No more talk of the races. I’ve seen you do more harm than good and too many young ones have passed on before their time because of words you’ve spoken to them.” She gestured to Colin. “He’s a sweet boy. You won’t make an allowance?”

His dark eyes glittered. “For you, I would make several.”

She blushed deeply and he drew up to his full height, satisfied with himself. At last, he said, “One of these days, old friend, the Devil’s Duel will come down to the two of us.”

She stared at him, unwavering. A large part of her wondered if he was right. It felt inevitable, somehow, that they would have their wands crossed against each other like swords someday. The two of them had been crossed throughout history so many times that it was impossible to tell exactly who was at fault, in the end.

“I hope you get to watch me bleed. It was such a shame that you had to miss it last time.”

He turned around and disappeared into the depths of his home, the rancid breath of his words still lingering. Rowena looked furious. She brought her fist to her lips, turning away from the two boys. Neither glanced away from her fast enough, and it was all Colin could do to change the subject.

“So what happens to the people who’ve lost? Do many people sign up for it?”

“Oh, a fair few do,” Cedric responded, as Rowena was still glowering at where Salazar’s face had been only a minute before. There was something not quite right about the scene, perhaps a rippling of a hand or someone’s chameleon profile stirring against the backdrop of lace patterned curtains. Rowena thought it would be very much like him to give himself a Disillusionment Charm so that he could monitor her reaction without being monitored himself. A voyeur of his aftermath.

“But not everyone who signs up gets through. There can only be ten people in the races. I know that a couple of past winners – Caradoc Dearborn and Viola Bones, for example – only entered once and never went for it again. Wasn’t worth the stress, they said. But there are others, of course, who try all the time. Lily Potter has signed up for every single Devil’s Duel in the past sixteen years.”

“That’s a lot of risk.”

“That’s a lot of desperation.”

“Did she ever win?”

“Oh, yes. She doesn’t look it, but Lily Potter is one of the most cutthroat competitors you’ll ever find. She’ll do anything she can to win, and that’s why she’s come out on top thirteen times. And she knows her limits, too. If she gets into the competition and is sizing up her opponents and thinks her chances aren’t too good, she’ll drop out early, making herself an easy target in the first four duels. She’s only had to do that three times.”

“What do you mean, ‘first four duels’?” Colin frowned. “I thought it was just one duel.”

Cedric wiped the sweat from his forehead, temporarily distracted by how progressively hot it was getting. “You’ll see for yourself when it comes around, but the Devil’s Duel is five separate duels, spread out over the month of June.”

“The second, the ninth, the sixteenth, the twenty-third, and the thirtieth,” Rowena recited from memory. “Those are always the days.”

“Anyone can sign up,” Cedric went on, “but the races usually only appeal to newcomers. They’re still in denial – no offense to you, mate – and are still attached to their old lives. People who’ve been here longer don’t usually sign up unless they’re really bored. There are years, from what I’ve heard, that barely anyone initially signs up, and so a bunch of volunteers jump in before it can go to a draft.”

“And there are other years when so many people sign up that a committee has to narrow them down to ten,” Rowena said. Colin’s head jerked back and forth, following both of them and trying to absorb the information.

“Right,” Cedric chimed. “If more than ten people want in, then a committee chooses ten contestants from the pool and those contestants are then split into two groups of five. For the first four duels, people only duel those within their own group. With every duel, one person is eliminated from each group. In round five, only one person from each team is left, and those remaining contestants duel each other for the prize. Whoever loses gets their soul taken from them.”

“What happens to their soul?”

“Some say it gets blotted out forever. Some say their souls are given to someone else in reincarnation. No one really knows, but it’s pretty clear that the losers themselves no longer exist. Anywhere.”

“Did you personally know any of the losers?” Colin inquired.

Cedric nodded. “It’s interesting, though – in 1995, Lily Potter let Dorcas Meadowes win by allowing herself to be defeated in the third round, leaving Dorcas with only Geoffrey Everard in her group for the fourth duel. Everyone knows that Everard won’t curse a witch. So when Everard lost against her in the fourth round and Dorcas went on to the last round to duel this old hag named Glenda, she won it easily. The very next year, Lily turned around and defeated Dorcas, so now Dorcas is dead.”

“One of Lily’s dearest friends, too,” Rowena lamented.

“Things change when you’re dead,” Cedric said in a low tone, his expression serious. “Priorities are different. Lily loved Dorcas and Dorcas loved Lily, and for eleven months out of the year they were the best of friends. But in June, all bets are off. People think only about their loved ones, their family and friends back home. And Lily…she had more to lose than Dorcas. She wanted it more. She had to see her son.”

“Harry,” Colin mentioned quietly.

“Right. This is The Boy Who Lived and his mother we’re talking about here; she’s going to do everything she can to see him and make sure he’s safe. When Dorcas got in the way of that, no matter how much Lily loved her, that witch didn’t stand a chance.”

“But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me,” Colin replied slowly, gripping both ends of his wand in his hands and examining it. “The person to come out on top, in the fifth round – that person gets the twenty-four-hour prize, right?”

Rowena, despite feeling uneasy about the topic, pivoted her body toward him. Her skirts followed in a swishing rustle, the gauzy red fabric somewhat transparent in this lighting; the sun enabled underlying gold skirts to shine through. Something about the material of her gown reminded Cedric of water, like fluid in stitches. He wondered if it was goblin-made. “That is correct.”

“Then why don’t people try to run off? Escape while they’re on earth?”

“Oh, there are plenty of rules you’ve got to follow,” Cedric cut in. “Like, you can’t talk to anyone. You can’t let yourself be seen. You can’t interfere with the lives of the living. If you break the rules, you don’t get to come back to Cliodna’s Clock; you have to go to the Grotta. No one from Cliodna’s Clock lasts long when they get cast off over there. If the insanity or the other residents don’t kill you, then the diseases will.”

“Winners try running off all the time,” Rowena informed them knowingly. “It’s only natural, really, to get to earth and then begin to fancy yourself safe and invincible. But it’s not possible to escape. If you’re not back to your Portkey in exactly twenty-four hours, then the station attendant from the depot goes in there after you. Trust me, if the attendant has to go in after you to find you – and she definitely will find you – it is never a pleasant experience.” She bit her lip, folding her hands together. “I’ve tried it a few times.”

Colin absently uttered something that sounded like ‘she?’ but wasn’t heard by the others.

Salazar Slytherin watched the three of them from his stance at the window, pleased that Rowena glanced up at him so often. She walked away just as he decided to reverse his Disillusionment Charm, wishing to see her blush again; but it was too late. She was gone and Salazar was left with only the two young men far below his window, conversing in low murmurs. The thirst for adventure and glory traveled from one pair of eyes to the other, as though by reflection, and Salazar smiled wryly to himself. So long as he had his window and the fair Rowena to watch from afar, it did not matter to him who was killed in the races. It only mattered that the races continued to exist, so that those less intelligent could willingly sacrifice themselves while Salazar was permitted to live for as long as he wanted.

Which, of course, was forever.
 


Chapter 5: The Warehouse of Winter Walk
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“Have another one, old man.”

Remus worked up a smile and ran his thumb around the opening of his empty bottle of butterbeer. It was disconcerting to glance up and see Sirius grinning at him like he’d been doing all afternoon – he thought to himself that he would never get used to it. I watched him die. And yet, here he sits.

Sirius’s friendly jab was not lost on him, and Remus did indeed feel like an old man. He cast a quick gaze around the room, as he couldn’t keep his eyes away from his hands or shoes or the last drops of butterbeer sliding around the cool, clear bottom of his bottle for very long; even the lines in Sirius’s face had softened, and the influence of rancid, rotten dementor’s breath from many years in Azkaban had all but erased from his appearance. Remus had already heard that Cliodna’s Clock had a funny effect on people, tending to quench the appetites of the vain. Sirius didn’t generally care much about his looks, but Remus supposed that his friend must have disliked looking so much older than his best friend. Over time, Cliodna’s Clock had managed to make certain citizens look younger if they wished, but left just as many people alone.

James was like a younger brother in comparison, despite the silver robes he wore that matched Sirius’s. And next to James, folded next to him on the sofa, Lily was almost child-like in a satin lavender thing, red hair tumbling over her shoulders as she leaned into her husband.

Tonks was silent, unable to add anything to the conversation. She went mostly unnoticed by James, but Lily’s eyes darted to her every other minute or so, curious. Sirius knew her well, being her cousin, and seemed perfectly at ease to be in her company. There were a few short weeks in Tonks’s life when she would have loved the opportunity to exchange words with Sirius again, to seek the flash of comprehension in his eyes when he saw the way she looked at Remus. He was a comrade of sorts, even going so far as to mention Tonks to Remus when she wasn’t around, talking her up. But now she was inching away from him like he was a disease, her face flushing of blood whenever he spoke.

And Lily Potter! It was almost too insane to believe that the famous Lily Potter could actually be younger than Tonks. She was somewhat taller than Tonks, and both women were quite young, but Tonks kept going back to Harry over and over in her mind. Harry, who looked every bit like James. Harry, who resembled a fraternal twin more than a son. Somehow, she’d always pictured them to be older – more like her own parents. To watch Lily smooth her dress with two pale, slender hands and then lift her attention to James, smiling sweetly with a face untainted by age – so unlike Andromeda – it was more than Tonks could stomach. Both she and Remus stared at their knees while the other three went on talking as though nothing were amiss.

James was laughing, the high echo of it ringing around the perimeter of his living room. Behind him, a framed picture of his parents, who lived in a flat above their bakery, shuddered against the wall. Paint chips showered down around it, completely ignored by the Potters, but Tonks was arrested as she watched. James’s laugh was a phenomenon that electrified the house, making things move. If he brought a fist down upon the table, complexion burning from mirth, the walls creaked and groaned and doors clicked open. Tonks could hear a bedroom door squeak as it broke away from its frame, fanning out into the hall.

And when there was a respite, a thoughtful frown with five pairs of hands clasped in their laps while the clock continued to tick, everything else was still. The elder Mr. and Mrs. Potter froze behind their frame on the blinding white wall, ceasing to move. A moment later, when Sirius or James issued words into the atmosphere, inviting darkness into the conversation as they mentioned Lord Voldemort or the impending races, a swell of wind would pour through the house. Windows would shut. Decorative rugs on the floor would curl up into themselves, rolling and rolling until they were obscured by tables. Tonks and Remus followed the spidery hands of the clock as they ticked, going forward and backward in reaction to the emotions in the room.

Sirius occupied a wooden chair angled so that he could view everyone at once. Remus remembered their years at Hogwarts and how Sirius had preferred to sit alone on the bench across from James, Peter, and himself in the Great Hall during meals. In the common room, he chose to seat himself before the fire while his friends draped themselves over various chairs, all for the advantage of facing everyone. Because of the massive volume of energy he exuded, he liked to see and talk to the whole world at once, easily registering their reactions with the sweep of his eyes, without having to crane his neck. “What d’you think, Remus?”

Tonks clutched her husband’s wrist, only halfway listening. Remus, on the other hand, wasn’t listening at all, and didn’t seem to have heard Sirius.

“All right, Moony?” James prompted.

Remus’s head snapped up, his focus locking on the smirking boy. Man, he corrected to himself. When he was twenty-one himself, he never regarded his mates as ‘boys’. He was a man and they were men – strong and confident and self-assured. But now, sitting beside a woman who was born when he and his friends were thirteen and James was breezily calling him by his childhood nickname, the world felt slightly tilted, logic sliding far away from them. He could feel in the way Lily glanced from him to Tonks that she was scrutinizing their age gap. He could feel in the way Tonks gazed steadily back at her that she was scrutinizing the age gap between her husband and his friends, waiting for Remus to revert to being an adolescent himself. Maybe if she peered closely enough, he would slip back into his past life, the one he shared with these people before she was around.

All Remus could think about was the fact that he couldn’t stop looking down on James in the same way he often looked down at Harry, a former student, and how much James would resent it if he knew. They would never know how young they really were, because they wouldn’t be able to look back at themselves in hindsight like Remus could. But then again, they’d never stopped living, had they? Even though they were dead, they still continued to be, however far away from their friends, and had been around in one way or another just as long as Remus. Perhaps their physical appearances were too misleading and he would have to find a way to see what he wanted to see.

“I’m fine,” he said, and a lamp bolted to the floor began to rattle.

White noise started to dissipate from where it had been buzzing within his ears, making the voices much louder and harder to ignore. Sirius had already forgotten the strange glazed blankness in Remus’s half-lidded eyes. “Wouldn’t it be fun if we all went for it this year? Now that we’ve got old Remus back?” He winked at Remus as though reminding him of a hilarious joke they shared.

“This would not be a good year for it,” Lily replied quietly. “Too many new people.”

“Oh, come on.” Sirius scooted to the very edge of his chair, focusing wholly on Lily now. “Surely you of all people haven’t gotten scared.” He smiled widely, eyes narrowed to taunt. “Nervous, Lily?”

“Of course she isn’t nervous,” James cut in, applying Lily with a crooked smile. “You don’t win the races thirteen times by second-guessing yourself.”

Lily looked like she wanted to sigh.

Or maybe everyone already sees what they want to see, Remus was thinking to himself, still tangled in his internal troubles. Maybe what I see isn’t what Dora sees, or what Sirius sees, or what James sees. He tried to wrap his head around it, seemingly thousands and thousands of miles away from where his wife sat next to him. In her own head, she dwelled on Teddy and wondered if it was better or worse that she hadn’t had as much time with him as Lily and James had gotten with Harry. They’d been able to store up a year’s worth of memories with their son before being ripped away from him.

Lily, ironically, was thinking the exact same thing.

“How about it?” Sirius went on, pushing a lock of black hair away from his face. “Me, Lily, James, and Remus, all competing in the Devil’s Duel. Or maybe just the three of us men. It’ll be an escapade like the old days!” No one mentioned the hole in that memory, the missing person no one dared speak of.

“I hate competing against Lily,” James remarked. “It means I always have to make myself an easy target in the first four rounds. I won’t go against her head-to-head.”

“You don’t make yourself an easy target,” Lily scoffed. “It’s not by chance that I always throw you out.”

Sirius looked ready to object on James’s behalf, but James shook his head. “It’s true. In June, nothing comes between Lily and that Portkey. I just have to remember to stay well out of her way.”

“To be honest, I don’t think I like you much in June,” Sirius said to Lily with a yawn, stretching his arms behind his head. “You get all pinched and uptight and the house shakes too much.”

Lily’s eyes were dark, the corners of her mouth turning down. “You’d be on-edge, too, if you had a son at home and winning was the only way to see him.”

The lamp next to Tonks flickered to life, blown-glass bulbs glowing radiantly. She stared hard at Lily, who suddenly couldn’t look at her anymore, and the two of them became aware of something instant and painfully obvious that was spread thickly between them. The tension between the two women was invisible to everyone else, especially Sirius.

“Well, you’ve seen him plenty more times than James has. Maybe it’s your turn to sit out, let us have a go. I’m sure James and Remus would like to see Harry again, too. I know I would.”

Tonks and Remus fixed Sirius with icy glares, but he didn’t take notice. He was bright-eyed and rigid with excitement, one hand gripping the armrest while his other was caught between currents in the air, pointing at nothing. “It could be like an Order reunion, you know? We’ve got the Prewetts, the McKinnons, and most everyone else. We’ve even got Mad-Eye now.”

“Are you suggesting that Mad-Eye and all of your old friends fight against each other in a tournament where one person will end up dead?” Tonks snapped before she could bite back her tongue.

Sirius was momentarily annoyed, but it passed. “What else is there to do here, Tonks?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Her tone dripped with sarcasm. “Maybe grow up?”

“Dora,” Remus murmured, trying to make his voice sound soothing rather than stern. He tried to capture her hand with his fingers, but she sensed his allegiance to his friends and pulled away. Sirius, James, and Lily fell quiet. Remus was still annoyed with Sirius, but he was also embarrassed that Tonks hadn’t been able to control her temper. What would James and Lily think of her now? What would she think of them? Before he could try to peel away the damage with a joke and a laugh and a tweak of her chin, she was standing up. She turned her face away from him, the muscles in her jaw visibly taut.

“I’m going for a walk.”

Lily pursed her lips, flitting between disapproval and sympathy. James watched Tonks go, surprised and confused, but Sirius waved his hand at Remus as though to signify that it was no big deal. The latter blushed with shame as Tonks walked briskly to the door, accidentally tripping over one of the rolled-up rugs in her haste to leave. She gave it a solid kick before flinging the door open and slamming it shut behind her.

“Let her tire herself out,” Sirius advised lazily, flicking his wand at the window. The curtain shifted aside, allowing him to see his cousin as she stormed down the garden pathway and down to the main road. Dark splotches splattered against the pavement, a warm rain stripping through the ends of Tonks’s hair and shoulders until she had marched out of view. “She needs a few minutes to hate everyone. Sometimes all’s you want to do is feel sorry for yourself while no one’s looking.”

Remus glared sharply at him, and Sirius had the good sense to shut up. James, however, said, “I think you should go to her.” Lily nodded in agreement.

Remus was going to do it anyway, of course. He gave them all an apologetic smile, not quite sure if he truly felt apologetic at all. He waved and turned to follow in Tonks’s footsteps. “Thanks for tea, Lily.”


*


The rotund, squat little man held one hand on top of his head to keep his bowler hat from flying away, hurrying quickly out the back door of Merlin’s cabin just as Albus Dumbledore popped into the parlor.

“Who was that?” the inquisitive voice drifted.

“Peter Pettigrew.”

“Ah. I’m sorry that I missed him.”

Peter shivered, his nervous system going up in anxious flames from the prospect of almost being in the same room as Dumbledore. For some reason, he always worried to himself while he was busy fleeing building after building as the old wizard approached that if Dumbledore were to lay eyes on him, and speak to him, that he would lose the small sort of protection he’d been able to scrape up. That he would be sent in shackles over to the Grotta, where he would surely be killed within hours.

He could hear his name sometimes. It was in the rise and fall of Gibbon’s breathing, in the hoots and howls of Evan Rosier, Walden Macnair, Mulciber, Wilkes, and Bellatrix Lestrange. It whistled through tree branches and the cracks in the door of a cellar where Peter slept at night. He was supposedly permitted to find somewhere more respectable to live, or so he’d heard, but he wasn’t quite convinced. He’d been told many times that no one could kill him here. As long as he stayed away from the Devil’s Duel – and of course he had zero interest in doing such a thing – then he was safe. Free.

But he wasn’t, really.

By day, he haunted the abandoned warehouse in the small stretch of woods Cliodna’s Clock offered. This was the destination he escaped to after the near-miss with Dumbledore. Through the dirty windows smeared with greenish grime, he could squint his eyes and view the tail end of Winter Walk. Snow always fell thickly here, sparkling white grit rolling in sheets along the avenue. As long as the warehouse itself didn’t move, it provided a decent cover from prying eyes. In his mind, there were always prying eyes – judging him and following him wherever his back turned, waiting for him to fall asleep so that they could reach out and –

“Peter?”

The face appeared after the voice, one of his eyes disfigured from a streak of mud on the window. He was cupping his elbows with his hands, shaking from cold. If Peter had been in a mood to notice, he might have wondered how Igor Karkaroff hadn’t become immune to cold after all of his years in the far north.

Peter disappeared from the window, shrinking back into the corner with silent, watchful steps. He could hear Igor’s hand trying at the door and knew it wouldn’t be long before he found a way in. No matter how many defensive spells he cast, or how many barriers he tried to place between the rest of the world and himself, they were flimsy and easily penetrated. This wasn’t due to a lack of skill; Cliodna’s Clock was unrelenting in its punishments, always keeping him on the run. He still couldn’t believe he’d ended up here instead of the Grotta.

“Go away,” he called. “I – I was here first!”

“There’s enough room for two people in there,” Igor sputtered. Peter could hear him muttering incantations.

Peter finally opened up the door, taking care to search the surrounding trees for any signs of movement before conversing. “This place is mine. I see you’ve been here while I was out, leaving wrappers and rubbish all over the floor.”

“Please.” Igor looked older than ever, his silvery-black hair sticking to his forehead from sweat and melting snow. “Let me in, I’m freezing.”

“If you’re freezing, then get away from Winter Walk,” Peter hissed, the gap between them closing rapidly as he made to shut the door. “Summer is only two minutes from here. Follow the train tracks.”

“You know I can’t go there.” He was desperate, pushing against the door now. His weight could easily topple Peter to the ground, and after a strong shove he was inside at last. “You and I, we are alike. We are in the same ship, as they say.”

“Boat.”

Igor looked puzzled. “Boat,” Peter repeated, lips curling with impatience. “The phrase is ‘in the same boat’. Listen, Igor, you can’t be following me around. If people see us together, they’re going to think we’re trying to – to resurrect something. We’ll get sent over to the Grotta.”

Igor’s eyes were wide and fearful. Despite knowing that all of their friends were either alive or decaying in the Grotta, neither man wanted to be there. They would not have been greeted with open arms, especially Igor. Igor had been killed by several of his closest friends, all because he’d been afraid and had tried to protect himself with secrets he leaked to the Ministry. He could try to lie, maybe, or hope that Rosier had been killed already, but he knew better than to hope. And what if Dolohov and Travers had come to the Grotta? They would surely want to get their claws on him, as well.

“I cannot afford to be associated with you,” Peter pressed. For a man with very little reputation, he was not afraid to sever his acquaintance with the only person he could identify with. It was all a part of a master design in which he could stop hiding under porches and in the attics of the unsuspecting, stealing food from clueless dolts like Bertha Jorkins and Xavier Rastrick. They were so batty that they would never notice a few missing morsels. “Get away, quickly, before someone sees us.”

Igor’s face grew hard. “You’ve already had your turn here.”

Both men withdrew their wands at the same time, poised to strike, but then a colossal wall of cloud fell across their shoulders and they became statues. Peter edged sideways to see that the warehouse had relocated, switching places with Gregorovitch’s wand shop. A black shadow swam out of the mouth of a house next door, coming to a pause in the middle of the street. Igor and Peter remained frozen, unable to do more than stare.

The clouds clustered over Severus Snape in a gravitational pull, drowning him in rain, but he seemed unaware of it. There was a sort of voltage emitting from him, a determination. He turned on his heel and walked quickly down the road while door after door from shops along both sides of the pavement clattered against their wooden frames. His black robes were as glossy as raven feathers from the wash of rain, his hands pallid against the grays and blacks that colored the air.

Perfect, Peter thought. A feral grin distorted his usually-fretful features. Before he knew what he was doing, he was out the door.


*


Remus held one arm over his eyes against the rain, moving quickly. Where had Tonks gone? After crossing the street, she’d vanished right into the blend of low-lying clouds and doorways that rumbled with thunder. He was hopelessly unfamiliar with the setting, and it didn’t help that he seemed to come upon the same exact shop that he’d just seen on a different street; almost like the buildings had picked up their feet and traveled in circles to confuse him. When he passed a cherry tree he was certain he’d seen somewhere else, he snapped off one of its branches and kept walking.

She wasn’t at the boardinghouse, which was where they were staying until they decided on something more permanent. She wasn’t in the pub, whose lights streamed through the windows and cast shimmering orange squares onto the wet road. Where else would she go? Who would she want to see?

And then he knew. Mad-Eye.

He considered turning back to find Sirius – as it was somewhat easier to look at him than James – and ask where he might find Alastor Moody. The thought of it made his stomach slosh with nausea. It was unfair, he knew. He was dead as well. It was just as odd for others to see him as it was for him to see others, in this world where the dead roamed. It was unfair for his hands to be shaking and coated with gooseflesh, for his lips to quiver with sickness when he imagined Lily’s unnerving green eyes and James’s messy hair.

They belonged somewhere else, didn’t they? Somewhere unreachable, where Remus could fondly recall their memories. But not in Remus’s physical world, where he could touch them, see them, speak to them. He’d been thrust into their company much too fast and now his head was spinning with dizziness…

Lily and James. Smiling and chatting like it’s okay that they’re twenty-one, like they don’t even notice the gray in Remus’s hair or the creases in his forehead and around his eyes. Like they don’t notice how eager Sirius is to pretend he’s been here for years and years and years; like this is the perfect place to be and there’s nothing left on earth that he should miss.

Someone should be held accountable for this. Maybe Sirius wasn’t bitter and maybe Lily and James preferred to pretend that the person responsible for their deaths had evaporated into thin air. What none of them knew was that when Remus formed a grudge, it was extremely difficult for him to overcome it. He could feel the weight of rage and sadness, but they strangely didn’t make him heavier. They made him lighter, made his steps swifter.

It took a few minutes for him to realize that he wasn’t looking for Tonks anymore.

Among the torrents of rain, there was a black shadow floating down an alley, his shoulder-length hair familiar… Remus’s spine went stiff, his veins and skin and bones all clenching with stress. It can’t be. And right behind him, a shadow in his own way, someone Remus would recognize with his eyes closed was darting along after. A rat paddling through the sewers, looking for something sturdy to latch onto. Nearby, a cherry tree waved its branches against the windows of an apothecary, making rat-a-tat-tat noises. One of its branches had been snapped off, and a sparrow landed on the splintered flesh with two tiny feet.

It was as though the sky had opened up and dropped this person right into the palm of Remus’s hand, granting him exactly what he wanted. His heart was racing, his brain working in overdrive to process the flow of information it received. He couldn’t think, couldn’t rehearse. What would he have said if he’d been given the chance to think it through thoroughly beforehand? He didn’t know. All he knew was the weak chin, the pink-tinged eyes, the large front teeth curving over wasted, chapped lips. All for him.

“Excuse me, sir.” His voice was much lighter than he would have thought. It almost impressed him. “I’m looking for someone.”

The paddling rat froze with one foot hovering just inches from the ground, daylight dawning over him as he placed the voice at once. The two of them, always thrown together because Sirius and James often left them out while they were off being uproarious geniuses. Two boys playing Exploding Snap in their dormitory, helping each other with revisions, passing along the platter of breakfast toast. Exchanging glances when they were alternately teased by James and Sirius, innocently intended the teasing might be, and discussing it in whispers later. They were resentful and yet so grateful, the pair of them. They loved their friends like brothers, but it was a silent agreement that Remus would never laugh when James cracked a remark about Peter’s poor marks in O.W.L.s and Peter would never pretend to agree when Sirius treated Remus’s lycanthropy like it was some kind of grand adventure.

When he discovered Peter’s betrayal, it was worse than when he’d thought Sirius was guilty. It was worse than James and Lily’s deaths. There was no denying that they were supposed to be best friends, and when he had simultaneously lost all four of his closest friends on Halloween of 1981, Peter’s loss had hit him the hardest. He had gone for years feeling so unbearably alone, so full of grief that he hadn’t been able to save poor Peter. What could he have done differently? How could he have missed the symptoms that Sirius had switched sides? How could he have saved Pettigrew?

Peter slid against the brick exterior of a dilapidated tavern, trapped. His irises were swallowed up with pupil, fingers knotting together, tongue dry as a bone. When he spoke, he almost sounded relieved.

“Are you going to kill me, Remus?”

Remus pondered this, head cocked to the side as he surveyed his old friend. Pettigrew was much the worse for wear, his hair falling out in so many places that he was mostly bald with only a few sparse patches left. The lapels of his jacket were chewed – Remus suspected Peter had done it himself, probably from anxiety – and his long, fang-like teeth were severely yellowed.

“You know I can’t do that, Peter. But come with me, I have some friends who would love to try. Between the five of us, I’m sure we can manage something.”
 


Chapter 6: Registration
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Moonlight glazed the rooftops and the main avenue of Cliodna’s Clock, the colors dripping together like melted wax to form soft shades of lavender, plum, and topaz. The road itself was crushed pearls, iridescent as starlight, and even the charcoal trees and towering black bishop that Salazar Slytherin lived in was awash with checkered spots of blue. The night was not quite soundless; for even in the acute hours of the morning when the birds didn’t stir, there was still the occasional resident murmuring in his sleep or the muted footfalls of Godric Gryffindor’s cat slinking its way across a narrow strip of picket fence.

At this very moment, the loudest sound in the village was the whistling of a teapot in Ann Marie McKinnon’s dimly-lit kitchen. She liked to rise early so that she could have an hour or so of peace before her husband Edmund tromped down the stairs with premature complaints that the newspaper was going to be late. No matter how many times Ann Marie or their daughter Marlene tried to tell him that Cassandra Trelawney couldn’t control what time of day she received intelligence of life on earth, he was insistent that the Daily Departed sometimes rationed important information to use for slow news days.

And truthfully, he was right. Two weeks previously, Miss Trelawney had a vision of what the new Owlery at Hogwarts would look like after it was rebuilt (six levels!), but it was being kept very hush-hush. Sketch artists had already drawn it up and the finished product was sitting on a desk in the printing room, but Benedict Cuffe, the Senior Editor, was reserving that report for a more stagnant day.

It was long rumored that blackbirds could sense whenever the enormous statue of their obsidian likeness, the blackbird clock situated in City Center, was about to toll. As it so happened, one of the blackbirds that had been busy building a home in a tree that served as the clock’s neighbor took flight, gliding twice around the top of its tree before landing on a windowsill. Yesterday, the windowsill would have been one of the monuments in the Memory Garden; but the Memory Garden was gone, probably into the forest, and was switched with someone’s house. Ann Marie replaced a steaming mug of tea back on the table, fitting perfectly over a circular imprint of where she always placed it, month after month, year after year. Out of the corner of one eye, she noticed a bird hopping along just six feet away, separated by a pane of glass.

She wasn’t sure how she knew. Maybe it was because blackbirds in Cliodna’s Clock didn’t often trot along windowsills while people looked on at them, turning their beady eyes at you. Ann Marie blinked against the flickering yellowish light, one hand drifting to the center of the table where a lamp was left unlit. She was just about to remedy that when a shriek ripped the air.

Not a shriek – a crow. The bird on the sill ruffled its feathers in agitation and flew away. Ann Marie just barely managed to grapple a grip on herself in time to count the crows. There were fifteen of them. She flew to her unlocked front door and pushed it open, relieved that the muggy summer heat and mosquitoes had given way to the coolness of early morning. She had a good view of the depot from this position and stood on tiptoe as if that might help her see all the better.

From the letterbox post where she stood, she thought she could make out a faint twinkling in the direction of the dock and depot. She knew that this was probably a trick of her imagination, as the depot had no windows; it was probably just moonlight shining on the black water. She retreated back into the safe arms of her house, sighing to herself in regret that someone so young had arrived so early. Whoever it was, she would discover their identity soon enough without resorting to sticking her neck out down the street.

Meanwhile, two footprints were slowly filling with bits of baby-pink scallop shells, soon to be soothed away with sea foam. Water poured greedily into the prints that wandered at a brisk pace up the beach, taking the long way around an abandoned field. It can be assumed that whoever left the footprints was now watching the town from over top of a wild-growing hedge of Black Bryony. There was quiet rustling as a hand dug around in the heart-shaped leaves and pulled out a shining scarlet berry. The person moved out into the open, popping the poisonous berry into his or her mouth.

The footprints left stamps of white sand wherever they went, circling in curlicues without direction. Whoever owned them was not wearing shoes. They ran a few fingers over the jets of frozen water streaming from a fountain of ivory lilies, perhaps marveling at the possibility of ice despite the warm climate.

Several muffled paces later, the newcomer paused at the opening of a lane splitting between two shops, and, as if they knew quite well which direction they were going, decided to turn left. All of the surrounding shops, of course, were sleeping now. The occasional mouse scratched against doorways, carving niches into the grains as they called to fellow mice that there was food nearby. Aside from these hungry mice, a swallow roosting in the eaves of Miss Vance’s cottage, and the candlelight bathing shrubbery outside Anne Marie’s window with a buttery glow, there were no witnesses to take part in the arrival of someone fresh from the other side.

The newcomer took stock of their surroundings, drinking in the houses that seemed to shift their faces to stare right back and the satin banner that sprawled the length of three windows across the Town Hall in City Center. One could distinguish two large letter C’s stitched in gold on these banners, along with more letters too small to see properly in the darkness. Along both sides of the road, two identical orchards with holly trees manipulated with wire to form animal shapes rose out of the mossy soil. The figure tilted a head back to see a row of them pruned to look like one long dragon. A pair of owls perched in upper boughs served as the eyes, their amber glares reflective and cautious.

The person waltzed over to the dragon and sank beneath it, coiling into a shadow, seen by no one except for a silhouette strewn with white petals hiding under another tree. The newcomer took the plush grass in their hands, its green hues evaporated by the moon and repainted with violet and silver and inexplicably red, like oil in water. A balmy breeze whispered through the branches, rattling with voices of things that could not be seen, and the person disappeared up into a network of bony limbs and holly.

Colin Creevey didn’t move an inch as he watched it all, the white flower petals seeming to land in midair as they coated the shoulders of his night-black robes. His eyes searched for purchase in the nearby dragon’s branches, body motionless, from his hiding place in the black mouth of a jaguar tree.


*


Good, Fred Weasley thought to himself after hearing, in a very roundabout way on a sunny afternoon, that Cliodna’s Clock had added to its ever-growing list of inhabitants. There’s someone new. Maybe Diggory will stop jumping out of bushes at me for a few hours if he’s got someone else to harass. He wasn’t likely to be accosted by Cedric Diggory any time soon, anyway, given his location on the pebbly outskirts of Cliodna’s Clock, but one could never be too sure about overzealous Hufflepuffs. Cedric was much too stealthy for his own good, and was bound and determined to corner Fred and force him to take part in activities like frosting-tasting at the bakery or Quidditch matches where most of the players had long-forgotten the actual rules of the sport.

Fred had spent the past two weeks sizing up the town, getting to know its more deserted areas and avoiding human contact during daylight hours. He was intensely curious about the Grotta, and was presently walking up and down a stretch of land that rolled into shallow water, a small divide between the two civilizations.

He could see that it was enclosed in concrete walls and began to think to himself that it would be relatively easy to crack them open with a few spells – before remembering what Sirius Black had said to him the first time he caught the young man strolling on his waterfront property: They don’t have wands over there. They don’t have magic anymore, either, but they sometimes steal weapons from the guards. They report that sort of thing in our news. From what I hear, they fight each other like a bunch of Muggles. For most of them, that’s pretty ironic.

Fred was curious about a lot of things. It was the best way to engage his mind, he concluded, and so he set about finding out as much as possible about this new place he lived in, without having to outright ask anyone questions. It was a challenge. Fred was always game for a sticky challenge.

So far this morning, Fred had managed to stuff a nice load of viper eggs in Mr. Crouch’s teapot (which required a bit of lock-picking) and nick a few items from the crotchety wizard’s pantry before old Barty woke up. Unhelpful dingbat, Fred justified to himself after finding a splendid treasure trove of pumpkin pasties hidden in a kitchen drawer. Letting Bagman run around the Ministry like an idiot, ripping off people at the World Cup… He decided to take all of the laces out of Crouch’s shoes for good measure, and tossed them high into the branches of a tree after he left.

Tossing one look down the road to his right and then again toward his left, Fred made up his mind that he was going to have to emerge in the public eye if he wanted to find out more about this Devil’s Duel he kept hearing pop up in other people’s conversations. In times like these, he sorely wished he could have brought a pair of Extendable Ears with him into the afterlife, but supposed that he would have to make do with regular ears and a few discreet questions. In his hand, he clutched a brilliant blue flier he’d found in someone’s letterbox.

“Excuse me,” he said to a woman passing by. She had long, straggly blonde hair and misty gray eyes, and when she floated around in an oval pattern to face him, he wondered if he had ever met her anywhere before. “Do you know where I can find this?” He pointed at a line in bold print near the bottom of the flier:

Register no later than the 31st of May. Our office is open day and night.

The woman bent in half to peer closely at the paper, which Fred found somewhat odd, and tucked a lock of hair behind one ear. He noticed that she was wearing a necklace made from woven seaweed, a pinecone hanging from it as a pendant. It wafted the aroma of Christmas at the Burrow up at him, momentarily crystallizing his thoughts.

“The office?” she inquired pleasantly. “That'll be the Town Hall.” She pointed over his head and he turned to see an impressive red-clay building carved right out of the side of a cliff, its foundation suspended in the air over the road. Between the gap dividing the building’s foundation and the soil twelve or so inches below, was a black chasm teeming with gnarled roots.

The structure’s underbelly sprouted thick tubers right out of the clay mortar, tangling with tree roots curling out of the ground beneath it. No one had bothered to build a set of stairs to reach the opening of the building (which had no door to cover it and protect it from the elements), so presumably one would have to physically slum it over the tangle of roots and tubers to gain entrance. Up high, over an ivy-choked balcony, a huge banner took up a healthy portion of the top floor. The words Cliodna’s Clock shone magnificently in gold against an indigo background, the letter C’s exceptionally large.

“That’s what they use for a Town Hall?” His eyebrows shot up into his fringe. “It looks like it was built by cavemen.”

“Well it was, wasn’t it?” the woman responded, already sashaying away. “Good luck, Mr. Weasley.” She stooped down to pluck a dandelion that was growing out of the cracks in the pavement and jammed it in her hair next to a sprig of honeysuckle.

Fred examined the flier in his hand again, half-expecting it to say something else this time, before walking slowly down the street toward the whipping banner. The closer he got to it, the easier it was to see the frays around the edges of the banner, and the holes that betrayed its extraordinary age. The chasm between the Town Hall and the ground was bigger than it looked from far away; he estimated that at least five feet of space separated him from the gaping entryway.

Brick-colored dust and clay chips lay all around his feet, slathering the vines that crept out of the dirt, climbing vigorously up to the door. With the way that the Town Hall had been crudely whittled out of a cliff and how it was attached to the ground with living roots, Fred thought that the whole building resembled a bizarre, impossible crossbreed of rock and plant.

After navigating his way up the roots (his shoes slipping through gaps every few seconds), Fred made it into the building at last. Instead of levels broken up into individual rooms, it was one enormous open room with no ceiling. Sunlight filtered down through layers of illuminated dust, polishing the various stained glass windows with flecks of orange. On one of the windowsills, the glass darkened by the banner that hung directly on the other side of it, a memorable white owl sat staring down at Fred. It cocked its head knowingly, acknowledging him as someone she knew from another life.

The Town Hall turned out to be one lone man and a circular desk. The desk was also carved out of the cliff, and the middle of it had been hollowed out to admit someone with a very bad comb-over and a burnished nametag that read ADMINISTRATOR to stand inside. A man wearing six wristwatches on his arms stood opposite the Administrator, talking to him in a low voice that echoed off the walls in a melodic hum. A young woman who looked to be around Fred’s age stood a little ways off to the side, arms crossed over her chest as she waited for her turn.

Fred couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was. After several minutes of chewing the inside of his cheek and pretending to be fascinated with chunks of terracotta missing from the structure, absently questioning its stability to himself, he meandered over to the woman. She was wearing a leaf-green wrap dress that matched her eyes exactly, her deep red hair falling over one shoulder in a braid. “So. Ceilings are overrated anyway, eh?”

She gave him a careful smile. “It never rains in here. No need for one.”

She turned away, not quite cool in demeanor but certainly not warm. It struck Fred that she probably wasn’t in the habit of making friends with new people she intended to duel. For lack of something better to do, he swung his arms a bit and whistled up at the white owl. The bird didn’t budge.

“It probably won’t come to you,” the woman said lightly. “Owls tend to get lazy after they’ve been here for a while because Cliodna’s Clock doesn’t really have a use for them.”

“How do people send their letters, then?”

“It’s actually quite amazing, really,” she said slowly, eyes lighting up in spite of herself. “As soon as you finish writing a letter, it disappears in your hands and reappears in the recipient’s letterbox. Instantaneous delivery.”

Fred smiled ruefully at the owl, sad to see such a familiar creature in a place where she no longer served a real purpose. “That’s too bad.”

“Do you know that bird?”

“Sure I do. That’s Hedwig. She belonged to Harry Potter but the Death Eaters killed her.”

“Really?” Her eyes widened, losing focus as she craned her neck to take a better look at Hedwig. “That’s Harry’s owl?”

Fred shook his head, clucking his tongue. “Not you, too.”

Her brow wrinkled in confusion. “Not me, what?”

“The Harry Potter craze. He’s all anyone talks about. I can’t open a window around here without hearing about him, and back home it was just as bad.” He reflected on Ginny in the weeks before the Battle, pacing Auntie Muriel’s walkway from the house to a rusted wire fence because she was so tightly-wound with tension, worry, and impatience that she had to constantly keep moving. “Worse, even.” Upon seeing the strange glint in her eyes, he sighed. “Don’t worry, I understand the appeal. Savior of the wizarding world and all that.”

The red-haired woman pressed her lips together in an amused smile.

“Next!” the man behind the desk barked.

“See you in the races,” she said in a good-natured tone, and sauntered forth. Her conversation with the sour-faced man with a comb-over was much, much shorter than that of the man preceding her, and she was in and out in less than a minute. She bestowed Fred with a friendly wink as she turned away from the desk and passed him, her worn shoes making no sound as they traipsed across the floor. Fred’s mouth went somewhat slack, eyes glazing over as he watched her leap down the mountain of roots, her back soon blending in with the other villagers milling about.

“Very fit,” he murmured. “Very fit, indeed.”

“Next!” the desk man barked, perforating Fred’s hazy thoughts. He jumped, startled.

The Administrator had the face of a raisin. It was wrinkled and puckered and Fred thought that he must have spent way too much time in the sun while he was alive. “I’m here to sign up for the Devil’s Duel,” he greeted.

The man’s nose twitched. “’Course you are.” He turned over Fred’s left palm, ignoring Fred’s sudden cry of surprise, and jabbed it with an instrument that was too sharp to be a pen but too slender to be a knife.

"Are you insane? What are you playing at?"

“You’ve got to register, or didn’t you know? You must be new.”

Fred followed the man’s movements with his eyes as he collected the thin rivulet of Fred’s blood in an opaque vial and slid it somewhere out of sight below the desk. “Yes, I’m new. Fresh blood, I suppose you could say.” The Administrator ignored Fred’s attempt at a pun and Fred added, “What exactly are you doing with that, mate? Pardon my manners, but where I come from, whenever people want you to bleed all over the place, they generally look a bit happier after they’re done with it.”

The man paused to glower at him for a moment. “It goes into the pool with all the others.”

“All the other what?”

“All the other entries. Your blood binds you to the Duel so that you can't back out of it.” He lifted an ancient, cracked Pensieve out of what must have been a shelf somewhere under the desk. He tapped the lip of it with his silver stabbing instrument, its point still glistening with a drop of crimson. “Our very own Goblet of Fire of sorts, at your service.” He mimed pouring something into the bowl of the Pensieve. “Everyone’s blood goes in here at the start of the Devil’s Duel, and it controls your fate.”

“Come again?”

“It boils,” The Administrator explained, apparently relishing the bewilderment in Fred’s eyes. “All of the people who sign up for the Duel get their blood taken. This year, so many people have signed up that you won’t all automatically go into the pot. You’ve got to be narrowed down to ten by a committee, because there can only be ten contestants in the Duel. The ten people who will be chosen by the committee will have their blood combined in this Pensieve, and whoever wins the races is an outcome of how everyone’s blood reacts together in this Pensieve as well as the contestants’ reactions to each other while in the Duel.”

“You’re saying that my blood will help decide whether I win or lose? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. What if I was a vampire and had no blood at all? You lot are prejudiced.”

The man leaned forward, eyes narrowed meaningfully. “I mean that whatever you are made out of – your soul, your memories, your intentions and motivations and capabilities – that helps decide whether you win or lose.” He tapped the bowl again. “It’s all in your blood, and the Pensieve knows.” Fred swallowed thickly, and the man’s expression reverted back to its usual scrunched-up state. “Ahh, but no matter. Don’t let this influence you, it's just a prediction method. Just do whatever you can in the Duel to make sure that whoever should win, does win.”

Fred blinked, not totally sure he understood what the Administrator meant.

“Now I’ll be needing to document your wand,” the man plowed on. “It’s very important that we know which wand is yours.”

Fred produced the wand as he was instructed, his mind still occupied with the red-haired girl and Hedwig and the bone-dry Pensieve that would soon swirl with blood like memories, predicting what the outcome of the races might be. Most of all, the Administrator’s voice reverberated off the walls of Fred’s brain. Just do whatever you can in the Duel to make sure that whoever should win, does win.

That’s me, Fred thought. I am going to win.
 

 








Thank you for reading, and as always, reviews are very much appreciated. :)


Chapter 7: The Prince and His Beloved
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30 June 1993


Lily slid and slipped as she tore her way through the pockets of yellow marshland, panting heavily. It didn’t matter that she was walking in plain sight and that Elladora might see her. Unlike the previous year, when contestants used wands to create bridges across a cluster of islands, one giant race to a platform where one could Apparate back home, this year wands weren’t necessary. This year, in order to win each round of the Devil’s Duel, you must be the first one to reach the door in the frame. The picture frame. This year, each round took place inside of various paintings.

This round, the fifth and last, was held inside a watercolor scene. Lily found it a relief from the fourth round, which was an impressionist painting. Last Wednesday, she’d found herself stumbling around in a headache-inducing maze of multicolored splotches that she couldn’t make heads nor tails of. It was impossible to tell where she was or where she was going, being so close in perspective to her surroundings in an impressionism painting.

It was also a tremendous advantage that the watercolors were bleeding into her skin, staining them the color of trees and wildflowers and a little brook that trickled through a nearby meadow. Lily reached up with both hands and absorbed the sky through her palms, allowing the white-gold to wash down her face and shoulders. She then crouched in a misty copse, daubing her feet with more evergreen needles, before continuing onward. Elladora could be anywhere, but Lily had known her long enough to guess that she probably wouldn’t think of using her environment’s matter as a disguise.

Elladora had no reason to attack Lily, of course, but it was easy to assume that she might try to follow Lily if they crossed paths. In the first round, Lily had warned Elladora about one of the doors she knew to be false, pointing across a vast architecture borne from cubism to where the deceptive door hid. Lily couldn’t help Elladora now, not with the end so close.

With Harry so close.

Lily knew that three false doors lay behind her, but that meant very little. Someone beyond her kept spinning the painting – she could feel all the eyes in Cliodna’s Clock watching her as she rolled and rolled – and when the painting righted itself, the doors had revolved around the frame like the doors in The Department of Mysteries. She’d been walking in circles for over an hour and still hadn’t found the single red door with a gilded gold knob. The winning door was always the only one with the knob.

She trudged up a hillside, bending low to keep her body blending into the setting. She accidentally knocked into an apple tree, leaving a bright, ripe red imprint of an apple on her collarbone. She fleetingly wondered what James was thinking as he stood in front of the enormous painting that was currently serving as the ceiling of the Town Hall. He would be sitting cross-legged on the floor, probably next to Elladora’s mother, head tilted back to observe his wife slop through a watercolor world far above. He would be able to see the right door. He would know if she was going the wrong or right way. James and Mrs. Ketteridge would be the only ones still interested in the outcome of the races, the only ones willing to invest their care at such a dangerous stage of the competition.

Lily recalled her sixth foray into the races, back in 1987 when she and Perpetua Fancourt found themselves the champions of their fourth duels, and therefore fated to go head-to-head against each other in the fifth round. That year, the Devil’s Duel took place inside of a book about dinosaurs. Spidery black letters rained down from the sky, filling up hollows in the dirt with ink. It was a race against time to read the letters as they fell, stringing words together, until they smashed after hitting the ground. The words were clues about which dinosaur they were supposed to kill. Whoever achieved this goal first would be crowned the winner. Lily had been completely lost, unable to make sense of the clues she’d managed to unscramble out of the air, when she’d stumbled across Perpetua.

Perpetua hadn’t seen her. She had her eyes on a relatively small creature with brass-scaled armor, teeth bared as it approached her on two horned feet. Her wand was drawn. Attacking the wrong dinosaur entailed immediate disqualification, making the other contestant a winner by default. Lily had no time to think, to process what she was about to do. All she knew was that Perpetua had been a Ravenclaw; she would have had no trouble deciphering the clues and her wand was currently poised to attack. But Lily was a Gryffindor. She’d been in the Order of the Phoenix and she was quicker with spells than Perpetua was, and therefore Perpetua’s husband had to watch Lily take a win that should have belonged to his wife.

1987. That was the year Vernon Dursley called Harry a ‘useless, unwanted little vermin’ and Lily had almost broken every single rule that applies to Devil’s Duel grand champions. She’d bit her lower lip until it bled profusely, hands shaking as she willed herself not to beat her fists on the windows until the glass shattered; telling herself over and over that she wasn’t allowed to be seen or heard and could not be permitted to blow open the door and wrap her arms protectively around her sobbing little boy.

But this is now, not then, Lily thought, pushing away the memory of a red-faced man bent over her only child, her greatest love in the universe, threatening to send him to an orphanage if he ever touched Dudley’s toys again. And then she’d had to swallow her shrieks of rage when Petunia made a waspish comment about how selfish and greedy Harry was, sending him off to bed without supper. Lily’s eyes had almost burned holes through the door in the impossibly tiny cupboard under Petunia’s stairs where they forced Harry to live, scarlet anger overpowering her to the point where she couldn’t think straight, couldn’t see straight. She’d had to cover herself with a Disillusionment Charm and sit on the curb with her fist in her mouth, trying not to scream from frustration.

There had been times when she’d interfered, when she’d come very close to breaking the rules. There was the incident when Dudley had purposefully stepped on Harry’s hand while the latter boy was lying in the bushes outside the sitting room window to avoid Dudley’s gang. It had only taken a second to whisper the healing incantation, and Lily hadn’t even meant to say it out loud; it was a kneejerk reaction to seeing her son hurt.

Harry was so furious with Dudley, shouting and waving his arms (Lily was impressed that he was standing up for himself despite their incredible difference in size, and knew it would make James so proud when she told him later), and didn’t even realize at first that his hand was no longer scraped. But he’d noticed it a few seconds later after Dudley was gone with his friends, all of them laughing their heads off, and a rather curious expression overcame him.

Lily hoped with a fervent desire almost bordering on pain that he would somehow know, and that he could somehow feel that his mother was doing her very best to protect him as much as she was allowed. But she was up in a tree and couldn’t allow herself to be seen, and he didn’t know the difference, and he’d shrugged and walked into the house where he was promptly told off for tracking dirt all over the clean floor.

Her hands were now coated with thick layers of cloud – faint blue and white and gold and gray – as she extended them on both sides like she was flying. The wind was paint, too, curling toward her with bits of metallic silver spray. She could feel the flecks of it on her face as she made her way down the hillside and toward a ravine. There were spots on the canvas under her shoes where paint hadn’t been layered on liberally enough, showing beige crisscrosses just underneath the warm blush of a meadow.

Weighed down with so much slick substance, Lily paused to shake off the olive leaves and spiny brown branches that had appeared on her arms and legs after she’d gotten caught between their overhanging boughs and the same rippling branches mirroring off of greenish creek water below. In the distance, a stone well sat underneath a halo of sun that broke through the drab clouds, pouring down rays in streaks of canary yellow. Elladora was sitting on the edge of the well, her lower half stone-gray and her facial features indiscernible from the way such rich yellow hues distorted them.

She saw Lily and her back went rigid. She leapt away from the well in one graceful swoop, gliding towards her opponent. One hand was raised in friendly greeting. She was going to say hello, or perhaps suggest that they help each other.

Lily’s stomach turned. Think of Harry. Think only of Harry. She could not let herself view Elladora as a friend anymore, to view her as someone with a future. She couldn’t remember Mrs. Ketteridge watching her back home, face upraised to view their progress in the races. They were so close to the end that everyone would be paying attention to the Devil’s Basin – the Pensieve with everyone’s blood in it – for signs of who had the better chances of winning. Lily wanted it more. She had a son unknowingly waiting for her and if she didn’t watch over him for at least one day and one night, then she would be letting him down. If she didn’t have just these twenty-four hours out of all the other long, torturous hours of the year, then how could she still call herself a parent?

This was her job. This was her sacrifice. Somewhere out there right now in the calm, peaceful village of Cliodna’s Clock, her blood was boiling higher and hotter than Elladora’s, and Elladora’s mother would have to witness it. Mrs. Ketteridge would know that her daughter’s minutes were numbered. Because they had to be.

She turned and walked away. Elladora must have sensed the cold rift in their friendship, because she wordlessly set off in the opposite direction. There could be no more waiting around, pretending that the watercolor prairies and mountains stretched on and on forever. They were confined to a picture frame, the horizon fleshing together with an expensive border of twisted bronze. Only one could win and the other would lose, and Lily owed it to Harry to keep an annual vigil over him. She owed it to James, too, who had to endure standing helplessly off to the side while his wife willingly threw herself into the eye of the storm.

She would not sign up year after year if she would only succumb to a guilty conscience in the end. Elladora had signed up, too, after all. Neither were halfhearted about their desires to win, to get that twenty-four-hour prize, and both were aware from the very beginning that someone would have to be extinguished and it could be either of them. Cliodna's Clock had to purge one citizen. It was the only blind spot in an otherwise perfect world, and the only consolation for being just a little bit faster than one of your friends is the subsequent time you are given on Earth. Maybe they did it because they were bored and fancied a little danger. Maybe they did it because it made them feel alive again. Maybe it was more than just the promise of a prize, and some of them felt compelled to punish themselves for all eternity.

Elladora gave a scream and Lily whipped around just in time to see the willowy woman sinking into a quicksand of paint. It was up to her thighs, swallowing her stomach with a crudely-blended soup of what might have been a flower garden. Clover crawled over Elladora’s arms, pulling her down in a tangle of red roses. Elladora screamed again.

The roses had thorns, of course.

Lily’s stomached clenched, protesting her physical and emotional exertion. She glanced at the bronze frame that was just within sight, the awareness of how close she was to the finish line dawning over her as she watched her friend drown in a glitch of paint. A mistake on the canvas. It was bottomless and it reminded her that they weren’t in a real painting one might hang on the wall for decoration, but in a tournament created by Cliodna herself. Maybe the paint glitch wasn’t a glitch at all, and was a gift to Lily. The gift of a few seconds’ head-start before Elladora pulled herself out.

Except she wasn’t pulling herself out. She’s going to die, anyway, Lily thought to herself fretfully. I certainly can't help her win. If I were to die, who would watch over Harry? James flashed across her mind, but she quickly swatted him away. No, James wasn’t built for a tournament like this. He didn’t have the heart to put himself before others. He couldn’t switch off his emotions and would rather let someone else impale him with a jet of wandlight in the first round than go out of his way to win. In this respect, Lily knew that he was a far, far better person than she could ever be.

But still, for some strange faraway reason that Lily couldn’t quite comprehend, the long grasses faded into her legs as she brushed past them, melding to her body. She kneeled at the edge of the swamp and reached out with one hand to touch four of Elladora’s muddy fingers.

Harry’s almost thirteen. He’s almost a teenager and he isn’t a baby anymore. You don’t have to do this, you know. You have to stop trying to control what you have no control over. You’re dead.

Roses entwined around Lily’s forearm in an intricate tattoo as she yanked on Elladora’s exposed fingers, digging deeper to work up a good grip on her wrist. The roses twisted down Lily’s shoulder blade and combed through her hair with leaves and thorns. Elladora’s face was emerging, her lips gaping open to gasp for oxygen. A bubble stretched around her mouth, a shining red bubble that was too thick to be blood, and Elladora coughed up the last of the roses that had crept down her throat as Lily dragged her out of the swamp.

I might be dead, but he’s still my son.

“Thank you," Elladora sputtered gratefully, trembling as she sat up against the trunk of a tree. Lily stood to her feet, looking down at the woman as Elladora absorbed the white oak’s bark through her clothing. Something about the blurriness of the scene distressed Lily, rousing a dormant memory of that precise tree. “Thank you, thank you. I didn’t think you were going to stop and help me. For a moment I thought you were going to let me drown.”

She was still expressing her thanks when Lily turned and darted away, pawing blindly at the frame in search of red doors. She passed one without stopping to try it, as it had no knob, but the second…she could see it shining. The knob was glinting like a Snitch and Lily had no competition anymore. Elladora was still catching her breath at the swamp’s perimeter, peeling off the painted roses one by one. Lily’s hand was on the door and she was pushing through…falling through the air. There was a hot breeze whistling past her ears as she dropped out of the painting. The floor of the Town hall rose up to meet her, promising a painful impact that she would surely deserve.

But the pain didn’t come. Three wands had cast spells to slow her movements – James’s, the depot attendant’s, and Mrs. Ketteridge’s. All she could think of while the depot attendant grinned down at her with a familiar Portkey, waiting to escort her to earth, was that Mrs. Ketteridge was going to lose her child. James was leaning against the wall now, composed entirely of sweat and shaky breathing, so relieved was he to see her alive. Relieved that she had made it out unscathed yet again. And Lily’s eyes were now locked on the Portkey and the angelic blue glow it emitted. The attendant was saying something but she couldn’t spare him a shred of attention – she already knew he was going over the rules. He was going to bring her to Harry.

Harry.

Yes, it was worth it. Yes, I could do it again. I’m coming for you, my love.


*


The story of Severus Snape’s death is not one many can compare to their own. For most, death is instantaneous. One minute, you’re looking around at your friends and family or the sky or the ceiling of the room where you’d been progressively growing more and more ill as time wore on; and then the next minute there is water in your ears and nose and mouth and you’re kicking with all you’ve got. Maybe you haven’t even realized yet that your legs are stronger, like they used to be when you were young and healthy. But you are gone, forever, sucked up and spit out into this new place and you never even got a choice.

Except Severus did.

He was given a choice offered to very few. As he lay on the wasted floor of the Shrieking Shack, the very last place in the world he wanted to be, his eyes rolled upward to see claw marks. Claw marks on the ceiling. He swallowed a series of hollow pangs, the blood forming a warm collar around his throat. The irony that he was about to die in a place where his childhood enemies once paraded around in, crowing in self-congratulations about their superior cleverness, did not escape him. He hated them then and he still did. Severus would never be able to stop punishing Potter. If he did, then he would have no choice but to look at himself and accept that he’d blown it. He’d lost Lily long before Potter began building a nest in her head.

And then, horribly and wonderfully, there was Lily gazing at him through her son, disappearing every time he blinked. She should never have been his mother. Severus never should have parted ways with her like they were strangers, choosing to forget that their friendship had shaped them into who they were as they grew up. She was still shaping him from afar even after they lost touch, unknowingly molding him with her words and glances, and how she faded away from him with frosty indifference.

Dumbledore’s instructions tugged on his neurons, his subconscious warning him that he didn’t have any more time to procrastinate. It was important that he finish the job properly, all of the unwanted information festering in his memory for years finally ready to hand over to the boy. Both of them were destined to die today.

Three faces swam before his vision but he only had eyes for one of them. If he concentrated hard enough, ignoring the cold glass phial pressed against his clammy cheek, he could almost imagine that it was his Lily kneeling there. Hallucinations distorted the face surrounding those eyes, stroking the night with red hair and pink lips frowning in concern. Death was almost worth it to have her back with him. A hand touched his arm – he didn’t know who it belonged to, but he told himself that it was Lily, fretting over the slipping state of him – and his fingers flexed involuntarily in response.

Reaching for her, weakly, and finding nothing there.

“Severus.”

It was his mother, kneeling before him instead of Lily, instead of Harry. Potter, Granger, and Weasley had vanished into the void, disappearing into the gouge marks that tiptoed across the ceiling. He recalled watching Lupin’s backbone rip right out of his flesh on that night under the Whomping Willow all those years ago, back when they were still in school. He could have counted each vertebrae in Lupin’s spine until coarse gray hair began to curl over top, fusing man with beast until he was repulsive, unrecognizable.

And then James’s uninvited arms were around his middle, dragging him out, back into the wide moonlight where he could be devoured by embarrassment and fear right in front of the little group of heathens. Where he could be openly mocked for being a fool enough to listen to someone like Black.

“Severus, you are bleeding.”

He touched his neck. It wasn’t warm anymore; as soon as he thought it, he realized that he was now standing up. Another thought entered his head, this one being that he wished to walk, and suddenly he was moving without ever giving his legs permission to do so. “But there isn’t any blood,” he whispered to himself.

The thin wisp of a woman turned her baleful eyes upon him, already withering away under the harsh resentment he radiated. “Your heart bleeds.”

And then he realized where he was. The sky was a seal of misty gray, the soil beneath his feet damp and sponge-like. There was a rusted assortment of equipment in a play park just around a curved path, one of its swings much higher than the others because someone had once thrown the chains over the beams, over and over and over. There was another park close to Lily’s house, which was much nicer, but they preferred this one because it was the same distance from each of their houses. Meeting in the middle, they’d said.

The sandbox was flooded, the miniscule grains threading through the grass where he used to dig for buried treasure Lily would have left for him earlier in the day. Sometimes she hid crayon drawings there, or pretty stones. Once she left him a photograph of a tree she had snapped with her camera – a white oak with its trunk twisting up into a ‘Y’ shape. It was blurred, as if she’d been running while she took it.

He kept that picture even though he claimed to have lost it, years later when they were sixteen; and even now he had never thrown it out. It was tucked between the pages of a library book they checked out when they were eleven and never took back, much to the vexation of the librarian. It was Severus’s turn then to think it was lost, but he discovered it later…so much later, when Lily was lying right there on the floor but was also gone forever. His eyes had spied it on the bookshelf in Harry’s nursery, sandwiched between Two Little Ducks and Gale’s New House, its spine just as ravaged as Lupin’s but the script still legible: The Witches of Parasol Park. Its binding was stiff, the cover eaten up with water spots from where someone had left it out in the rain.

He’d snatched it up because it wasn’t supposed to be Harry’s. He felt betrayed that she’d given it to him, loathing the idea that James might have once sat in the rocking chair in the corner with Harry on his lap, reading the words that belonged to Lily and Severus. That book had become a special game to them when they were children, running around the play park in search of invisible witches. It was a mystery. It was a legend. It had become larger than life as Severus whispered to her over the phone, voice low so that his father wouldn’t know he was still awake, that he was quite certain he had spotted one of the Parasol Park witches just outside his window and that they had better investigate the area for clues in the morning.

He could almost still see the pearly-white ghosts of all four witches as they snaked between the grove of trees where Lily had once sworn up and down she had caught them at last and spoken to them. Severus had been just a little irritated that she’d said that, because catching them meant closure, that the game was over. So he insisted over and over that Lily had not seen them, that the witches still hadn’t been caught yet, and she must have seen a bit of newspaper or an old plastic bag snagged in the branches.

She’d relented, of course, and said that he was probably right about the plastic bag theory, but the game just wasn't as much fun after that. Severus mostly found himself jealous that he couldn’t have pretended to have seen them, too, and that they hadn’t pretended to have seen them together. It was ever so easy, when the two of them were playing, to fool their eyes into seeing things that were not there.

Fog floated along the ground in curls of heliotrope smoke, lacing around Severus’s ankles. It clung to his trousers, weaving snowflake patterns with purple and blue shadows, and he caught his mother staring at his eyes while he thought of the games he’d played with Lily once upon a dream. A sad emptiness engulfing him, he turned toward the trees, warmth returning once more to creep along his collarbone; and so quickly that it might not have happened at all, he caught the barest flicker of ruby.

Her hair. It was Lily – he could feel it – right there with him, hiding just out of sight. Just out of reach. She was running with the witches, perpetually ahead of Severus in their never-ending game.

“You know the spell to heal it,” Eileen said softly. Her eyes were large and haunting, glistening with the reflection of a broken roundabout situated behind her son. Its yellow paint was flaying, the exposed metal underneath tinged with green. The air had grown cold, a drizzling rain making musical ‘ping’ sounds as they struck the bars and rotating wheel. “You could fight it if you wanted, and live.”

In his mind, Lily’s footsteps sprang in front of his, dancing from stone to stone in the shallow creek that slithered near his house in Spinner’s End. They were looking for salamanders; dirty old buckets swung from their hands, intended for scooping up various amphibians with. And then the footsteps abruptly grew larger, heavier, and Lily froze in place on a broad, flat stone and pierced him with her now-fifteen-year-old gaze. His breath was light, not nearly enough oxygen in it, his pulse quickening. Why had she brought him here? She’d said she wanted to tell him something important…

He followed her – he would follow her anywhere – and gazed intently at her as she located a dry patch of log to sit on, motioning for him to join her. Sunlight dappling through the leaves overhead left green spots on her pale arms, and, as if nervous, Lily set to examining them.

Oh, how he had longed for this. He’d turned it over and over in his dreams and every waking thought, Lily’s smile tumbling through all of them as she looked up at him with her beautiful ivy eyes and –

“Severus, I don’t like your friends. I think they’re poisoning you.”

And it marked the beginning of the end.

“You could be old,” Eileen urged, her delicate voice almost inaudible. “You could live to be an old man. It’s not too late to marry, to have children…” But there was something there, something tantalizing she hinted at that was just on the edge of the conversation. Severus tasted the unspoken word on his tongue: Or…

Or what?

His mother and the misty park smeared together, viewable only through a dusty window. The window shrank until it was tiny, a faraway dot of light. Lily’s eyes bore down on his and it was not her voice that was murmuring to someone he didn’t care to see. Those were not her cheeks that he had seen bloom with pink so many times when she’d caught him staring. Those were not Lily’s eyes and he was angry that he’d been tricked, that this abomination was masquerading as the woman he loved, worming his way into Severus’s cherished hallucinations.

The words echoed in his head. “Your heart bleeds.”

His last demand was for those eyes, one last time. He lay there quietly, waiting for sleep to claim him, waiting for the arm with dappled green light to guide him to a place and time where the past meant nothing and there was never a James. He did not want to try to save himself, and so he let Harry Potter watch him die. After years and years of preparation, he was ready at last.

I’m coming for you, my love.
 


Chapter 8: The Other Boy Who Lived
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It was a curious thing, Mr. Odo thought as he listened to Regulus brag about how he could function on less sleep than everyone else he knew, that not a single person in his pub had yet to utter a word about the races today. After all, it was the eighteenth of May – leaving only a couple of weeks left until the committee plucked several of them from the pool and bound them to the tournament. Knowing, as Odo did (and Odo generally knew everything about anything, being the eyes and ears behind the biggest gossip center in Cliodna’s Clock), that at least three people sitting before him had signed up for the races already, he found it remarkable that they could all chatter on about anything except for the elephant in the room.

Fred Weasley and Cedric Diggory sat at the counter, the former poking suspiciously at his sandwich and the latter looking hopeful for some invigorating conversation. He kept glancing Fred’s way, his brain buzzing with all sorts of questions he wanted to ask about his family and friends; not knowing how sensitive Fred might be on the subject, since he could no longer see any of them, either, he had yet to bring himself to ask.

“Spit it out, Diggory,” Fred said lightly, not looking up from his food. “You’re starting to make me nervous, it’s like you’re working up the best angle to ask me out on a date.”

Cedric’s eyes narrowed. He blew a strand of stray hair away from his forehead that had been dangling over his nose, semi-irritated. He’d forgotten that Fred could never quite take him seriously. Some had guessed that the Weasley twins were jealous. He would have liked to agree – it would be a simpler explanation for why the two boys who always seemed like so much fun had never bothered to make friends with him. “Don’t like Odo’s cooking?” was all he decided to say.

Fred gave him a look that was not unlike the vacant, glazed expression of a dead fish. “I once licked the bottom of Lee Jordan’s cauldron on a dare. It tasted better than this.”

Cedric resisted the temptation to wince. He’d also forgotten how crude the Weasley twins could be. But then again, there was only one Weasley now, which left ample room leftover for someone else to fill in the gap. Cedric had been waiting too long for friends to give up just yet. “Want to play some Quidditch later?” He inclined his head toward Sirius Black, Fabian Prewett, and Emmeline Vance, who were very loudly engaged in a raucous game of Exploding Snap (or rather, that should have been the title, but Sirius had charmed the cards to look like variations of a rather angry Severus Snape wearing women’s clothing, and thus he called it ‘Exploding Snape’). “They’re usually good for a match or two in the evenings, if you’d like to join. I’ve got room on my team for a Beater.”

Fred took a large bite of his sandwich, smacking his jaws together to exaggerate how tough the bacon was. With his mouth still full, he replied, “Yeah, beating really isn’t at the top of my to-do list at the moment. Thanks, anyway.”

Cedric sat back, resentful in spite of himself that Fred kept spurning his attempts at friendship. What else was Fred supposed to do? Was sitting by himself in a pub, feasting on a meal that tasted like leather, preferable to playing Quidditch with a group of other people? Cedric had never known Fred to shy away from social scenes. As he recalled it, both twins loved attention and being at the center of a mob of people. There was only one thing for it, then.

He raised a suspicious eyebrow at the boy. “What are you up to?”

“What do you mean?” Fred responded innocently.

Oh, yes, he was definitely up to something. “You’re always off by yourself, hiding. What exactly are you doing all day long?”

Fred raised an eyebrow at Cedric as well, mimicking his expression perfectly. “For a bloke who never sees the Snitch half the time, you sure have been paying plenty of attention to me.”

Cedric ignored this insult, as it was meant to distract him. After all, Cedric was a spanking good Seeker and everyone knew it. “Seriously. What are you –”

“Someone say my name?” a boisterous, obnoxious voice interrupted. A chair appeared out of nowhere between the two young men with Sirius Black following closely behind, popping out of thin air. His hair smelled singed, the smoke from Exploding Snap still fizzling around his ears. He slammed his fist down onto the counter between Fred and Cedric, grinning when they jumped. “Give me another pint, Odo.”

“You don’t have to ask for a pint if it’s only butterbeer you’re after,” Odo started to say, but Sirius waved him off as if he had no time for these trifles.

“Oh, just give me one.” Odo wordlessly obliged, and a pewter mug skated down the granite surface into Sirius’s expectant hands, sloshing golden liquid over the sides. Sirius turned and fixed each boy with a smile so inappropriate for a Monday that it was almost psychotic, his eyes wild and sparkling. “So. Which one of you chaps has signed up for the Devil’s Duel? Both, I’m going to guess. You’re still young enough to be brash, got plenty of air between your ears.”

The pub immediately hushed up, a wealth of chairs making a hullabaloo as they all pivoted to fix Sirius with their impolite curiosity. Sirius paid them no notice. “Well?” he prompted, spilling some more of his butterbeer onto the floor. Odo made a growling noise in the base of his throat.

“I did,” Cedric vouched.

“So did I,” Fred said after a minute of careful measuring. “You?”

“Oh, no.” Sirius clapped him heartily on the shoulder. “Not this year. There are entirely way too many people who might actually stand a chance. But I wouldn’t say no to giving you a few pointers.”

“Hmm.” Fred surveyed him with a critical air. “If you’ve got friends who are going to be going against me, who’s to say that you won’t purposefully give me bad advice just to give them better odds?”

Sirius chuckled. “Their odds are already better, trust me.” He turned his attentions to Cedric. “What about you, mate? Want some mentoring?”

Cedric rolled his eyes. “I’ve been here longer than you; I hardly think you could tell me anything I don’t already know.”

A bell on the door clanged as it opened, temporarily blinding a few tables with white sunlight as a woman slipped inside. She shook a leaf out of her red hair and made her way over to Emmeline Vance’s table, which Fabian Prewett had left. Not too far from them, Salazar Slytherin was sipping wine from a goblet and looking mutinous. Rumor had it that he was very cross about the sudden flood of newcomers in his town. He’d gotten rid of the two other chairs that were supposed to accompany his table so that no one would try to sit down next to him.

Fred had quite forgotten himself while he was gawking at the woman, and when he regained his senses he found himself pitted against two very broad smiles. “So.” Sirius’s grin deepened, eyes flashing evilly. He nodded his head casually toward the woman who’d just entered the pub. “Her, eh?”

Fred cleared his throat. “Well.”

Well?” Sirius urged, leaning in conspiratorially. Fred had seen that sort of emotion plenty of times on George’s face – it was the smile one wore when they were oozing with delicious information.

“Well, she’s pretty,” Fred stated impassively. Cedric turned away with his elbow on the counter, one hand over his mouth to hide a smirk. “What?” Fred demanded, suddenly defensive. “You think she’s out of my league?”

“Oh, she’s way out of your league,” Sirius confirmed cheerfully.

“It’s not like I was planning on asking her out or anything, but I do believe you’re wrong,” Fred retorted, side-eying Cedric with scorn. “I’ll have you know that I’m actually quite a catch.”

Sirius raised his eyebrows, mentally begging him to continue.

“Where I’m from, I ran an incredibly successful business in a financially broken climate, my revenue increasing during war rather than going down like all the other businesses. I’m funny, I’m eligible.” He smoothed the sleeves of his shirt, flicking nonexistent crumbs from them. “Plus, I’m ginger. Everyone loves gingers.”

Cedric snorted. “There’s no denying the allure of gingers,” Sirius declared dryly, following Cedric’s movements in amusement (his shoulders were shaking from trying to contain his laughter), “But I’m not convinced. I think I’d like to see you take a shot at it.”

Fred’s eyes grew large. He half-turned, throwing a quick glance at the red-haired woman. “You mean ask her out?”

Sirius nodded sagely, mouth twitching.

If Cedric hadn’t been cackling like a mad old witch with one eye, maybe Fred wouldn’t have agreed to it. But as it so happened, he was exceptionally offended on behalf of his masculinity and he thought that George would have been very let down indeed if he’d seen his brother ignore a challenge.

“Fine,” he told them, jaw lifted stubbornly. “Watch and learn.”

“O-ho, how delightful!” Sirius chortled. “I am going to enjoy this.”

Fred ironed out his clothing one last time with his hands and smoothed back his hair before standing up. He then swaggered over to Emmeline’s table, feeling much more nervous than he looked, and severely hoped to himself that he would not strike out in front of a Hufflepuff.

“Excuse me,” he said to the back of the woman’s head. She went on talking, not paying a whit of attention to him, until Emmeline cleared her throat.

“What?”

“Behind you.” Emmeline nodded upward.

The woman turned around, her face changing from pleasantly friendly to an empty slate. “Hello? Can I help you?”

“Er.” Fred suddenly felt foolish. He could sense Sirius praying enthusiastically in the background for him to fall flat on his face. “I was just wondering…well…I was wondering who you are.” His last notes ended with a bit of a croak.

“I’m Lily.” Her brow furrowed in confusion. “Lily Potter. Why do you ask?”

A piano might very well have dropped out of the sky and landed on his head, judging by the shocked state of him in response to that. His overlarge eyes swept up and down her puzzled face. “Lily Potter?” he repeated hoarsely, all of the blood flushing out of his head and down into his shoes.

“….Yes,” she answered slowly. “You’re the boy from the Town Hall, right? The one who knows Harry’s owl?”

“Uhh.” His right shoe squeaked as he ground his heel into the floor, right in a puddle of Sirius’s spilled butterbeer. “Harry. Harry has an owl, yes. Err, he used to.”

Emmeline was working hard to restrain a smile, but Lily seemed to be genuinely concerned about Fred’s sanity. “I say, are you all right, son?”

It was this last bit – the ‘son’ – that stung Fred's pride enough to jolt some blood back into his legs. He turned around with robotic movements, so flabbergasted that he could scarcely see straight. Lily Potter! Harry’s mum! Harry’s mum was attractive! He had just tried to come on to Harry Potter’s mother!

His eyes rolled back to appraise the ceiling. George would have been hysterical. On either side of him, Sirius and Cedric were both rolling around in fits of uncontrollable laughter.

"How did someone like Harry come out of someone like that?"


*


The silence stretched on and on between the husband and wife, wavelengths of strain traveling from pale brows to dry lips to the skin on their hands, clenched taut over their knuckles. Each sat on a neatly-made twin bed sitting opposite the other, in the only vacant room that the boardinghouse had left to offer them upon their arrival.

It was a consuming silence, thick with one person’s anger and the other’s desire to be forgiven, to be understood and pardoned. But there was guilt, too, and there was sadness. But mostly there was love.

I can’t believe you didn’t consult me first, one might have said, if he’d been steady enough to articulate language.

I knew that you would try to stop me, the other might have responded, if she’d been able to lift her eyes from the thrumming of Remus’s Adam’s apple, watching him swallow repeatedly. Swallowing words? Disapproval? Maybe he was swallowing the silence, trying to abate it.

I would have every right to try. How could you do this to me?

“I’m sorry,” she said at long last, responding to the accusation burrowing within the lines in his forehead, between his grinding teeth. “Not sorry that I did it, but sorry that I did it without telling you.”

His eyes flashed up to hers. They were dark, almost wolfish. “Lily signed up.”

A pause, and then – “I know.”

Remus’s mouth contorted in fury. “Lily. You’ll be going up against Lily.”

“Not necessarily,” Tonks amended quickly. “If she’s on the other team, she could get knocked out in the first four rounds. It doesn’t have to be me and her. Ten people are going in…for all I know, I won’t even get selected by the committee.”

This did nothing to alleviate Remus’s desperate helplessness. He looked away from her now, hot tears pricking his eyes. She had scooted to the edge of the bed, her back ramrod-straight as her eyes followed him with edgy anxiety. “I already lost Teddy. And now you…and now you’ve gone and done this.”

The silence grew. It bloomed into shadows left by the falling sun, gliding around all four walls with dusty moonlight. Forever and a day passed before Tonks ventured to say, “I lost him, too.”

“Then how could you be so hasty? How could you be so impulsive about something like your soul?”

“Why should I lose?” she demanded. “Why? I’m – I was an Auror, for god’s sakes. You think I don’t know a few more spells than Lily Potter? I have an advantage. She’s been dead for years; she doesn’t know about developments in charms and curses. She doesn’t know what I know.”

“She was in the Order of the Phoenix at the height of war –”

“So was I.”

He finally met her gaze again, meaning to say something, but the ferocity of her glare bit him into retreat. He had to calm himself enough to rationalize a statement in advance before he spoke it. Calculation. He needed to be careful or they were destined for another argument. “You should have told me first. You should have given me the chance to interfere.”

“I know.” Her temper softened and she crumbled away from her bed, crossing the distance in two easy strides to sink next to him. She could feel his worries ease somewhat when she rested her temple against his shoulder, thankful she couldn’t hear what was going on inside his head. It would be a madhouse in there, all of the resignation that he’d come to adopt that he was dead, that this would be his life now, completely paralyzed in the wake of new fears. He could lose her. And then what? Who would he be without his wife? “I heard what the prize was and I couldn’t stop myself.” She couldn’t force herself to appear guilty, though. She didn’t want to apologize for it anymore, not when she wanted this so badly.

“I hadn’t even considered entering,” Remus said quietly, speaking to the slanted blinds on the window that separated the two beds. The bed they currently sat on had never been slept in. “I didn’t think you would, either.” He turned his hardened profile, angling his face so that he could view hers better. “I can’t protect you in there, wherever you’re going, whatever you’ll be doing. I can’t keep you safe.” His gaze slid down to her lips, parted while she waited to speak. “I can't watch you die again.”

“Remus.” She smiled ruefully. “You can’t keep someone like me safe. I’m not sure when you’re going to learn that. Besides,” she nudged him playfully with her elbow, “this wouldn’t be the first time I refused to stay put like a good girl, going against your wishes. Worked out smashingly last time.”

He threw a scowl at her. “Are you trying to be funny?”

“Remus.” She pursed her lips, a gentle reproof.

“How is that going to make me feel any better? I wish you would just…” He felt like yanking fistfuls of his hair out. “I wish you would have stayed at home, Dora. I wish you would have stayed away.”

“Oh, what’s next?” she snapped. “Going to tell me you wish we’d never met? Would that help us avoid all this pain, wishing you were still a werewolf outcast and I was still just another member of the Order, barely even acquaintances?”

“That’s not what I was going to say,” he shot back heatedly.

“Don’t lie to me, Remus, I know that’s exactly what you’re thinking. It’s all you’ve been thinking since we got here. I hope it’s doing something spectacular for you, all this self-pity and regret, because you’re all alone in it. You can’t undo the past two years. You can’t fall out of love with me, you can’t un-marry me, you can’t make Teddy disappear because it might make your hurt disappear, too.”

“Stop it,” he countered sharply. “I would never take it back, any of it.”

“Well, then, we can only go forward!” She threw her arms up in the air, frustrated. “Don’t you see? It’s the only way to go. So why are we still here?”

“How am I supposed to go forward if you die and leave me all by myself?” he snarled. “You threw yourself right into danger, Dora, and I was an idiot for not seeing it coming, for not…” he wrung his left hand, trying to think properly, “for not stopping you before you did it. I should have known you would do something this stupid.”

“Yes!” she agreed. “You should have. But guess what? I didn’t ask for your permission. So now what are we going to do? Are we going to bicker about it or are you going to support me?”

He squared his shoulders, looking her up and down in a way that clearly displayed how affronted he was. “Of course I’m going to support you. It was never a question of support –”

“Well, act like it. Have you stopped to imagine how I’m feeling right now? This is scary as hell! But it’s worth it.” She straightened herself up, recovering a more dignified stance. “I already have plans for what I’m going to do when I get back home.”

“I’ll bet you do.”

She ignored his sardonic tone. “We’re going to write him letters, both of us. I’m going to leave them in my mother’s letterbox.”

Remus stared at her, his incredulous expression gnawing away at Tonks’s resolute exterior. “Are you out of your senses? What is your mother going to think when she opens up her post to find letters from her dead daughter and son-in-law?”

“I really don’t care,” she admitted. “Her reaction isn’t important. My only concern is that she keeps them for Teddy so that he can read them someday. We’ll be able to say all the goodbyes we didn’t get to say before we left.” And though neither of them spoke it out loud, they both knew that she meant Remus hadn’t gotten to say his goodbyes. Tonks had lovingly planted a kiss on Teddy’s head before she left for the battle. That last kiss was enough to get her through most nights, listening to her husband pretend like he was peacefully asleep. But she knew that the way Remus had been taken from Teddy was too abrupt. It lived in his heart, eroding it with a thousand different ways of what-if.

She grasped his hand. It was clammy with sweat. “We could tell him good morning and good night. We could tell him that we love him, that we’re listening to him and that we hope he has a beautiful day.”

Remus’s shoulders collapsed, all of the guilt and regret calcifying his insides seeming to shrink. She was right. He knew why she’d done it, and he didn’t blame her at all. He should have wanted to do it, too.

“But the rules,” he couldn’t resist adding. “I’ve heard all about them. You’re not allowed to be seen or heard. You’re not allowed to interfere with the lives of the living.”

Tonks rolled her eyes. “It’s just a letter. He’s not even old enough to understand what it says yet. But I know my mother, and I know she’ll read it to him. This will be his piece of us that he gets to keep forever. He can carry it around wherever he goes through life. Even if we can’t truly listen to him or watch him grow up, he’ll still have that.” Her voice broke. “When he graduates Hogwarts and everyone’s parents are clapping and hugging their children, telling them how proud they are, he’ll have that.”

Remus gave her hand a squeeze. “I just don’t want you getting close enough to see the house he sleeps in and then not be able to walk away from it.” He could feel her freeze beneath his touch. She’d stopped breathing. “It’s going to be very, very difficult to walk only to the letterbox and not any closer.”

Their eyes locked on each other, cautious and alert. They were both thinking precisely the same thing: Would Clidona’s Clock have any way of knowing if Tonks crept inside Teddy’s bedroom? If she sang to him? If she held him in her arms one final time?

But they didn’t dare say it out loud.

He trailed his thumb down her cheekbone, tucking it under her chin so that she would lean forward to accept his kiss. They curled up together on the still-made bed, so small and narrow with both of them occupying it that Tonks could drape one arm over the side and touch the floor with her fingers if she wanted to. Instead, she kept both hands clasped firmly over the strong arms wrapped securely around her. The bedding was stone-cold, their bodies not emitting any heat. Sometimes they produced heat and sometimes they didn’t – it was a malfunction in their deceptively perfect world that served to remind them that they were not actually alive.

Tonks waded in the comfort provided by her husband’s arms, knowing that she was right and that his support for her would always be unwavering. “For Teddy,” she murmured sleepily, eyelids fluttering closed.

But Remus’s eyes were wide open, pupils staining the entirety of his irises with black ink, and they were fixed painfully on a spot of nothing somewhere near the ceiling. His heart beat fast against his ribcage, keeping tune with the nightmarish rush of thoughts spinning inside his mind like a cyclone.

“For Teddy,” he echoed.

 












Thank you so much for reading, and if you have the time, I would appreciate it greatly if you left a review.
 


Chapter 9: Blackberries
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He watched the sky shed away its stratums of black and blue, waiting in stillness by the window. The process was ever so gradual, since time seemed to inch along at its leisure here in Cliodna’s Clock. Dawn was always Colin’s favorite part of the day; the moon blossomed into the sun, its petals a blazing orange that speared through mist and clouds and spangled shadows to light the world on fire.

He was already dressed, the first person to rise in the boardinghouse. With his ear cocked to the side, both eyes still pinned on the sky beyond the window, he could hear water working its way through pipes between walls, traveling up two floors to someone’s bathroom tap. Through the double doors past the dining area where Vesper Lovegood provided exceptionally strange meals three times a day, Colin could hear the sounds of feet pitter-pattering up and down the length of the narrow kitchen, and a ladle stirring the contents of a cauldron.

The aroma of black nettle tea wafted between cracks in flower-papered walls and gleaming teak doors, a delicate tinkling of silverware being arranged on the tables just barely audible. The elves assisting Vesper whispered excitedly amongst themselves, joining Vesper in her delight for a fresh new day. Their voices were high, carrying through the empty dining area to the foyer where Colin sat. Their general enthusiasm made him smile.

The doors creaked open and Vesper tread softly into the foyer, a silver tray balanced in the crook of one elbow. Five china dishes filled with an assortment of snacks rested on it, wobbling as she walked. On her other side, their handles dangling from her fingers, five teacups clinked together against her wrist like an invitation to some mad tea party.

“Good morning, Colin.” She followed his line of vision with eyes the color of fog. “It looks beautiful outside.”

He tapped an issue of the Daily Departed, which had arrived twenty minutes ago. A moving illustration of storm clouds blew violently across the front page, the bold 30 MAY 1998 underneath electrified with lightning. “Miss Trelawney calls for rain in the afternoon.”

Vesper merely looked pensive about this, and said, “Good. It’s always best to pick Dirigible plums while the weather’s poor. Otherwise the gnomes gather up all the ones I let drop.”

Colin raised his eyebrows slightly, taking note of the wand she’d stabbed through a messy ash-blonde bun. “Why do you drop them?”

“Well, they bounce, you see…” The tail-end of her words trickled off into serene silence as she peered outside, temporarily losing focus. “I do like the view now,” she said fondly, and Colin turned to see that she was looking at Salazar Slytherin’s house. “I hope we stay here for just a little while longer. Mr. Slytherin’s house always reminds me of my home in Ottery St. Catchpole.” She stared for a little while longer, whistling a flute-like tune between her teeth, until remembering Colin’s presence at last. “Would you like something to eat?” She offered him the tray of food.

Colin recognized pomegranate seeds in one, a bowl of squirming yellow noodles in another that smelled a bit too astringent to be a viable option, regular blackberries, and tomato stems. The fifth and final dish he could not identify; they resembled sprouts, but were a poisonous shade of purple. He recalled one evening when Mrs. Lovegood served spiced gillyweed to a round of unsuspecting patrons and they’d all had to stick their heads in vases of red flowers that sat on every table. The flowers, as it turned out, were actually Fanged Geraniums. It was not a pleasant scene. “What are those purple things?”

“Heart of sneezewort. They taste wonderful in Gurdyroot salad.”

Colin hastily plucked a few blackberries from a bowl. They were shining, still wet with dew. “Thank you, Mrs. Lovegood. I’ll have these.”

“I know they look strange,” she said thoughtfully, referring to the sneezewort. “I don’t think you like my cooking very much, but you’re much too polite to say so. The tea’s nearly ready, if you’d like some. Unless the smell repulses you?” She didn’t say this in a rude or offended way. In fact, she was smiling in such a friendly fashion that it rather daunted Colin.

“I’m not very thirsty at the moment.” He stood up, giving the street outside one last searching look. “I’m going out for a short while. Thank you for breakfast.”

“Oh?” Her ever-marveling gaze lingered over his jacket and the berries cupped in his left hand. “In that case, you should take a few more. You’ve only got enough for one.”

He swallowed. How did she know? But before he could say anything, she had taken his hand and funneled more blackberries into his palm, then closed his fingers back over it with another smile.

“See you later, Colin Creevey.”

It took a bit of difficulty to locate the holly tree nursery, as Florean’s new ice cream parlor had taken up residence at its previous address, but he soon discovered it along one of the beaches, halfway merged with the Memory Garden. In between bits of driftwood and tombstones, holly trees climbed out of the sand like hands reaching for air. He passed one of the gray marble tombstones, reading an epitaph that said ‘Thiago McBride, 1603. Your sister waits for you’.

He picked his way between trees that had been crafted into monkeys, hippogriffs, and horses kicking at the wind with their hind legs, mid-jump, tromping over clumps of seaweed that had washed up onto the dunes. An elderly man was kneeling beside a tombstone with a horned toad carved from stone perched on top, speaking quietly. He trailed the tips of a flower bouquet – belladonna and narcissus – over the engraved words marking someone he knew: Druella Rosier Black, 1979. Just behind him at his heels, a seraph headstone grew slanted out of the soil. One of its wings was clipped and its bulbous, staring eyes were haunting without irises to give them direction. Aberforth and Albus Dumbledore, 1899. When three becomes five, we will be whole again.

Slightly unsettled, Colin continued through the maze of Memory Garden and twisting trees, the holly animals staring at him with knotholes for eyes and carefully-placed thorns for teeth. He couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching him trespass and did not approve. He passed a bat whose wings fluttered in a lifelike quality, a sea breeze stirring its leaves; and a hippopotamus with its mouth frozen wide open in a vicious roar. Queerly enough, the animals seemed much friendlier at night than they did just presently, offering their branches for protection rather than extending them to seize, to harm. Birds of sadness circled stones erected throughout the Memory Garden, making their nests on weathered graves of those left behind.

It didn’t take long to find the dragon tree. It was one of the largest constructions in the garden, snaking between a gorilla and a bear Colin guessed might be a panda. As he approached, a few of the higher boughs shook and he bit back a smile, keeping his eyes purposefully glued to the ground.

It was shady and cool underneath the rows of shrubbery serving as the dragon’s underbelly, the sand preserved from sunlight. Through a lattice of skinny branches waving all around his head, he could see faraway clouds, crumpled white paper on a bleached blue sky. They reminded him of adventure tales his father used to read to him and Dennis when they were small – of pirates on the open seas and messages in bottles and creatures that could drown an entire crew with one tug of their tentacles.

Colin plopped one of the berries in his mouth while rolling another between thumb and forefinger, listening. His eyes ran up the gnarled tree trunk, observing the blood-red fingerprints smudged all over, and he withdrew his wand from a pocket of his robes.

Pointing it at a berry, he said, “Wingardium Leviosa.”

One by one, he began to levitate the blackberries in his hand. They rose before his face, forming a hoop of droplets. Colin was not an especially gifted wizard. He’d had profuse troubles learning spells and charms during lessons, and more often than not he ended up making something explode. But there was a trick he’d once witnessed another boy perform that he knew he simply had to learn. He’d tried it and he’d perfected it after a lot of practice, and it had been very gratifying to entertain his fellow classmates with it in the Great Hall during meals.

“Volubilis.”

The ring of berries started to juggle of their own volition, the topmost one throwing itself higher and higher with every round. He counted each one as it looped full circle, hopping about in the air like rain. Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen. Twelve. Ten. Colin grinned, tilting his head back after half of his breakfast disappeared before his eyes. Above him, an identical grin stared down at him with juice stains on her chin.

“Hello there.”

“Back again?” She licked her lips and then wiped them off with the back of her hand, the ends of her very long braid close to tickling Colin’s hair. “You don’t give up easily, do you?”

“You were gone all last night,” Colin remarked conversationally, as though they had long ago established a friendship and were now catching up.

“There are a lot of things to see around here.” The girl’s eyes flashed mischievously behind spectacles much too large for her face. She swung her knees around, letting two legs drop over the side of one branch. Colin had to move his head quickly so that he wouldn't get kicked in the face. “I know you.”

“You ought to. I’ve been following you around every day.”

“No, I mean I know you, know you. I’m in Dennis’s year at Hogwarts,” she replied matter-of-factly, legs swinging. “We’re in different Houses, of course – he’s in Gryffindor and I’m in Ravenclaw. I do remember you, though. Dennis called out to you before our Sorting.”

Colin smiled upon remembering. Dennis had fallen out of the boat that was supposed to transport him across the Black Lake, and both boys were quite certain that the giant squid, of all things, had helped Dennis back in to the boat.

“I remember you, too,” he said. “I never learned your name, but I saw you around a few times, sitting under tables in the library and sometimes hiding way up high in the Owlery.” He squinted at her, tapping the tapered end of his wand on the sand to make pockmarks. “Why’d you do that?”

She shrugged, dropping out of the tree. She landed cross-legged right in front of him, the force of her fall spewing sand granules all over Colin’s lap. “I like to hide. People will tell you all sorts of things when they don’t know you’re there. And I see everything, too. It gives me magnificent inspiration for stories.”

“Stories?”

“Yes, I write them.” She fiddled with her honey-brown fringe, which was quite thick and in need of a trim. It came down over her eyebrows, brushing against the rims of her glasses. Her face, like the rest of her, was small and slight, and her expression carried a spirited, dreamy determination. Colin thought to himself that she seemed like the sort of person who didn’t need to hear tales of swashbuckling pirates beforehand in order to imagine them. They were already there in her mind. He looked down and noticed that she had tied her wand to her side with a belt made from shoestrings.

She saw him examining her belt and patted the shoestrings affectionately. “Someone threw them at my tree. So, are you going to redo your sixth year here? Since you couldn’t go to Hogwarts last year?” Colin’s head jerked up to view her properly again, surprised by the change in topic. “Lots of people were gone this term because of the new Muggle-born laws. It was really awful, I was forced to go. Mum and Dad wanted to keep me home, but they said I wasn’t allowed. Mandatory for everyone with approved bloodlines.”

She stuck her hand out for him to shake. “Orla Quirke, by the way.” He shook it, surprised by her vigor. “Last time I saw you, you were hiding in that big room with all the House hangings and hammocks,” the girl went on. “How’d you get into the castle, anyway?”

“Same way you got out of it, I reckon.”

Colin and Dennis Creevey had gone into hiding at the start of their sixth and fourth years, respectively, due to the proclamation that no Muggle-borns would be granted admittance. Furthermore, Muggle-borns possessing a wand were wanted for questioning at the Ministry. It was with this horrifying new regime pressing densely down upon them that the Creeveys went to stay with Aunt Delia in Tunstall for a brief spell. They had hoped that Hogwarts restrictions would relax, and that Colin and Dennis wouldn’t miss more than a few weeks of school; however, the rules became, if possible, even more constricting, and they fled Tunstall for fear of being found.

After that, it had been a long succession of gloomy hotels and looking over their shoulders, finally settling in a hut in Scarborough. This was where they’d been hiding when Colin Creevey inspected a Galleon in his pocket – which, unbeknownst to his parents, was not a real Galleon at all – and shook his brother awake.

“’S it?” Dennis had questioned blearily.

“Dumbledore’s Army needs us. Urgently.”

They’d Floo’d to Hogsmeade, which was dangerous since they knew the Floo network was being closely monitored, but it hadn’t mattered at the time. It was nearly midnight, the world was in chaos, and Colin’s Galleon was simmering in his hand with numerals for that very hour inscribed on its surface. This was it, he could feel it. The Creevey boys had been summoned by other members, alerted that the time had come to fight.

And then they were promptly turned away for being underage.

But they were born Gryffindors, both of them, and this did not stop them. They’d originally Floo’d to Honeydukes in Hogsmeade, and, seeing all of the commotion going on outside The Hog’s Head, they’d jogged over there on the heels of Oliver Wood, Katie Bell, and Angelina Johnson. So after Professor McGonagall told them to evacuate with all the other students who were not yet seventeen, they’d hid in the Room of Requirement, waiting for everyone else to pass. They then meant to return to the Great Hall, but never made it there. The battle had already commenced, and the furthest they could go was the sixth floor corridor.

Colin and Dennis had stayed together until one of the walls collapsed from a giant sinking its fist through the window, separating the brothers with mountains of rubble. Colin had been trying to curse, trying to jinx, but there was so much turmoil…the foundations were shaking and his head was dizzy, and there were people everywhere. Flames of light were being thrown back and forth, and he didn’t know who to attack, or how…

All he wanted was for everyone to stop so that he could dig through the wreckage and find Dennis. In retrospect, his mind stored those scenes in the form of photographs, a way that could be easily documented and retrieved. The physical parameters of those photos kept him from envisioning all of the other people who had been strewn in grotesque heaps around him while he stood fighting, limb over limb and chin over chest, dead. It was too surreal to be his life.

Confusion was the last thing he remembered, wondering what he should do next and praying that Dennis was all right. He must have been struck from behind while he was deciding. He hadn’t gotten a glimpse of who his attacker was, never saw the face or the jet of light. Colin knew enough about the wizarding world to know that a respectable person never casts a spell on an opponent whose back is turned. He’d never done it, not even then, and he found himself baffled afterwards that such a betrayal could occur there in Hogwarts, in the world he loved so much and couldn’t believe his luck that he belonged to.

“But you didn’t die in the battle,” he mentioned after a while. A bird of sadness had hopped onto a branch near him, eavesdropping on his memories. “You’ve only been here for two weeks.”

Orla smiled grimly. “That’s right. I made it out of Hogwarts safe and sound and then died two weeks later.”

He didn’t want to ask, was afraid to be rude. Colin sprinkled sand between his fingers, sifting it in patterns over his knees, hoping she would volunteer the information. She did not, and he didn’t press.


*


She could see both of them quite well from this angle. From Salazar’s point of view, this would probably seem like cheating – and if he noticed, he made no sign that he did. Godric, of course, was completely oblivious of her scrutiny. He was busy examining his manuscript, crossing out lines in order to lower the outstanding word count he’d produced over the past three months of writing. Every now and then he lifted his hand to scratch at the stubble on his chin, and his eyes would flicker over the room, restless, but then they would fall back to his parchment without noticing Rowena’s keen gaze.

A small smile tugged at her lips. Salazar was so adept at pretending, and it all led back to his arrogance, his conceit. He would love nothing more than for Rowena to seemingly admire him, and of course would not wish to interfere. In his own mind, if he himself planted even a fraction of his attention on the fair Ravenclaw, he in turn must be the permanent fixture of her romantic attractions as well. He’d always told her this, and was determined to make her believe it was true.

The trouble was, she had no idea whether or not he was right.

Salazar was handsome in an illusory sort of way. His overall appearance could be considered pleasing, Rowena supposed. But when she thought about it, analyzing his features individually as she was apt to do when she didn’t care what he thought of it, there was nothing particularly striking about him – not in his iron eyes or black hair or the hard angles of his cheekbones and jaw. Overall, he was handsome. But if someone asked why, and took a closer look, it might leave them confused. In fact, it might leave them marveling that Salazar was rather unhandsome. His eyes are too lidded. His nose isn’t long enough. His teeth are too square. And then they might blink and suddenly he would become deceivingly handsome again, and they would shake their heads and wonder if perhaps it was just a trick of the lighting.

Godric Gryffindor was the exact opposite. His features were beautiful, but in a mishmash way that didn’t quite go together. His green eyes were wide-set with flecks of gold; his curling hair like copper wire, dark freckles scattering down his sunburned temples and across his broad forehead. It was usually the wide-set eyes that severed the attention of anyone observing. They beheld a strange innocence that didn’t quite flesh with the Godric the Warrior image, an incorruptibility that failed to match his character.

He might have gotten a bit ridiculous in death, jousting with chairs and stools he animated with magic, but he could never be as naïve as he looked. And while most people went about their days with impressions that both Godric and Salazar were good-looking men, none of them gave either more than a fleeting glance. So how could they be sure? It was better not to question such things. Hogwarts founders must of course be handsome. No highly successful, reputable wizard could ever be plain.

“I think sometimes you forget that you didn’t choose me,” said a rigid voice. Rowena’s mouth turned down at the corners, her hands roaming to her mug so that she would have something to throttle. Maybe she could pretend it was his neck. “I’ve been watching you watch me for…oh…” Salazar examined his invisible wristwatch, drawing up his dark eyebrows in exaggerated shock. “About thirty minutes now. Trying to have our cake and eat it, too, are we?”

“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” she said with a sigh, her attention drifting over to the other side of the room. Godric had gotten up and left; Helga Hufflepuff, a social butterfly if there ever was one, was busy helping herself to a fountain of hot chocolate behind Odo’s counter. “If you want to read into anything, let it be the fact that I waited at the door for ages for a table to clear, just so that I wouldn’t have to sit anywhere near you.”

“That’s just because you’re so intimidated of my good looks. And you wouldn’t have been able to sit near me, anyway. I cast a few spells to give my neighboring tables the lovely scent of decomposing flesh.” He winked at her above his glass. “So that I wouldn’t have to listen to any of their drivel.”

Rowena rolled her eyes. “You should consider getting a necklace to hang your many charms from.” Salazar chuckled into his drink, his eyes flicking warily to the necklace that hung around Rowena’s own throat. It was a gift from Godric – the first token of affection Rowena had accepted from any man since Helena’s father died. Rowena’s relationship with Godric had been received badly by Helena, and contributed in part to their estrangement.

This fed into Rowena’s misgivings about Godric while both of them were still alive. Maybe she wasn’t completely satisfied with him because Helena disapproved? Maybe she felt guilty for moving on from Amadeus. After all, Amadeus was waiting for her on the other side, if such a place existed. Ironically, soon after she got to Cliodna’s Clock, Rowena discovered that her husband had already perished in the Devil’s Duel.

Salazar was still wearing a sapphire on his middle finger, small and dingy amidst all of his other grand jewels. Perhaps he thought it went unnoticed, but she’d never once seen him without it. The band had changed, of course, because his fingers were larger than a woman’s – but the gem was supposed to have been hers. He tried to give it to her twice. Once was a year after Amadeus’s death, and the other was just before she’d accepted Godric’s proposal for a marriage that never materialized. Things had gone swiftly south after that, ending with Rowena sending the Baron to collect Helena for a final goodbye. Helena had never come to her. Even in death, Helena had managed to successfully evade her mother.

He caught her staring at the blue gem and gave her a knowing smirk that was much too riddled with resentment to pass for a smile. Rowena felt herself grow hot.

“So who’d you find?” she asked briskly, trying to keep her voice even. “I know that’s what you’ve been up to.”

“I haven’t been actively up to anything. Not that you’ll believe me no matter what I say, but I don’t go hunting for them. They just show up on my doorstep.” Rowena raised her eyebrows, disbelieving, and he cracked another strained smile. “I have a rather ostentatious doorstep, you see. It’s like a magnet for fools.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“That’s because I don’t remember his name. Miserable lad, and none too bright. I don’t expect him to make it past the first round if he gets selected by the committee, unless the others have wits enough to notice how obtuse he is and save him for later. He would be easy pickings in the third or fourth round.”

“I pity him already.”

“Why should you? He’s almost guaranteed not to enter the fifth round. You’re always complaining about the ethics of the races, so consider it one more boy spared.”

Rowena eyed him shrewdly. “I don’t pity him because he won’t go far in the duel. I pity him because he has someone like you whispering in his ear. What is the worth of a mentor who does not believe in his student?”

All of the light went out of Salazar’s eyes. Annoyed with her, he focused on draining the last of his wine and ignoring her pointed sighs indicating frustration that he was still sitting there with her. After a long, uncomfortable pause during which Salazar drummed his knuckles on the table and Rowena gazed everywhere in the room but at him, Salazar opened up his mouth to speak. He’d convincingly disposed of his surly airs, reaching for a friendlier turn of the conversation, but found himself interrupted before he began.

“Rowena, my dear.” It was Godric, sopping wet from the thunderstorm brewing outside. He had one hand on her back and his lips at her cheekbone. “Merlin’s been looking for you. Registration for the Devil’s Duel closes tomorrow and your attendance is desired in the Town Hall so that they can begin to make preparations.”

“Town Hall?” Salazar repeated. He hated having to converse with Godric, and never did if he could help it, but he’d spoken without intending to. As a result, his mouth was twisting into an exceptionally ugly shape, as though he’d just tasted some vinegar and lemon. He looked at Rowena instead. It still wasn’t easy, what with Godric’s hand resting on her shoulder in a way that growled ‘she’s mine’ without anyone having to get their wands involved, but she was still pleasing to the eyes. And she, at least, didn’t bring out any of his urges to hex.

“Yes,” Godric answered, obviously gloating because Rowena had failed to share this information with Salazar. “She’s on the committee this year, or haven’t you heard?”

“The committee?” Salazar’s face contorted with anger. “Are you serious? After all the self-righteous remarks you’ve made about the whole organization?”

“If you must know, I’m doing it because I dislike the organization,” she insisted stiffly. “If you can’t beat them, join them. This way, I have a hand in who gets chosen. I can protect those who aren’t stable enough to care about their own self-preservation.”

“Are you sure you’re not just keeping busy so that you won’t have to spend more time with this one?” He motioned towards Godric, who scowled at him. “You’ll do anything to stay out late, won’t you? Can’t hardly blame you, though. I wouldn’t fancy getting into bed while he’s watching me through my window, either. I see that you still haven’t let him move in with you.” A clap of thunder boomed from overhead, shaking the walls.

“Got it all out of your system yet?” Godric asked impatiently. Rowena’s voice rose over his, flattening it. Her face was quite close to Salazar’s, chin jutting out with all of her teeth bared.

“Shut up,” she snapped. “My personal life is none of your business.”

“You’ve got that right.” Salazar lifted his glass to his lips again, even though it was empty, and turned coldly away from them both. His expression was murderous. “Have fun being a hypocrite, sweetheart. Your soul will sell for a lot more than Galleons here.”

Rowena stomped across the room, anger blinding her to a few people who got elbowed roughly in the chest on her way out. Godric followed suit, ruffled but secretly glad that Salazar continued to supply Rowena with a heavy list of reasons to hate him. He did all the work himself, keeping her at an icy distance with his venomous words that could so effectively wound.

After Rowena and Godric were gone, probably halfway to the Town Hall and raving heatedly about how much they loathed Salazar, Salazar himself was still sitting at Rowena’s abandoned table with only his regrets to quarrel with, twisting the sapphire around and around his finger.


 


Chapter 10: Voices in the Crypt
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Benjy Fenwick tied the laces of his shoes manually, rather than with magic, just for another excuse to stall his morning. He knew Scrimgeour would be too busy today to be counting the minutes until his shift’s end, and Benjy certainly wasn’t in a hurry for twelve hours of wand-wielding and glancing over his shoulder every other second.

Some wondered why they did it – Benjy and Rufus and the other volunteers. Why not just leave inhabitants of the Grotta to their own devices? It would be easier to forget about them in their locked-up world, and to continue life in Cliodna’s Clock with no regard for the emaciated spirits of their enemies. Maybe Rufus volunteered to be a guard because he was a man of justice, doing his part to protect the more tame prisoners from severe, bloodthirsty witches and wizards. Maybe Edgar did it to serve a purpose, to remind himself that as far as death was concerned, his life was pretty good.

Benjy did it because he saw the dormant side of himself in many of them.

It could have been him. If he’d been born into a family where blood meant everything, surrounded by Death Eaters and odium, it could have been him. If he’d been raised in Slytherin House, submerged in a society where to achieve meant to step on everyone in order to get what you wanted, it could have been him. It was a stroke of fortune, in Benjy’s opinion, that he hadn’t been conceived with the blood of psychopaths and murderers, and that he’d been born in a tolerant, loving family who taught him that everyone mattered. Everyone, even the psychopaths and murderers. Given the right mix of circumstances, Benjy might have been a Death Eater, too; or Mr. Ollivander, or James Potter, or Edgar’s wife Viola. It was all down to the luck of the draw.

He pitied the ones who had been bred with a dangerous cocktail of Dark blood and a sinister upbringing. This was why, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he changed positions with another volunteer and tried to keep at least one person from tearing someone else to shreds. If he could spare one person, then maybe the attacker would reconsider why they did what they did. Maybe they wouldn’t try it again.

“June first,” Caradoc Dearborn said to him in passing as Benjy crossed the road. “I’m not sorry I don’t work today – they’re going to be hellions over there.”

Benjy only grunted in response. He knew Caradoc was right. People from the Grotta loved June first. It was the day chosen contenders in the Devil’s Duel were announced. And tomorrow…well tomorrow would be much worse. Tomorrow the Grotta residents would all get to come to Cliodna’s Clock and watch the first round of the races. Tomorrow every member of the guard would be required. Grotta citizens wouldn’t be able to cast magic even if they did manage to get their hands on someone else’s wand, but they tended to cause more mayhem with their words than they did with weapons. Some of them would be traveling in chains and gags.

A man with heavy bags under his eyes and popped blood vessels scattered across his nose like freckles stepped out from beneath the shelter of tree branches, watery gaze filling up with torment. “You will tell her I said hello, won’t you?”

Benjy nodded. “I always do.”

Orion Black nodded vaguely, hands pressed together, and turned around to hobble away. Benjy noticed that the atmosphere was boiling today, not just with humidity but with anticipation. It made him feel edgy, uncomfortable. Edgar Bones was right; today was going to be a trial.

He waved hello to a girl sitting on the roof of the hospice house, arms curled around her knobby knees. She waved tentatively back and then ducked down to hide her face, pushing the bridge of her glasses further up her nose. Directly underneath her, Alice Longbottom was busy chattering away to one of the matrons. Her husband, Frank Longbottom, nodded in agreement. Nodding was just about all they were able to do, physically. They could talk as much as they liked, but they wouldn’t regain full control of their physical movements until their bodies rejoined them. For now, their arms and legs were still trapped to earth.

An elderly man with skin as pale as clouds was sitting cross-legged on the house’s fenced-in lawn, his long fingers wrapped around a matron’s wrist. Benjy recognized him as one of the Inferi. A young boy sat next to them, his misty figure blurring every time the wind blew, distorting. That was Roger, one of the youngest victims ever during the height of Voldemort’s terror to be Kissed by a dementor.

The hospice itself was called Meadowes Manor; Dorcas founded it and had been an excellent companion, both to her staff and to her charges, until her death in 1996. Benjy still couldn’t think of her without feeling his throat constrict in anguish. His animosity toward Lily Potter had not lessened in the passing years, though he tried to conceal it as best he could. He knew his bitterness was mostly without foundation. After all, Dorcas had known what she was going up against. She’d been in the Devil’s Duel multiple times, though Benjy could never quite fathom her reasoning for entering. If Lily hadn’t won, then Lily would have lost, and would that really be any better?

For Benjy, maybe. And probably for everyone who lived in Meadowes Manor. But not for James, or Marlene, or Harry – who would never meet his mother in Cliodna’s Clock if she didn’t stop risking her soul to see him on earth. The Duel had become more than just about the prize to Lily. It had unraveled her, warped her. Benjy doubted Lily herself knew all the rationale behind why she felt obligated to sign up every single year.

He made his way to the shore without incident, halfway listening to Regulus and Sirius Black bicker good-naturedly with each other through a window into their cottage’s kitchen. Neither of them must have signed up this year, Benjy supposed, or they would have already flocked to City Center with the other candidates. The rest of the village would come later in the afternoon, hovering only long enough to hear the news.

Benjy reached the encircling shadows long before the towering concrete walls that threw them, and rummaged underneath the cloak of chainmail to his ordinary robes to retrieve his wand. Pointing it at a lustrous serpent-green spiral attached to the wall, resembling the shell of a snail, he said, “Alohomora.”

The spiral began to rumble, protruding slowly away from the wall while a slender crack formed in a rectangular shape all around it. When the spiral was pushed out the entire way, disappearing under Benjy’s hand, there was a finishing click and he looked up to survey a crudely-cut door. Benjy clutched the spiral doorknob and turned it, and then stepped inside the crypt.

He tried to prepare himself for the onslaught of frigid winter air, but never succeeded. There was no wind in the Grotta; the cold crept out of the concrete walls and the black sand that camouflaged every square inch of the place. It was a suffocating cold, completely void of moisture, that found its way inside your throat and lungs and veins.

As usual, most of the prisoners (as indeed, there was no better title for them) were squatting in the sand in thick huddles. They wore bright white robes so that guards could more easily discern them from the sand and sky, as both were perpetual shades of night. There was no sun in the Grotta. There was no moon or stars or breeze to stir the glacial air. And though Benjy knew that the sun shone all around them, illuminating the iron walls so that everyone in the Clock could easily see it, from the inside perspective there was only darkness. It was a cruel illusion, plunging all within it into a timeless vacuum as thick and dark as silence. The only points of light were five pinpricks floating around the walls like stars. Attached to them were wands, followed by members of the guard.

Some of the prisoners liked to follow the guards, attracted to Lumos as moths are to a flame. Some prisoners steered well clear of them, crouching under the barren trees and hoping they might catch a guard dozing off to sleep. For this purpose, many of them crafted weapons of opportunity – sharpened tree branches if you were lucky. More often than not, these weapons were made from the bodies of other prisoners – bones or strips of sinew that had been stretched out to harden and dry, used most effectively as cords to strangle others with.

The guards tried to dispose of the dead bodies before others could have the chance to rip them open, but this was not so easy when their world was darkness and there was six versus hundreds. The Grotta was smaller than Cliodna’s Clock but still too large to see properly across in all directions. It was frozen. It was frightening. There were whispers at every turn and bodies hiding in the tops of skeletal tree branches, waiting to drop onto an unsuspecting victim. The endless canvas of black sand muffled footsteps, too, making it hard for guards to hear approaching predators.

Despite the way that the air seemed to suck your vitality right out of you, some of the prisoners remained unnervingly upbeat. They usually gravitated to a tree near the center of the Grotta that they referred to as ‘Headquarters’. It grew out of the mammoth skull of a giant, whose broken teeth were firmly clamped around the weakest, most dangerous inmate of all. Protecting him.

The Death Eaters each had their own designated branch to sit on, and from the ground view, they looked like roosting white ghosts. All of them were perfectly positioned, completely visible, except for the branch opposite Bellatrix Lestrange. On that one, Benjy knew, even though he couldn’t see him, Barty Crouch, Jr. was perched. He was almost wholly transparent because he’d been Kissed. This made him less of a physical threat for the time being, but more of a mental threat. It was hard to see Barty when he was following you, because he really was a ghost.

“How’s it goin’, Fenwick?” Yardley Platt cackled, tossing a rock up and down in his hand. This would have seemed an innocent enough gesture if there were any rocks to be found in the Grotta, but there weren’t.

“Give that here,” Benjy replied sternly, extending a hand.

Yardley grinned widely, exposing a row of slimy yellow teeth whittled down to nubs. “If you insist.”

Benjy grimaced in disgust before the object even touched his skin, knowing it couldn’t be anything nice. And, unsurprisingly, the rock turned out to be someone’s eyeball. Sand and blood had been tightly compacted around it to provide a hard crust. Still, Benjy had seen rocks made from much worse materials.

A spotlight shone over the wavy black sand, illuminating yards of ash-like dust before it came to a halt over Benjy’s silver-plated heart. The dust was mingled particles of sand and snow, perpetually hanging in the air without ever falling, which contributed to the environment’s smoky opacity. “Fenwick.” It was Moira Abbott. “Come to relieve me?”

“No, sorry.” Benjy lit his own wand, finding it relatively safe to draw attention to himself now that he’d been joined by another armed guard. “I’m relieving Scrimgeour. Where is he?”

“Here,” a rough voice answered.

Rufus was standing directly below Headquarters, staring up at the Death Eaters arranged like dead birds, a frosty glint in his eyes. Rufus never retracted his wand when he was on duty. He never came close to nodding off to sleep. He hardly even blinked. Benjy observed the way Rufus was regarding the seemingly-empty tree limb and narrowed his eyes. “Having trouble with old Barty?”

Rufus didn’t take his eyes off the tree. “Oh, yes.”

“Yeah?” Benjy joined him, crossing his arms over his chest. Up above, he could just barely make out the steamy outline of Barty’s form. He was grinning from ear to ear. Close to him, Bellatrix let out a thin, jagged laugh.

Rufus could never converse casually with the other guards when he briefed them on the behaviors of various inmates during shift changes. His updates were cold as stone, flavored with a brutality he released with stares instead of his wand. “I’ve caught Crouch on the wall twice today.”

“On the wall?” Benjy blanched, quickly sweeping the iron force field with his gaze. “At what point?”

Barty’s grin visibly widened.

“On the other side,” Rufus said. There was a chill in his tone that indicated someone else had been assigned to watch Barty at the time of his capture. Barty wasn’t the only one who could launch himself up onto the wall – those without bodies were more buoyant, less restricted to gravity’s rules. Anyone who had been Kissed and hadn’t been reunited with their physical selves could easily jump up onto the wall – that is, if the wall hadn’t been smothered with enchantments.

The prisoners did not have magical abilities anymore, but the guards certainly did, and they used anything that couldn’t be used against them. They had to be very careful about the type of magic they practiced here. If they cast Incendio, the crazier prisoners would run right into the fire and then throw themselves at other inmates so that they would all have to burn together. If the guards conjured snakes or weapons, the prisoners sometimes banded together to overthrow them and seize whatever had been conjured. This was not the Clock, this was the Grotta; and here, even the guards were not immune to death.

Benjy walked over to the barrier and threw Yardley’s self-made rock at it. Before hitting the surface, it bounced off of something invisible and back into Benjy’s palm. Just like the armor he wore when he was on duty, infused with magical defenses to deflect attacking hands, feet, and spit, the wall could not be touched. A jet of anxiety shot down his spine. This begged to serve the question: “How did he get over there?”

“No idea,” Rufus replied darkly. Bellatrix laughed again, an infuriating sound. She wasn’t as strong as she once was, not with the way the cold temperature was flaying her skin into scales and draining her of life – an everlasting Kiss – but she was still eerily better off than others who had arrived with her at the beginning of the month. Benjy separated the night sky from a coil of coarse black hair framing her face and thought to himself that she could have been beautiful if she’d wanted. Her heavily lidded eyes cast around behind Benjy in obvious disdain, and he swiveled to see the shivering silhouette of a witch.

Walburga Black was not one-tenth of the woman she was when she arrived. Gone was her confidence, her smugness, her unaffected contempt for everyone and everything. She had wasted away to little more than a hologram, and it wouldn’t be long until that little bit that was left of her blew away, too. “He says hello,” Benjy relayed. “He sends his love.”

Bellatrix spat; her saliva evaporated in the desiccated air before it reached the ground. She did not approve of the way her aunt conversed with someone from the Clock. Her friends mimicked her, and for a few moments all that could be heard throughout the wasteland was the sound of their sneers and spit. Rufus aimed his wandlight directly over Bellatrix’s chapped forehead, igniting her black eyes with silvery-blue fire.

Walburga had lost enough of her mind to not care about the people in the tree. “Tell him I said hello,” she said in a hoarse whisper, unconsciously reaching out to touch Benjy’s arm. A shower of gold sparks kindled beneath her touch and she pulled her hand away, but she did not scream. Her nerves had long lost the ability to feel heat, and consequently she didn’t realize that she’d just been burned.

“I’ll tell him,” Benjy vowed. Rufus Scrimgeour applied him with a quizzical look, but he ignored it. If this was all the husband and wife had, this shallow exchange of greetings that depended on Benjy’s generosity, then he would willingly be the surrogate for their one-thousand hellos. After all, if anyone could have told Dorcas ‘good morning’ for him, he would have given quite a lot for their service. Back and forth, every single day, this was how Walburga and Orion communicated. Rufus didn’t understand, but he didn’t have to. He viewed the Grotta citizens much differently than Benjy did.

Morfin Gaunt’s bloodcurdling screams rang out from somewhere in the darkness and Rufus tensed, his wandlight still trained on Lestrange’s haughty, peeling face while his eyes pierced through shadows off to the right.

“I’ll go attend to it,” Benjy offered. “You can go home now, anyway.”

Rufus hesitated, eyeing Bellatrix with a harsh degree of distrust. It wasn’t much of a secret that he considered the other volunteers incompetent in comparison to his own abilities; if permitted, he would probably want to live full-time in the Grotta, paranoia fueling his insomnia and the insomnia fueling more abhorrence and fear. Bellatrix smiled insolently back at him. She felt herself far above the guards’ reach, having been murdered in the name of the Dark Lord. It was an honor for her, dying for her master, and she told herself that he’d made her immortal.

Even if he’d really done just the opposite.

“If he was so powerful, then why is he here?” Rufus challenged softly. "He can't even walk. You worship an invalid." Bellatrix’s lips curled away from her teeth, eyes wild with malevolence. Her white-clad fellows hissed at Scrimgeour.

“Rufus,” Benjy said again, and this time there was a sharpness to his tone. “Go home.”

Scrimgeour’s teeth slid against each other, clink, clink, clink. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he warned the tree branch across from Bellatrix’s. Everyone in the tree shuddered with laughter now, because Barty was no longer sitting on his branch. He’d jumped down and was now closely tailing Benjy. Rufus quickly sent a Patronus after his colleague to hopefully ward off Barty. The lion thudded away with its vibrant paws against an onyx sea, pulsing past body after body. Hundreds of hollow, filmy eyes blinked in pain, unused to such vivid luminosity.

Caratacus Burke fixed Rufus with a hateful stare as the latter reluctantly made his way toward the door. Moira Abbott watched his back, wand aimed threateningly at Caratacus lest he try to make any sudden movements. Rufus held one arm over his eyes to shield himself from the blinding sunlight that would soon strike him full in the face, wand still clenched tightly in his other hand.

He kept his eyes squeezed shut after closing the door behind him, listening to it lock back in place. The shouts of Morfin Gaunt still stung his ears, echoing upward as it vibrated against layer after layer of enchantments. The sun was brighter than hell, easily shining through his lids, but Rufus reveled in the heat soaking into his skin. This was the moment all the guards always looked forward to when they came home to Cliodna’s Clock – feeling the blood rush through their numb fingers and toes again. The humidity assaulted his senses as well, so overwhelming in contrast with the dehydrated Grotta that he could almost drink the water right out of the air.

Water splashed around his ankles, the sand here far different from that of the arctic desert he’d just left. This was the sort of sand that you could sink into, that you could feel living creatures moving around in. Life was in front of him in wind and grass, and there was death behind him in an iron cage, even if death still encompassed everything.

Squinting, Rufus dazedly made his way down the flooded beach to Cliodna’s Clock. In spite of himself, he felt much better now that he was gone. In that place, wandering around in a world for lost souls, he could sometimes feel himself losing bits and pieces of his mind, his memory, his humanity. If more people volunteered for the job of guarding, Rufus and the others wouldn’t have to expose themselves to such long, starless hours; but, of course, who would readily agree to such a task? Most of them hated inhabitants of the Grotta. They didn’t know what it looked like and who was still alive in there, and they didn’t care to learn. Quite a few of them were in Cliodna’s Clock because of people in the Grotta, and wished them nothing but agony.

The town was bursting at the seams.

Rufus’s footsteps quickened, melting into a throng of others walking briskly along. On his right was Nymphadora Lupin and on his left was a young man who worked in the bakery, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, arms caked with flour. Between the two of them, and in the middle of everyone else, Rufus was lost adrift.

Tonks saw the flash of grayish-white before anyone else, and reached wildly up with both hands to grasp it. Just before her fingers brushed the inky newsprint, her own name already glaring back at her on the front page, someone else snatched it away.

Tonks swerved, teeth accidentally clamping over her tongue in irritation, to see Lily Potter’s green eyes memorizing the lines on the paper. Her complexion had gone very sallow. Several paces behind her, footsteps were fast approaching. Lily knew them without having to turn around, and met James Potter with wide, snapping eyes. He’d never seen her looking more horror-struck. “How could you?” she demanded angrily.

James reeled back, taking approximately one second to become just as upset. “How could you expect me not to? If he’s in, I’m in.”

Tonks got a hold of another issue at last, since clones of the Daily Departed were now raining profusely from the sky, being orchestrated by Benedict Cuffe’s baton-like wand. All around her, the middle pages of the Daily Departed had been carelessly discarded in favor of the front page.

Ten names were separated into two groups, five people per team. Each group would duel only members of their own team until the very last round, when just one person on each side remained. The groups this year were named to reflect their paradoxical reality: Victus Mortuus. Living Dead.


Victus:

Cedric Diggory
Nymphadora Lupin
Peter Pettigrew
Rufus Scrimgeour
Fred Weasley


Mortuus:

Vincent Crabbe
Colin Creevey
James Potter
Lily Potter
Severus Snape

 


Chapter 11: Rules of the Challenge
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Who’s Who in Cliodna’s Clock?
by Grelda Wumpus
2 June 1998

 

THE BOY BEHIND THE BRAVADO




Early this morning I was able to snag an exclusive interview with none other than Vincent Crabbe, age eighteen, who is one of this year’s competitors in the races! After ordering enough cauldron cakes between the two of us to put Mr. Taffet out of business, we sat down in a cozy booth overlooking the main street and chatted about the dangerous adventure he will be embarking on in just three hours from now.

With a quill in my hand and my heart in my throat, I asked, “Do you think you’re ready for such a physically and emotionally demanding tournament?”

“I suppose,” he said, although in this reporter’s experienced opinion, he looked as though he wanted to share more information but did not dare for fear of giving his opponents an insider view of his skills.

I switched to a new question. “What made you want to enter the Devil’s Duel? Is it a quest for fame? A twisted wish for mortality? Did you join because you have a girlfriend at home you want to get one last glimpse of?”

Mr. Crabbe shrugged and took another snap at his decadent cauldron cake (stipulated advertising: buy one cauldron cake from Taffet's Trunk, get the second one at a reduced price). It only took him three bites to eat the whole thing; an extraordinarily impressive accomplishment! “I dunno. I entered ‘cause I wanted to win?”

A fine answer! The young man shows plenty of promise in his understated ways, his silence likely a mask for stealth and deadly powers. I know I won’t be the only one who keeps a keen eye on what the Devil’s Basin says about him. Might even put up a few bets!

- continued on page four


The time had wound down to the eleventh hour, leaving half of the village conversing in whispers and the other half flapping about with energy, flocking to the Town Hall where each contestant’s vial of blood was being emptied into the Devil’s Basin. It wouldn’t start to boil until the tournament actually began, but Cassandra Trelawney was standing over it, anyway, ready to interpret its ripple patterns.

A queue of witches and wizards straggled down the road in a straight line, all of their wrists bound to one long rope. They were all wearing black veils over their faces to help their eyes slowly adjust to sunlight. A number of them had cloth gags in their mouths to prevent them from spitting on people, and at least half of them had been stricken with Silencio. Still, beneath many of the veils one could easily see wide smiles lacking teeth, their eyes swiveling all around in their sockets to soak up as much color and life as possible. Some of them sneered at passers-by, calling out to friends and families of their victims; most, however, were so drained from life in the Grotta that they could barely walk at all. Their knees shook, arms thrashing so hard with tremors that they gave themselves burns on the areas where rope met flesh.

“Don’t know why we let them come here,” Edmund McKinnon muttered gruffly, wrapping one arm protectively around his wife. “Isn’t it enough that they terrorized us when we were alive?” He raised his voice in frustration, glowering at the train of prisoners. “Having a nice little holiday so far? Relish it while you can! You’ll be going back where you belong soon enough.”

One of the inmates stopped dead in her tracks, causing several people on both sides of her to fumble and fall. One of them was Walburga Black. Her husband Orion came running over, deeply upset, but found a wand pointed in his face.

“Get back,” said Caradoc Dearborn, one of the guards. Pity was evident in his eyes, but he had no choice. “I’m sorry, Mr. Black, but you’ve got to keep your distance.” Caradoc then helped Walburga to her feet, so desensitized to her pungent odor, sagging, unwashed skin, and jaundiced eyes that he didn’t even flinch. Orion was not so used to seeing his wife in such a state, and nearly lost his mind. Ollivander and Vesper Lovegood each slid an arm around his shoulders and urged him away from the crowd, his wails loud enough to be heard from the nearly-empty Grotta.

The witch who’d stalled the procession bent her head down and pawed at the veil over her face, gradually easing it up over her head until it fell off. Bellatrix Lestrange then applied everyone she passed with a huge grin, clearly overjoyed to be immersed in the company of people who hated her and feared her, knowing very well that they could not harm her. If her safety had only depended on the cluster of guards marching in a sinister rhythm on both sides of the line, their expressions fathomless, then she might have been dead within seconds. Many of the villagers in Cliodna’s Clock probably would have attacked the Grotta residents, hating them not for their own deaths but for the deaths of their loved ones. Unfortunately for them, only one person could ever die in Cliodna’s Clock every year, and it wouldn’t be from a brawl in the street.

Cliodna’s Clock glared at the hundreds of unwanted guests in various states of dislike; some stood behind half-closed shutters with their families and some had dared to stand in their gardens or on the pavement. Sirius Black was chastised for trying to throw rocks at them while his brother Regulus shrank away from the scene, watching raptly from behind a fork in a tree.

People from the Grotta were escorted into the stands before everyone else, their positions secured before others could be allowed entrance into the place where everyone would watch Round One of the Devil’s Duel. Cliodna herself was sitting in the very front row, a balaclava obscuring her face from view. It was rumored that the three birds who traveled with her everywhere she went also pecked at her face, disfiguring it beyond recognition. One was a blackbird, one was a bird of paradise, and one was a vulture. Claudius Ptolemy was positioned at her left and Merlin at her right, and Mr. and Mrs. Dumbledore sat with their daughter Ariana behind them next to the Flamels. The only one in their lot not present was Albus.

A filthy, wild-looking man in the Grotta section cranked his head around to glare at a young woman sitting several rows up from him. Her eyes naturally gazed in two different directions, rather like a fish, but she managed to narrow them well enough to stare insolently back. She arched one defiant eyebrow before fixing her attention on the enormous hollow in the ground below, ignoring him.

Claudius Ptolemy glanced at Cliodna, awaiting her cue. At last, her head gave a little jerk and he jolted upright, his eyes following the very last villagers emptying into City Center. The metal stands they’d erected here were borrowed from the Quidditch pitch, forming a perfect circular stadium around the immense hole in the ground. Gravel and brick had been dug up, leaving behind six feet of vacant space with muddy sand lining the bottom.

Claudius cleared his throat, motioning for the ten contenders to join him. One by one they sauntered forth – Cedric Diggory, Fred Weasley, Tonks Lupin, Vincent Crabbe, Lily and James Potter, Rufus Scrimgeour, Colin Creevey, Severus Snape, and Peter Pettigrew. Peter was trembling from head to toe, and for a moment it seemed as though he might turn right around and run out of there. One cold frown from James Potter stopped him from doing so; as if on an invisible tether, Peter obediently sulked along after them and took up his spot at the six o’ clock position around the chasm in the ground.

Claudius aimed his wand at his throat. “Sonorous.” He looked over his shoulder at Cliodna again, and taking note of another nod, continued, “The first Tuesday of June! It’s a day of excitement, a day of tragedy. For two of the exemplary witches and wizards here with me, it marks failed attempts at winning the best prize our corner of the world has to offer. For eight others, it lights a path that narrows down more the farther you go, until it’s just you against yourself, along with the query: ‘Do I have what it takes?’” He looked the contenders up and down with a critical air. “I don’t think we could have asked for a more talented, driven bunch than the ones who’ve so bravely offered themselves up.”

All was quiet in the stands. Even most of the Grotta inmates had stopped trying to fight their magical chains, all except for a man with no eyes and unkempt red hair, who was writhing all over his neighbors in mad confusion. He didn't have a tongue, either, and emitted strange, garbled language. Mrs. Lestrange, who sat just behind him, was preoccupied with maintaining fierce eye contact with Tonks, mentally antagonizing her. She had the intent concentration of one practicing Legilimency.

“We will lose one of them, of course,” Claudius went on gravely. “I believe we are all in agreement that July the first, which is just a month away from catching up to us, is the worst day in our town. We are given a month to mourn all ten of them, and when we are spared nine lives it is almost a miracle – almost. I cannot guess which unlucky soul here will be the one to go, but I encourage all ten competitors to make the most of these upcoming weeks. Settle all of your quarrels, love as much as you possibly can, and make every moment count. For one of you, your moments are severely numbered. I, along with everyone else in Cliodna’s Clock, applaud you for your courage. It is only because of your cooperation and willingness to risk it all that we are able to enjoy a relaxed, controlled population. To the witch or wizard who earns the prize, let it be known that you very much deserve it.”

One more exchange of nods from Cliodna to Claudius passed before he declared in a tone of unhappy finality, “Well, then. It’s best that we get started.”

James found Lily’s hand and gave it a squeeze. She was gaping in disbelief at her feet, cheeks drained of all color, as if this was the last place in the world she had ever expected to end up. She kept staring without seeing, her skin crawling under the inspection of a thousand faceless people throughout the stadium, all of them beginning to form opinions about who might win and who might lose. Having been a champion so many times, Lily had little doubt that most of the villagers were busy picking her opponents to pieces, assuming that Mrs. Potter would obliterate them all. Lily, the steadfast winner. Lily, the destroyer of her own friends. Ruthless. Inhuman. Her panic in response to their accusatory thoughts that she couldn’t even be sure were real made it difficult to breathe.

Claudius pointed his wand somewhere out to sea, brow furrowing. On his orders, a monstrous scallop seashell lifted out of the ocean and into the sky, dripping waterfalls over the ceramic-tile roofs of houses in musical harmonies. The scallop was jade-green, slimy and scabbed with barnacles; it hovered between the stadium and the sun for a full ten seconds, plunging them all into early evening, before lowering itself perfectly into the hollowed-out earth. Vincent Crabbe took a quick step back, eyes bulging.

“A Pensieve,” Claudius’s loud voice boomed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a shining glass phial. He held it up for everyone to see, even though that would be an impossible feat for those anywhere above the tenth row. “A memory.” Fred looked confused about this, scratching the back of one elbow and gawking at Claudius as though he might be barmy. “This year, all five rounds of the Devil’s Duel will be taking place inside of memories.” He flicked the slender bottle with one fingernail.

“This one has been extracted posthumously from Mr. Alrik Bronstad of the Grotta, who died just a little over two months ago. In his time on earth, he was Captain of the Admiral Murman, a ship that sailed the Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, Kara Sea, and the North Sea. It spent six centuries servicing Durmstrang Institute before it sank in 1924. What our competitors are about to witness was taken from an ordinary voyage that stretched from Jan Mayen to Bear Island. As a few select villagers here may know,” he nodded toward Igor Karkaroff, who was trying to hide behind Dexter Fortescue’s large head, “those in the Durmstrang area do not employ the usual garden variety ocean liners. Their ships are rich with magic, the Murman in particular, and it has been deemed a perfect setting for Round One.”

He uncorked his bottle and tipped its contents over the massive seashell’s lip. The memory began to burgeon and spread, its silky clouds of silver vapor multiplying by the millions within seconds. The surface roiled like the sea, one man’s miniscule memory chewing up thin air with swells and swallows, until the whole shell lay completely filled and the surface ceased to roll. A tranquil fog floated over the metallic pool, temporarily distorting Claudius’s head with its haze, but he swiftly drew back from it and gestured with one sweeping arm.

“I will count down from five,” he said, more to the spectators than to the actual competitors. “At my final word, you are to enter the Pensieve. You will find that instead of entering only with your mind, and leaving your body behind, you will drop entirely into the memories. This is to ensure full physical capabilities and interaction with the ship and those on board. You will be noticed by fellow shipmates; therefore, we have taken ten authentic passengers from the Admiral Murman and designed it so that you will replace them. You will look exactly like these other people.

“This is where it gets tricky for the ten of you. There are forty people on this ship. Ten of them will be you, changed to reflect their lot, and the other thirty who were actually on the ship at the time of this memory are to be considered decoys. With each challenge comes a set of rules, and these decoys prompt the first one: You are not to attack a decoy. If you do, you will freeze in place for approximately five minutes, granting your enemy the advantage as you will be stationary and vulnerable to their attacks.

“Now, with that said, the name of the game is to get a member of your team off the ship. You must do whatever it takes to throw them into the water – anything goes. However, since your teammates will look like completely different people to you, it will be hard to distinguish between opponents and decoys. It’s up to you to use your cleverness to tell the difference.” He paused for breath. Colin Creevey was beginning to look quite nervous. He kept fiddling with his wand, thumping it against one leg of his trousers.

“The round lasts until both teams have successfully eliminated one teammate each. The two eliminated will be instantly disqualified and pulled from all future rounds, and the remaining winners will go on to Round Two next week. Now, it is wise to remember that attempting to attack members of the opposite team is fruitless, as they will appear invisible to you and you cannot harm them. You will only be able to see the thirty decoys and the four members of your own team, although everyone will look like complete strangers. For emphasis: If you attack decoys, you freeze for five minutes. No one will resemble themselves. You are to cast a member of your team overboard. The round does not end until both teams have accomplished this.

“When I release you, you will appear in various locations throughout the ship, all strategically placed so that you are spread out an even distance from one another. Are there any questions?”

The crowd chorused with boos, as they always did whenever that year’s announcer asked competitors if they had any questions. The impatience to get things moving was a part of Devil’s Duel tradition – even James Potter had boo’d it a few times, and it was Sirius’s favorite part.

“So we –” Vincent piped up frantically, pointing at the giant Pensieve “– we have to go in there? But I don’t know how to swim.”

A few people from the Grotta (and even the Clock) snorted derisively, all save for one man who had fainted at the sight of the boy, but Claudius had the good grace to be kind about it. “It’s a Pensieve, son, not a swimming pool. Don’t worry, you won’t even get wet. You just jump right in when I say to, all right?”

Vincent still looked unsure, but didn’t ask any more questions.

“Now.” Claudius pivoted to flash a megawatt smile at all ten witches and wizards. “Everyone get ready.” Lily bent one knee, grinding her heel into gravel like a tiger poised to spring. Mostly, everyone else just watched her and tried to mimic her movements – except for Colin, who had been looking at a girl somewhere up in the stands. She mouthed the words ‘good luck’ at him and grinned. He gave her the thumbs-up and a hesitant smile, trying to display confidence. Fred chose that moment to elbow Cedric in the ribs. Cedric swiveled, alarmed, but saw that Fred was smiling.

“Break a ton of legs, Ced. Er – except for mine.”

Cedric laughed, surprised, and Fred turned back to face the Pensieve with a smile still firmly upon his lips. His eyes were the only bit of him that gave him away – that he wasn’t in this duel on accident, and that he wanted to win it. That he would give anything to be the last one standing, because it was the only thing in this place he had to give. His will was his only belonging.

“Five.”

Severus Snape peered at Lily out of the corners of his eyes, but she was turned, angled perfectly so that she wouldn’t have to look at him. James was gripping his wand, silently murmuring a string of charms and hexes to himself. Tonks was staring at the Pensieve with wide, unfocused eyes, preparing herself mentally rather than physically.

“Four.”

Vincent Crabbe caught sight of his father, who was being revived by Benjy Fenwick, and forgot everything else. The world grew quiet in his buzzing ears. He had eyes for no one but the pale-faced man with leprosy lesions all over his cheeks and neck.

“Three.”

Remus Lupin’s hands were pressed together, fingertips meeting under his chin. His chest was rising and falling rapidly and there was no color at all in his face. He watched his wife brace herself, his pride for her bravery and determination growing brighter and brighter until it all but eclipsed his fear.

“Two.”

Rufus Scrimgeour swallowed thickly, listening to a drone of voices somewhere behind him as they discussed how he might do. They planned to place bets on the brawny boy, Diggory, as his blood had once shown a lot of promise in the Devil’s Basin. That scruffy-looking man, Scrimging or Scrimmage or whatever he’s called, doesn’t look like he’ll amount to much. Probably a first or second-rounder.

“Run.”

By the time everyone looked up, wondering if they’d only imagined Claudius saying it, Peter Pettigrew had already dived head-first into the Pensieve.

 





A/N: And so it begins! Originally I was going to make the setting for Round One the Titanic, but recently saw lots of posts on the forums from another author who coincidentally is writing about a duel of sorts that also takes place on the Titanic. WHAT ARE THE ODDS, AMIRITE? So I tweaked it a bit. By the way, I called the ship the Admiral Murman because in the Middle Ages, the Barents Sea was called the Murman Sea. I hope you enjoy what’s to come! Thank you so much for reading. :)
 


Chapter 12: Cold, Shaking, Seething
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For easy reference:

Victus: Cedric Diggory, Tonks Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Rufus Scrimgeour, Fred Weasley

Mortuus: Vincent Crabbe, Colin Creevey, James Potter, Lily Potter, Severus Snape





From the moment Tonks’s face touched the curling silver froth within the Pensieve, she could feel winter’s chill coating her throat, forming ice crystals on her fingers and in the strands of her hair. It crept up all around her while simultaneously pulling her down, down, down; dragging her deeper into its smoggy depths. She was falling, standing, and also sitting still – three contradictory poses – and before she could figure out which one was real, the many pairs of eyes all around her had blinked, now hanging in blackness as stars.

The stars rocked back and forth as the ground shifted beneath her feet. Cold air lashed at her exposed skin. Tonks’s hands slithered up to her shoulders, feeling the weather-beaten flesh there under long, skinny fingers. Looking down, she saw that she wore only a moldy old towel fastened into a toga of sorts. Her ears had grown – long, drooping, and sprouting with cottony hair – while the rest of her had shrunk at least three feet.

A house-elf.

“Tibbus,” someone growled at her, “What are you doing? Didn’t I just order you to go down and clean the lavatories? There’s vomit everywhere.” It was a beast of a man with only one eye. The eyebrow over his missing eye smeared down across a blank expanse of translucent skin, fused with eyelashes sewn onto his cheek. “Someone’s got to mop up after these seasick brutes.”

“Yes – yes of course, sir.” The man stalked away, muttering to himself, and Tonks tentatively took a step in the opposite direction. One decoy down, twenty-nine to go. Remembering what Ptolemy had said about opponents being spaced evenly apart from each other, she tried to memorize each face as she passed them, so that she could file them into the decoy category. There were men, women, goblins, and even a few children. She never saw another elf. But I wouldn’t, would I? Good, obedient elves are never seen or heard. Realizing that wandering around in the open would probably make her a bit more conspicuous, Tonks drifted off through a door with round windows on both panels. Once inside, there was a white metal stairway leading up to her right, and another one spiraling down to the left.

Up, of course. You’ll be wanting a bird’s-eye view. She was so busy darting up the steps that she failed to hear the clomping of someone turning up the landing from below. Even if she had paid attention, however, she would not have seen anyone. Lily Potter was searching for a door that would lead to one of the decks, feeling ill from the toss and sway of the ocean’s bowels. Besides being dressed like a forty-year-old woman wearing a gentleman’s tailcoat and a ridiculously inappropriate corset dress that was little more than lingerie, she was of course invisible to Tonks. Those on opposite teams could not see one another.

Lily peered through the circular window on a swinging door, relieved that this memory took place at night. Judging by the brightness of the stars and the moon’s position, she estimated that it was probably close to one in the morning. Her relief stammered a bit – while darkness would help to obscure her, the presence of anyone at all would be twice as meaningful to the four other people on her team. Most on board the ship would surely be sleeping by now, which meant there would be few crowds to blend into. Every person must be counted as a suspect, an enemy. No one would pass unnoticed.

Now there was just the matter of her appearance.

She bit down on her lip and quietly peeled off her gaudy scarlet stockings, flipping them inside-out so that the backwards pattern looked even cheaper and low-class than before. It enraged her that the committee had chosen such a passenger for her to replace, and knew they’d done it on purpose to try to level out the playing field. She was used to going into rounds with intentionally-delegated disadvantages, so this didn’t surprise her. It was the dead of winter, and the air was freezing enough without being clothed in lacy rags, but she could not let this show. Lily understood the importance of becoming someone she was not.

She yanked two buttons off of her coat and scuffed her shoes against the door frame. When she was certain that she looked as atrocious as possible, Lily arranged her rose-painted lips into a wide, infectious grin, pushed through the door, and sashayed down the deck as fast as her heels could carry her. No one would approach her, no one would touch her. If she wasn’t trying to fly under the radar, then no one had any reason to think this woman was Mrs. Potter. She was ostentatious, and therefore hidden.

She passed a man in round, wire-rimmed glasses and close-cropped gray hair, winking brazenly at him before locating somewhere obvious, yet easily ignored to sit and wait. On the very top deck, tucked into the mast’s rigging, a small troupe of tables sat alongside a shroud spun from venom-green silk. An aging fop with wine stains on his doublet sat at one, sipping champagne from a flute. His gold pocket watch was held up to one eye as his other watched the approaching woman with a knowing gleam. He smiled and the watch clicked, transforming into a shining gold coin. He pushed it across the table with two ring-adorned fingers as Lily sat down.

Out of the forty people on the Admiral Murman, he might have been one of the four she was destined to destroy. Her sly smile stalled for a moment, reading his gaze with practiced precision. If he wasn’t a decoy, he might try to attack her before she attacked him. Was it better to jinx him and see what happened? If she froze for five minutes in her present position, no one might notice. She would seem quite normal, seated opposite a drunken dandy as if waiting for him to make her an offer.

“Vat keeps you awake at such an hour?” he inquired in a husky voice, tipping the brim of his bowler hat in greeting.

Lily kept her expression neutral, crossing her legs under the table. “I couldn’t sleep,” she replied. “Saw you from across the way and thought you looked like you could use some company.” She paused. “Could you call a drink over for me?”

He blinked. “Of course.” He snapped his fingers at an elf scurrying by. “Elf! Fetch my friend a drink.” The elf squeaked a reply and disappeared with a pop. “Excuse me, dear madam. Vould you mind my asking your name? You sound very…” – he twirled his fingers near one ear, procuring another shining gold medallion – “foreign.”

She eyed him steadily. “You sound Bulgarian.”

He nodded in concurrence. “I am.”

“It’s very interesting, then, that your watch was engraved with the Serbian coat of arms. Do you have family in Serbia?”

The man studied her. “I do not know vat you are talking about.” He spun his medallion in his fingers and it, too, transfigured into a pocket watch. “This is Bulgarian.”

Lily’s heart beat in her throat. “Are you sure about that?”

His gaze dropped sharply to her left hand, which was resting over the first coin. It did not tremble. Lily opened up her mouth again, ready to ask him what his favorite city in Bulgaria might be, but was interrupted by the groaning of an empty chair to her right, situated directly between herself and the man. The chair was moving away from the table as if a ghost had pulled it out. It then creaked back into place, admitting an unseen third member to their party.

Neither Lily nor the man moved. The chair continued to creak as someone inside it shifted their weight. The Bulgarian’s champagne flute floated towards an undetectable mouth and the bubbly liquid began to drain into thin air.

Both Lily and the gentleman struggled to come up with an acceptable reaction; their equally nervous body language was enough to give away that neither was a decoy. Both swiftly pulled out their wands, about to fire, when the ground slipped out from underneath them. Their table flipped, doing a cartwheel in midair, as all three people sitting there were spilled all over the deck.

Gravity was turning, writhing to eject them from the ship. Lily wiped the hair out of her face with one arm, pointing her wand all around, but couldn’t stop smashing into other people long enough to be sure of a direct hit on the gentleman. Who was he? Crabbe? Creevey? But no, she knew it couldn’t be either of them.

She already knew his identity; she’d known it the second words issued from his lips.

The Admiral Murman was sinking at a slanted angle, sending various passengers on the top deck rolling downward to the bow. Nearby, every other table except for Lily’s had remained attached to the floorboards, secured with iron grips. Lily shrieked as a torrent of water sloshed over the deck and soaked her; at the same time, white-hot gossamer threads were forming all around the ship in a protective bubble, converging with each other in one huge dome. As the ship slipped further and further underwater, the bubble expanded to encompass every inch of it. The threads flickered, individual jagged streaks of lightning. Soon, with the ocean rushing past their filmy veneer, close enough to the railing for Lily to reach out with her hand and touch it if she so desired, she found that she could barely even see her hands in front of her own face.

Lanterns lit up the deck one by one, hissing with a ghoulish blaze in the green-tinged underworld. Seawater rushed past, murmuring with the sounds of its creatures. Condensation speckled tabletops and the railings now, and even the thin handles of wobbling lanterns, rising into puddles that reeked of mold. The ship had righted itself, the Captain barreling along twenty feet below the ocean’s surface. A huge light bulb directly below the bowsprit spurned to life; it was the oil-burning lamp of a lighthouse, rotating with flash after flash of cerulean blue as the ship burrowed into clouds of murky darkness at the speed of a freight train.

Lily kicked off her shoes so that she could more easily maintain her balance, sliding one hand along the rail as she picked her way toward the other end of the ship. Her fingers traipsed over something sticky, binding them together, and she jumped away from the railing. Dense, jet-black webbing clung between the four bars that encircled the ship. They had to have been woven by acromantulas of some spooky breed, and she fretfully began to imagine milky eyes and clicking pincers. She wiped her glued-together fingers onto her coat, trying to flex them apart, while maintaining a healthy distance from the railing.

Dim lamplight shuddered all around her, turning on and off like the flashes of a camera. It burned projections of green flames into her retinas, following her tunnel vision everywhere she looked. She stopped for a second, pawing in frustration at her eyes. By the time she’d collected herself enough to both walk and see, she’d lost sight of her enemy amidst a swarm of slick black cloaks. The livewire bubble acted as canvas on a drum, throwing their reverberating voices back at them in echoing quivers.

“Too much turbulence!” someone yelled over the blast of a whistle. “Where’s Bronstad?” The shadow of a colossal sea monster temporarily cloaked the ship in dark blurs as it swam overhead, its tentacles thumping against the enchanted shield with dull knocks. The ocean’s pressure was powerful, sealing humidity inside the bubble like a hot spring.

Someone replied to him in a harsh string of Hungarian, ripping off their grease-saturated gloves and pitching them onto a tabletop. In the very middle of the swarm, one man tapped another on the shoulder and spoke to him.

“We need more fuel, Captain.”

The man who’d been stopped stared blankly back at him.

“Fosberg wants to take her back up,” the sailing master reported, scuffing his boots heavily against the floor to rid them of a squelching grime that reeked of squid carcasses. He held up a corroded lantern in one hand that was lit by a phosphorescent phantom caged inside, like a hinkypunk but far more otherworldly. The phantom was small and soft-bodied with incandescent vermilion flesh, no discernible eyes, and a wide slit for a mouth that sucked at the air with whistling gasps. Blood-colored ooze seeped through cracks between the lantern’s glass walls and hinges, dripping all over the floor. The substance stuck to the soles of shoes and left residue stamped behind wherever people walked, enabling everyone’s footprints to glow in the dark. “It takes less fuel to operate along top, but I figure we can probably make it to Bear Island instead of Kolguyev to refill, if you want to keep at this speed.”

Captain Bronstad nodded, his coal-black eyes inscrutable. Bathed in the phantom’s wicked red light, he embodied the illusion of being without a soul, as the Captain was always rumored to be.

“Keep straight!” the sailing master shouted. Several men huddling in a corner, puffing on pipes and taking swigs of gin, scowled hatefully at Bronstad. Bronstad didn’t notice. He kept walking, ignoring his men without apology, because he wasn’t Bronstad at all.

He was Cedric Diggory.

He’d had the opportunity already to attack both Fred (who was part of the rigging crew; Fred had been doing his job so thoroughly that he might have forgotten he was in a tournament) and Pettigrew (who kept going round in circles, getting too close to people), but had refrained. Cedric might not be the captain of a ship, but he’d once been the captain of a Quidditch team, and he knew a thing or two about not pointing out weaknesses in those he meant to conquer to his other foes – or at least not straight away. It was all in the timing, in the careful calculation.

As Cedric saw it, his biggest threats were Tonks Lupin and Rufus Scrimgeour. Both were important people, both had received training in how to fight. They knew quite a lot about magical combat; therefore, it was imperative to throw them out of the races as early as possible, leaving Cedric with weaker foes like Fred and Pettigrew for later on. They were already easy enough to spot, since neither had bothered to mask their voices with accents, and there were numerous times he could have hexed either one of them.

His biggest opportunity was when Fred had accidentally walked right through a ghost while performing charms to silence his footsteps, which evidently fell under the category of attacking a decoy since he had his wand out. While others failed to notice the man frozen in place for several minutes, Cedric was able to keenly observe the goings-on all around him with patience, and did not strike. What would it have accomplished if he had? It would have left Cedric stuck with some bloodthirsty witch or wizard for the rest of June, thereby decreasing his chances of winning.

Just like Fred, Mr. Diggory greatly enjoyed a tough challenge. He genuinely looked forward to seeing what made his teammates tick, and skillfully deciding the best courses of action without leaping too quickly. So when he caught sight of the boatswain once again being shouldered about by a group of men speaking an eclectic mix of Russian and Swedish, he still did not stir.

Peter, who of course was the boatswain, had other things on his mind besides the endless questions being pelted at him in a tongue he didn’t understand. He was busy laying a trap.

The task of nicking someone’s wallet was quite a tricky one since he couldn’t risk pulling his wand on one of the decoys. He would have to rely on sleight of hand, which was admittedly not his forte. Peter followed a trail of crimson footprints made by a batch of men, ducking after them through a pair of door. Once inside, they swerved to the left in a mechanical marching formation, boots thudding in perfect synchronization. He would have to work fast if he wanted to avoid drawing attention to himself.

Very carefully, and hoping ardently that this didn’t constitute as an attack on a decoy, Peter slipped three fingers into a man’s back pocket and eased out a pouch heavy with gold and a rather large key. The man stopped for a moment to reach around and scratch his back, but didn’t pay Peter any mind. Peter stopped on the second landing while the rest of the men continued onward, closing his eyes and leaning against a wall. Sweat dotted his ginger eyebrows, running down the creases in his face with salt and black grease. Maybe I won’t have to lose, after all…

That’s what they thought would happen, didn’t they? Sirius and James and Remus. They thought that by forcing Peter to sign up for the Devil’s Duel so that he could serve his penance, he would end up in last place. Maybe James was hoping it would come down between Lily and Peter so that everyone could watch the infamous Mrs. Potter rip Peter’s soul limb from limb. He deserved to put himself at risk, they’d said. He deserved a little bit of danger after everything he’d put them through. Maybe, just like they’d always done ever since their Hogwarts days, the three other men had quite underestimated Peter Pettigrew.

One of the men further down was hollering at someone else in another language. They’d apparently come to a bewitched door that required a key to be unlocked – the very thing Peter had just stolen. Disbelieving of his luck, Peter took the stairs three at a time to run back to the top deck, and then transformed into a rat. Safely muted under the shadows of a broken table, Peter watched with beady eyes as a man in a brass-button jacket kicked the door open, wand brandished.

The man shoved people out of his way, eyes aglow with green mist as he scanned the scrubbed wooden deck. Walking against the grain, his mouth set in a sneer and his wand aloft over a horde of heads, he made for an obvious target, indeed. He looked every bit the type of gormless idiot who might stomp instead of creep, yell instead of listen; he looked like he could be someone so absorbed in winning a tournament that he decided to aggressively search for his competitors instead of waiting for them to happen by.

And Peter knew that someone else would be watching for this type of idiot. They would be counting on it, probably desperate for it by now. Peter had waited just long enough to set his plan in motion that the other people on his team would be anxious enough to fidget, wondering when someone else would vanquish yet another someone else without them having to get involved themselves.

It wasn’t long before someone took the bait.

That 'someone' came in the form of a small, sprightly cabin boy, his slick-backed hair now falling into his eyes. There was a wide, spreading stain of champagne on his white jacket lapel as though he'd been taking a sip of it just as the ship descended underwater, throwing him off-balance. He staggered forward, shoulders hunched with his eyes shifting from side to side. They finally locked on the crewman who was tearing up the place looking for his missing key and money pouch, and a serrated sort of smile formed on his pallid face. It was Rufus Scrimgeour, who'd been scouring the boat with fierce intensity, listening for familiar voices he hoped might present themselves. He'd been waiting impatiently for someone foolish and aggressive to slip out of the woodwork, someone rash like Fred Weasley. He knew the Weasleys; their lot couldn't sit still even if they were paralyzed. In his knowledgeable opinion, it was only a matter of time before Fred exposed himself.

Ahh, yes, Mr. Weasley, Rufus thought with a feral grin. I’ve got you now, you flaunting little pillock. His hand scraped around in his pocket and he triumphantly aimed his wand at the man’s chest. “Petrificus Totalus!”

Instead of the enraged crewman and suspected Weasley falling rigid, however, Rufus found that he himself could no longer move. His heart sank, realizing that he'd been wrong. Now he would have to stand there for five horrible minutes, utterly susceptible to his four enemies lurking around the ship. Not twenty seconds lapsed before a rather sizable rat wormed its way out from underneath a chair that had just been tipped over seemingly by no one – doubling, tripling, quadrupling in size – until he sprang upwards like a contortionist, face to face with Rufus. He met him with a mocking smirk that matched the one frozen on Rufus’s face.

“Which one are you?” he asked. There was no response, as Rufus’s tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. “Remus’s wife?” He jerked his wand. “Expulso.”

Rufus was thrown high into the air, still stiff as a board. His eyes were watering in pain; he’d landed with his head cracked against the railing, most likely fracturing his skull. Peter’s eyes were bright with victory, a broad smile twisting his face. He could feel Remus’s and Sirius’s repugnance from their perches in the stadium beyond, looking down on their old friend Wormtail.

Wormtail. Of all the things I could have been called. Of all the animals I could have turned into. Wormtail.

“EXPULSO!” he roared again, and this time, Scrimgeour was hoisted off the ship altogether. The curse thrust him right through the massive Bubble-Head Charm with a guttural ripping noise. A throng of merpeople following the Admiral Murman’s slipstream squealed and scattered, voicing their ire as they escaped into an underwater tomb of Muggle naval mines, their outlines soon bogged down with silt. Rufus’s body briefly snagged in a current flowing in the opposite direction of the ship before abruptly disappearing. And then Peter, with his vindictive grin, and Tonks, who was trailing a decoy she believed to be Fred, and the real Fred, who had raised his wand at Cedric with a jinx inching up his throat like an oath – all vanished as well.

The crewman patted at his suddenly heavy pocket, discovering his money and key.

“We need a repairman over here!” someone called. The crowd from twenty or so minutes ago had long dispersed, having finally returned to their beds. A scant assortment of night owl passengers and crew members trickled over, scratching their heads when they saw the slash in the bubble. Water had begun to spray into the boat.

“Stubborn Alrik,” someone muttered. “Should’ve brought her to the surface as soon as we knew our fuel was running low. Now we’ve got a leak to deal with on top of everything else.”

“Don’t got much of a choice but to raise the boat,” the ghost of a witch chipped in. She was doubled over in a crow’s nest, way up high, both hands cupping her foggy mouth. Not too far from her head, one of the sails was threatening to snap under an assault of wind. That sail was crafted from a thestral’s wing, the bones clearly visible through thin, inky skin. Dragon wings had been utilized for the larger sails instead of thestral. “Lars, go tell Laakso. Be quick about it, before this tear gets bigger.”

Minutes later, the tear had eaten up another six feet, and ocean water was surging onto the deck. The ship’s bow was beginning to crank upward, everyone and everything within the Admiral Murman that wasn’t latched to the rails tumbling toward the sinking stern. Among the tumbling were Vincent, who was a lowly swab, and Colin, who was a goblin. Up until the ship upended him, he was making a rather convincing portrayal of a goblin scratching down coordinates in a logbook. It was all Lily Potter could manage to not go toppling along the tilted deck with them. Only experience and brutal determination prevented gravity from winning.

Lily grasped the leg of a table with both hands, grimacing as she heaved herself up in a tightly-coiled ball next to it. She hoped that someone else might fall off the ship altogether due to the abrupt swing in axis, but so far her teammates were showing a remarkable aptitude for endurance.

The ship’s speed boosted, propelling heavenward while the passengers clung to various pieces of furniture for dear life. Down in the cabins, a hundred people slept peacefully, blissfully unaware. The sea spurted all around them, inviting rivers of water to cascade down the front end of the ship all the way to the back and over the stern’s railings, pouring also through holes now beginning to puncture the Bubble-Head charm with sizzling static pops. Lily found herself much too close to a rip in the force field for comfort; it sprayed at her with such inexorable power that she couldn’t even blink against it. She tried to turn away, the rims of her eyes pink and burning. Someone was scrabbling around at the table opposite her, digging the toes of their shoes into cracks between floorboards for purchase.

The Murman screeched in protest, a choir of grinding machinery down in steerage clanging up stairways and into Lily’s ears. Water flooded past, gurgling loudly; a two-headed octopus landed somewhere near Lily’s ankle but was promptly crushed by the elbow of a somersaulting goblin. Lily squinted through the mist, trying to discern whether or not that goblin could be someone she knew – for she surmised that those used to the ups and downs of a ship of this sort would have the wits to hunker down somewhere sheltered – but she couldn’t see anything except for the man stranded under a nearby table. He was watching her, too, quite closely, through his round-rimmed spectacles.

Lily’s eyes wandered up to his short gray hair and then back down to his mouth, which had gone slack. The ship broke the surface just then with a mighty splash, rendering every ear deaf to all noise except for the spit of angry seawater. Stars popped into being all around them. The night was cold and dark – freezing when wet – with a swollen white moon rising formidably behind the man’s head. Looming over Lily, the Dark Horse nebula lay silhouetted against glittering star clouds. She looked so lonely and remote far beneath it, waiting painfully for him to make a move. She was trapped. The nebula horse seemed to kick, toss its mane.

Her teeth were chattering. Her clothing was waterlogged, twice as heavy as usual and sticking to her skin like elastic. Her lips had gone frightfully blue, eyes wide with dread as she gazed back at him. A deer in the headlights.

“Lily?”

She looked so terrified just then, so guilty. He didn’t quite understand why, but he couldn’t dwell on it for long. This woman was not Lily, but then again she was, and he’d missed her – oh, how he had missed her, it burned up his ribcage with Fiendfyre – but if only he could see her eyes, her real eyes…

This had been his one concern, his only reason for entering the races. He’d wanted to draw her out into the open so that she would have to talk to him. He was not afraid of what consequences that might bring. Severus was no stranger to risk.

Her face softened, bloodless lips parting to respond. He could feel her building up something strong from deep down inside, pushing it up and up. She closed her eyes. “Severus, I’m –”

There was a whispering rush of wind and topaz radiance, and suddenly Lily was blasted sideways onto the floor, revolving with sickening crunches as she rolled until the ship leveled itself out over the ravenous black waves. The ship was coursing smoothly along now, above the surface like any other ordinary ship, but water still soaked every inch of the top deck. An elegantly-dressed older man in a bowler hat jumped down from one of the wooden beams holding up a mast, muscles tightly clenched. His eyes appraised Lily’s form, limp as death, with miserable conviction. Severus could not move. He could not talk. He could not think.

That woman did not resemble Severus’s beloved Lily in physical features, but in unconsciousness she lay just as slumped, just as defeated, as she had so many years ago on the carpet of Harry’s bedroom. The image of her death had plagued his dreams for thousands of damp, screaming nights, and here it was again. He was drowning face-down in ethereal flashes of the past and could not bring himself to realize that she wasn’t really dead.

The gentleman who’d attacked her strode forth to kneel at her side, scooping her body into his arms. He cradled her to his chest and smoothed away the stringy brown fringe plastered to her eyebrows, planting a soft kiss on her forehead. He then walked over to the railing, whispering something to her in a low, soothing tone. Severus closed his eyes, blinking away the hot, surprised tears. He didn’t watch, but he could still hear the awful sound it made when she was dropped into the ocean. How cold Lily must be down there in the deep, in the dark…

Severus’s eyes snapped up to the gentleman, who was piercing him with a scathing look. Severus felt his face crumple with fury, instantly hating this man more than he ever had in his life. This would mark the second time James Potter took Lily from him.

As they were all wiped away, dissolving from the memory of Captain Alrik Bronstad, Severus had only one thought, and that was that Lily did not belong to him. She was still gone forever, out of his reach; he could die for her a thousand times over and she would still not want him. He thought he’d felt it before in his heart, in fissures and snaps and aches, but that was nothing.

This must be what it feels like to be dead.

 




And then there were eight!

What did you think of the first round? I’m very excited to get to the other ones. Since there will be fewer people to feature as each round passes, I’ll be able to give all of the contestants increasingly more face-time, which I couldn’t really do in this chapter because then it would have taken ages for the plot to move forward.

Also, I want to say THANK YOU SO MUCH to all of my lovely reviewers. You guys are awesome. :)


Chapter 13: The Brothers Black
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“Hey, Sirius, have you seen this?” Regulus still had a quill clamped between his teeth from working on the crossword, so his speech sounded more like, “Heesheeshe, hoyoo sheendish?” His hair was horribly messy today – an electrocuted black mop, as he’d decided that the four seconds it would have taken to brush it would be much better spent levitating his older brother’s bed while Sirius was still asleep. The two men – one eighteen, and the other thirty-six – were arranged in the main parlor of a cozy cedar-log lodge that, on this particular day, was resting on a strip of beach facing the depot.

Regulus, who was lying upside-down on a sofa with his feet dangling over the back, squinted at the newspaper fanning out between his hands. He had to hold it right over his face because his eyesight was on the unreliable end of the spectrum. People were constantly mentioning to him that he ought to get reading glasses, but Regulus maintained that they would cramp his style. After all, how would anyone be able to admire his chiseled cheekbones if they were covered up with an extra pair of eyes? Besides, it would be too time-consuming to have to put them on whenever he wanted to read advertisements for discounted melons and cat litter.

Overhead, a steady rain sloshed against the roof and skylight windows. He was thankful to be in an environment not permeated with the gloom of gray drizzle, warm and dry in this rectangular room with walls like sticky amber. The afternoon here smelled of sawdust, pine wreaths, and lingering smoke in the fireplace that had been lit earlier to brew Invigoration Draught in a cauldron; oval rugs woven from deep ocher and burgundy cropped up every few feet. A rocking chair swung back and forth like a pendulum over one; the thick, rope-like rug silencing any repetitive creaks. Mad-Eye Moody was seated inside, dozing, with both hands clasped protectively over his wand.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Regulus murmured to his newspaper.

Sirius did not reply. He’d managed to claim the claw-footed armchair – a coveted seat – before Regulus could get to it. Regulus was younger and rather faster, but Sirius was not above cheating. When they’d decided that this sort of dreary weather called for a relaxing day at the lodge, Sirius had stolen Regulus’s shoes and lobbed them into the ocean to give himself a two-minute head-start. Presently, he was making an exaggerated show out of how comfortable he felt in that chair by producing sound effects of utopia-level contentedness that sort of crossed between a sneeze and a snore. A book from a nearby table lay open across his lap on the pretense of reading. If he’d actually bothered to glance at it, he would have discovered that it was a guide for diagnosing your own infections, written entirely in Arabic.

“Capital idea!” Regulus declared in a much louder voice, seemingly engrossed in his issue of the Daily Departed. “Well, what do you know? There’s a remedy for everything nowadays. Hmm. Hmm, hmm, hmm. Oh, that’s not very good, is it? Tsk. Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Sirius propped his chin in one hand, elbow sinking into the armchair’s plush fabric, and allowed his attention to stray to the panorama beyond a bay window that consumed most of one wall. Long boughs teeming with periwinkle petals interrupted every seven or eight inches of space, hanging down from the eaves. Those clumps of pretty flowers, wisteria, were supposed to be adorning the lattice siding of Emmeline Vance’s tree house, but had apparently been spliced with the lodge during an overnight rearrangement of town structure.

The tree house neighborhood was one of the more whimsical bright spots of Cliodna’s Clock, resembling a woodsy park. There were no roads in this region, only grass and trees – trees so wide that they could be lived in, if hollow, and trees so tall that sometimes two or three lift cottages could be built into their branches. They were called lift cottages because they looked a bit like lifts going up and down the trees, suspended mostly by magic. Helga Hufflepuff lived in such a lift cottage just underneath Alberic Grunnion; Grunnion’s children frequently climbed out of their windows and plummeted through thin air for a few gleeful seconds before landing directly on Helga’s roof, which was composed entirely of rubber just for this purpose. Very good material for bouncing.

A viaduct that usually spanned all the way from an unused rail yard to a cluster of houses carved into a rock wall the color of autumn had rearranged overnight as well, now sitting in water just a little-ways off the coast. A train once operated on its rails, but in recent years the overpass was used more for transporting little diamond-mining carts back and forth from rock-dwellers to those at sea-level, which would in turn be transported to a tiny community living in tunnels underground. These carts were filled with food, water, supplies, and sometimes people who fancied a free ride on wheels.

It was amusing to see such a construction so out of place. Stone-gray waves lapped at its pillars, their foamy tips bejeweled with lavender. Rain and wind had done an excellent job of stripping wisteria petals from their vines, blowing them across the sandy shore to amass in tide pools.

Sirius idly wondered how the people who lived in the rock-wall homes were enjoying this change, now that their bridge was missing. He supposed they would either have to Apparate if they wanted to get down to the village, or else make do with scowling at everyone from way up high. He smirked, remembering that Fabian would be stuck up there until Cliodna’s Clock returned their viaduct to its natural position. Fabian Prewett disliked Apparition.

Still, it wasn’t like they were holed up in an unpleasant place. Those rock caverns were a marvel of architecture, with their summits beaten into stalagmites from weathering and erosion. Goblins, intending to isolate themselves from humans, had hacked courtyards out of russet sandstone, creating a miniature parish of their own that resembled an ancient empire. Winding paths lit with torches cut through cliff after cliff, and to get to each courtyard you would have to walk under those domed doorways. Every morning and evening, when the sun rose or fell to just the right height, those rocks seemed to be engulfed in flames. Fascinated with living in the sky, witches and wizards chased the goblins out of their homes quite a long time ago, forcing many of them into the less-desirable underground burrows.

“Oh, my!” Regulus fairly yelled. “Oh, I say!”

Sirius rolled his eyes, tilting his head back to study the arched ceiling crisscrossed with narrow beams. Through four glass skylights fitted into whale-bone frames, he could see puffy gray clouds blurred with rain. If he hadn’t already been so intent on being lazy today, the weather might have depressed him a bit. None of his mates ever wanted to play Quidditch when it was pouring buckets, much to his dismay (But it makes visibility so interesting! I thought you Nancy boys liked a challenge?). “All right, I’ll bite. What are you in such raptures about?”

Regulus was quick to seize. “Look here,” he replied, reaching over to hand the newspaper to his brother. Sirius reached out as well; the newspaper was about a hair’s-width from Sirius’s outstretched hand, but both men were too lazy to budge. After a lot of pathetic groaning, both insisting that the other get up instead, Sirius used Accio. All of the papers promptly fell all over the place in an unorganized heap.

“It’s no use,” Sirius sighed, gesturing to them. “Nothing I can do.”

A pair of shoes pitter-pattered into the room through a door that led to a small, circular library, followed by a teenage girl. Her hair was long and fair, the scent of her shampoo intensified after a recent exposure to the damp outdoors. Regulus thought it smelled like someone had just bit into a fruit. Barefoot, she hopped along after the rogue shoes and managed to collect the first one. The second shoe danced across floorboards in a jig until it snagged in the mouth of a bear skin rug, and must have realized its owner had it cornered because it stopped in its tracks, laces flaring threateningly.

“Come on, now,” Ariana reprimanded in a stern tone.

The shoe scuttled sideways.

“Do you want me to make you walk around in puddles, or are you going to behave?”

The shoe grudgingly hobbled forward. Ariana grinned fondly at it. “Now there’s a good shoe.” After her feet were both properly dressed, she beamed at Sirius and Regulus, who were both still gazing at the mess of newspaper pages speckling the floor with expressions of woeful forfeit.

“Oh, it’s arrived, then? I’ve been waiting all morning.” Curious, she stooped to gather up all the pages. It took about two seconds for her to herd them into the correct order, and then she began to peruse the third page. Since there wasn’t a whole lot of news to go around in Cliodna’s Clock even at the busiest of times, the Daily Departed liked to make their bold headlines absolutely huge with fancy calligraphy so as to leave very little unemployed space. It was a testament to the recent swell in population and ensuing gossip that Sirius couldn’t distinguish a single word from where he sat. Articles were jam-packed together all over the place, some of the words so miniscule that they would require a magnifying glass to read.

“Hey, I was looking at that,” he muttered indignantly.

“That’s nice of them,” she mused, not listening to him. “Exactly as my brother suggested. He thought it would be quite a good fit.”

“He suggested what for who, now?”

Ariana Dumbledore smiled. “Mr. Lupin. The school’s offered him a job as one of the teachers. There won’t be many pupils, of course – not since the plague’s gone out of style and most newcomers are at least thirty years old. There’s Mr. Creevey, though, and Miss Quirke. Mr. Crabbe finished most of his schooling but he’s still not a fully-qualified wizard, so he could certainly benefit from a few lessons…”

“Remus?” Sirius chimed, grinning eagerly. “Really? That’s brilliant news. Let me read it, will you?” He held out one hand for the newspaper, expectant, but Ariana merely turned away from him, continuing to read. As she spoke, various other articles fluidly shuffled their letters in and out of order, magically updating to include breaking stories as they occurred in real time.

‘If he accepts the position, Remus Lupin will join the ranks of Merope Gaunt and Bathilda Bagshot, who are slated to fill this year’s professor duties. Lessons will be intimate and long with shorter terms in general, which is vastly superior for the learning mind than crowded classrooms on earth, which boasts a more uneven student-to-teacher ratio, less one-on-one attention, flawed examination systems, and terms much too drawn-out.’” Ariana paused, rereading the last sentence with a frown. “Well, that sounds a bit snobbish, if you ask me. They persevere down there as well as they can, given the dangerous environment.”

Regulus and Sirius exchanged glances: They both knew that Ariana had been in Cliodna’s Clock for so long that she assumed that life on earth must be terrifying due to the ever-present fear of death. Now that she was safely dead herself and used to such a life (and coupling this with the fact that she never attended school while she was on earth), stories chronicling day-to-day activities in the other world were quite bewildering to her. She thought that Muggles were especially toxic, what with their alarming criminal behavior and pollution that was slowly destroying the air they breathed.

“Goodness, this is disheartening,” she lamented, addressing a black-and-white photograph of a man with eyelids and jowls hanging in bags like melting candle wax. “Mr. Dillert Price of the Grotta was killed this morning, two weeks before his appeal.”

Sirius’s face puckered. “Two weeks? That’s wretched luck. How much time did he have in?”

“Fifty-six years.”

Regulus let out a low whistle, pressing one cheek to the sofa cushion to survey Sirius. “Fifty-six…and so close. Can you imagine?”

Both men immediately dropped their gazes, memories flitting to the spectacle yesterday when Walburga collapsed in the street and Orion sprinted after her, hysterical. Their mother was sixty years old when she died. According to Cliodna’s Clock’s rules and regulations, this meant that she would have to spend a minimum of sixty years in the Grotta before she could be eligible for relocation to Cliodna’s Clock.

Relocation of Grotta inhabitants to the Clock was not unheard of, but still quite rare – especially for those who had a lot of years to serve. The sentence was always equal to the amount of years that the individual was alive on earth. If residents could make it to the end of their sentences still intact, then they would be qualified to appeal. The odds of living to see that day, however, were outstandingly slim. Even if they did somehow make it, and their appeals were approved, they were usually so far gone from physical and mental trauma that they had to live in Meadowes Manor, cared for by a matron.

Sometimes these people got bits of their magical abilities back, decades later, but usually their magic was lost. Many of them could never quite adjust; like the infamous Winifred Fielding, who was released to Cliodna’s Clock after forty-one years in the Grotta. Two weeks after her relocation, she’d snuck back over to the Grotta and launched a mass assault on all of the residents, a vigilante attack that resulted in twenty-six dead inmates, two dead guards, and sand so saturated with blood that it adopted the consistency of mud.

Walburga had only served thirteen of her sixty years. Would she last another forty-seven? It was unlikely. Sirius might pretend he didn’t care about what happened to ‘the old bat’, and Regulus might pretend that his mother was strong enough to survive, but both knew that their mother would probably die in the Grotta before she got the chance to be reunited with Orion. Orion must have known this, too.

“Where’s Albus gotten himself to, anyway?” Sirius wanted to know. “Haven’t seen him around lately.” It still felt odd, referring to Albus as ‘Albus’ instead of just plain ‘Dumbledore’. It seemed disrespectful somehow, but now that there were several other Dumbledores floating around, specifying each with their first names really couldn’t be avoided.

“Nowhere in particular,” Ariana responded vaguely. “Paying social visits to old friends, mostly. Says he’s thinking about joining the tenpin bowling league.” She lifted her eyes to the wide bay window. “Wonder what he’s doing out there?”

Sirius cranked his neck around toward the window, assuming that she had just caught sight of Albus. Regulus, who was still upside-down and couldn’t see much aside from a lovely party of cumulonimbus gathering above, reluctantly rolled off the sofa and hit the floor with a heavy thud.

“CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” Moody roared without warning, still fast asleep. Regulus jumped up a foot in the air, conking his head on a table. Sirius gave an embarrassingly feminine shriek and Ariana stumbled backward with both arms flailing, losing one of her shoes again. It darted away like an excited puppy, disappearing into the dining hall.

“Maybe he’s lost something?” Sirius suggested once they’d composed themselves. Albus Dumbledore was nowhere to be found; they seemed to be spying on Colin Creevey, who was strolling along the beach with his shoulders hunched against the downpour, hands clasped behind his back. He squinted up and down the battered shore, evidently deep in concentration. Water dripped profusely from the ends of his hair, providing a sort of umbrella effect.

Regulus shrugged, rubbing a tender lump on his head. “What’s so important that it can’t wait until after the sky’s done being all wet?”

Ariana sighed, glancing toward the dining hall where her shoe had fled. “You’ve obviously never lost anything useful.”

He snorted. “That’s right. I take very good care of what’s mine.”

Sirius’s eyes slid to his brother’s, narrowing. “You’re truly a Slytherin, you are.”

Regulus pondered this, quickly losing interest in Colin’s mysterious quest. “Speaking of green and silver and always being painted negatively, we’ve just had two Gryffindors eliminate two other Gryffindors. So what does that tell you, hmm? Out of the ten people we had…let’s see…Ced and Lupin’s wife,” he ticked them off on his fingers, obviously gloating, “who’re Hufflepuffs.” He looked like he wanted to make some sort of clever, mocking remark about the intelligence of Hufflepuffs, but couldn’t seem to think of any. “Then there’s that Crabbe boy and Snape, two Slytherins. That leaves us with, what, six Gryffindors? My, my. Not so golden, are we?”

Sirius took a swat at him, but Regulus ducked his head just in time and Sirius whacked the windowsill instead. He swore at full volume, shaking his injured wrist, while his brother ran and hid behind the sofa, laughing delightedly.

“It just means we’re brave,” Sirius insisted, nostrils flaring. “You stupid idiot, you broke my arm.”

“I didn’t force you to attack the window. I’ve always been staunchly against violence, thank you very much. And it doesn’t make Gryffindors brave, it makes them curse-happy dunderheads. Bunch of warrior buffoons running around, trying to off each other just so that they can go have a look at their old friends. Stop living in the past, I say! Their friends will move on, so they should, too.”

“No Ravenclaws this year,” Ariana commented, jarring the discussion. “Usually never are, though. They seem to be smart enough to stay well out of it…”

Sirius was starting to steam. “Listen, entering doesn’t make us stupid. I’ve been in the Devil’s Duel before, too, you know –”

“See!” Regulus crowed, wriggling his way behind Sirius so that he could steal the armchair. “You people are so bigheaded, you never think it’s going to happen to you, you never think you could lose.” He chuckled to himself before glancing up to see that in the spot where his brother had just been standing only a moment ago, there was now a large black animal. “Oh, stop that. You can’t just turn into a dog every time you don’t like what someone’s saying.”

The dog lifted its nose high into the air, ignoring him with an air of wounded snootiness. He had the exasperating habit of switching into his Animagus form, mid-conversation and without warning, whenever he wanted to get on someone’s nerves.

“My Sickles are on Snape,” Regulus said with the intention of goading his brother back into a human. “He’s killed before.”

As predicted, the dog rippled and wavered, shooting skyward into a man. His expression had darkened; he sank into the sofa, fixing the fireplace with a withering grimace. “A lot of them have killed before, Reg.” He was much quieter now, his tone deceivingly calm. “Rufus did, in his Auror days. Tonks and Lily and James all have. I can’t say anything for Fred, Colin, or Vincent – but they certainly might have killed someone during all the chaos of the Battle. Cedric’s the only one we know for sure hasn’t ever taken another life.”

Regulus screwed up his eyes in thought. “Wait, you’re missing one…”

“Peter.”

“Oh.”

It was uncomfortably silent for a while. Regulus decided to crack his knuckles. Ariana was still watching Colin’s progress with keen interest. Colin bent over to pluck a seashell from the sand; he inspected it and then tossed it aside, repeating the process over and over.

“I think it’s safe to say that I have no idea what Peter’s capable of.”

Regulus studied his brother carefully, very much wanting to say something but restraining himself for fear that he might receive backlash. At last he couldn’t help himself, and hedged, “Then why did you make him enter the races?”

Sirius shrugged, sullen. “Dunno. We were just…angry. Seemed like a proper punishment. Peter’s managed to hide himself quite well from me ever since he got here and Remus somehow managed to catch him after only a few days. It felt good to scare him, like we were really doing something about it. James threatened to transfigure Peter into a rock and throw him over the wall into the Grotta if he didn’t sign up.”

Regulus’s eyes bulged. “Holy hell.”

“We figured he would spend the whole time hiding,  like he does here. I never expected him to do what he did yesterday, to Scrimgeour. We honestly thought it would shake him up a little, give him a healthy dose of the fear he’s been lacking since he came to a place where he can’t die again, where no one can really hurt him.”

“You thought he would sit in a corner and cower during the tournament?”

Sirius sighed. “I keep forgetting, since he wouldn’t openly fight any of us, that he’s not as spineless as he looks. He wasn’t there at the Ministry the night I died – he hides behind the scenes, protecting himself. Seeing as how he has no one to hide behind now, it made perfect sense that he would…” He drifted off, massaging his forehead with his hands. “What you’ve got to understand is that we keep forgetting that he isn’t what he seems, even when his actions contradict each other.”

“Well, that makes sense,” Regulus encouraged. “You all thought he was your friend. He was as big of a traitor as I was. Of course he’s going to confuse you.”

Sirius just shook his head. “That’s not why we were confused, though. It’s arrogance. We think we’ve got him figured out but in truth he just keeps proving how much we don’t know him at all.”

“Did you mean for him to die in the Devil’s Duel?”

“No. I know that it looks that way but we really just wanted to scare him. We wanted to play on his drive for survival. Self-preservation is all he operates on. I just – we just – we forgot that he’s good at it.”

Regulus inflated his cheeks with air, eyes swiveling around the room. He desperately wanted to say, “I told you so!” but also didn’t want to be hexed. It was a ferocious feud and he couldn’t figure out which was more important – rejoicing obnoxiously about his correctly-formed predictions like a regular Trelawney, or preventing antlers or something similar from sprouting out of his forehead.

“YOU CAN’T RUN!” Moody bellowed, interrupting Regulus’s inner push and pull. They all yelped again, sparks issuing from Sirius’s wand. The golden embers burned a hole right through one of the decorative rugs – a round black singe.

“Probably wasn’t our best idea,” Sirius concluded, still bitter about Peter.

The temptation was just too strong to resist. “Told you so,” Regulus replied in a sing-song voice.

The two brothers scrabbled furiously; Regulus tried to make a run for it but tripped over Ariana’s renegade shoe. Sirius performed a full body-bind curse on him while he was still face-down on the floor, leaving him there all day until Albus Dumbledore himself eventually stumbled across poor Regulus and set him right.
 


Chapter 14: Midnight Oil
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James Potter’s mind was ravaged.

Harry was seventeen and James twenty-one, and it would only be a matter of years before Harry lapped his father in age. He would be older than both of his parents, but it seemed like a milestone that had been centuries in coming; it felt like James and Lily had been dead always, and Harry had just been waiting to see if he would survive long enough to feel what their lifespan had been like. Twenty-one years to fulfill one lifetime. Middle-aged at ten years old.

James was now certain that Harry would make it to this milestone, and that he’d even double it. Triple it. Lily and James Potter would always be little more than children while Harry grew steadily older until his decline. His children could have memories of him that Harry himself did not have of his own parents. In this far future, Harry would feel real to his children, even after his death. There would be a voice and a memory to match the face, a promise that he lived as more than just a symbol of war.

This was what James wanted for Harry. This was what Lily wanted for Harry. But Lily could not see that she was slowly destroying her chances of meeting her son. This year she had been spared, but what about next year? There was only so much strength left in James; there was only so far that he could stretch, pretending to be unaffected, supporting his wife’s decisions unconditionally. She was flawed and he loved her for it, but he could not submit himself to death. This was not a selfish wish for himself, but for the one he loved most.

James must live long enough to meet his son, to shake his hand and embrace him, because Lily might not see that day. One of Harry’s parents must be present to fill him with the love that Harry’s life had been lacking for so many years, to bridge across those burns and rebuild their family. This was what they owed to their son. And because of this, James must not lose the tournament.

He also must not lose his wife. He could feel his life pulling into different directions, into tiny, painful pieces. He ordered himself to keep his two-person family together just until Harry came – and then he would be able to sigh with relief. He would be able to exhale. Everything would finally be perfect. James was no stranger to loss, and to the dark feelings that kept loss company. He watched his best friend rot in Azkaban for thirteen years for a crime he didn’t commit. He watched Pettigrew get away with murder. He watched Voldemort hunt his son, year after year…

James was so, so proud of him. The knowledge of what Harry had to endure throughout his life brought tears to his eyes, not out of anguish but out of triumph. His infant son, small enough to cradle in the crook of his arm…savior of the world.

James would not lose Harry again.

He thought that no one could hate Snape as much as Sirius did, but James was beginning to surpass Sirius in this. Personally, James always thought that Sirius’s anger towards Snape was unreasonable, exaggerated, to publicly amplify his hatred for Slytherins. Sirius wanted everyone to know that he hated Slytherins so that he wouldn’t be tarred with the Black brush. Snape was the biggest Slytherin of them all, so he bore the brunt of Sirius’s reflected prejudice.

But none of that was neither here nor there, tonight.

“Pudding was wonderful,” Lily called out to Marlene as the latter woman made her way down the drive. “Thanks again!” Stars had begun to twinkle through the dusk, a sense of peace settling over the village. Everyone was drifting downward with it, beginning to feel relaxed for the first time all the day, sliding back into chairs with full stomachs and satisfied yawns.

Marlene had finally left after having dinner at the Potters’, which was traditional for every Tuesday, but Lily was still extremely wound-up. She knew that James, despite the friendly smile he wore while Marlene was present, wasn’t exactly looking forward to this moment, either. Their buffer was gone.

Lily tiptoed into the kitchen, collecting dishes and placing them one by one into the steel basin for washing. Maybe if she was quiet enough, James would just fall asleep in his armchair and she wouldn’t have to deal with him quite yet. She wouldn’t even have to wake him up…in the morning she could insist over breakfast, James’s voice drowned out by the wireless, that she’d shaken his shoulders and yelled in his ears, but that he had stubbornly kept on dozing. She might even pretend to be annoyed about it.

Footsteps echoed off the kitchen linoleum and Lily closed her eyes. Damn it.

There was silence save for the tinny peals of water spurting from the tap over metal pots and pans, and then James said, “The dishes can wait until tomorrow.”

Lily half-turned, making a face. “There’s all sorts of baked-on grease. I’ve got to scrub it out before the pots stain.”

Never shifting his gaze from Lily’s eyes, James flicked his wand at the soapy basin. The dishes were instantly pristine.

“Was going to do that,” Lily mumbled under her breath.

James frowned – not an unpleasant frown, but the sort of frown he made whenever he was poring over something in his mind, sifting through every grain of it in search of an answer. He then reached out and placed his wand on the kitchen table, expression guarded.

After a bit of reluctance, Lily withdrew her own wand and slid it across the sideboard. This was a preventative measure, the voluntary disarming, as they’d experienced some arguments before that ended with furniture being blasted apart. “Fine,” she huffed, crossing her arms. She wasn’t ready to talk. She wasn’t even ready to argue. She’s been spending all of her time flicking between throwing murderous glances at James, banging every cabinet within reach and thinking of all the ways she could hurt him in retaliation to deliberately knocking her out of the Devil’s Duel; and locking herself inside various loos around town because she couldn’t stand the sight of his face and was frequently overcome with the urge to throw things.

At this moment, she couldn’t bring herself to hate him, no matter how much she wanted to.

“What are you going to do?” he inquired softly. The lamp behind him dimmed, its bright yellow glow fading to rosy twilight. Lily knew enough about the house’s magic and how everything inside it responded to emotions to infer that James was worried about the answer he might receive to his question.

She would be honest, of course. They did not lie to each other about important matters. “I don’t know.”

James nodded as if he’d expected her to say that, and the lamp behind him blew out altogether. He looked down at the floor, unable to ask anything else, afraid that he’d hear something that would pain him. Lily waltzed forward through the darkened kitchen, touching his cheek with the back of her left hand. His eyes slowly lifted to meet hers, uncertain. Anxious.

“It doesn’t matter,” she told him tenderly. “Whatever’s going on inside his head – it makes no difference. I’m with you. I always have been and I always will be.”

James nodded again. Suds were beginning to overflow from the sink, but both of them ignored it. “I’m sorry for throwing you out,” he said at last, trying very hard to make his apology sound sincere even though he knew he wouldn’t have taken back his actions even if he could have. “It isn’t that I don’t trust you…”

“You don’t trust him,” Lily finished simply.

“No, I do not. And I have absolutely no reason to.”

Lily sucked in a breath, turning her head to appraise the window. “He saved Harry, James. I know you don’t like him, but he’s part of the reason why Harry’s still alive.”

James drew back as though he’d been slapped. “What, you think he’s some kind of hero? He’s the reason why Harry’s been in danger all his life. He’s the one who repeated the prophecy to Voldemort and marked our son for death.”

“He didn’t know it was Harry. The prophecy just referred to a boy –”

“A baby. It referred to a baby. Even if it wasn’t Harry, would that still be any better? He gave Voldemort that information freely, completely aware that this would mean the murder of a child. He knew exactly what Voldemort would do with that knowledge.”

“I don’t want to fight about this.”

“I don’t understand how you can look at him in any sort of way except disgust.”

“He was my best friend once.” Lily rubbed his sleeve consolingly, but he shook her off. “He made the wrong choice, there’s no doubt. He did terrible, terrible things. But then he spent the rest of his life trying to make up for it. He protected Harry even though he would have been killed for it if anyone found out.”

“Protected Harry?” James spat, his eyes shining. He blinked; they were burning, betraying just how much her words were hurting him. “Is that what you call refusing to continue with Occlumency lessons because of a personal grudge? Using his position as a Hogwarts professor to bully him mercilessly?” Lily tried to speak but James plowed on, tone ringing with sarcasm. “Please. He made his life a living hell. He was mean to Harry, there’s no way around it. Ever since he stepped foot in Hogwarts, Harry had to put up with a teacher who hated him just because he didn’t like his father.”

“I’m aware of that, but –”

“And Frank and Alice’s son, as well! You’ve heard what Charity Burbage has said. You've seen the amount of times Alice has been in tears because of Trelawney's visions about Snape having a go at Neville for no reason at all. It’s disgusting.”

“I’m not saying that he didn’t do some horrible things –”

“You make it sound like he ever stopped doing horrible things!” James exclaimed. The lamp spurred to life, brighter than ever. The paint on the walls began to perceptibly crack. “Eleven-year-old-boys, Lily. He bullied children. And he never stopped. He continued to abuse his authority as a teacher by getting away with saying whatever he wanted, doing whatever he felt like. He was cruel and unfair and I…” He balled up one hand into a fist, cheeks flushing with rage. “I hate him for it. I want so badly to hurt him for it. You cried all the time because of how Petunia and Vernon were treating Harry, but Snape was every bit as vile as they were.”

“I know,” Lily replied quietly. “It’s inexcusable.”

“And that’s not even the half of it,” James went on, disregarding her concurrence. He leaned back against the table, letting it shoulder his weight. “Now he’s here and I keep seeing him everywhere. The nerve of him, walking past our house... He’s obviously looking for you, and what am I supposed to do about it? I can’t stop him. I can’t stop you from speaking to him, either, because that’s not the kind of man I want to be. It’s your choice, Lily, whether or not you talk to this…to this scum who is in part responsible for our deaths, who taunted our child without consequence. To be honest, I’m just terrified about what he’s going to say to you. How you’re going to react.” He was pacing now, half-delirious.

“And that’s why you had me eliminated from the races, isn’t it?”

“I took you out to keep you safe.” James rubbed one of his elbows in absent agitation. “I’m not a fighter like you are. The odds of me being eliminated before you were so high…I knew that I might only have this one round to do it. It was now or never. But it was more than just keeping you safe. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to keep him away from you. I was following you around most of the time we were on the ship. I saw that slippery snake try to talk to you and I just lost it.”

“I don’t need protection –” she began.

“He doesn’t deserve it, you know.” He cupped Lily’s face in his palms, hot with sweat. “To talk to you. To breathe your air. To look at you the way he wants to.”

She blushed and immediately hated herself for it. White noise filled the room, draining away the sounds of water pooling on the tiles and ice inexplicably frosting over the windows with lacy snowflake patterns.

“What would you have had me do? He’s in love with my wife. He’s in love with you and everyone knows it. Everyone. I’m not so foolish as to think that you’ve never considered him. But it’s humiliating to hear people talk about it.” His words were barely audible; he placed one hand on the small of her back, hovering close to murmur at her ear. “We’re living in forever here, and forever is a long time to be with one person and one person only. Don’t you think I realize that?”

Lily stared at a mirror on the wall behind him, the disquiet from this topic causing perspiration to prickle at her pores. She’d never been more thankful in her life that James wasn’t a Legilimens. In truth, she was secretly flattered that Severus still harbored such powerful feelings for her. It was despicable, she knew; she wished she wasn’t so pleased about this, and felt doubly guilty because of it, but there was no denying that it made her feel somewhat special to be the object of someone else’s steadfast affections.

One could only wonder why he’d marked her as a target to distort into whatever he wanted at will, and what exactly it was about Lily that resonated so strongly with him, but none of it mattered. She did not love him and she did not want him, and may lightning strike her for sinfully enjoying Severus’s love, anyway. If she could trust herself to dwell on it, she might discover that she’d found the memory of Severus Snape to be marginally more attractive now, if only because of the aftershocks of learning how deeply he cared for her. Shameful that it was, his love for her had begun to distort her memory of him, too. It was her darkest secret, her reservoir of love whenever she felt it to be lacking in her life.

She blinked at her reflection in the mirror and was startled to see the other person blink back.

“He’s going to try to work his way under your skin,” James said, lightly kissing her neck. He wiped away a lock of hair that had fallen over her shoulder, lips turning up into a smile of relief when he felt her pulse quicken. At least she still belonged to him, for now.

Lily swallowed. “He might.”

“You’re going to itch. You’re going to second-guess yourself. He might start to seem appeal –”

“No,” Lily interrupted, grasping James’s shirt. “He was never an option. There’s nothing he can say to me that will change my mind. Believe me, he spent years trying, and it never worked. It’s only ever been you.” James wiped away the tears from her eyes with his thumbs. “You’re all that I want, and don't let me forget it.”


*


On the other side of town, Fred Weasley couldn’t sleep. He flipped over onto his side, always expecting to see the old carriage clock that had once been his grandfather’s, but instead greeting a plain bedside table with a stack of complimentary books on it that he hadn’t even skimmed the titles of. It was odd, and a bit unsettling, that he found the room largely comfortable even though it didn’t remotely resemble his old bedroom in Diagon Alley. It seemed sacrilegious, somehow, to become at ease with his surroundings.

From a glimpse he’d managed of Cedric’s room while the latter had left his door ajar on wash day, most of the rooms in the boardinghouse were quite similar. Cedric had given his space some minor alterations since he’d been living there for so long and needed for it to suit him, but mostly he left it exactly as it was upon his arrival, as if he wished to leave it unaffected for the next person to use someday. There were no portraits or posters plastered to the walls. One could easily believe that Cedric didn’t live there at all, and Room Fourteen belonged to no one.

Fred’s eyes roved around in the semi-darkness, elbow bent behind his head with one hand pressed between a down pillow and the blue-and-white-striped sheets. It was soft and cool, providing a pleasant sinking sensation. That should have lulled him right to sleep, as the bedding was a far cry better than his springy mattress back home, riddled with holes and busted joints as it was, but Fred would have given just about anything to be lying awake in that back-killing bed than the one he currently tossed and turned in. There was no movement from upstairs, no last stragglers of the evening trundling through corridors. It was still – too still. Fred scratched an itch on his arm that he might have imagined, the scratching so loud in the quiet building that his neighbors might have heard it. He sighed and almost went deaf.

His stockings had come loose, the toes twisted up into a tangle of sheets that trailed over the foot of the bed and onto the floor. It was the little mistakes like this that Fred needed, that he found himself looking for amidst all of the transparent perfection in this tiny, claustrophobic little world. He felt constantly in danger of complacency, of accepting the permeating feeling of uselessness, of being without purpose or direction. How did people live in the months of July to April, when the tournament wasn’t at the forefront of everyone’s minds? What did they do? And more importantly: How could anyone truly contribute to a community that was, in reality, magically self-sufficient?

Vesper Lovegood had designed everything in Fred’s bedroom with the unknown tastes of faceless unisex guests in mind, from the vase of freesia to the dressing table with its round, ivory knobs inlaid with gold flecks. There was a narrow fireplace along one wall that had been stoppered up with boards years ago when a third floor had been added on top of Fred’s level, covering up the chimney. He’d snooped around inside it on his second day in Cliodna’s Clock, finding only an antique tea kettle inside a dusty cauldron filled with ashes.

Fred knew that the source of his sleeplessness was probably due to the second round of the races, which was only two days away. He’d been serious about winning when he signed up, but somehow didn’t think that he would have to worry about how to get to Round Five. In the back of his mind, after viewing the roster of ten contenders, he’d guessed that he could make it to Round Four if he really tried. The fifth round, however, presented a heap of anxiety. Now, with Lily Potter eliminated, he might actually make it to the prize.

He wasn’t sure how he felt about it yet.

His mother would be losing her mind if she knew what he’d gotten himself involved in, that much was plain. She’d be following him around everywhere, alternating between boxing him in the ears with her criticisms and sulking silently. Bill and Charlie would think he was asking for trouble; Percy would think he was a downright idiot, which perhaps he was…Ginny would be rooting him on, followed by a tentative Ron, and an even more tentative Arthur. The only person Fred knew without a shadow of a doubt would understand why Fred had made such a reckless move, was George. George, Fred sensed, would have done the exact same thing.

Since George was not right there with him, however, Fred found himself in want of company who could understand his predicament exactly. His two options, as he saw it, were Colin and Cedric. Since Fred was wary of making conversation with Colin, seeing as how it might boil down to the two of them in Round Five, he decided that Cedric would be much more suitable. While he would inevitably be dueling Cedric sooner or later, it was an established fact that neither would be directly responsible for the other’s death. This made Diggory the safest option.

“He’s no George,” Fred mumbled to himself, extricating his feet from a spare duvet that had somehow squirmed its way down to his ankles, “but he’s all right.”

He fancied a distraction, or better yet, for something new to spark his interest. Beyond anything else, Fred Weasley was feeling bored. With the hopes that Cedric might be able to tell him something that would occupy his thoughts later whilst he tried to sleep again, mind reverting back to the Burrow over and over, Fred slipped into his trainers and padded down the hallway.

A stooped old man in a droopy nightcap, the puffball hanging from its tip dangling between his eyes, was emerging from a friend’s room after a long evening of chess. The light from his friend’s brass candelabra, while plenty bright, did not spill past the doorway. It was confined within the room, along with their voices and the creaks and groans of the doorframe.

Ahh, Fred thought. That explains why it’s so quiet. Mrs. Lovegood’s bewitched it so that everything’s soundproof at night. He wasn’t sure why, but this irritated him. It was unnatural not to hear mice scurrying around with cats chasing after them, or to listen for the barely-there clinks of tea mugs and reading glasses as they were placed on tables, of cupboard doors gently opening and closing as people changed into pajamas. Fred had spent all of his time at the Burrow, Hogwarts, and a flat in London, and had never experienced a soundless night in his entire life prior to Vesper’s boardinghouse. He made a mental note to look for vacancies in a normal house somewhere else.

Cedric’s room was situated four doors down, the knob decorated with a wreath fashioned from a bird’s nest that Fred suspected Mrs. Lovegood hung there. He wondered if Cedric would be able to hear anyone knocking through all of the silencing charms put on the house. When he raised his fist to rap at it, he could feel the vibrations against wood but could hear absolutely nothing.

That did it. Fred would be moving out immediately.

The door opened without any noise to accompany it, and through a strip of vertical light, Fred could make out the left half of Cedric’s face, and an open book propped up on a window seat with faded pink upholstery. He mouthed something in a voice so low that Fred couldn’t hear it. Mindful of the charmed corridors, Fred stuck his head inside.

“Oh, so this is your room,” he declared robustly.

“Yes?” Cedric said, drawing back half a step when the ginger man’s head poked around his doorway.

“Hey, Ced,” Fred continued, trying to jam his hands into his pockets and then realizing that his trousers didn’t offer any. “You were making a racket in here, kept me up. Thought I’d swing by and see how you were doing.”

“A racket?” Cedric arched one eyebrow, eyes darting to his book. “Sorry if I was turning the pages too loudly. I’ll try to keep it down.”

“Eh.” Fred combed his fingers through the back of his hair, digging his foot into the doorway just in case Diggory tried to shut it fast. “Long as we’re both awake, you want to go look around or something?”

Cedric couldn’t help but be suspicious about this, but tried to downplay it. “Sure. You hungry?”

Fred had just consumed half of someone’s death-day cake, which had been left in the downstairs dining area after a party, for lack of anything else to do. If he was going to be dead, he might as well be fat, too. The thought of eating more after stuffing his face with so much chocolate made him feel queasy. “Starving,” he replied.

“Let’s go to Odo’s,” Cedric suggested, turning around to put his shoes on. “Odo’s probably gone to bed already, but he never locks up. We’re free to get ourselves anything we want.”

Fred nodded. He wasn’t used to having to go out of his way to make friends. Usually, people tended to gravitate towards him. He and George never had any problems socializing. There’d been enough Gryffindors to comprise the circle around him – standing in the literal center of attention, just how he liked it – and he’d never developed much of a desire to expand on his already-wide group of friends. It wasn’t that he didn’t like non-Gryffindors, but he’d never had much of a need for them. There was Lee and George and the members of his Quidditch team, and countless others…but now they were gone, or rather Fred was gone…

When they made their way beyond the boardinghouse, Fred was grateful for the usual nightly clatter that swarmed to his eardrums. The stirring of cicadas, providing a background hum for bicycle wheels still zipping along alleyways, sounded like a breath of fresh air. It was much less stuffy outside, which allowed Fred’s headache to abate. Mothers were calling out to their children, who were playing hide-and-seek in the dark, demanding that they come to bed. A cluster of people nearby were piled together, six to a bench, in a triangular park with sleeping houses bordering each side. They were all leaning over a little bonfire that cast barely enough glow to light the tips of the surrounding fence, watching salamanders leap around in the flames.

Several doors down, with its shutters tightly drawn, was Severus Snape’s new home. He’d taken no time at all reaping it at an auction after its last owner moved to a flat squeezed between the ice cream parlor and a vegetable market that disappeared every Sunday without fail.

A dull flicker of candlelight slipped between slats in the blinds of Snape’s window. “How d’you think he’s going to do?” Cedric remarked without thinking, and then mentally chastised himself for it. “Sorry. You probably don’t want to think about that right now.”

“No, I was thinking about it, too,” Fred admitted, still keeping one eye trained on the closed window as they passed it. He thought to himself that he rather liked the town when all was dark; with the roar of the ocean and the beach’s sand blowing sideways up the main avenue. It gathered in cracks between cobbles with white grit, smelling of brine. Two dark shapes disrupted the coastline, and Fred recognized them as tents belonging to Colin Creevey and a girl named Orla. They’d erected them right there on the sand for Merlin-knows-what-reason. The tents’ flaps shivered in a warm breeze, the two people inside snoring peacefully in rhythm with the lapping tide. Fred envied them.

“I’m not sure what to think about Snape,” Fred said, belatedly noticing that they were strolling in the opposite direction of Odo’s pub and not even realizing it. They were both heading towards the sea, as if being summoned there. “They say he was on our side, on the good side, but that’s hard to believe. He’s done some pretty bad things that can’t be explained away.”

“Confusing, isn’t it?” Cedric mused. “I heard that he did it all for Lily Potter. Couldn’t have been too bad, really – or else he would’ve ended up in the Grotta.”

Fred shrugged. “Maybe.”

Her name was already hanging thick in the air, so it wasn’t surprising that Cedric mentioned her. She was all over the place, tossed from conversation to conversation in whispers or laughs or tones of dark surprise. Lily Potter, grand champion of the Devil’s Duel, tossed out in Round One by her own husband.

“I could’ve told you all sorts of things about Lily,” Cedric confessed, throwing a stone across the sea. It hit upon wave after black wave before disappearing, crashing into the wooden stilts that held up the depot. “I’ve been watching her all year in preparation for the Devil’s Duel. Now that she’s out, though, it’s hard to tell who I should be watching instead.”

“James?” Fred guessed. “As far as the other team goes, I mean. It takes a lot to attack your own wife, I reckon.”

“Probably. He doesn’t enter the races often, so I don’t know how well he’ll fare. I know that on our own team, Pettigrew’s one we’ve got to look out for.”

Fred didn’t want to be rude and say, “Well, that’s obvious. He cracked Scrimgeour’s skull.” So instead he just nodded in agreement. “Yeah, definitely. Still can’t fathom the reasoning behind him coming here and not over there.” He pointed behind him, thinking that he was indicating the Grotta when Cedric knew that it was just empty ocean in that direction.

Cedric smiled. He didn’t know why he was sharing this information, letting an opponent into his confidence, discussing their other opponents, of all people. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “But the real threat is back there.” He motioned with his head over to the boardinghouse. Several windows twinkled like fairy lights, candles still lit with residents burning the midnight oil.

“You think so?” Fred found this vaguely amusing, remembering all the times Nymphadora tripped over furniture as well as her inability to perform some of the most basic household cleaning spells. She was bright and bubbly and bumbling, and he couldn’t picture her any other way.

“Of course.” Cedric examined him in a sidelong glance, growing concerned over Fred’s lack of sobriety. “You don’t think she could win, then?”

“Oh, well, she could,” Fred amended, although he was still trying not to smirk. “She was an Auror, so that’s got to be worth something. And her husband can be dead intimidating when he wants to be, which might’ve rubbed off on her…”

There was a dwindling of speech that followed this comment, while both young men considered Tonks Lupin’s capabilities with polarizing opinions. Quite without intending to, they circled around to Odo’s, where they could toast each other with tall glasses of butterbeer under broad lamplight without so much gloom hanging over them. The next day was years and years away, and impossibly, the day after that felt startlingly close. Fred and Cedric decided not to question the incongruity of this logic, or to question anything at all. For the moment, it was nicer to imagine that both of them would win the prize, and that no one would have to die in order for them to get it.
 


Chapter 15: Various Magic
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On the day before Round Two, Odo found himself swamped with customers. This was always the case before a round of the Devil’s Duel – everyone wanted to collect together at tables and swap predictions. The actual Duel days left Odo’s pub empty. He took advantage of this reprieve by staying indoors and basking in the sweet absence of spilled food and drink all over the freshly-mopped floor.

For now, though, the place was a mess. It was loud, too, at almost every single table except for two near the back. Salazar Slytherin thought himself quite unlucky to have ended up in such close proximity to none other than Albus Dumbledore, and against his better urges to ignore neighboring tables, found himself straining to listen to whatever Dumbledore was saying to his young friend.

“Are you paying any attention to me at all?” Vincent Crabbe demanded, taking a surly sip of his pumpkin juice. “I’m going to lose.”

“You are not,” Salazar replied impatiently, turning back with some reluctance to the boy seated across from him. “You did well for the first round, lying low. Your strengths and weaknesses are as yet ambiguous to the others. It’s a decent strategy, making yourself out to be a numpty.”

“What’s ‘ambiguous’?” Vincent drawled through his straw.

Salazar’s back teeth grinded together. “Never you mind. Just keep doing what you’re doing for now.”

“But I’m not really doing anything.”

Salazar rubbed his temples, aggravated. Why must he be cursed with this annual desire to torture himself? Why must he always look for someone to advise throughout the tournament? He was certain that some split-personality dormant inside of himself absolutely hated him, and chose this as a method of punishment. “The Devil’s Basin hasn’t been saying much about you, at least,” Salazar settled on replying. “Which is a good thing, trust me. The more low-key you remain, the less concerned your opponents are going to be about you. They’ll be focusing on others.”

Vincent shrugged. “I don’t care if they try to come after me. I’m pretty good at Dark spells.”

“You can’t let them know that, though,” Salazar insisted, leaning forward intently. “Not until the end, when it really counts. You couldn’t have asked for better conditions – you’ve got Potter and Snape on the same team. They’re going to be obsessed with destroying the other. And that other boy is a total non-issue; he’ll have no trouble at all in getting rid of himself, as he’s likely to do.”

“You’re allowed to do that?” Vincent asked excitedly. “Get rid of yourself? I ought to do that.”

Salazar’s eyes darkened. He was on the verge of slapping someone. Over the past few weeks, he’d grown exasperated with Vincent’s normality and apparent inferiority, more than once wondering how the boy had managed to get into his House. Didn’t they value ‘cunning’ anymore in Slytherin House? It was probably Godric’s stupid, mangy hat, admitting any kind of riffraff. Yes, that must be it. If Vincent had been around when Salazar still ran the school, he would’ve tossed him back into the streets like a Muggle.

“You’re not going to do that because it will make you look weak in case you ever decide to enter the races again,” Salazar responded, working very hard to keep his voice patient. “Just stay out of everyone’s way and pretend like you don’t know what’s going on. No matter how tempting or easy it might be, save Creevey for last if you can help it. I’ve seen him with a wand. He’s useless.”

If Dumbledore heard what Salazar had said about his young friend Colin, he made no sign of it. He went on speaking to Colin as if they were the only patrons in the dingy room.

“And you were afraid?” Colin hedged, watching his old Headmaster with wide, curious eyes.

“Terrified,” Dumbledore admitted freely, keeping one ear open to Salazar’s whisperings. He was concerned about the web Slytherin was spinning around poor, dim-witted Crabbe. Influence could go a very long way, as Albus well knew, as he was currently trying to instill his experience and wisdom in Colin just as Salazar was doing with Vincent. “But do you know what I learned through it all?”

“What?”

“I learned to embrace fate.”

“You mean that you were okay with dying?” Colin questioned, becoming preoccupied with his fingernails. “Are you telling me I should be okay with that, too?”

Albus smiled at him, peering closely over his half-moon spectacles. “I have it on reliable authority that acceptance of the unknown makes the present far easier to handle. It lends a clear perspective on life and what you’ve done with it so far.”

Colin’s head drooped between his shoulders, crestfallen. “You don’t think I have a chance.”

Albus reached out and patted the boy’s hand. “On the contrary, Colin, I think you will do magnificently. This is not a game designed for the merciless or malicious; it is a chessboard for those, like you, who think with their hearts and not their heads. While the others make their moves in efforts to knock out pawns, you make each move with your eyes on the Queen. Don’t let them distract you.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Colin tentatively disagreed. “Mrs. Potter doesn’t seem to have much mercy, and she’s won loads of times.” He stole a peek in Vincent’s direction. “And there’s definitely a couple of malicious contenders.”

“Yes, but the reward isn’t designed to suit them,” Albus explained, still smiling. “They wouldn’t know what to do with it. Not even Lily, who’s won a grand number of times. Only those who are pure in conscience could take such a prize into their possession and not let it annihilate them. I do not think Lily Potter realizes what the many wins she’s accumulated have done to her over time.”

“What do you mean?”

“Winning has prevented her from healing. Her old wounds are ripped open nearly once a year, making her perpetually unfulfilled, unsatisfied.” Albus examined Colin shrewdly, and the latter couldn’t help but study his plate of untouched Yorkshire pudding and roast beef, tingling with the feeling that his professor could filter through his every thought. “Do you think you could be satisfied with one short visit?”

Colin imagined his brother Dennis, and his parents. It was a silly thought, but he’d discovered himself unconsciously plotting which belongings he might be able to gather from his room on earth and put into his pockets. It wouldn’t be doing much harm, would it? After all, they were his things. He should be free to take them back. Perhaps he could learn how to shrink objects, like his photo albums, for easier storage. He hoped that the depot attendant didn’t check pockets when winners came back to Cliodna’s Clock.

“Yes,” he answered, thinking of Dennis’s impending death date. “Just one visit is all I need.”

“You aren’t thinking of interacting with anyone on earth, by chance?” Albus added, his tone colored with warning.

Colin squirmed. “No.”

“Hmm.” Albus pressed his hands together, fingers lacing, and held them to his chin. “When someone lies, the act of lying at all has an uncanny knack for involuntarily exposing the truth. I will venture to assume that you are entertaining thoughts of a reunion with your brother.”

Colin felt his neck grow hot. “Well…”

“Love,” Albus continued, gazing pleasantly across the busy pub. “The power that it has over us is amazing, is it not? And just a little bit dangerous, too.”

Colin glanced up at him, both interested and afraid.

“Earlier in our meal, before I diverted you with tales of your friend Harry, you asked me why I am not participating in the Devil’s Duel. Do you still wish for me to tell you why?”

Colin nodded, although he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. It might make him more anxious about being in the Devil’s Duel himself.

“I have a confession I must make, Colin. When I was alive, I spent many shameful years looking for ways to conquer death. I desired to be the master of it. I craved the resistance to it. What that tells me now, more than anything, is how scared I was to die and face my sister and parents, and to see what was in store for me here. I do believe that I have learned my lesson on that front, as attempting to interfere with something as inevitable and friendly as death is unnecessary. Our fears are not always the very bad things we expect them to be.” He gestured to the room at large. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Colin cleared his throat. “Yes, but there isn’t an afterlife waiting for the loser of the duel. It’s just…nothing. The loser doesn’t exist anymore.”

Albus dotted his mouth with a cloth napkin. “And who told you this, may I ask?”

“Lo – lots of people,” Colin stammered. “Miss Ravenclaw and Cedric and Mr. Slytherin, and a few others. It’s what everyone says.”

The old wizard’s lips twitched, hiding a smile. “And how do you suppose they’ve come to learn this secret information?”

Colin blinked.

“If they’ve never passed on from here, how can they be so sure that there is no ‘other side’ for the other side?” Dumbledore went on amiably, pointing to Colin’s buttered bread. “Are you going to eat that? Forgive me, but I can’t bear for such excellent bread to go to waste.” Colin didn’t reply, so Dumbledore continued, “Those stories may be true. I do recall hearing many times on earth, however, that there was no such thing as an afterlife, and after our deaths our essences would become dirt and grass and trees in the natural cycle of life. While there is certainly a part of me that has remained on earth, deceased, here I am sitting with you.” He bit into a hunk of bread, chewing thoughtfully. “The only thing that we can know for sure is truly immortal, is the past.”

Colin shoved his snow peas around the plate with a spoon, not quite catching his meaning.

“Since Miss Ravenclaw and Mr. Diggory and everyone else have shared an open secret with you, I will share one from my own stock: The past has survived through plagues and droughts and floods, the stories somehow surviving even when people do not. Through the ordinary magic of memories, my dear boy, one can never truly die.”

Colin was momentarily sidetracked after this due to the hovering presence of the Cassandras (Cassandra Vablatsky and Cassandra Trelawney, both esteemed Seers). Until recently, the two women had been ruminating over a crystal ball suspended in midair between them at a nearby table, their cold cream tea pushed aside. Vablatsky was a crotchety old witch who usually refused to share her Divination knowledge with anyone else, but Trelawney was much more sociable and sometimes condescended to dropping out of the clouds every now and then to provide pearls of insight.

“Interesting, interesting,” Trelawney mused in a misty voice, examining the dregs in Colin’s mug of tea. “Oh, dear. It’s the Duel. I can see you in the Duel…”

“What – what am I doing?” Colin piped up nervously.

Trelawney squinted, turning her head to the side. “You appear to be…above someone. Quite high above them. They have black hair. They are not your friend, but they are not your enemy, either.”

“Me!” Vincent shouted rudely, waving his teacup. “Come and look in mine!”

Trelawney straightened up, affronted, but granted his wishes. She grasped his teacup, and finding that Vincent hadn’t left any dregs behind, turned over his palm instead. She flattened it on the table, scrutinizing the lines while Salazar watched with an unmistakable lack of enthusiasm.

“Someone in your family has a very short lifeline,” Trelawney relayed. “But I can’t make out who…” She pored over this for a few minutes longer before calling out, “Cassandra!”

“What?” Vablatsky screwed up her face in a sour expression. She had gone back to her table, evidently finding the two tables with legends and students sitting at them to be below her notice.

“I need your assistance,” Trelawney said mildly.

Vablatsky didn’t move; she narrowed her eyes at Vincent for two seconds and barked, “His father. Six months. Man named Rosier will do it.”

“Six months until what?” Vincent cried, panicking. “What is Rosier going to do to my father?”

Trelawney clucked her tongue. “Your palm says many things. Your past is dark but your future is darker.”

“Tell me what it says!”

“With that attitude, I wouldn’t tell you the temperature.”

Salazar laughed, highly amused with Vincent’s aggravation; Trelawney circled around to have a look in his teacup as well, shaking her head ruefully at whatever she’d found. Salazar’s laughter died. He leaned forward, nostrils flaring, to scowl into his cup. “What? What does it say?”

“Probably that you could use a refill on your tea,” Dumbledore supplied cheerfully.

Salazar glowered at him. He very much abhorred Albus Dumbledore – not because of the old tosspot’s beliefs, but because of his pretension that glazed over a life full of errors. Salazar might not have been the prince of morality, but at least he was honest about it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t even deign to make a show of his distaste for Dumbledore because he had to work extra hard to maintain a holy image after being stamped with a bad reputation – something about hating those bottom feeder Muggles or another insignificant something from Salazar’s history that he would rather forget. The name ‘Slytherin’ meant something else entirely these days, especially with dreadful little blots like Voldemort being Sorted into his namesake.

Salazar often felt like he had to publicly denounce Voldemort because of the regrettable link between them in both House and heritage, when truthfully the former was exceptionally embarrassed of that link. Because of that Riddle idiot who’d gone and started two different wars, Salazar couldn’t even conjure snakes and send them around to do his bidding without being frowned upon.

“You could use a sharp reprimanding for trying to give swords to children,” Salazar spat back before he could stop himself. “We all know about your will.”

Albus beamed at him. “Still smarting because Godric’s sword destroyed your locket?”

Salazar fixed him a very ugly look.

“You’re not the only one who had something twisted with Dark magic and then ruined,” Helga Hufflepuff said, elbowing her way over to greet Trelawney. “Word has it that your basilisk had it out for my cup – or at least one of his fangs did. Imagine, a snake’s skeleton killing a cup.”

“My basilisk?” Salazar repeated, his spirits lifting. “Really? Oh, I do miss that old thing…”

“Chamber of Secrets,” Helga muttered. “Ought to get your name booted off the Founder’s Board for pulling a horrid stunt like that.”

“That basilisk once Petrified me,” Colin chipped in importantly.

Salazar almost smiled. The afternoon was finally starting to look up!

“If you’ll excuse me,” Dumbledore said politely, sliding out of his booth. He tapped the table to garner Colin’s attention. “I’m quite glad I was able to speak with you before tomorrow. I want you to know that I wish you the best of luck. I’m sure you won’t be depending on something as fickle as luck, but it’s all in the sentiment…” He bestowed him with a kind wink, nodding his head towards a discarded napkin next to his plate littered with crumbs. “Have a peek under that before you go.”

After Albus was gone, Colin lifted the napkin, which he found to be covering something lumpy, and unearthed a brand-new camera.


*


“Really, is that all you’ve got?” Remus swiped a bit of ash from his shoulder and cocked an eyebrow at his wife. “Pitiful. Come on, let’s try it again. This time, try to act like you actually care about whether or not you live or die.”

Tonks rolled her eyes. So far in Remus’s mission to whip his wife’s dueling skills into shape, he’d assumed the personas of ‘loving supporter’, ‘passive-aggressive coach’, ‘vicious fiend’, and ‘heartless suit of armor’. The last one had reaped the most results, so currently Remus was doing his best to call Tonks names like ‘uncoordinated weakling’ (which Tonks was beginning to suspect he was enjoying more than he let on) while glaring at her like a younger version of Mad-Eye Moody. This didn’t help much, as the real Mad-Eye was also glaring at her, and her father Ted was sitting cross-legged on the ground, trying to fit some encouraging words in edgewise but mostly not being of much help.

“Flagrate?” Moody barked. “Are you an Auror or a unicorn, because I really can’t tell the difference!”

“Oh, shut it,” Tonks growled, but made sure her tone was too low to be heard.

“I’ll tell you who won’t be shutting it,” Moody shot back. Clearly, Tonks had underestimated his strikingly acute hearing. “Cedric Diggory. The boy looks a bit thick between the ears, but he’s a natural-born manipulator. It’ll take you only a minute to start feeling sorry for him, and you can be sure he’ll use that time to hex your legs off.” He glanced at Ted, perhaps expecting back-up, but Ted just jerked his head like he’d gotten some water in his ears and turned away. In truth, Ted found Moody unnerving to look at. Death had granted Alastor his missing eye, but it did not match the deep brown hue of his normal one. This new eye – while completely normal in size and structure – had an electric-blue iris. It was so obviously designed with his lost magical eye in mind that it made those around him rather uncomfortable, even though they couldn’t describe exactly why they felt that way. After all, it should have been a sight more welcome than the enormous whizzing contraption he used to don.

“Are you going to be in this tournament or am I?” Tonks couldn’t help remarking. “If you’re so keen on it, maybe you ought to have signed up yourself.”

“Is your brain up a tree?” Alastor exclaimed. “I trust Cliodna about as much as I do Pettigrew. The whole thing’s rigged, if you ask me. They’ve already decided the winners and the losers far in advance, you mark my words.”

“They can’t have,” Ted replied sensibly. “Some of them didn’t sign up until the last minute. That’s not much time for Cliodna and the committee to scheme.”

“Now that’s where you’re wrong.” Moody wagged a finger at him, eyes zooming up and down the snowy path. They zeroed in on an abandoned warehouse settled deep within a grove of trees. Remus had decided (with a bit of unpopularity) that Winter Walk would be the best place to train Tonks for Round Two. Presently the warehouse was still and soundless, the cracked glass coated with grime. Grayish, diluted sunlight streamed through a circular smudge on one window, where someone’s elbow had once rubbed against it. “Didn’t any of you see that book they had over there?” Alastor continued, jutting a thumb towards the depot. “Looks just like the one they’ve got for Hogwarts, the one that keeps track of magical births.”

“You’ve see the Hogwarts attendance book?” Tonks asked curiously, distracted from her spar with Remus.

Moody nodded. “It was one of the ways to find out whether or not missing Death Eaters were still alive. Some of ‘em kept having kids, see. Like Cromwell and Glass. Both had pretended to be dead, but the quill they use that detects magical births doesn’t lie, and neither does the archive book.”

“So they knew we were coming,” Tonks said, frowning. “That much was obvious when we arrived. So what?”

“So who knows how long they’ve known? Our names very well could have been documented in the Cliodna’s Clock records ever since we were born – and not just our births, but our death dates as well. We never had a fighting chance – it was all laid out for us already. Who’s to say that the results of the Devil’s Duel isn’t set in stone, too?”

“You’re reaching,” Remus replied tersely.

“They wouldn’t have planned on Lily winning so many times,” Tonks added. “It’s just not reasonable.”

“’Course they would.” Moody peered all around the snowy wood again, but couldn’t hear anything except for feather-light flakes of snow drifting down from the sky, layering smoothly over tufts of white that never climbed above eight inches – the exact length of Cliodna’s wand. Remus felt himself shudder while thinking about it, wondering not for the first time how Cliodna had come to acquire such prestige. How had she managed to detach from whatever afterlife she’d emerged in? How had she broken away to form this place?

“Don’t be a fool, Tonks. The people here love it that they’ve got someone else to do all their dirty work for them. Why should Cliodna get her hands soiled when Lily Potter’s willing to crush everyone else like bugs for her? Question is – why’s it necessary?

Ted’s spine erupted in a torrent of shivers that had nothing to do with the cold. “What are you trying to say, mate?”

“I’m saying that we’ve ended up in the crosshairs of life and death – real death, the kind where your soul’s gone and there’s nothing left, nothing beyond. What gives one person the right to decide where to put the cap on population? If it’s true that we’re in a place where anything at all can happen, where the only restrictions on magic are all self-imposed, then why not just expand to accommodate? If it’s possible to provide twenty-four hours on earth, then why not more? Why not offer it to everyone?”

“Stop,” Remus interrupted sharply, holding a hand up. He was gazing around, eyes alert, and seemed to pause with his attention snagged on the warehouse. “I heard a twig snap. Someone’s moving around in the woods.”

“No surprise there,” Tonks grumbled. “We’re all living on top of each other here. There’s no such thing as privacy. And we’re wasting daylight, Remus. If you’re going to kick my arse, you should hurry it up. I’ve got a date with a mug of hot chocolate tonight and I am not going to be late.”

Remus had seen Igor prowling around this area before. He also knew that rats could be quite stealthy when they wanted to be. While admittedly he had begun to question the existence and necessity of the Devil’s Duel, deducing that the twenty-four hour prize on earth was tailored for those suffering from grief (and was therefore little more than a murder plot preying on the unstable and vulnerable), he felt it a fairly dangerous topic to discuss openly.

He needed more time to knead the matter in his mind before he could properly form an assessment. It was unlucky that while doing so, he also had no choice but to support his wife while she willingly played right into the design. Immortality had been promised to the living, but owed no such guarantee to the dead. Here, in the afterlife, there was nothing to stop the powers that be from reneging on their unwritten promises. A soul had been taken each year for as long as everyone could remember. But what had happened before Cliodna’s own death? What had the standard procedure been before the inception of the Devil’s Duel?

“On the count of three,” Remus warned, bracing himself for more dueling. “One, two –”

“Expelliarmus!”

She’d cheated by half a second, but Remus was ready for her. “Protego!” A shield charm blasted out of the ground, rippling between them.

“Protego horribilis!” Tonks shouted, aiming her wand at the shield. She cast a larger force field that trumped Remus’s modest one, sending shattered bits of light at her husband. He tried to dart away from them, but the searing heat of it singed the hem and sleeves of his robes.

“Confringo!” Remus countered, smashing the shield charm. The bright light blinded Tonks, and he utilized her distraction by following it with Stupefy, which Tonks just barely dodged.

“Stop going easy on her!” Moody yelled from the sidelines. “You won’t be doing her any favors.”

Tonks feigned an attack on Remus’s left, which he defected; she’d predicted this and was therefore able to hex him from his unprotected side with Obscuro. Instantly, a long length of fabric twisted around Remus’s eyes, nose, and mouth, mummifying him.

“Waddiwasi,” he muttered, and the white-hot bandages shot back to Tonks, winding around her ankles in a jumbled heap. They melted right through the snow, causing trails of steam to float away from a pool of ice-blue water. He then shot Reducto at Tonks without announcing it. Tonks, who wasn’t expecting nonverbal curses, was forcefully shoved backwards by the spell’s potency, landing with her nose in the stinging snow. While she was already down, Remus shot another silent incantation. This time, a wild ring of fire sprang out of the ground, encircling Tonks.

She yelped and scrambled to her feet, peering through the smoke to discern a pair of cautious eyes. Remus was pacing between two trees, keeping his gaze fixated on her, not stopping to rest in one position for too long.

“Now that’s more like it!” Moody chipped in. “Just what she needs.”

Tonks frowned, slashing her wand to change the properties of the fire with a Flame-Freezing charm. Now that she could no longer be burned by it, Tonks stepped right through the orange blaze and hurled a jet of spiraling purple light at Remus’s heart. He deflected it effortlessly while casting another Reducto.

Levicorpus!’ Tonks inwardly shouted. Sparks issued from the tip of her wand, but nothing substantial happened. This had always been the case with Tonks – some spells she was very, very good at, and others needed to be physically bellowed in order for them to work. She opened her mouth to shout, “Levi-”

Another streak of light hit Tonks full in the face. This time, it wasn’t from Remus. It was from Moody.

Tonks turned to yell at him but found that she couldn’t speak. Her tongue was stuck to her top molars, glued in place.

“Langlock,” Moody explained, obviously satisfied with himself. “You need to stop giving your opponents an edge! If you don’t talk, they won’t get a heads-up on what you’re going to do to them. It's more useful than Silencio because the countercurse isn't as well-known.” Tonks looked like she wanted to conjure a chair and smash it over his head. “Use it against Diggory. He was just a boy when he died, and probably doesn’t have a proper handle on nonverbal incantations. If you perform Langlock on him, he might have trouble jinxing you.”

“He’s right,” Remus agreed. “I don’t know about Peter's abilities these days, but Fred’s proven to be very good with nonverbal spells. We need to make sure that you are, too.”

I’m an Auror! Tonks wanted to scream. I’m more qualified than all of them. But she saw Remus raise his wand again, ready to fire, and she mentally hissed, ‘Engorgio!’

Transforming him into a giant, she soon realized, was a disastrous mistake. Remus began to swell three times in size, contorting into grotesque shapes as various appendages burst through his clothing, shedding like snakeskin. Tonks stumbled over her own feet to get away from him, horrified. Reducio! Reducio!

Remus withered downward to his usual stature, wasting a few seconds to gather his breath. “This isn’t working,” he announced, shaking his head. “Why won’t you perform serious curses? Engorgio won’t do anything but backfire on you.”

“If I hexed you with my worst, you’d be dead,” Tonks snapped. “And besides, I can’t look at you like you’re an enemy. You’re not an enemy, you’re my husband.”

“Let me try,” Moody cut in. “I won’t give you any choice but to throw everything you’ve got at me.”

Remus ignored him. “What about Peter, Cedric, and Fred? Do you think they’re going to be this compassionate? Turn the tables, Dora. They’re going to flay you alive.”

“I just – I can’t,” Tonks cried, frustrated. “I know I’m supposed to. I know this is what everyone’s supposed to do. And with Peter, who knows. I might be able to view him differently. But Cedric is just a boy, and Fred…I know Fred. I know his family. I don’t want to change my perception of them so much that I begin to lose sight of who they really are.”

Remus wiped the sweat from his brow. “It’s too late for that. You can’t back out now, so you’ll just have to fight through it. You’ve got to.”

Tonks’s expression hardened. “I’m not going to change who I am just because of some tournament. Lily did and look at what happened to her. Most of her friends are dead and she’s not even sorry about it.”

“It made Lily a champion,” Moody remarked, voice rising above hers.

“Do you think Teddy would be proud of me for casting the Cruciatus Curse on an innocent person, all for my own selfish gain? Do you think he would consider hurting someone worth the prize? I don’t know about you, but I certainly hope not. I would hope that the very idea of it would repulse him.”

Everyone was quiet for a while. “Okay,” Ted finally caved, “she won’t go for the jugular, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to get the job done. We’ll just have to adapt. The three of us will take turns cursing her with dangerous spells and we can try to teach her how to block them with spells she approves of. Spells that won’t harm…much.”

“Impossible,” Moody roared, throwing his hip flask at a nearby tree stump to show his displeasure.

“No, it’s not,” Remus argued. “She’s a professional. She can do this any way she pleases and still be a threat.”

“It’s a waste of time. She won’t win."

Remus glanced at his wife, features grim, then back to Moody. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you? There are more important things in life than winning.”
 


Chapter 16: Capture the Flag
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Victus: Cedric Diggory, Tonks Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Fred Weasley
Mortuus: Vincent Crabbe, Colin Creevey, James Potter, Severus Snape





“Four.”

Sweat trickled down eight pairs of arms, collecting in curled-up fists. Their hair clung to their necks and foreheads, salty as the sea. In a matter of hours, there would only be six of them remaining. They gazed upon the roiling Pensieve, painfully waiting, just wanting it all to be over. One of them slid a small glass phial into their pocket, depleted of its molten gold potion.

“Three.”

Ptolemy raised his eyebrows at Cliodna, who seemed to smile back at him from under her black veil.

“Two.”

Up in the stands, Remus was still trying to absorb the information provided to them all only a minute ago: “You will each have a small flag to carry with you. The goal of this round is to steal a flag from a member of your team and throw it into the fire – you will know what I’m referring to when you get in there. Steal a teammate’s flag and burn it, and the first person on each team to have his or her flag burned will be eliminated. Purposefully damaging your own flag so that it cannot be confiscated by teammates is strictly prohibited. As always, members of opposite teams will appear invisible to each other, and attempts to harm the opposite team will be fruitless.”

“Run.”

Tonks was the last to jump into the Pensieve, as she’d turned her face towards Remus at the last second, finding where he sat next to Lily, and offered him a hopeful grin. He was so distracted, so lost in dread and stress, that he didn’t have time to return the smile before she twisted sideways into the pale gray pool.

Cedric was already out and running with a black cloth pinned between his teeth, combing his way through waist-high shrubs and trees. Their roots bent out at soil-level in half-circle shapes, making them easy to trip over, but Cedric never faltered once as he put as much distance as possible between himself and those popping into the memory behind him. The memory had been donated by a goblin who’d fought during the Goblin Rebellion of 1614, two years after their riots first began. The setting was a jungle of sorts, roughly five times the size of the maze from the Triwizard Tournament.

The revolting goblins had already advanced through the main area, spanning out in what could only be likened to a funeral procession as they were all overtaken and many of them killed after leaving the seclusion of the forest. Tonks, Cedric, James, Peter, Vincent, Colin, Severus, and Fred were confined to the forest. The goblin who’d donated the memory had not lived long enough to crawl into the valley beyond, and therefore the contenders could not pass that boundary line, either.

It’s a graveyard, Fred thought, stepping over a dead goblin who still clutched a blood-encrusted dagger in one long-fingered hand. Three identical black squares of fabric were left tied to a tree – one for him, one for Tonks, and one for an invisible member of Mortuus who was lagging behind. Everyone else had already taken theirs and disappeared into the trees.

Fred picked at the knotted cloth with damp fingers, finally wrestling it free. Upon closer inspection, he saw that a miniature number ‘6’ had been embroidered on one corner of the flag in pale blue stitches. Just as he was about to look away from it, he observed that it changed from ‘6’ to ‘F.W.’

And someone’s supposed to try and take this from me, he remembered, stuffing it into his pocket. Instead of the usual wizarding robes, he’d opted to wear a dragon hide jacket and trousers, as he knew that material would deflect some minor spells and jinxes.

In the middle of a clearing, tall enough to block out half the daylight, was a blazing effigy of a witch and wizard trapped in a terrified embrace, constructed from kindling. Their heads had been ignited first, tendrils of flame forming their hair while smoke gave the illusion of hats; the tree branches that formed the witch’s jaw had collapsed, giving her the appearance of an everlasting scream.

The goal of this round is to steal a flag from a member of your team and throw it into the fire.

He wondered what the goblin spectators in Cliodna’s Clock were thinking while they watched the effigies burn. Would they think the statement justified? Would they derive pleasure from the memory of their ancestors attempting to rise up against the witches and wizards who stifled them? This thought passed quickly, as he felt the need to get under the cover of trees, and to choose a target. Peter, he thought decidedly. Pettigrew was the only member of his team with no personal connection to Fred. Fred could easily dispose of him and not feel guilty for it. A grin ripped at Fred’s lips and he rushed off into the forest, wand in hand.

Tonks could hear shrill screams vaulting out of the trees, followed by bodies dropping from branches like dead birds. Their screams faded to a whistle, persisting in low gurgling noises after a pair of goblins and one wizard smashed to the earth. Their blood streaked across pathways of dirt, maroon puddles inflated with small bubbles from the projected coughs of nearby mouths. Tonks didn’t have time to cringe away from the smell, or to tune out the deafening pitch of chaos. Despite the hazards that the forest presented – especially for someone like her, who could trip over something as insubstantial as words – she found herself euphoric. The stretch of tree after tree after tree was something Cliodna’s Clock did not have nearly enough of. It was too tiny in the afterlife, everyone stuffed into a universe the size of a keyhole.

Here, even though she would not be privy to explore all of it, there was open air. There was freedom pulsing through her legs and feet, which were swiftly carrying her through the crowded wood. A black flag was bound to her left forearm with conjured silver cords to keep it in place, one corner of the fabric bearing the markings ‘N.L’.

Way across the sky, through patches of leaves in the canopies above, a pale imprint of the moon hung facing the sun. Tonks estimated that they had little over an hour left until sunset. The forest would be impossible to navigate in the dark – Lumos would be too dangerous to use. Her mind flipped back the pages to the lines she’d written for Teddy, lines scratched out and rewritten time and time again in search of the perfect phrases to leave him with, the pieces of her she wanted to give to her son. She owed it to Teddy, having left him alone with Andromeda the night she rushed off into battle, to win.

Teddy floated up before her eyes, smiling behind his picture frame, his irises a deeper version of Remus’s – which made him all the more beautiful. She had to remember to keep herself from slipping back into those dark, self-pitying thoughts, had to force herself to move a little bit faster. With any luck, she would be reunited with him soon.

She didn’t stop moving until she found a tree with branches low and sturdy enough to climb. She then yanked at the silver cords around her arm until they snapped, her fingers shaking from a combination of nerves and an empty stomach. Tonks wiped the sweat out of her eyes, refastening her flag to a tree branch with those cords. She conjured more cords with Incarcerous and tested the knots to ensure they were strong enough, and then tapped her wand over the flag and layers of rope, casting a Disillusionment Charm. With her flag hidden, Tonks carefully slid down the base of the tree and crouched there for a moment, glancing both ways, before jogging up an incline where the trees were shaking from something – or someone – disturbing them.

Invisible to Tonks, Vincent Crabbe was thrashing against a clump of Devil’s Snare just eleven feet to her right. He swore under his breath, fighting against the monster of vines that had wrapped six leafy limbs around his ankles and arms. Another velvety feeler slithered up his body, tasting the air around his ears curiously before winding, vice-like, around his throat.

“In – Incendio,” Vincent gasped. He couldn’t feel his fingers; blood puffed them up like sausages, unable to circulate. Sparks spewed from the tip of his wand, frightening the Devil’s Snare into a shrinking coil. Vincent stole the opportunity at once, the soles of his shoes scarcely touching the ground as he darted away. He barely missed an explosion that could have taken his leg off, blasting out of the heart of the Devil’s Snare and obliterating what was left of the plant.

James was right on Vincent’s heels, trying to use Accio to summon Vincent’s flag but failing. It seemed that the flags would not be so easily swindled away from their owners; James would have to use physical force. The explosion blew him off his feet, rocketing him into an abandoned fire pit. He rolled over in the charred brushwood, squeezing his eyes tightly shut. He couldn’t allow Lily to see him in pain, or she would never forgive him for entering the tournament.

When the shriek of the explosion ebbed away, James refocused his eyes on the burning hole in the ground that had previously been flat and sound, staggering to his feet. Magical explosives. The memory was dim, as it had been a great many years since he was in school, but the information came flooding back to him in the form of a practice exam question: Name the device created by goblins during the Rebellion Period that required the verbal pronunciation of spells to activate. Answer: Voice Boxes. The goblins buried them before their riots. When wizards chased after them, their verbal incantations triggered the Voice Boxes to detonate, resulting in mass casualties. Their intention was to make wizards feel the disadvantages of carrying a wand, reflecting the disadvantages goblins had always endured for being forbidden to carry them.

James never dreamed that History of Magic would be useful to him. He’d only paid attention because Lily sat next to him in that class and she could easily see the marks on his essays that Professor Binns handed back, and he’d wanted to impress her.

Where are you? James thought darkly, flicking the fringe out of his eyes. I know you can see me, wherever you are. He'd thought he might be able to spread his concentration equally among his teammates, and not become fixated on Snape, but he knew now that he couldn’t forget him because he couldn’t forgive him. He couldn’t forgive Snape for being the one selected to watch over Harry, to be a part of his life – no matter how negative his role might have been – when James was barred from seeing his son altogether. For this reason, and countless others that felt trivial in comparison, he could not forgive Severus Snape. He felt his skin itch with irritation, knowing that Snape must be nearby. Why hadn’t he made a move yet? Playing with his food before he ate it, most likely…

Severus gazed down on James through half-lidded eyes, his upper lip curling with derision. It would be all too easy to lacerate Potter from head to toe, to swipe his flag and destroy it. The only thing that kept him from doing so was the stabbing reminder that he owed Potter. He believed he had done enough on earth to clear his name with Lily, for helping to keep her son alive until he was old enough to defeat Voldemort. Still, the fact remained that Lily and James could have looked after their son themselves had they been alive, and the only reason why any of them were marked at all, the only reason why Voldemort had hunted Harry for nearly all of the boy’s life, was because of one small mistake Severus had made when he was young.

He’d overhead a prophecy and repeated it, thinking only of positive scenarios in which he would be rewarded for his value, for his irreplaceable wit and loyalty. He had never once entertained thoughts of those actions coming back to bite him.

His love for Lily redeemed him, but he harbored no such love for James, and therefore had nothing to offer in exchange for forgiveness. Because of his lifelong enemy whom he’d never be rid of, even in death, Severus could not be the first one to attack. He despised Potter for putting him in this susceptible position of debt.

He would not be the first to attack, but that did not mean he wouldn’t fight. He could not deny that he wanted James to try it, to attempt to cast Severus out of the tournament. He couldn’t wait to rub James’s inadequacy in his own face when he realized that while Severus’s life had not been a happy one, it had been long enough to learn a few more tricks than Potter could ever fathom. There was no question of who was the cleverer wizard.

Using Muffliato to subdue his footsteps, Severus traipsed uphill, to a summit where the trees thinned. The greenery became younger, their trunks slight and spindly, the leaf and needle-strewn forest floor soon replaced with soft grass. A shuddering of leaves alerted him to neighbors and after seconds of sweeping the sparse landscape, his eyes fell upon a black shoe poking out from behind a tree, followed by a pale nose and chin. The unknowing guest had no idea that he was being watched.

Severus shrank into the folds of a flutterby bush, a plant with such natural, frequent movement that no additional stirrings would raise an alarm.

Colin Creevey, the energetic little Gryffindor with half a brain, was roaming around with his wand held out in full view. Severus exhaled through his nostrils, resisting the impulse to roll his eyes. Hadn’t Creevey learned anything? It was asinine to expose his only weapon like that, free for anyone to swipe from him with a simple Expelliarmus.

Stupefy, Severus silently commanded, still cloaked in the springy flutterby foliage. The leaves constantly bloomed and receded in on themselves to form tight little buds, giving the impression of a butterfly taking flight. Severus’s wan face glowed red from the radiance of his spell, the beautiful color of which he never felt he could get used to. Curses had a sort of grace about them, flowing from thought to wand to victim in a sudden burst of power that never failed to leave Severus in awe. The scarlet streak connected with Colin’s chest; he crumbled soundlessly to the ground, his movements quieted by a clump of ferns. Bracing himself against all of the eyes who might be watching him, disapproving of his attack on a former student, Severus emerged from his hiding place and knelt at Colin’s side.

The imaginary disapproval he felt from the citizens of Cliodna’s Clock could only work in his favor, however. It would prove his theory correct: No one would be going after Colin. Potter wouldn’t hurt an innocent boy who’d idolized his son, and Vincent was so loud and lumbering that Colin would be able to hear him from a mile off. Colin was safe, and therefore the safest place to hide Severus’s flag was in Colin’s possession. He deftly retrieved Colin’s flag, which the boy had stuffed deep inside one sock, and switched it with his own.

Once Severus was safely secluded in the denser regions of the forest, but still close enough to see Colin’s sprawled body still lying in an unconscious heap, he pointed his wand again. Rennervate. Colin would awaken with no idea who had cursed him or what had happened. After considering this, Severus modified the boy’s memory so that he would believe he’d merely tripped and hit his head on a rock.

“There,” he whispered to himself, striding confidently in the direction of where he’d last seen James Potter lurking about. “Let him come and find me now.”


*

Tonks scratched at her arms, both eyes tearing viciously through the trees. It was getting darker, harder to see. She could feel the heat of sunset burning up her scalp, but it wouldn’t be long before the vivid orange sky gave way to violet. Her teammates had either scurried off into opposite directions or they’d retreated into the trees, not wanting to be the only ones out when darkness approached. She’d been bitten by wood lice, scratched by bowtruckles, and stung repeatedly in the neck by a Red Vampyr Mosp. When she’d tried to Stun the Vampyr Mosp, a sort of land mine had exploded, propelling Tonks into a sleeping Chimaera’s den.

Right, she thought to herself. Enough complaining. Remus is watching. He’s expecting you to do well.

She stopped walking for a moment, envisioning Remus sitting up in the stands, watching and waiting. What would he want her to do? He could see glimpses of all the others, and would know exactly where she should go. For the first time since she’d signed up for the Devil’s Duel, Tonks halfway wished that Remus had entered, too. He could have been a load of help.

Focus, she could almost hear him say. What are you going to do next?

Wait for the others to do each other in? Hide out until it's over?

Don’t be optimistic, he would probably answer. You need a plan. A good one.

“Right-o,” she breathed, swinging her arms at her sides. “An objective.” She remembered what Remus had told her a week earlier, about how Peter seemed to be unconsciously searching her out in Round One. That was what he’d asked Scrimgeour, wasn’t it? If he was Tonks in disguise? He’d been quite keen on getting rid of Scrimgeour, as he thought Scrimgeour was Tonks, so that meant… “Peter.”

She was surprised by the burning sting of acid in her voice as she said it. But swiftly – within seconds – she was wondering why she’d taken so long to stumble upon this realization. Peter. Of course she would attack Peter. He’d proven to be a capable foe, but she was more than capable herself. She had hatred on her side, whereas he only had fear. After James died and Sirius was sent to Azkaban for it, Remus was left completely alone, haunted by the fact that three of his closest friends had been murdered, indirectly or personally, by their other friend, Sirius Black. Remus spent years agonizing over it, wishing he could have done something to prevent poor Peter’s demise. And then, years and years later, Peter returned in one fell swoop and turned against James yet again, laughing at James beyond the grave by helping Voldemort in his quest for Harry’s blood.

“And he’s here, in Cliodna’s Clock, where he’ll never have to be punished.”

You have talents that no one else has, Remus echoed. Use them.

Tonks took a deep breath, scrunching her face into a grimace. She hadn’t applied her Metamorphmagus abilities since arriving in the afterlife; so while her teammates were most likely aware that she could transform her appearance at will, they probably would not be expecting it.

She felt her body contort, hot with the surge of racing blood. After everything was finished, she set off in search of Remus’s old friend Peter.


*

Cedric was tiny in comparison to the beast sliding around before him, its eighteen eyes boring down on his pallid face while nine forked tongues hissed their displeasure. Each scale was approximately the size of Cedric’s hand – a body like a dragon with nine long serpent heads. The creature had been digging around in a swampy lagoon, hunting with many slender snouts for mutated amphibians larger than dogs. The polluted pool was surrounded almost entirely by a wall of boulders. A waterfall used to trickle down in front of a small cave, providing camouflage for the hydra’s lair, but it had since dried up, leaving only a slimy green residue behind.

The swamp’s water was stagnant, reeking with an odor almost as foul as the hydra’s breath, which curled around its nine heads in a rust-colored smog with hot shocks of toxic gas. Cedric had spied the rocky terrain and decided to investigate, and upon seeing a largely-enclosed space that would be excellent for hiding in, he thought it prudent to have a look around and see if Tonks, Peter, or Fred could possibly be lingering.

The center serpent’s head reared back, hissing with poisonous spit. Its wine-red eyes glittered, the striking jewel-tone scales rippling over strips of thick muscle. It lifted one clawed foot and stepped closer to Cedric, making the ground quake.

“Confundo!” Cedric boomed, aiming his wand at the center serpent’s left eye.

The snake he Confunded shook its head dazedly, lulled into a stupor, but the eight other heads raised their hackles in defense. Cedric leapt away from it, inching towards a crevice that led back into the forest. The hydra followed on four huge feet, eight mouths emitting loud, siren-like screeches.

“Aresto Momentum.”

The hydra slowed down slightly, but was still close enough to sink its many fangs into his body if it so desired. Panicking not just because of the hydra’s terrifying presence but because its wails would undoubtedly draw the attention of his teammates, he shouted, “Silencio!” He then shot the Conjunctivitis Curse at random, trying to strike one of its eyes. Bolts of white lightning issued from his wand, slicing at the hydra’s scaly body but not hitting any of Cedric’s intended marks.

He swallowed, trying again, and this time aiming for one of its necks. “Diffindo.”

A serpent head was severed from its long neck, which still writhed in the air. The head fell into the swamp with a splash, prompting silent screeches from its other heads, barring the Confunded eighth one. Elated with his success, Cedric pointed at another head and repeated the spell. His left hand grappled along the rock wall, slipping through muck and filthy, torpid water as he stepped backwards towards the craggy opening. Just as he was about to cast the spell for a third time, he noticed two new heads sprouting out of the first neck he’d slayed, ripping out of the lesion with slimy tentacles. A second later, the other head he’d sliced off was reborn with two new heads, as well.

Eleven snakes gazed at Cedric, twenty-two eyes narrowing vindictively.

I could use this, Cedric thought in a spark of intuition, stepping through the lagoon’s narrow opening at last. Luring the hydra out of its swamp might not be a terrible idea, not if he could somehow escape and leave a fellow teammate to deal with the monster unprepared. Cedric figured that he could even find a tree to climb, and sever head after head after head, watching them all multiply until the hydra’s menace was at its peak.

“Accio flag!” a voice cried. Cedric and the hydra both turned their attentions to a portly little man named Peter Pettigrew, who was wearing a mixture of a smile and a snarl, his eyes wide and malevolent.

Despite the fact that Peter’s spell obviously didn’t have any effect on Cedric’s flag, Cedric mirrored his opponent by shouting, “Accio Pettigrew’s flag!”

The hydra, still mute, flared up at the sight of two threatening wizards, and thundered towards Cedric. Just as one of its heads was close enough to enshroud Cedric in a haze of sour breath that tasted like decaying flesh, there was a faint clicking noise, followed by a blast of dirt and rocks acting as shrapnel. The hydra was blown backward, a bloody, wriggling mass.

Peter, who had fallen down from the force of the explosion, scrambled to his feet and made a run for it. Cedric could do nothing but watch in horror as the serpent sprouted more heads, their sharp, curving teeth cutting on grubby air. The ground rocked again, shifting from the explosion. An enormous stone wedged in the lagoon’s entryway behind the hydra shook, perilously close to coming loose. Something about the surrounding scene caught on Cedric’s tongue.

Stone.

A serpent’s mouth was already swallowing the point of Cedric’s wand, sucking with powerful jaws, when he bellowed, “Duro!” Immediately, the hydra froze in place, its many eyes unblinking. Its scales began to crack, to audibly coat with hard granite. The creature was magical, unyielding, and so it attempted to thrash against the curse, breaking its way through casings of stone that continually entrapped it. While the hydra tried to prevent itself from turning to stone as Duro demanded, Cedric pointed at the loosened boulder. Accio, he inwardly roared.

The stone came rushing at him – he ducked just in time to miss it. He could feel it grazing the tips of his hair as it soared over him and into a tree, splintering its trunk in half. The entire rock wall that formed a fortress around the swampy lagoon began to rumble and shiver, giving way into an avalanche that buried the crumbling hydra. Cedric took off at full speed, zipping through the forest with laughter tingling the back of his throat. He hadn’t felt this much excitement in years…

Fred Weasley, who was wading across a creek, paused for a moment. He could have sworn he’d just heard something in the ground, some sort of vibration, like a stampede of rocks pouring out of the sky.

“We’re finally starting the fun then, are we?” he mused. “Brilliant. It’s about bloody time.” A small black cloth floated out of his sleeve and downriver, which he hastily snatched back up. He needed somewhere safer to put it… A mischievous smile lit his face as he tapped his wand on the waterlogged flag. It transfigured into a small onyx ring, engraved with his initials in sky blue script.

“Probably isn’t what you had in mind, eh, Cliodna?” Fred said with a laugh, looking up towards the sky and the bubbling surface of the Pensieve. “It’s not really damaging it, so this can’t count against me.” He slipped the ring onto his finger and continued across the creek. Once he was on the bank, he performed a Hot-Air Charm to dry his socks and shoes only, since the rest of him was clothed in water-resistant dragon hide.

A nearby bush rustled. Fred glanced up, hoping it was only a bird hopping about, but saw the traces of someone’s elbow before the intruder vanished. They bustled along a curving trail that traveled downhill into the thickest patch of the wood. Fred’s smile faded; he rose to his full height, noiselessly dispatching after the person. It couldn’t have been a goblin – they were all surely dead by now, and the rest of the wizard army had already sprinted into the valley. That left three options.

He gripped his wand firmly, hiding the bulk of it up his sleeve so that only the tip protruded between his index finger and thumb. The tip was still white-hot, glowing a purplish hue from his last incantation that took its time to die. The other contender was just around the bend, oblivious of him. Fred sped up a little, his wand sliding out farther. He imagined all of the places one could stow a flag on their body, hoping that another person’s flag would soon be his for the taking.

The other person’s footsteps stopped. They’d reached another path that forked left and north, and seemed to be debating between the two. Fred didn’t dare speak as he crept up behind them. He would require the split-second advantage of reciting a nonverbal spell.

A shock of red hair, a familiar nose and chin. The mysterious contender was identical to Fred Weasley in every single way, from his light brown eyes to his freckles to the hand that gripped a half-concealed wand. The only difference was that this other person was wearing plain black clothing.

They abruptly pivoted, jogging down the left-hand path and out of sight.

Fred’s blood was pooling in his shoes, his heart beating a livid bruise against his Adam’s apple. He couldn’t hear or smell or taste or think. He couldn’t breathe. His eyes had become so fogged over that he almost couldn’t see.

“George,” he whispered with a voice that cracked, and he quickly followed suit.


*


Vincent Crabbe was muttering bitterly to himself. Lay low and shut up, Salazar had ordered. Well, where had that gotten him? He’d been ambushed by an army of Devil’s Snare. Vincent had seen several people passing by as they hiked through the forest, but the Devil’s Snare ignored them, not giving them so much as a swat. He was beginning to come to the conclusion that the plants had a personal prejudice, which flummoxed him because he’d downed a whole vial of Felix Felicis before the start of the tournament.

“Laying low isn’t doing anything for me,” Vincent grumbled. What did Salazar know, anyway? He didn’t know anything. He’d never been in the races. He had no idea what it was like, or what people should do. All he knew was what he witnessed from an outsider’s perspective. Slytherin’s advice was rubbish.

Resolving to take matters into his own hands, Vincent withdrew his wand from his pocket and sped up his pace, following the crunch of someone’s boots as they snapped over twigs. A tall man with jet-black hair was examining what looked to be an enormous cobra cut in half. He held it in the middle, where it was the least bloody, and peered into the dead snake’s mouth. Vincent didn’t understand what James Potter was doing, but James was estimating the possibilities of using the snake’s fangs as a weapon. Assaulting Snape with snake venom would be almost poetic in a way, bringing him back to the moment of his death. James was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t take notice of Vincent, and couldn’t stop him in time.

Vincent seized on James’s distraction, grabbing the black cloth tied around James’s wrist and pulling on it until it came free. James whirled around, wand out, but Vincent had already hopped over a fallen log and around a cluster of yew trees, beginning the descent downhill.

Downhill… James threw the beheaded serpent in a rage. The clearing was downhill. The bonfire was downhill. James scanned the sky, which was slowly filling up with stars. A column of angry black smoke twirled up over the tree line, thinning into the heavens like stretched cotton.

He tore off after the boy, his vision clouding with bright crimson pops like embers. He was faster than Vincent, catching up to him after just two minutes of chasing him. He pointed his wand, ready to fire, but it was too late. Vincent had already Disapparated.

And he’d splinched himself, leaving behind the hand that was holding onto James’s flag.

In the second James took to gape at the hand, its fingers still wiggling, still curling protectively over the cloth, Severus Snape jumped out of an overhanging tree and scooped up the flag, a wicked smile disfiguring his lips.

“Crucio!” James hollered.

Severus effortlessly deflected the spell with a Shield Charm and smirked, spinning on the spot with a crack.

James Apparated along after him, furious, and landed in a pool of hot blood. Vincent was twitching on the ground nearby, bleeding profusely with his eyes rolling into the back of his head. His legs were in the grip of Venomous Tentacula. Its forever-long arms encircled him like ropes of red, planting thorny kisses all over his flesh. James hated the way that the boy was screaming, and wanted to help him, but Snape was so close to the fire already…

Their whole team was at the bonfire. Colin Creevey had decided to loop around it repeatedly just in case anyone came after him – this way he would be that much closer to burning his attacker’s flag, as well. Despite the horrifying effigy towering above him, the wizard’s arms and head already burned up, he found the source of light to be much more comforting and safe than the treacherous black forest’s masked hazards.

Severus was close…he was running… “Depulso!” James shouted.

A blinding white halo of light, spinning so fast in circles that James could feel the wind emanating from it, launched out of James’s heart, out of his wand, and shot across the distance that separated him from Severus. Severus turned at the last moment, black eyes widening, and ducked aside in a kneejerk reaction. The curse hit Colin in the stomach, so loud and powerful that he gasped, and he fell backward into the bonfire.

As the boy burned, so did the flag he carried.

Severus’s.


*


With Mortuus gone from the forest, Victus felt the pressure to bring their duel to a close, as well. Still masquerading as Fred with her Metamorphmagus abilities, Tonks finally found Peter hiding in a hidden cavern of sorts that surrounded a swamp. Lacewing flies buzzed about her ears; she batted them away, straining her eyes to see clearly through the dark, and that’s where she found him. He was hunched into a ball, and had painted himself with a Bedazzling Hex to blend perfectly into a mountain of rubble. Through a storm cloud of dirt that she could scarcely see through, Tonks’s eyes alighted on his reflective ones. True to form, he was a rat. He’d disguised himself to look like a small rock, but he was still a rat, and those reflective rat eyes gave him away.

I shouldn’t take his flag from him, she worried at once, beginning to question herself. If she eliminated him from the races now, that meant it would just be Fred, Cedric, and herself for Round Three. Who would she attack then? Who would she attack in Round Four? She couldn’t stomach the idea of Peter making it to Round Five and winning, staying alive in place of someone with real value.

But there he was, right in front of her, with nowhere to run. It was far too tempting. Memories of Remus spun around in her mind, of Remus’s face and the way it hardened every time Pettigrew’s name was mentioned.

The rest is for Teddy, but this here is for my husband.

She transformed Peter back into the man he would never truly be, and she ripped his flag away from him. He didn’t put up a fight.

The bonfire was easy to locate – she was about half a mile from victory, but the light of it was so strong that it could be seen through the darkness in all directions, the arrow of a compass pointing to a southern sun. Tonks felt her lungs relax, her muscles sore from being tense for so long. She morphed back into her own likeness to throw off Peter should he come running, as Peter would now be looking for Fred Weasley. Peter would never guess that it was actually Tonks who took his flag from him.

Tonks tripped over a tree root, hurling headlong into a headless corpse. She winced, grasping her knee with both hands. It had bumped into the sharp blade of the dead witch’s sword. The blood, combined with sweat and dirt and all of the other repulsive smells in the godforsaken forest, made her nauseous. She rolled onto her side and stood up, heaving, to discover herself face to face with Cedric Diggory. His eyes were round and gleaming, astounded by his own luck.

“Petrificus Totalus.”

The spell was followed by an explosion, and the last thing Tonks saw before the night grew dim around her was Cedric jumping over her fallen form, charging towards the bonfire. Peter’s flag had disappeared from her hand.

I’ve done it, Cedric exclaimed to himself, triumphant. He’d made the decision early-on to eliminate Tonks Lupin if he ever got the chance, since she was an Auror and his biggest threat. I’ve done it! I’ve got her flag and now all’s I’ve got to do is burn it.

He dashed to the bonfire and threw it in, breathing heavily. A smile warped his face – not just because he’d been successful in his endeavors, but because he felt like he might actually win the tournament. The Triwizard Cup had not been his, but those twenty-four hours certainly could be.

As Peter Pettigrew watched Cedric standing there, lording over the burning flag, he laughed and laughed and laughed, the echoes of it ringing all around the forest.

 





A/N: So, just to clarify in case there was any confusion, Severus Snape and Peter Pettigrew were eliminated in this round. Thank you for reading, and as always, reviews are very much appreciated!


Chapter 17: Number Two, Polaris Crescent
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THE SUPERSTITIOUS SIX



by Odessa Waffling
10 June 1998



As I’m sure we’re all aware, the races do not truly begin until you can count the names of every contender on one hand. That’s when the real action begins, no doubt about it. Anyone who has been paying close attention to the Devil’s Duel, however, should not allow themselves to overlook a traditional bit of excitement associated with the present stage of the tournament. Just because there are still a healthy variety of possible champions left does not mean that we should all relax for the time being.

For as long as anyone can remember, there’s been quite a lot of a dark history concerning the six remaining contenders after Round Two is said and done. This perhaps is where the centuries-old Cliodna’s Clock nursery rhyme comes into play: When the clock strikes ten and two, no one shall sleep. At eight, they must count the friends they keep. Midnight is no friend to its parallel, six; and four is an hour for mavericks.

Midnight not being a friend to its parallel, six, it is believed, refers to the six contenders left after Round Two. There are a myriad of theories about why this could be, the most popular one being that the visual images of twelve and six on the face of a clock are both straight lines pointing north. What lies north of Cliodna’s Clock’s blackbird statue? The answer to that question would be the Grotta, of course. In a mystifying coincidence that has baffled experts for years, losers of Round Three – two of the Superstitious Six – notoriously have gone bad and ended up in the Grotta.

Does the tournament drive them to insanity? Is there something singular about Round Three that makes them psychologically incapable of coming back to reality – which means, in essence, that they are mentally trapped in Round Three until they’re able to regain their senses or else be tossed into the Grotta? The reputation of the Superstitious Six is so deeply entrenched in our culture that reserve members of the Guard are annually borrowed to keep a twenty-four-hour vigil over the two losers of Round Three, lest they do something mad. *

Our options this year, should our village lose one or two of its residents to lunacy, are as follows: Cedric Diggory, Nymphadora Lupin, and Fred Weasley of Victus; and Vincent Crabbe, Colin Creevey, and James Potter of Mortuus. Which of the listed contestants has the potential to go mad, do you think? Will it be Nymphadora Tonks, the only female contender? Will it be Vincent Crabbe, who suffered deliberate disadvantages in Round Two for attempting to cheat with Felix Felicis? And then there’s James Potter, who’s had to watch his wife narrowly escape certain death thirteen times, which has to do something to the psyche. Cast your votes and opinions now, and a select few will be eligible to appear in tomorrow’s issue of the Daily Departed!

*We are obligated to state here that there is no guarantee one of the Superstitious Six will lose their marbles within the next two-hundred years, as the statistical chance of this occurring is only – you guessed it – six percent.


“There’s a lot to be said for trying to keep death interesting,” Remus mused, folding his newspaper in half so that he could observe his wife over the top half. “Their talents with stretching lackluster news as far as it can go would make Skeeter envious.”

Tonks chortled. “Ha. Keep talking about them that way and they’ll probably run a scandalous story on you tomorrow.” She grinned, eyes trailing across one wall while she thought about it. “‘President of Gobstones Club sneezes and Remus Lupin does not say ‘bless you’: Reasons why the one-time hero should not be trusted.’”

Remus laughed. He switched his focus back to the newspaper, biting the interior of his cheek when he came across the vacant properties section once again. He’d read one particular advertisement so many times that he could recite it from memory, but he cleared his throat and said, with a façade of idle curiosity, “Hmm. Geraint Ollivander’s house has been on the market for nearly a year now, with no takers. Interesting.”

“Nearly a year?” Tonks repeated, whipping open a drawer to stow Remus’s freshly-laundered socks within. The socks were already faded, their blue heels bleached almost white from so much washing. There wasn’t much else for Tonks to do in Cliodna’s Clock except repeatedly clean their small quarters in the boardinghouse. “When exactly did he move out?”

Remus had hoped she wouldn’t ask this. “Last July.”

“Not July first, by any chance?”

“That’s the one,” he responded tiredly.

To his surprise, she sauntered over and arranged herself behind him, one hand draped on his shoulder with her cheek hovering right next to his. “Ahh. Number two, Polaris Crescent. You just discovered this, then? Just now?” She tapped the tiny picture of a house with seaweed-colored gables and a large round chimney that looked like a Hogwarts turret.

“Mmhmm.” Remus tried to sound as innocent as possible.

“Curious.” Tonks’s lips curved into a secretive smile. She drifted back to a pile of sleeves and undergarments strewn across the bed that needed to be sorted and then organized according to color, a seemingly simple process that Tonks had successfully turned into an hour-long endeavor. “This must be fate, then, because you were talking about that exact same house in your sleep last night. Imagine that?”

Remus watched her smooth a crease in one of his shirts with gentle fondness. The local seamstress, Melinda Gladrags, made a fortune by duplicating clothes left behind on earth, going off of sketches or verbal descriptions. Remus had told Tonks not to bother, that he didn’t need the same attire that he once owned, but his wife was insistent that at least one aspect of their lives would remain the same. The shirt she now held was soft cream cotton with gray pinstripes, faint with magically-perfected age, and her absolute favorite article of his clothing. He frequently caught her wearing it, now more than ever. “I don’t know how you could hear me over your snoring," he replied. "That’s impressive.”

She opened one drawer and began to pull all of its contents out, but stopped. Turning lightly on her heel (and astonishing both of them with how graceful it looked, since she was the least graceful person either of them knew), she inquired, “Do you want to go and have a look at it, then? The house?”

“Number two, Polaris Crescent?” he asked quickly, his optimism beginning to rise. Maybe all of his fears were unfounded. Maybe she wanted this, too.

“That’s the one.”

Mr. and Mrs. Lupin were relieved to leave the boardinghouse for an evening, exchanging deep breaths and smiles that they hoped displayed confidence. After penning a letter to a witch called Mrs. Darby, who was chiefly in charge of Cliodna’s Clock’s estates, they received an answer to their query in less than six minutes.

“I will say that their postal system here is quite favorable,” Tonks admitted. Remus raised his eyebrows at her by way of replying; it was something he did often when he agreed or disagreed with someone but didn’t feel it necessary to speak. It was an intimate gesture, and Remus’s way of trusting her to know exactly what he was thinking without having to expressly state his thoughts. Tonks could never pinpoint why, but she always loved it when he responded without talking, when he was just looking at her in that quiet, reserved way of his…

Her expression softened as they began their eighteen-minute walk down the main avenue to Polaris Crescent, glancing up at her husband every so often. It still amazed her that she had successfully talked him out of all of his doubts once upon a time, that she had made him love her just as much as she loved him. He told her it was inevitable, but she liked to pretend it was all her own doing – her unyielding willpower, as she so often credited.

“So what are we doing, then?” she murmured, low enough so that Mrs. Darby would not hear her. The estate agent was strolling along far ahead of them at a brisk pace, eager to make a sale on a property that hadn’t aroused any interest since its owner, Geraint Ollivander, lost in the Devil’s Duel the previous year to none other than Lily Potter.

Remus gazed down at his wife, whose arm was looped in his. “I thought we were going to look at a house,” he answered in an equally low tone.

“Well, yes.” Tonks’s eyes strayed to the chipped mosaic of bricks that constructed the road, appreciating the drop in temperature that evening afforded. Dewdrops stained iris stalks that decorated either side of the road like a garnish, the earth sweating out its fever with humidity. “But, I mean, what are we going to do if we actually like it?”

“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he replied with a small grin, just as they pattered across a literal stone bridge linking one bank to another over a stream. Freshwater plimpies rose out of the water, diving over each other in elaborate rainbow arcs.

Tonks rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “All right, but let’s just say that we get in there and it’s perfect. Are we expected to pay for it? Forgive me, but I didn’t grab my pocketbook on my way out of Hogwarts. I was rather in a hurry.”

“Shhh,” he reprimanded softly, eyes darting up to Mrs. Darby. They were catching up to her, almost close enough to read the bold letters on a contract attached to her clipboard.

“I wondered when you two would start looking into your other options,” Mrs. Darby told them with a broad smile, turning around just as they reached a black spiked fence. “The boardinghouse really is lovely, though. Perfect for those who like a sense of community.”

“Yeah, that’s not really us,” Tonks quipped with a laugh. “We don’t like other people.” She realized that the estate agent and Remus had both turned away from her, engrossed in something else, and belatedly registered the house rearing up before her. It took her a few seconds to connect the view as being the same one from the newspaper ad, since a few of its shingles had gone missing since the photograph was taken, and there was no snow on the ground. Two new cobalt-blue fir trees grew up along one side, shrouding an upstairs window. A few of its branches poked right inside the tin gutter, undoubtedly clogging it up.

It’s beautiful, she thought.

Breathlessly, she trotted forward after Mrs. Darby through the rusted gate. It made a musical clanging sound when Remus shut it behind them; Tonks watched his face to read for an expression and he merely raised his eyebrows at her again. She knew that a smile hid not far beneath.

He reached for her hand, lacing his fingers through hers with a familiarity that felt like home, as they approached the sagging wooden steps. On the left side of the front door (whose storm door was dented at the bottom, as well as scratched up by some sort of animal desperate to get inside), was a letterbox with peeling metallic stickers: G. H. OLLIVANDER.

The estate agent beamed widely over her shoulder. “It’s a one-bedroom. Will that be enough?”

Remus slid an arm around Tonks’s waist, pulling her close to him. He could feel her body tense in reaction to the question.

“That’s fine,” Tonks responded. The fact that she could keep her voice level, even determined-sounding, renewed Remus with admiration and love for her, proving wrong the mindset that he couldn’t possibly love her any more than he already did at the start of the day.

A red-haired woman ducked out of a food shop sitting diagonally across the street from them, her arms laden with bags. She stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of the street, staring at the couple in front of number two, Polaris Crescent. Dilys Derwent raised her hand in merry greeting, but she didn’t seem to notice. Before Remus and Tonks could glimpse her standing there, Lily Potter hurried back into the shop, torrents of guilt washing over her.

No one had stepped inside Geraint’s house in months; no one had slept there since the twenty-ninth day of June in 1997. He’d lived there for so long that no villager could look at the colorful little home without instantly recollecting Geraint rocking away in his chair on the front porch. He was that house – a part of the walls, a layer of paint. For some reason, Geraint’s loss would be felt more strongly if new people were to take over his house than it would if it were left abandoned forever.

She wondered what the Lupins might think of her when they learned why its owner was gone.

Once inside the house, Mrs. Darby found a spot of floor to stand on while she patiently waited for the couple to explore at their leisure. She began to unravel about the house’s history in a long, boring speech – something about a ghoul a few decades ago who escaped from Ollivander’s attic and looted several houses, giving an elderly witch named Mauve quite a turn. After a few weary verses, she acknowledged the cool silence of disregard, and for her own enjoyment, opted to chat about inappropriate topics with the awareness that none of it was being listened to.

As was usual in house-showing, the Lupins waited until they were isolated in another room before commenting on anything, so as not to be overheard.

The rooms were small and square, but the ceilings tall and open, and the plumbing was still in working condition. Remus nodded his head towards a fireplace in the upstairs bedroom that he knew Tonks would absolutely love; it was made from small, smooth white stones and the luminescent pink underbellies of seashells, all melded together. The interior and hearth had been stained a glittering green hue from centuries of Floo powder use. There weren’t any logs to be found, but Remus could still smell the ancient vestiges of burning wood, as his sense of smell was exceptionally strong as of late. It was like catching the scent of memories.

“Oooh,” Tonks commented, the oak floor creaking as she joined her husband. “I like that. Look at how oddly it’s shaped, Remus, all round like that. Have you ever seen a round chimney before?”

“Nope,” he lied. He wanted her to see the house as he saw it – as potential, as novel. There was something special in it, despite its simplicity. The walls were in dire need of being repainted and there was some funny-looking green carpet in the bathroom that might’ve actually been grass, but neither could pay those details any mind. “And the windows are interesting, as well.” He cleared his throat, motioning with two fingers up one wall to a wide casement window. All of the windows in the house were different from each other in architecture and year of creation, ranging from a round stained glass one from the Middle Ages to a set of three rectangular windows in the drawing room that had self-tinting sashes.

Tonks wound a hand-crank anticlockwise, listening to the window’s right panel push out over the tree branches with a rustling whisper. From here, she could better witness the damage that the tree’s branches had inflicted on the gutter, which would need to be replaced.

Remus walked over to her side, pressing one hand to the still-closed left window panel. The glass was thick, the ivy paint on the crisscrossing lattice design rubbing away to reveal lead origins. He studied the contours of Tonks’s cautious reflection in one of the diamond patterns, wanting and waiting to hear her say that she was ready for this, that she was willing to help him pick up the pieces. He couldn’t do it without her.

“The secondary address is on Winter Walk,” he told her. “The advertisement says that the house usually goes back and forth between Polaris Crescent and Winter Walk, so at least we’ll have some strange seasons.”

She returned his sober smile, knowing at that moment that they would of course take the house. She could deny him nothing, not when she had the opportunity to make him just a little bit happier. Making Remus happy was her very favorite thing in the world.

“There is a small catch,” Mrs. Darby spoke up from behind them. She looked friendly and pleasant, but there was a note of hesitance that she was trying to screen. “I hope you’re not averse to animals.”

“What sort of animals?”

“Houses here are…well, I suppose you could say that they’re inherited. If you claim this house, you will inherit everything that comes with it. Most of his things are gone, taken by Mr. Ollivander’s living relatives. There is one thing, though, that no one has been able to take.” She licked her lips. “As it so happens, Geraint had a dog. Moira Abbott’s been taking care of her on a temporary basis, but Pepper is eager to come home.” She frowned, worried. “You’re not allergic to fur, are you?”

Remus turned away from her, shoulders shaking with laughter.

Mrs. Darby looked from him to Tonks, who’d given a loud snort, quizzical of their reactions. “Umm, yes. Okay, then.” The estate agent consulted her clipboard before plastering on another megawatt smile. “What are your thoughts? I’ve got you listed here as a professor, Mr. Lupin.”

“Nothing’s been set in stone yet, I haven’t formally agreed to it –”

“Which qualifies you,” Mrs. Darby went on, purposefully ignoring him. “Minimum of fifteen years for professor duties and you’ll have purchased this in full.” She gave him a conspiratorial wink. “If I can just say something off the record here, the deal isn’t all bad. We rarely get anyone school-age in Cliodna’s Clock. You’ll mostly have students who are much older and have been here for a number of years, curious about modern developments in magic and society. They’ll just be wanting a brushing-up of what recent life in the magical world is like. It’s not a very demanding job, and you’ll be in rotation with other professors, so you might not even be needed every year.”

“What’re you trying to say?” Tonks retorted. “You saying he’ll just be sitting on his hands?”

“Dora, don’t –” Remus began, but she cut him off.

“He’s a professional,” Tonks spouted defensively. “Not very demanding, eh? What’re they teaching the students nowadays? Recent spells, you say? Fat lot of good that’s doing them – I met a bloke this morning who couldn’t even tie his shoes by magic! They’ll need Remus immediately.”

The man in question released an exasperated groan.

“Get this roof fixed up proper and we’ll take it,” Tonks finished decisively. “And I want a warranty with the dog. Some of them like to bite me. Also, I sometimes forget to feed them.”

“I’ll remember to feed the dog,” Remus interjected before Mrs. Darby could grow alarmed.

Mrs. Darby’s shock from Tonks’s brusqueness died away, replaced with a wry smile. “If you wanted to negotiate the roof being fixed, Mrs. Lupin, you could’ve just mentioned it. We’re very flexible, you know. We planned on repairing all of the damages, anyway.”

Tonks sniffed, unable to come up with a response. Mrs. Darby closed the distance between them, her heels clicking across the floorboards. She extended one hand, her fingernails coated with a shiny orange blossom varnish, and dropped a key ring with two keys into Remus’s palm. “One’s for the front door, the other’s for the garden shed.”

“I didn’t see a garden shed on our way in.”

“That’s because it’s on Fortescue’s roof today. You can probably expect it to return in three days or so.” She surveyed Tonks through her auburn fringe. “I’ll let you two lock up when you’re finished. You can contact me at my home office if you decide to accept the terms of agreement.” She swiftly exited the room, leaving the house suddenly silent and colorless in her wake.

Tonks let out a deep breath that she’d been holding in for the past half hour, mentally following the stout estate agent with only a fourth of her concentration, listening to her click-clacking down the darkening street. A cool breeze gushed through the blue fir’s needles, floating into the bare bedroom. The walls and ceiling seemed to shrink in the waning sunlight, growing smaller and smaller until it might swallow the pair of them.

Remus’s eyes slid to his wife, shining with amusement. “Demanding that they fix the roof? Your selective memory is really something to behold.” When Tonks only looked confused at this, he added, “Our first house didn’t even have furniture that was built in the twentieth century. The bathtub was the size of a walnut and if you talked too loudly, the whole roof would come crashing down.”

“I’m sure I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. That house was perfectly lovely.”

“It was a glorified cardboard box.”

They proceeded to tour the house – sometimes together and sometimes alone, until they knew each of the five little rooms by heart, every nook and every cranny. Slowly, their minds began to redefine the barren space as not belonging to the unseen ghost of Geraint Ollivander, but as their own. None of it was anything like their old home, of course, which had presumably been abandoned or put up for sale by Andromeda Tonks. Tonks wondered if her mother had taken any of their belongings, if she’d had to dig through Remus’s writing desk or Tonks’s wardrobe yet, making the heart-wrenching decisions of what to donate and what to save for Teddy.

Andromeda would keep the picture albums, of course, and all of Teddy’s clothing, for surely she would be the one to raise Teddy. Andromeda wouldn’t allow anyone else to raise her only grandchild – would never pass him off to an orphanage. Harry Potter was godfather, but not nearly old enough yet to care for a two-month-old child. Andromeda would take care of everything, no matter how hard it might become for her. She might put aside Tonks’s and Remus’s wedding rings if they hadn't been buried with them, maybe to hang on a chain over Teddy’s mobile so that he could watch their tiny diamonds catch the light.

Most of their books would be given away, and honestly more of Remus’s possessions would probably be parted with than Tonks’s, since Andromeda might have a more difficult time getting rid of her daughter’s things than her son-in-law’s. Some of it was destined to pass to Harry, as Remus had mandated in his living will that he never got the chance to update before his death.

Tonks felt tears sting her eyes, picturing her mother kneeling on the floor beside Tonks’s unmade bed in England, pulling out shoebox after shoebox of love letters Remus had written for her; he never actually intended to give them to her, but she’d discovered them one day while he was at an Order meeting and, much to Remus’s mortification, refused to give them back. Poor Andromeda would have to filter through all of those emotions, words, and promises of growing old together all by herself, with little to no assistance to help shoulder her grief.

“Dora?”

She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, turning around. “Just looking at these curtains. They’re really awful.” He must have noticed the watery pink tinge to her eyes, but he didn’t press her with questions, and so she didn’t have to lie and try to attribute it to the Vampyr Mosp venom. They both knew that injuries sustained while inside the Pensieve disappeared the moment contenders returned to Cliodna’s Clock, anyway, but she hated crying in front of her husband.

“We can get new ones.” He rubbed her shoulder blade, listening to the house settle. Through the open windows, they could hear a tinkling of music from a neighbor’s wireless, and the town’s communal children playacting in everyone’s gardens, chasing each other around streetlamps buzzing with moths. One of the little McKinnon girls was steering a small bicycle around a winding gravel path, kicking pebbles up into its metal spokes. Fabian Prewett jogged by, mussing up her hair with one broad hand as he passed, and the girl shrieked indignantly at him until he was gone, and then grinned at her friends, delighted with the attention.

Tonks noticed that Remus was still watching her. She reached for his hand without searching for it, thankful to find it warm today. The heat seemed to be coming from all around him, not just from within. She met his gaze, which was all deep purple shadows and pearly lights from a silver moon, twisted up neatly into an inscrutable expression.

He was looking at her in such a way that she felt like she was burning.

Remus pulled Tonks into his arms, tilting his head to see into her eyes. They reflected the swollen moon, something he hadn’t been able to look at properly since he was a small boy. He was either crippled with potion or out of his senses as a wolf whenever the full moon appeared, punishing him month after month after month, wearing him down until he was just raw bones.

But now, there was no physical pain or fangs pushing through his gums, no humiliating ripping noises as his clothing split at the seams. He would never have to curl up underneath a desk again, his very blood numb from the effects of Wolfsbane. He would never tear through a forest, blinded by animalistic rage and confusion; he would never have to howl ever again.

“I wonder if it’s the same one,” Tonks marveled, looking up at the sky. “The one from back home, shining over Teddy.” She sighed. “Isn’t it pretty?”

Remus arched his eyebrows in that mysterious way of his again. “I can think of something prettier.”

He kissed her, ignoring the wolf-whistling children spying on them from their streetlamp that doubled as a home base for games. The Lupins could not give their son memories or affection, but they had given him something far more precious.

A future.
 

*

 
A photograph tumbles into the front garden of number two, Polaris Crescent in a somersault of leaves, blowing up the tree boughs and onto the roof. It soars through a casement window, dipping from side to side like a bird over water before coming to a rest on the bedroom floor:

Her face is blurry but you can tell that she is smiling. Her glasses are reflecting the white light of a camera’s flash, the round lenses like little moons.
 


Chapter 18: Evidence
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Click.

Colin pressed the shutter release button again. The handheld machine made a whirring noise, followed by a small photograph dispensing from a horizontal slot. The camera Dumbledore gave him wasn’t like his Muggle one back home, whose film he’d had to develop in a special potion to make the subjects move around by magic. This camera was always one click away from an instant picture. The film never ran out. No potion was required. Everything was already magical because the camera itself was magical.

“Let me see.” Orla took the picture from him, still warm, and watched her own smile grinning back up at her. The Orla in the picture winked.

Colin pivoted to face the peacock sky, rich with blues and greens reflecting the ocean, smiling with one eye pressed to the viewfinder.

He examined his handiwork, admiring the strokes of blue smattered with bronze stars that melted into view as he wafted the small white square against the balmy air. When he looked up at the natural sky again, the color had already deepened, curtains closing into night at long last.

“Ordinary magic,” he murmured.

Orla smiled. “You ready to see it, then?”

Colin lowered his camera, upper teeth embedding themselves into his lower lip. His dark brown eyes were shadowed with worry. “Just don’t get your hopes up. I mean, we still don’t really have anything concrete to go on.”

Orla rolled her eyes, making them momentarily disappear under her too-long fringe. “Let’s get cracking, then – only it’s not on this side. I found it on the other side, just this morning at dawn before I trekked all round the houses and helped myself to their supper leftovers. I’m not sure these people know how to lock their windows.”

“Dawn? Do you even sleep?”

“'Course I sleep. I’m dead, not a vampire.” She started to walk; when he didn’t immediately follow, she barked, “Creevey! I’m getting old, here. Come on.”

“Well, technically you can’t –” Colin timidly began, but she clapped him on the back.

“I timed it precisely. It takes thirty minutes to walk from this bit to that bit. And I know that we don’t have anything concrete, per se, but I’m telling you, it’s just the kind of thing we’ve been looking for. And on top of that, there’s that whole conversation I overheard. Can’t be forgetting that, now.”

“When you were eavesdropping on Professor Moody and Professor Lupin and his family?”

“Not eavesdropping,” Orla chirped. “Overhearing, and quite on accident. I was in that tree before they ever came by with their wands and all that dueling nonsense.”

“Conjecture,” Colin sighed. “Professor Moody has a reputation for being paranoid. I’m not sure if we can really put stock into anything he says.”

“Why d’you keep calling him ‘Professor’, he was never your professor,” Orla raved, straying off topic. “Your real professor was a loony Death Eater, wasn’t he? But anyway, it got me thinking about how everything came to be. All of this.” She observed the flickering streetlamps and a nearby mixture of coniferous and tropical trees with a hammock hanging somewhere in-between. “And how we came to be. It just reinforced everything that we were already thinking.”

Colin stared at her, eyebrows knitting together in worry.

“Oh, Creevey, you look just adorable when you do that.” She patted his head like she would a puppy; he frowned at her and then lifted up his camera without warning, snapping another picture. A photograph shot out of the camera’s slot, drifting to the grimy cobblestones before either of them could grab it. “Let’s go find some answers, shall we?” she tacked on in her usually bossy voice.

Together, they set off down the avenue, their long shadows dashing along ahead of them. Orla spun around three times in dizzying pirouettes. “Hello there!” she called up to one of the elegant manors of Gwendolyn Court.

On an exquisite, rather smaller version of an exotic palace directly to the right of Hepzibah Smith’s villa, a man stood at an upstairs balcony. Judging by the grandness of the architecture – bulbous gold domes topped every peak – Colin guessed that this wasn’t the type of place often swimming with guests, the marble plinth floors never sullied by common soles. It was hushed, the residents who lived there maintaining the visage of intrigue by leaving their doors locked day and night.

The man wore a full black beard, dressed in white servant’s garb with gold embellishments around his collar. Orla bowed to him and he flashed a row of brilliant white teeth, politely bowing back. Colin watched Orla with studious fascination, wishing that he could so easily see the things that she did, her vision not restricted to what lay immediately before her on the ground but what rose and what climbed – treetops and roofs and patterns in the clouds. He never would have noticed the man beating carpets against the alabaster railing, ridding them of dust; he would have been ignorant of anyone else being outside at all. Or so he assumed.

At first Colin thought that he’d dropped it by accident, but then he realized that the servant was still smiling at the two teenagers far below even as the carpet fell. He retreated backwards into the palace, shutting the splendid crystal doors behind him.

Instead of plummeting straight to the ground, the small rug whirled around in a pretend wind, nose-diving in loops several times before landing in midair in front of them, its ruby fibers rolling fluidly.

Orla’s face lit up; she turned to look at Colin, whose mouth fell open. “Is that – is that –”

“It is!” She bounced gleefully. “Oh, it is, it’s a flying carpet, and he’s letting us borrow it! Isn’t that brilliant luck? We could’ve met over by the lobster cages in the fishing yard, but we didn’t! We met here instead, just like you suggested, and now we’re going to have such fun with it.”

“But why’s he letting us borrow it?” Colin replied incredulously. “If I had a magic carpet, I wouldn’t just give it out willy-nilly to strangers passing by.”

“What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like we could steal it. We can’t even go very far…” Her eyes were bright with excitement. “Colin! We can take this to the place, the place we’re going so that I can show the evidence to you!”

Colin craned his neck to look up at the empty balcony, wary but also hopeful. The servant had not returned, and the carpet still floated invitingly before them. “D’you think he would mind?”

“Mind? Of course not! He practically dropped it on our heads, didn’t he? Oh, come on, let’s try it.”

Easily swayed, Colin swung the camera strap back around his neck and scrambled up onto the carpet behind a jittery Orla. It felt like sitting on something smoother than water, lighter than air. He glanced around uneasily at the pavement, which was separated from their crossed legs by a mere three feet. “How do we make it –” he started to ask, but was interrupted when the carpet unexpectedly jolted, forcing them both to clamp their hands on either side of the rug in a death grip.

“I’m going to be sick,” he declared, his face an unsightly shade of green.

“No, you won’t.” Orla was grinning widely, leaning forward to catch the wind in her face as the flying carpet accelerated in speed, shooting up into the sky like a firework. It was all Colin could do to stay on board, especially with Orla’s weight leaning into him.

“We’re going to fall off, we’re going to fall off, we’re going to fall off,” he chanted in a mantra. “Please, oh please don’t let me fall onto Mr. Slytherin’s house. My body will never see the light of day again.”

“Come off it, Creevey, we’ll be fine! We can’t very well die twice. And besides, this is just as reliable as a broomstick, you know. My great-uncle had one of these – it was a five-seater. Came with two little velvet pillows and a cup holder you could attach to the side. The only trouble was birds. Not very smart creatures, birds. They’ll run right into you even if they’ve got miles and miles of clear sky to choose from.”

Colin gulped. “Did you ever ride on your uncle’s carpet yourself? Was it safe?”

“How should I know? He died when I was two.”

Colin really, really hoped that she wouldn’t elaborate on her sentence.

“When he fell off of his flying carpet, incidentally. Tried going upside-down too many times after indulging in some interesting potions, as I heard it. Might’ve been a lie, though. ‘Twas Auntie Loris who told me, and Auntie Loris always did have this extraordinary grudge against old Humphrey. Something about him trying to reanimate her dead toad after he fed it an Exploding Bonbon.”

Colin had stopped following the conversation after the words ‘fell off’. Coming from a Muggle background, Colin was barely used to brooms. He loved them, of course, and thought them wondrous fun, but he usually had a teensy degree of trouble getting them to stay steady underneath him…he often got over-excited and it threw his balance, sending him toppling into schoolmates or Hagrid’s pumpkin patch during flying lessons. He’d always looked forward to turning seventeen and obtaining his Apparition license, as he supposed it must be much easier. Would he still be able to take a test for it, even though he would never truly turn seventeen years old? He could always just travel by Floo, but he didn’t like having green-stained hands for the rest of the day.

“Colin? You still there, mate?”

He realized that he’d been squeezing his eyes tightly shut. Their velocity was so swift, their altitude so high, that his eyes were watering even without opening them. He felt a hand shake his shoulder. “Trust me,” she confided eagerly, “you are going to want to take a few pictures of this.”

He opened one eye first and then the other, gasping just as the carpet nimbly dropped, making the rush of wind hook around his insides and swoop up his throat in the strangest sensation he’d ever felt. Orla shrieked in delight as they continued to plunge, spinning around in dizzying circles like a swirling leaf, the carpet’s frayed edges and their hair and clothing flying all around them to beat the air. He could hear the sound of it, the carpet’s resistance against gravity as it sailed along the starry black ocean.

“Look!” he exclaimed breathlessly, pointing far below. The Potter house was aglow with Japanese lanterns, buoyed to their roof and veranda with Sickles as weights tied to the ends of strings. His eyes strayed across the Potters’ garden to a wishing well, blinking rapidly against the chilly gales. His fingers, as well as the tips of his ears and nose, had gone pink from the chapping friction of speed. “There’s a wishing well, look –”

But just as he brought it to Orla’s attention, the miniature shingled roof and stone ring grew blurry until it left only a shadow behind, imprinted on the spiky grass – before the shadow, too, disappeared. “Did you – did you see that?”

“Look! Look!” Colin followed Orla’s pointing finger, startled into shock as a twin of the wishing well he’d just seen evaporate, materialize stone by stone, shingle by shingle in the middle of a wide, lamp-lit alley. The wooden bucket inside swung from side to side, as though being operated by a thirsty ghost.

The flying carpet seemed to have a mind of its own as it led them all around Cliodna’s Clock in areas high and low. They braced themselves as it dipped just over the Town Hall, almost low enough to duck wholly inside the roofless building; and then, without warning, they careened around a hilltop, barreling just over the tips of the lift cottages at such close proximity that Colin briefly spotted the flash of someone’s wristwatch through a tree house’s window. The sparks of a meteor had rebounded off of the watch’s face, turning it to white gold.

“My hair’s not getting in your face, is it?” Orla checked. Colin (still somewhat nauseous from the sudden switches in acceleration) shook his head ‘yes’, which Orla couldn’t see, so she took his silence as a confirmation that all was well.

They soared over the cliff dwellings next, bellowing their hellos down to a quartet of witches playing instruments in a gazebo. Three of them didn’t hear, but the fourth raised her clarinet in their direction, lips spreading into a laugh around the mouthpiece. There was a lovely park right in the middle, surrounded by trees carved from sandstone that radiated sunset pinks and reds even long after nightfall.

Scattered along the large lawn, which shimmered slightly to betray that it was all only a magical illusion and not real grass at all, were four sets of tables. They were difficult to make out in contrast with the glittering tea-green ground, but the tables were enormous teacups turned upside-down, and the chairs were long stems as thick as trees. They pierced through the rocky soil, unwinding like corkscrews to bend towards delegated tables. The seats themselves were flower heads – massive sunflowers and poppies and snapdragons large enough to seat about five people each.

Click, whir, snap went his camera, their surroundings temporarily illuminated by flashes like Lumos, all from his little metal box. He had to grapple with his camera with one hand, since the other was firmly clenched on the carpet’s edge, quite thankful that he’d gotten a neck strap to hang it from. It would have been disastrous if he’d tried to hold it in his hand the entire time.

“This way, this way,” Orla was murmuring, trying to curtail the carpet off towards the right. They looped beneath a stone archway in the cliffs, zooming past lit torches so quickly that the whole world might have been ablaze, and then rocketed once again over trees. Blackbirds, disturbed from their sleep, squawked in protest, pitching out of the trees to land on palmetto-thatched roofs resting just off the quiet street of Toddington. Some of them flew away across the sky, blending into the dark smoke curling out of the lodge’s chimney.

Together, the smoke and blackbirds unfurled across the engorged moon in the eerie shapes of flapping bats. Colin held his camera up to one eye and captured the fantastical images rolling past, making each one of them permanent.

It was an adventure, the kind Colin had always dreamed about but never felt destined to experience, or at least not on his own. If he hadn’t been with Orla tonight, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all – the servant and the rug, and the way that his photographs were turning out (as far as he could tell) flawlessly perfect. Orla had that sort of luck, where the world kind of spun just for her sometimes.

“Which way are you trying to go?” Colin asked as Orla hunkered down and piloted the carpet with fierce control, whisking left and right and center so fast that his head began to bob around like Nearly Headless Nick’s. Orla turned her face so that he could see her profile. Her glasses were fogged up, but her features were animated with exhilaration.

“I just want to see…” She drifted off, not quite answering, but it clicked immediately in Colin’s head. They threaded between skeletal tree branches, holding on with all their might, fingers numb, while Orla directed the carpet to rush around and around in a circular skydive. Colin’s vision was a kaleidoscope of lights and stars, some of them behind his eyes rather than in front of them. He almost let go to press his palms to them, to alleviate some of the soreness, but hastily remembered himself just in time to reaffirm his grip.

“I don’t think we’ll be allowed,” Colin spoke up, nearly shouting in order to be heard. “If we can’t swim in it, we won’t be able to fly over it.”

Orla determinedly steered them towards the beach, anyway, her eyes narrowed on the frothing ocean.

“Do you think we’ll get our Apparition licenses here?” Colin questioned, trying to make small talk to get his mind off the possible nightmare of crashing into some invisible wall. After all, it was common knowledge that no one could swim off the coast past eight feet, all around the island’s circumference. They were trapped like rats, unable to do so much as visit the depot.

“Don’t see why not,” she called over her shoulder. “I do know that I’m not going back to school, though.”

“Really?” Colin furrowed his brow. He didn’t see any other options for his future, personally. What else would he do besides busy himself with finishing his education? He didn’t particularly fancy doing nothing all the time like he was already doing. This would give his hands some purpose, at least for a short while. When September rolled around, he had unconsciously expected his name to end up on the roster of enrolled students. “Why?”

“They say that Mr. Lupin’s going to be one of the professors,” Orla replied. “I never had him as a professor, myself – he was a year before my time – but you did. Do you think you could go back to having him as a teacher again?”

Of course he could. Why wouldn’t he be perfectly fine with that? He’d studied under Mr. Lupin before in his second year and learned a great deal; Defense Against the Dark Arts had been his absolute favorite subject that year, just because of the way Mr. Lupin taught it. He never made Colin feel like he was pesky or constantly in the way, even though Colin interrupted him every few minutes to ask questions or apologize profusely for blowing something up.

His classmates sometimes snickered behind his back, imitating his excited tones whenever he was successful with a spell, and they mimed being blasted out of their seats whenever he picked up his wand. Mr. Lupin never laughed along with them. He tried to make Colin feel included, and genuinely wanted him to understand the subject matter.

In the years since Mr. Lupin’s departure, hanging up his hat as professor when rumors about his lycanthropy began to spread, he became less of ‘Professor Lupin’ and more of ‘that werewolf who ran off at the end of the school year before he could get sacked by the board’. Although Colin continued to admire him, he didn’t understand much about the lifestyle of a werewolf. Admittedly, he’d felt somewhat abandoned when Lupin left; none of the teachers after him ever seemed up to scratch in comparison. And none of them cared at all about how well Colin could perform spells or if he understood the information. Umbridge had been downright cruel.

But then, without him planning it, Remus Lupin in the form of the kind professor dissolved and then reappeared in Colin’s mind’s eye, brandishing a hot-tipped wand. There was fire in his gaze, sweat beading on his hairline, and he was standing next to Colin, back-to-back. Both of them were fully absorbed in combat with their foes, and neither could try to save the other if anything went foul, but there was some small comfort in fighting for their lives alongside each other, like equal peers. In those fleeting, terrifying minutes, their relationship subtly shifted from student and teacher to comrades, to loyal men servicing their school. Naivety and innocence were shredded, liquefying their differences. Mr. Lupin was not so very old in that light, and Colin not so very young, and both were battling to the death for a cause they strongly believed in. For Hogwarts.

It’s because of him that I can fight at all, Colin could remember himself thinking at the time, his mind consumed with the sea of faces all around him, ignited with spells and light and the cold stench of death.

Maybe that was what Orla meant. Colin had once perceived Remus as an authority figure, high up on a pedestal. Now that they’d seen each other in the most perilous moments of their soon-to-be-over lives, surviving together for perhaps just a little while longer than they might have if they hadn’t had each other there for emotional and physical back-up, could Colin return to that point? To that mindset of lowly pupil and aloof, all-knowing teacher?

The lines had become irreparably blurred. Now that he was thinking deeply about it, Colin didn’t think that he would prefer to go back to seeing Mr. Lupin as the same person he looked up to when he was a second year. Those few minutes during the Battle of Hogwarts had been cemented as an accomplishment in some bizarre way, and he didn’t want to go back in time. He was here, and it was now, and it had all happened for a reason.

He didn’t want to go back to the way things were!

“What else will we do?” he wondered aloud, stricken dumbstruck from this new revelation. “What do we do now?”

“Are you getting any pictures of this?” Orla wanted to know, not paying him a whit of attention. It was only then that Colin acknowledged the lapping waves below, and whirled around in a flurry of panic to see a thin strip of sand far away from them. “We could just go on and on and on,” she whispered, more to herself than to him. “But it’s got to end somewhere.”

“This is amazing!” Colin cried. “We did it! We actually made it!”

Orla grimaced. Colin prepared himself to ask her what was wrong, but then he felt it: It was an increase in pressure, and the carpet was faltering under it. Something from off to their left – beyond in the open ocean – was trying to suck them sideways into it with the force of a hurricane drawing water to its hungry heart. It was loud, emitting gurgling sounds that reminded Colin, with a ghastly shudder, of people drowning in their own lung fluid.

“Move!” Colin urged, attempting to use his arms as propellers, hoping wildly that he might be able to paddle the air and get them to turn around back to Cliodna’s Clock.

“I want to see what’s out there,” Orla argued, gritting her teeth with all the vigor it required to keep the carpet from flying off into abyss.

“No, we need to go back.”

“Just a little bit further –”

“Are you mad? It’s dangerous. Come on.” Colin tugged on the carpet, and the two of them wrestled for control of the carpet’s direction for a few precious seconds before the magical carpet took matters into its own hands and yanked itself out of the mysterious wind source’s grasp, speeding back to the island. Colin breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“Ah, well,” Orla announced grimly after they were once again soaring over solid ground. “We can always come back and try again.”

“Absolutely not.” Colin shook his head fervently. “You felt that out there – it was like an invisible monster. We’re not allowed to get that far from the village. I don’t want to take my chances and end up inside of all…whatever that thing was.”

Giving up, Orla commandeered the carpet with their original intentions in mind, zooming off to a beach on the opposite end of Cliodna’s Clock. Colin relaxed his tense hands for a moment, although his fingers had long since lost any feeling. Orla let one of her hands dangle loosely below the carpet, catching projected spray on her fingers from the lily fountain.

They slowed down before they hit the beach, skimming along sapphire and yellow tree canopies that almost passed for ordinary green when blended together. When the carpet finally stopped, Colin finally began to feel the stings of wind burns on his cheeks and forehead. They both dismounted with vertigo spinning circles around them.

“I am definitely walking home,” Colin resolved woozily, doubling over with his feet planted far apart until he recovered his balance. The magic carpet took that as its cue to reunite with its owner, and jetted off over the trees to the golden palace.

Orla appeared at Colin’s side, lacking her usual earsplitting enthusiasm. Instead, there was a quiet anticipation, curiosity, and maybe even fear. “It’s here,” she said in a low voice, peeping all around to ensure that no one was out and about. “Just where I put it.” She held out her hand to him.

It was a seashell, apricot-colored with small white horns on the heavy end. “A Helena Conch,” she said. “My father’s a naturalist; he discovered them and named them after my mother. The animals inside them can live to be three hundred years old, he said. I remember that we had two of them in our drawing room.”

Colin studied the shell, his excitement burgeoning. “And you're quite sure that...?”

Orla’s eyes were huge and solemn, instantly penetrating his doubts without him even knowing her answer yet.

“Oh, yes. Very sure. They’re only found in the Adriatic Sea.”

 
 


Chapter 19: Dreaming Again
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2 November 1981


He wasn’t supposed to be there. As he listened to the titles being rattled off – “Quidditch Captain, Head Boy, father, husband” – all of the things that Severus Snape was not and would never be, he knew that those words were not meant for his ears. He had delivered the prophecy to the Dark Lord. James Potter was going into the ground because of him.

The air tasted like the thick, spicy smoke of a wood stove. Severus could see the breath of it exhaling from chimneys, smearing into the drab gray sky. The cemetery itself was too wet, too ripe with the scent of Halloween celebrations still lingering in decorations between doorways; sweet chestnuts and leaves had stewed in the rain overnight, ripping apart their crumbling five points to leave an emaciated mess of sycamore veins behind. Albus Dumbledore had flung charms all around the fence to shield the ceremony from prying eyes. Each time the kissing gate swung open and clanged closed, Severus thought about how the Muggles couldn’t hear it, just like Lily couldn’t hear it.

Where was she? Was she watching? Was she lost forever, as though she’d never been born? He couldn’t see her face from where he hid underneath the Invisibility Cloak that Dumbledore had allowed him to borrow for the day, as the rain had prevented it from being an open-casket affair.

Her wide gaze was still branded into his brain in a series of images so fast that she might have blinked in a few of them, even as she lay utterly still in his arms on the floor of Harry’s nursery. They would be closed now, but he would always remember them that way, gaping up into his own eyes without realizing it or intending it, the thin bluish film already beginning to creep over her green irises to create a sickening sea-foam color. And when he’d tilted her back, just a little bit and completely by accident, her eyelids had fluttered halfway closed like a porcelain doll’s might.

He didn’t want to think about the beautiful young woman in the casket, didn’t want to imagine how she would steadily decompose in a wooden box during the months to come. How she would rot with her wand clasped lovingly in her hands, even though it had failed to protect her in her last moments. All that would remain of her in a faraway future was a skeleton in a virginal white dress, just as chaste as her mouth had been when his tears wiped them clean.

He had been the last to kiss her goodbye, which was a secret he treasured, knowing that in a twisted sort of way, he’d gotten her in the end, after all. Those were his arms around her and his lips on her forehead, and his tears sliding down her temple and into her hair as she stared at the wall opposite with blank features.

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

Her name would lie next to James’s for centuries, until the tombstone broke into small chunks from a combination of age and weather. Her engraved name would be rubbed away in time, just like her memory, just like her existence and the spellbinding magic of her caring words and confident smiles – and no one, in the distant future, would remember Severus Snape and how Lily Evans Potter had so greatly affected him.

Water trickled down the shining white stone, waiting for the husband and wife to descend beneath it so that the rain could continue to beat away at them, flooding through mulch that would soon be scattered over the grave. Severus’s throat closed up as if by allergic reaction, unintentionally reminded that Lily would be so cold down there, underground.

It would be so dark and cramped. She would have no air and no company, aside from the noxious corpse of James in a nearby coffin, and would have nothing to listen to for the next millennia except for the pitter-patter of rainfall and boots led by strangers who wanted to visit the fallen Potter heroes. The approaching winter’s frost would crystallize the marrow in Lily’s bones, draw cracks over her white oleander skin until it disintegrated into dust.

Perhaps the Resurrection Stone…perhaps it was real and he could find it…

He wept into his freezing hands, his bones as unbending as lead. There was nothing left for him in the world. He’d been assured by Dumbledore that measures would be taken to keep Lily safe (death! She was gone! She was actually gone, no he couldn’t believe it…), had been assured by the Dark Lord that Lily need not die if he could only have the boy, just to wipe that little nuisance out of the way (and it was Harry’s fault, it was all Harry’s fault for ever being born; and oh, it was such a relief to have someone else to blame. It was James’s fault, too, for taking his beloved Lily away from him to create this vile, disgusting little spawn who was barely over a year old and already creating terror in the world).

Together, with white and black promises from both Dumbledore and Voldemort, the two most powerful wizards in the world, Severus had felt secure in the light and the dark, in the pure and sinister, and thought that their entwined chains would be strong enough to hold Lily to earth.

They were not.

The worst part was that Severus would not be able to visit Lily’s grave again because it was juxtaposed with that horrid man’s – he was eternally hoarding Lily, keeping her all to himself when Severus was the one who deserved her. He would have taken care of her. If she had only chosen him, she would have lived to be an old woman. Severus was certain of it. He felt betrayed by James. He’d unwillingly surrendered Lily to James in their fifth year at Hogwarts, and from there on out, even though Severus still loved her, he didn’t have to be consumed with her. That was Potter’s job. As long as Potter was alive, it was Potter’s duty to keep her happy and healthy and strong. In Severus’s eyes, James had failed.

James Potter was an irresponsible, careless swine and Severus wished that he would have taken his son with him on his way out – Harry, a constant living reminder of the prophecy, the last loose end that Severus had been required to tie – so that Severus’s life would be liberated of the memory of him and the fact that Harry had more or less killed his mother.

Beautiful, wonderful Lily, doomed to an unfair fate because James’s son was every bit as evil and selfish as the father. Neither of them deserved her. It would have been so much more bearable if only the infant had perished, too. He’d stolen Lily’s cold-cutting eyes but he was nothing like her – no, he would be just like his father, of course, and drain the last bit of vitality out of Lily’s benevolent heart.

A green-eyed monster.


*


Severus had not dreamed up the rain, at least.

Lily still swirled in his thoughts long after he roused himself from fitful dreams, in visions of a decaying skeleton with Slytherin-green eyes and a lovely young woman who flitted down the street with Potter and Black.

He was dead, and James was dead, and Lily was dead. They were all here together in three shadows of their former selves, and yet Severus was still consumed by her. The fever had not burned out as he would have wished, being in the middle of a nightmare where he could still never get rid of that stupid man and the memory of their stupid son. It would have been so much easier to wipe her from his memories, to be able to hurt himself enough by saying over and over that he was too old for her now, too damaged; but not even her indifference could pain him enough to stop. It was an illness. He was starting to realize for the first time that it was an illness, and instead of searching for a potion to soothe his soul, he just kept picking at his wounds.

He thought that he would never have to reflect on Harry Potter ever again. He thought that in death, he would at last be spared from seeing the boy’s face, but Severus continued to see him everywhere he looked. That black hair and those round spectacles decorated posters and pins created during the war in support of Harry, as well as in newspaper articles dedicated to what Harry was up to as of late.

While on earth, Severus had never been able to look at Harry and not see a cruel caricature of James Potter staring back; now, the only thing he saw was all of the minute differences between them. Harry didn’t resemble James nearly as much as James resembled Harry, and Harry was all over Lily, too, in places one never thought to look. Her posture. In her expression of surprise or worry. In the way their arms swung at their sides. Their gaits. James was in Harry, who was in Lily, who had begun to adopt James’s mannerisms, and they’d become such a warped mirage of monsters in Severus’s head that it was tiresome to try to extricate one from the other.

He had to hear them, too. He listened to Lily make polite chit-chat with the sales boy behind the till in Taffet’s Trunk. He overheard Salazar confiding to James that James had nothing to worry about as far as his love life was concerned. Slytherin had drawn bitter comparisons about them all, saying that James was Godric and Snape was Salazar, and Lily would do exactly what Rowena had done and choose the easiest option.

That certainly wouldn’t be Severus. Nothing about him could ever be easy.

Perhaps he was reaping his due, receiving punishment from James now that he was dead, because Severus himself had punished James’s memory so many times by making snide remarks at Harry. The Potters had no way of knowing that Professor Snape ever treated the legendary Harry Potter any differently from his other pupils. James was such a numbskull that it felt possible that he never even learned of Severus’s feelings for his wife.

They were all under gravestones now, and Severus had buried himself in the bitter earth years and years before his death. No one would trim the weeds around his monument, no one would have attended his funeral; but none of it mattered, because he’d been entombed with the memory of her and he was now a phoenix rising, ready to seek out his old ghosts. Would Lily have told James that Severus had always nursed a soft spot for her? Severus didn't think she would. Their relationship, their memories, were sacred. Lily would honor that. Yes, it seemed quite likely that Severus’s secret love was safe with Lily, as she had taken it to her grave.

She was the safest person for his secrets, a locked box waiting to be opened.


*


It was dawn when he stopped pretending that he was going to go back to sleep, and so he decided to venture into the village.

There was a pair of repellant black Wellingtons in his foyer, left by the previous inhabitant who’d moved out in a rush, but Severus stepped out into the light rain wearing only his regular shoes, his upper lip curling when he saw the array of puddles. Cliodna’s Clock was just as leaky as Britain.

There was nothing awaiting him outside, but there was nothing for him indoors, either. He was indisputably a nobody, with nowhere to go, and no one wanted to be with him. He decided that this suited him perfectly, since he didn’t particularly want to be around anyone at the moment, either. If anyone just so happened to escape their strangling husbands for a few brief moments (he envisaged Lily hovering at her living room window, waiting for James to disappear so that she could go look for her dear friend Severus), then so be it. He certainly wasn’t hiding.

He walked past the Potter house two times before scowling at the pavement in crushed anger, shoving both hands into the pockets of his cloak that had been a hand-me-down of Merlin’s. Fine. If the cowardly James Potter wasn’t going to let Lily speak to Severus, then he wasn’t going to waste the rest of the morning pacing the road while the clouds dumped all of their misery on top of him. A few other neighbors were peeking through their window blinds, wondering what he wanted or perhaps knowing already.

His love for her was not such a well-kept secret anymore, not since Harry had viewed his memories in the Pensieve and portraits of previous headmasters stationed all around Dumbledore's study attested to what Harry saw, to what he said.

It provided a bold sense of empowerment; his heart exposed on his sleeve lifted the weight of ‘maybe if she knew…’ off of his shoulders. No one could say that he wasn’t trying, and no one could say that he wasn’t right for Lily. Once again, James had proven just how unfit he was to care for Lily. He’d let her die once and now he had been ready to do it again for the seventeenth time.

Seventeen. It clawed at Severus’s heart to think about it, and his eyes flashed with red. Severus had only entered the tournament so that he could speak to Lily. All he wanted was to say hello to his old friend, and he couldn’t even be granted that? He’d been so caught up in the hope of being assigned to Lily’s team so that he could happen upon her, away from James’s prying eyes, that at first he’d not processed the frightening dangers Lily had repeatedly hurled herself into year after year. Maybe it was because James had never held Lily close while her eyes gazed right through him, not seeing. Maybe it was because James didn’t care. No matter what the reasoning, his decision to sit around and do nothing was inexcusable.

Didn’t he view Lily’s life to be as precious as Severus saw it to be? Didn’t he value her at all?

He thought that she would never speak, never run again, that she would be confined to a coffin for all eternity. And now, miraculously, she wasn’t. She was up and walking around like it was as ordinary as anything, as if her mere existence wasn’t a phenomenon. And she was risking this second chance, all to see a boy who was already safe, already looked after? It was such a tragic waste. Someone should have told her long ago to stay far away from the Devil’s Duel. If worst came to worst, Harry would be killed and would come to Cliodna’s Clock to be reunited with his parents. Was that really the most terrible thing that could happen? He didn’t understand Lily’s reasoning. He didn’t understand how James could sit idly by while it continued.

James saw her once upon a time and he wanted her and so he took her – and he disregarded the consequences. Once Lily was attached to him with a ring and a child, he didn’t care about her wellbeing anymore. This had to be true, because Severus knew what love was and he knew that he would not have allowed Lily to die. So if this was the case, then that meant that James did not love Lily enough. Wasn’t love the all-important emotion that Dumbledore prattled on about exhaustively? The source of passion that could cure all evils?

He hoped that James would be victorious in Round Three, which would take place tomorrow, so that he could meet his permanent downfall in Round Five of the Devil’s Duel. Severus had spared him enough leniencies already and James had dependably screwed them all up, time after time. He could not be trusted anymore.

I’m here now, and I’ll make sure that you will live forever.

The prophecy and the Dark Lord and Severus’s personal involvement twitched in the far recesses of his mind, reminding him of his failures and wrongdoings, of his misdirected anger towards Harry Potter and the mistreatment of him. There was another word, too, the one that sealed his fate:

Mudblood.

No. He shook his head, black hair slicking down his face in a raven waterfall. Not my fault. I would never have said something like that. Rain was dripping down his cloak, over his shoes, soaking through his socks. He couldn’t see clearly, and the distorted vision did something funny to his mind, as well.

It never happened. He pressed it over his loud thoughts with so much conviction that he gasped out loud in the middle of the road – he couldn’t tell which road, for it was pouring buckets – while searching for a sweet, forgiving grin and gleaming garnet hair, almost believing that his own willpower had caused a cosmic miracle, making it all come true. Freeing him from guilt so that he could be free to loathe and love without shame. He looked around, eyes disoriented, wondering if he’d somehow just undone his past mistakes. In a place like this, anything was possible.

Nothing seemed to have changed.

Water was dribbling from the end of his hooked nose and onto his parted lips, and then over his chin. It tasted like sand. An old flier advertising sign-ups for the tournament blew past in a soggy shock of blue. Without thinking, Severus lurched forward after it, one pale hand outstretched. He had nothing else to do, so he might as well go on following rubbish in foul weather. The spying village probably thought he was a nutter, anyway.

He blinked away the aquamarine beads of rain, wishing not for the first time that he’d never met Lily, that he’d never loved her. It would have saved his life instead of Harry’s, if things had gone an easier way. Some people were hailing Severus as a hero, but he didn’t feel like one. Even now, he would have taken all of it back – all of it – for the chance to run away from home when he was eight years old like he’d planned to do after his parents had had a huge fight, leaving behind Cokeworth and the future letter from Hogwarts and subsequent temptation that Voldemort would provide when he was too young to know better and too old to use that as an excuse.

If James died, would he ever really be out of the picture? Would Lily latch onto his memory and love him from afar as Severus did with her for so many years, leeching all of the reality out of the situation?

He trudged around a curved path after the something-blue that he wasn’t even sure was an old flier anymore, weary with himself. He would have given anything to be James for a day, to be easy and careless and to have a perfect wife who loved him in spite of his numerous flaws. He would have given anything at all.

A creaking noise alarmed him, prompting him to snap his head up. Until then, he’d only been staring blearily at the soaked grass, halfway waiting to drown in it. The creaking had emitted from an ancient swing set, one of its seats thrown over the bars so many times that it was much higher than its fellows. A yellow roundabout lay about thirty feet to the left, undergoing a tremendous thrashing from the rain and what looked to be splinters of hail. Only the pits in its dented metal surface remained yellow – the raised counterparts were stripped of paint.

He knew this play park.

Severus felt his blood ice over. All around him, he saw landmarks that he recognized. That was the same exact grove of Judas trees, and there was the same play equipment, and the same sandbox. There was the drinking fountain that Severus and Lily had tried to fix one summer when it was blisteringly hot outside and he didn’t want to go over to her house because Petunia was home...she always gave him withering looks to make him feel unwelcome...

There was the old flagpole that never had a flag on it, and the slide that was nothing more than five pieces of sheet metal bolted together, which hurt like hell to go down. This was their hallowed territory. Their heaven.

Severus took a step forward, his shoe almost burying a little white square sticking up out of the muddy ground, only one of its corners poking out. It could have been rubbish, like the flier, but he plucked it from a bed of sodden clover and then instantly dropped it.

His heart hammered away at his ribs, knocking against his lungs. His eyes were wide, pupils enormous.

It was a photograph, and a familiar one. It was exactly like the picture that Lily had buried in the sandbox when they were young and he had pretended not to keep it, but that he knew was currently residing within the pages of a children’s book on his shelf back at home on Spinner’s End.

And yet, here it was: A white oak tree with its trunk twisting up into a ‘Y’ shape, blurred because its photographer had been running when she took it.

He couldn’t feel the sharp edges pressing into his numb skin, and was no longer aware of the abysmal rain. There was only the creaking of the swing and the peeling paint on the roundabout, and the sign that he hadn’t noticed until just that moment. It was a wooden post with carved words, staked into the earth next to the dysfunctional drinking fountain.

Welcome to Parasol Park

 

 






A/N: Credit for the epitaph "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" goes to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, page 328 in the USA edition, which was in turn taken from 1 Corinthians 15:26 in the New Testament of the Bible (King James Version). Also, I’d like to extend a shout-out to forsakenphoenix because her one-shot Into the Darkness of the Grave inspired this chapter. Go give it a read!


Chapter 20: Quidbumps
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Victus: Cedric Diggory, Tonks Lupin, Fred Weasley
Mortuus: Vincent Crabbe, Colin Creevey, James Potter




 

“We’ve put a twist on this round of the tournament,” Claudius went on. “Which will make it quite different from the others.”

From their helpless positions in the stands, Lily and Remus tensed. A twist?

“The memory you shall be trespassing in belongs to none other than our village founder, Cliodna. We are sending you to Cliodna’s Clock as it was in the fourteenth century, during our Quidbumps Cup. The two teams were named after the two islands in our community, as the Grotta was permitted to participate in the sport at that time and we played versus them every year. For the purposes of this Duel, however, we have tweaked the teams a little and they will be called Victus and Mortuus. Instead of seven players on each team, there will just be the six of you in total – three for each team.”

“We’re going to be playing Quidditch?” Colin interrupted without thinking.

Ptolemy smiled, wagging one finger. “Quidbumps,” he corrected, “which is our homegrown hodgepodge of Shuntbumps and Quidditch mixed together. We use a live Golden Snidget instead of a Golden Snitch, and players themselves act as human Quaffles.

“In Quidbumps, there are no specific Chasers, Beaters, Seekers, or Keepers. In its original form, the game of Shuntbumps consists of players knocking each other off their brooms, and whoever holds on the longest wins. We’ve incorporated that element into this game, but added a few additional surprises. Instead of falling off and staying out of the game, when a player is thrown from their broom and touches the ground, they will reappear soon after so that they can, in theory, be knocked off time and time again. This earns the attacker five points each time. When the Snidget is caught, the game ends. Winners for both teams are determined by your individual point counts. Whoever has the most accumulated points for Victus wins for that team, and whoever has the most accumulated points for Mortuus wins for that team, as well.

“You may be wondering who the losers will be. They will not necessarily be whoever is punted off of his or her broom the most frequently. We have decided that the winners – the people who attain the most points – will be granted the unprecedented choice to select the losers for the opposite team. The winner of Victus will choose who to eliminate from Mortuus, and vice versa, after the game has finished.”

“Oh my God,” Lily whispered, covering her mouth with her hands.

“And that’s not all.” Claudius grinned widely, his skin glinting scarlet from the reflecting sun. “Like in Quidditch, the match ends when the Snitch – or in this case, the Snidget – is caught. It will not be worth any points, but do not underestimate its value.” He stopped to clear his throat, waiting for his statement to sink in. “Whoever catches the Snidget is granted instant immunity from elimination in this round and cannot be chosen for disqualification by the winners. This can only be obtained by one person, of course. So while your goal is to stay firmly on top of your broom, all the while scoring points yourselves by catapulting anyone you possibly can off of their own brooms, it is advisable that you also keep an eye out for the Snidget. It just might mean your salvation.

“There are no Quaffles. There are no Bludgers. There are Beater’s bats, and everyone will be given one. They’ll be useful for trying to knock other players off their brooms. There are no rules about how you play the game, and there is no such thing as a foul. Absolutely anything goes.

“Of course, in a round such as this, it is necessary to make members of opposing teams visible to each other. Unlike in the other rounds, you will be fully engaged with each other, pitted both against your own team as well as the opposite. It is every man for himself, as they say, and the broomstick battle will continue until someone catches the Snidget. If anyone’s points are tied for winner when the Snidget is caught, the game will continue until the next score is made.”

He paused. “Any questions?”


*

It seemed as if they’d risen above the Pensieve rather than jumped into it; and had their surroundings not changed, and had they not found themselves bobbing around in a vivid blue sky, the contenders might not have believed that their circumstances had changed at all.

It was midwinter and the air was positively freezing. The landscape of Cliodna’s Clock was starkly different from present day. As James Potter searched the glacial waters with his eyes, he met snow-capped mountains, strings of active volcanoes, and triangular caves settled deep under cliffs that hung over the sea. City Center was tiny, the only familiar fixture being the Town Hall. A small, faraway speck gazing through the window of an oversized chess bishop could have been Salazar Slytherin, too cross with the world to properly watch the game from the stadium seats.

All around the six players on broomsticks in the oval stadium, rather than James’s wife and Tonks’s husband and all of their deceased friends, were the faces of strangers. They cheered in echoing shouts while waving pennants all about, seeing not Victus and Mortuus but the original players of Quidbumps from long ago, and Fred found it startling that he didn’t recognize many members of the audience.

They all must have perished in the Duel by now.

He wondered if, in some distant Devil’s Duel in the future where memories were once again used for round settings, people might look at the face of Fred Weasley and not recognize him as anyone who’d lived there for years. The arena was huge – it was in the exact same location as the modern Quidditch pitch, but much bigger. The Quidbumps area could have devoured the Quidditch pitch twice. With only six people airborne, the pitch was much too long and wide for anyone’s comfort, and it looked lonely without any goal hoops on either end.

Tonks kept swiveling around, picking at the tail end of her broom, convinced that it had a preference for tipping to the left. Vincent was severely uncomfortable on his broom, holding on to it tightly with both hands and tilting his face upwards so that he wouldn’t have to see how high above the ground he was. Colin was excited, zipping around them all in curlicues and trying not to make himself go upside down. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t figure out how to brake…

And then, out of nowhere, someone collided with his side in a heavy blow. His breath was released in a cool fog, floating away from his lips on impact. Woozy, Colin spun off into a cartwheel while somehow still maintaining a firm grip on his broom handle, and turned around just in time to see –

Cedric. He was bending low against the wind, and his face was set in a determined, fierce expression. It was clear that as a Seeker, he was quite in his element.

“Hey!” Fred cried angrily, glancing from Colin to Cedric. “No one’s said to start the game yet.”

Cedric pointed to a huge billboard directly below them, its pulsing lights taking up a quarter of the pitch. It had a list of their names, along with six multicolored zeroes to signify that no one had yet made a score.

Still nettled, Fred swerved his broom over towards Colin to make sure that he was all right. “What’re you doing?” Vincent called out, agitated. “We’re all supposed to ram into each other, or weren’t you paying any attention?”

Fred flicked his wand at Vincent’s broom, igniting the tail twigs on fire. It only took a moment for Vincent to put it out, but he scowled nonetheless and set to looping around Fred, scouting for the best way to attack him.

All of the players seemed to hesitate, lingering up in the air while looking at each other and then at their medieval brooms that were as heavy as anvils and yet flew with brilliant speed, wondering how they were to accomplish scoring goals. How could they focus on dislodging other people from their brooms, all the while trying to find the Snidget? Tonks squinted, one hand raised over her forehead to dull the sunlight, but didn’t see a flying, feathery creature anywhere about.

There are no rules about how you play the game, and there is no such thing as a foul. Absolutely anything goes.

It echoed in their minds, first feebly and then with increasing volume, until their tense situation boiled before them in the atmosphere in ideas and emotions and malice. James glanced from Cedric to Vincent to Colin, beginning to panic. He didn’t want to attack young boys, not even Vincent, even though he didn’t care much for him. Fred wasn’t all that much older than they were… They were all so young, so child-like. He saw Harry in each one of those boys.

Vincent had no such qualms. “Imperio!” he cried, wand pointed at James, and James immediately jumped off of his broom and plunged to the earth of his own volition.

Tonks screamed, unable to help it, and she and Fred were both on the verge of saving James when it was too late; the rate of falling was much swifter here, somehow, and as he steadily descended, they braced themselves for the crunching of his body against soil. Arms splayed, he fell right through the grass rather than slamming against it. The ground absorbed his shoes and knees and shoulders, sucking him into it like a greedy gelatinous substance. With one final squelching noise, the unassuming grass had swallowed James Potter whole as if it was all a floor of quicksand, and his broom sank soon thereafter.

A buzzer rang, Vincent’s large ‘0’ fizzling into a ‘5’. He gazed around at everyone triumphantly, pleased with his success. Meanwhile, James Potter reappeared on his broom once more, completely unscathed, in the exact same position he’d found himself in when he first dropped into the Pensieve.

Fred’s eyes darkened, seizing each of his foes in turn. The steam of his breath mingled with the vista of mountains, the glare of the sun sparkling over an emerald valley. That, along with the cheering swarm of spectators, thinned into the heavens as he focused on the five players floating in various perches all around. Underneath him, a spiked bat was attached to his broomstick’s handle with a set of thick leather straps that matched his uniform. Everything about the game reeked of brutality, from their barbed helmets to the iron shells that gripped each shoulder to the obscenely-large Beater’s bats intended for bashing into the skulls of fellow players.

“All right,” he roared, withdrawing his bat from its casings and brandishing it in the air. “Let’s have at it!”

Vincent grinned and Colin’s eyes widened to the circumference of saucers, his broom dropping several feet in height. Cedric immediately bolted after Colin, as he’d been wishing since the start of the tournament that he could have been given an opponent like small, skinny Creevey. Colin zipped away faster than he knew how to control his speed, his broom zigzagging from side to side and all over the place as he desperately fled a pursuing Diggory.

Fred narrowed his eyes at Tonks, who was scrutinizing James. He’d been wanting to get his hands on Tonks ever since she’d impersonated him in Round Two – thereby indirectly leading him to believe that he’d seen George. He flinched a moment later when the buzzer rang again – Cedric had leaned out with one hand and clutched onto Colin’s broom, giving it a rough shake and forcing Colin to slide off point-first, arms flailing as he, too, met the ground and was gulped into nonbeing.

As Cedric’s ‘0’ switched to a ‘5’ to rival Vincent’s score, Fred turned quickly back to Tonks, who was beginning to look frightened. Clearly, she hadn’t expected for anyone to begin the match with so much gusto. Now all of the others would be expected to fall into place or else risk falling behind.

Fred had been coping with death as best as he possibly could until Round Two, admirably adjusting to Cliodna’s Clock better than any of his peers. Although he of course experienced deep flashes of pain, he didn’t allow them to seep into every area of his consciousness. They settled into faded scars, pushed to the back of his mind. He told himself that as long as he focused intently on the Devil’s Duel and the wide-open window of opportunity to see his family again for twenty-four hours, he would survive.

He would make it, and he would be fine, and he should count himself lucky that he still existed at all, in whatever form. His naturally cheery disposition was not one that allowed for much wallowing in pity and misery – he was Fred Weasley, co-founder of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, and even when he’d died, he’d done it with a smile on his face.

But Tonks making herself look like Fred, which of course made her look just like George, was too much. It made life unbearable. George now walked in and out of Fred’s dreams, trying to speak to him in blurred language Fred didn’t always understand. I can’t manage the shop without you. Ginny’s in danger. Ron’s in danger.

There was always some sort of inevitable peril about to befall a member of his family, and Fred could be warned in advance but he could not help. And then there were dreams that George was enduring these same dreams, each overlapping each other in life and afterlife; Fred stumbled through George’s dreams while still in his own, crying out about the Devil’s Duel and how much he missed them all, replaying the scene of his death over and over before George’s tortured, bewildered eyes.

Maybe if he knocked Tonks off her broom enough times, those dreams would go away. He wanted peace for George and the absence of emotion for himself, but he felt like neither could be obtained if Tonks remained in the tournament.

“Slow down!” Colin was hollering at his broom. He had reappeared on the pitch, and upon seeing both Vincent and Cedric choosing him as an easy target, dove straight down again and back into the ground, disappearing. The five other players halted, watching with large eyes. Since he had not been shoved off of his broom by force, there was no new score. However, Fred stole the opportunity to catch Colin in the place where he knew the boy would soon drop into thin air, and was waiting for him when Colin materialized atop his broom, grinning.

“Flipendo!” An orange streak collided with Colin’s breastbone, causing him to keel backwards off his broom.

“Hypocrite!” Cedric shouted at Fred, who was watching Colin fall with a curious expression on his face. Moments later, Fred nose-dived in a spiral toward the ground.

“What the –” James muttered, mouth agape. Maybe Fred just wanted to see what it felt like to be sucked up into the grass? He seemed the type to try it… But no – oh! He’d seen it! The Golden Snidget!

Cedric peeled downward so rapidly that he nearly fell off his own broom, his hair blowing away from his face. His lips were parted in a grimace, revealing two rows of perfect white teeth clenched together.

Sensing a spy on his tail, Fred glanced briefly over one shoulder and caught sight of Cedric speeding after him. Fred’s design was not to catch the Snidget – for if he did, Cedric and Fred would both be tied. His aim was to make Cedric see the Snidget and try to catch it, but Fred would undoubtedly block him (he was a stunning flier, after all, and could manage it). His aim was to make Cedric remember the thirst for searching out an object so similar to a Snitch, and to make him preoccupied with it, distracted. Diggory was a Seeker, and the hunt was in his blood.

The Snidget soon vanished, out of both their grasps, and Cedric shot high into the air for a better vantage point. Fred smirked. Well done, he told himself. The buzzer rang in his ears; he looked wildly all around just in time to see Tonks popping into being several hundred feet above him, tiny as a speck, while James’s score of ‘0’ promptly turned into a ‘5’.

Fred was so rapt that he never noticed Cedric, who had dropped in height and now hovered just behind him, wand at his neck. “Levicorpus,” he said with an air of enormous satisfaction.

Fred was lifted from his broom, dangling upside-down with his arms waving. He’d managed to grip his broom in one hand just before it inched away, but Cedric was bouncing the tip of his wand along, forcing Fred to bounce along with it like a marionette. After some intense shaking on Cedric’s part, Fred deemed it necessary to let go of his broom before his brain could fall out of his mouth or something equally unpleasant, and waved a merry goodbye to Cedric before plummeting head-first.

It wasn’t an altogether disagreeable sensation, sliding into the ground. The falling bit wasn’t half bad, either, despite the miniscule flakes of snow rubbing alongside his flushed exposed skin. It felt rather like landing on a mattress that continued to sink even as you fell into it, collapsing into itself further and further until you were gone altogether, absorbed into its fabric.

The next thing he knew, he was right at home on his broomstick again, in the same position he’d found himself in after jumping into the Pensieve. His eyes scanned the giant scoreboard of lights, the numbers assembling and disassembling like fireflies dancing around. He’d hoped that voluntarily letting go of the broom wouldn’t cost him any points, like Colin’s deliberate plunge, but Cedric’s number had doubled to ‘10’ and he was looking mighty pleased with himself up there, buzzing around James like a hungry vulture.

James was so busy avoiding Cedric that he hardly noticed Vincent, who came zooming forth with his spiked Beater’s bat held out over his head. “Oh, no you don’t,” James seethed, withdrawing his own bat. The tips of their bats connected with an ear-splitting shriek; Vincent’s cracked all the way down to the handle, his fingers reverberating with scarlet pain, and James seized the moment by thrusting his wand out and yelling, “Ventus!”

Vincent was swiftly encased in a whirling cyclone of arctic blue wind, the helix spinning so fast around his ears that it tugged on the roots of his short hair and chafed his scalp. It expanded into a tornado that sucked up every fleck of snow in the vicinity, howling so shrilly that everyone else clapped their hands over their ears. Vincent screamed as the funnel cloud stretched itself out vertically, lowering its swirling blue-gray tip to the earth. Vincent shot down it as though through a vacuum chute, his screams only ceasing when he was out of sight.

“Stupefy!” Colin exclaimed, looking not altogether certain of what he was doing, but sticking his wand out, anyway. James’s eyebrows rose as he froze in place, incredulous. Having lost control of himself, he was thus knocked sideways off his broom.

The buzzer rang twice, granting James and Colin both five points each. When James Apparated in his usual spot, Fred was waiting for him. Tonks, however, was waiting for Fred. With Remus and Mad-Eye’s advice in mind, she mentally rather than verbally shouted, “Reducto!”

Fred’s broom shattered into a million infinitesimal pieces, each of them snagging in various whips of wind.

Fred snarled, grappling at the air. Before he could hit the ground, he twisted with a crack and then reappeared on the back of Tonks’s broom. Tonks swore loudly, veering off to the left without intending to. Fred grasped the broom handle in front of her, taking advantage of her panic, and swerved into a nosedive so steep that Tonks slid off the broom, just barely grabbing onto the broom’s tip in time. She glowered at him, brow furrowing with intense concentration as she hauled herself up the broom’s length and launched her shoe squarely into Fred’s chest, pushing him off.

The buzzer rang and Tonks released an exultant whoop.

Vincent, inspired by Fred’s tactics of Apparating and Disapparating around the pitch, tried it and landed, once again, behind Colin. It seemed that he was endlessly going after Colin, his only strategy being to attack the smallest opponent. He and Colin fought for control of the broom’s direction, the former attempting a nosedive like Fred’s while the latter wrestled against him, trying to resist.

“Get – off –”

Vincent overpowered him, leading the broom into a steady decline. He wasn’t a skilled flier – quite far from decent – and the broom wiggled madly, tossing about in the ferocious wind. Vincent Apparated sooner than he should have, accidentally ending up two feet shy from his goal: Tonks’s broom. Unprepared for this turn of events, he tumbled straight through the huge letter ‘o’ in Colin’s name on the scoreboard, feet kicking up behind him the whole way. Colin had miraculously coaxed his broom into a skyward-pointing position, achieving a Wronski Feint in the first (and would probably be the last) time in his life.

“Woo hoo!” Colin cheered while waving one hand in a fist of triumph, his too-large helmet askew over one sparkling eye. “I did it! Did you see that? Did anyone see that?” He flew over James, feeling exhilarated with himself. James’s helmet had fallen off and his mop of black hair was even messier than usual, tousled in the wintry gales flowing over the mountains in a transparent flood. Colin watched as the man below him blew away in a somersault from the force of Tonks’s spell, followed by a sickening loud buzz that meant five points for Mrs. Lupin. Tonks sped off to lap the pitch in circuits, looking like no more than a diminutive sprite aboard a flying tree branch.

Crabbe repeatedly rammed his broom into Colin from all directions, twirling around and around upside down as he did so because he couldn’t maintain a fixed position. Visibility was becoming blurry. It was raining in Cliodna’s Clock, lashing against the surface of the Pensieve and making everything smear together in disorienting streaks of snow and brooms and leather-clad opponents. Six players chased each other in dizzying circles, each of them beginning to feel sick. “Accio Potter’s glasses!” one of them crowed, and James was left almost blind as he tore across the increasingly hazy pitch.

He bumped into Cedric without meaning to, his ankle bone splintering against Cedric’s bat, which was currently stowed in its straps under his broom. That bat was so heavy that none of them wielded it unless they felt it absolutely necessary, as the weight caused tremendous strain on their muscles. “Sorry,” James mumbled out of habit, instinctually reaching out to touch Cedric’s shoulder to ensure that he was okay. Cedric swerved his head, piercing him with an odd expression. James winced, his ankle electrified with pain, and from below him, someone was preparing to jinx.

It was Cedric.

James reeled back in shock and confusion, staring from the Cedric on his left to the Cedric suspended beneath him.

“Wotcher,” the second Cedric replied with a jovial wave. “Confringo!”

The Cedric below blasted both James and the other Cedric off their brooms, and when the buzzer rang, Tonks Lupin was awarded an additional ten points for a double score.

Fred growled, charging at the impostor Cedric, who hastily morphed into the form of Vincent. The real Vincent, who was restlessly tailing Colin, stopped for a moment, mouth popping open. James Potter materialized behind him and reached over, snatching his stolen glasses back.

Colin just so happened to whiz by, sticking out one arm, and thunked Vincent right in the throat. The latter boy plopped off his broom, spinning around and around until he vanished with a snap of Apparition and reappeared just inches from the fake Vincent a minute later, reaching underneath his broom with five bone-white fingers to extract the thorny Beater’s bat…

The bat made an awful crunching noise when it met his doppelganger’s temple. The fake Vincent’s eyelids fluttered, only the whites of his eyes visible, as he changed appearances from Colin to Cedric to James at lightning speed – as though his wiring had gotten damaged – and then it was Tonks again, and then Lily Potter, and then Remus, and then all of Remus’s brown hair shrank back into his skull as fluffy red curls emerged, her face lined with the soft grooves of Molly Weasley’s face.

As she fell, Fred twirled his wand in her direction with a surge of Aresto Momentum.

He knew it wasn’t his mother – not really, even though Tonks had captured her identity perfectly – but he couldn’t watch her plummet so helplessly, so fast. The ground chewed up Tonks and spit her back out into the air, good as new, although she was rather woozy now. Vincent’s score rose to a vibrant yellow ‘10’, putting him in the lead for his team against Colin and James, who were both slumming along with a measly five points each. On the opposite team, Tonks was ahead at twenty points versus Cedric’s ten and Fred’s five.

“Best Beater Gryffindor ever saw, eh?” Cedric called to Fred, soaring from above him to Fred’s left, and then underneath him, and finally to his right. “I seem to recall you saying that, mate, but it seems that you’ve really lost your touch.”

Fred swatted his wand at him halfheartedly, emitting some foul-smelling sparks, but Cedric had already skimmed over to James. James’s broom was reflecting the sunlight strangely, igniting it with a flash of gold…

Suddenly, Fred knew exactly what Cedric had seen perched on the tail of James’s broom, unbeknownst to him. It smeared with the rain pelting out of present-day Cliodna’s Clock, pitting ripples in the air and stretching everything into grotesque shapes. The gold spot seemed to melt from the interfering rain, washing off to the right until it met Tonks’s broom and settled there. The Snidget was fluttering from broom to broom, finding a nice spot to roost.

Tonks gaped at the two young men diving at her at top speed, shielding her face with one arm. “Wait!” Colin cried. “Don’t hurt it!” Not listening, Fred and Cedric smacked right into each other, creating a domino effect that sideswiped Colin and swept him neatly off his broom. Colin hugged the air, drawing something close to his chest while one elbow made contact with Tonks’s broom, jarring her line of flight and pitching Tonks into a sharp tailspin.

Vivid colors of sunlight streaked over Colin’s heart in an ‘X’, molten gold feathers clutched gently in his fingers like a precious treasure, while six simmering pops tinkled through the atmosphere as everyone was unexpectedly sucked from Cliodna’s memory.


*

“As the Round Three winner for Mortuus, you are granted the extraordinary choice of eliminating one member of the opposite team,” Claudius said to the boy. Vincent was still wrapped in a wool blanket, his body going through shock like all the others from abrupt fluctuations in temperature. The cold mountains and seaside of a medieval Cliodna’s Clock were gone, replaced with an almost disgustingly-hot modern summer. Fred’s teeth chattered, his hands clammy, and he wondered for a dark space of time if Cliodna had arranged this on purpose.

Vincent stared from Tonks to Cedric to Fred, his three options, with an air of important deliberation. The three remaining members of Victus scowled at him, entirely at his mercy. It didn’t matter how well any of them had performed in the past three rounds if they were going to be thrown out by a moron like Crabbe.

“Hmm,” Vincent announced thoughtfully, relishing his time in the spotlight. His eyes locked on Tonks, narrowing vindictively. Her hands curled into knots, her stomach clenching. Her fate, her goodbye letters to Teddy, and her sanity rested on the shoulders of a boy who’d died in a wave of Fiendfyre created by none other than himself.

“Diggory,” he finally replied, smirking.

There was a pause, with Tonks’s heart lurching and Fred’s eyebrows shooting up into his fringe. Cedric’s jaw dropped, face contorting with rage. “That’s not fair!” he shouted indignantly, stepping forward and dropping the blanket that had been shrouding him. “This is ridiculous. Why should he be allowed to –”

“Silence!” Claudius boomed, holding up a hand. His skin was too flat, his palms void of any depressions or curves. He glanced uneasily at Cliodna, who didn’t stir, before turning to Vincent. “Diggory it is. That will be all from you.”

Vincent strode off to the front row, apparently under the impression that he didn’t need to stick around anymore, and began to appraise the rows of Grotta residents, searching for a familiar face.

“Nymphadora Lupin is the winner of Victus with twenty points,” Claudius prattled on. “Congratulations, Mrs. Lupin, you get to choose which contender to disqualify from Mortuus. Since Mr. Creevey caught the Golden Snidget, he has immunity and cannot be eliminated – so your selection is confined to Mr. Potter and Mr. Crabbe.” His mouth twitched, eyes darting to Vincent in a sidelong smirk. “Might not want to travel too far out of earshot, son.”

Vincent had located his father in the stands, and had stopped listening. The minutes before the start of each round and the minutes immediately after were the most important to him. At that moment, all he cared about was the image of his father, here with him, if only for a short period of time.

The completely horrible, brutally delightful option to hand-pick her eventual competition was ripe on the tip of her tongue, tangible in her fingertips. Who should stay and who should go? Tonks surveyed both men, both of whom were gazing elsewhere. Tonks’s eyes traveled along James’s path of vision, which led to Lily. Remus watched Tonks as Tonks watched Lily, and Lily pressed two fingers to her white lips in a silent plea.

“James,” Tonks whispered, feeling suddenly winded.

“Mr. Potter?” Ptolemy repeated, blinking. A moment later, he had collected himself and declared loud enough for everyone to hear, “Mr. Potter!” James’s face went peculiarly blank while Lily shrieked with joy. Forgetting everyone else in the stadium, she leapt to her feet and hopped down each bench, throwing herself into her husband’s arms with such force that she almost toppled him over.

“Thank God, thank God, thank God,” she murmured over and over. James belatedly slid his arms around her, still shocked, as Lily lifted her eyes over his shoulder to meet Tonks’s frigid gaze.

“You are not to enter ever again,” Tonks said in a deadpan voice. “You will not compete in the Devil’s Duel anymore.”

Lily froze, stunned; when Tonks didn’t move or renege on her orders, Lily simply nodded, so appreciative with Tonks’s gift of sparing James’s life that she could not have dreamed of arguing.

“All right.”

 
 




A/N: I was going to write about a Quidditch World Cup, but I was torn between that and Shuntbumps, so I just decided to mix the two together and add in a few things. I hope you enjoyed it! If you have time, please leave a review. One sentence of feedback can make a world of difference.  :)
 


Chapter 21: Tradition
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Several hours after Cedric and James were unceremoniously booted from the races, Regulus Black picked his way down a narrow dirt path lined with centuries-old redwoods, following a special shortcut to the boardinghouse that only appeared after sunset. He grinded to a halt underneath one of the windows, bending down to choose a stone with one side smooth and the other jagged. Vigorously flipping the hair out of his face, Regulus stretched his arm back behind him and flung the stone at the brick siding, narrowly missing a window.

A head appeared a moment later, followed by two hands throwing up the sash. “What the bloody hell are you doing?” demanded a cross old man. “Get outta here!”

“Aye aye, sir,” Regulus responded with a wave. “Just looking for a Weasley. Resume trimming your nose hair or whatever you were doing.”

The man grunted at him and banged his window shut, and Regulus resolved to continue hurling stones at windows until the right person finally appeared. One of the windows glowed dimly from the light of a guttering candle placed on the sill, casting a shimmering square over several trees just behind Regulus. A shadow swept by, and then the curtains wrenched apart.

“What?” It was Cedric, bobbing around to get a good angle on the darkened fellow below. Upon seeing who it was, his forehead puckered into a frown. “Reg?”

“Where’s Weasley?”

Cedric pointed to a window a few spaces down from his own. Regulus grinned at him, giving him the thumbs-up. “Thanks, mate. You’re invited as well.”

“Invited to what?”

“Come on down and see!”

Cedric made a ‘harrumph’ noise and closed his window, but Regulus noticed that his candle extinguished seconds later. Cedric must have dashed rather speedily down the stairs, because he appeared in the side garden within the width of a sentence, joining the young Mr. Black.

“Here we are,” Regulus said to himself, tossing a triangular rock up in the air and then catching it with his other hand. He aimed it at the siding next to Fred’s window but missed, plunging the rock straight through the shattering glass. Cedric immediately dove into the trees, not wanting to be caught at the scene of the crime, while Regulus stood right where he was, utterly unabashed. “Weasley! Oi!”

The rock came sailing back outside, clobbing Regulus right in the stomach and plowing him sideways in a painful keel. “Ooof,” he groaned, lying in the fetal position while clutching at his abdomen. “Blimey, Fred. Judging by your poor performance in the last round, I thought your aim had gone bad! Very misleading, you know.” He coughed and stood to his feet, shaking his head thoroughly as though he’d gotten dirt in his ears as well as all over his robes.

Fred repaired his window with a simple Reparo and opened it properly, arching an inquisitive eyebrow at the rustling trees behind Regulus. “I smell a Hufflepuff down there with you. Show yourself, Hufflepuff!”

Cedric dragged himself dutifully out of the trees, scowling at some thorns that had gotten lodged in his sleeves.

“Get down here, dunghead!” Regulus ordered. “You’re coming with us.”

“You’re not much in a position to be telling me what to do,” Fred called back, although he was smiling. “I’ve got loads of stuff up here I could chuck at you if I wanted. Ever had a chandelier dropped on your head?”

Regulus brandished his wand, eager. “Show us what you’ve got! I’ve dueled flobberworms with bigger brains than yours.”

Fred rolled his eyes. The lamplight around him shuddered as he disappeared, rippling over the walls. His shadow took just a second too long to vanish along with him, and when Fred Apparated directly underneath Regulus, sending the latter toppling over into the dirt again, his floor-to-ceiling shadow was still clinging to the papered walls of his small room above. The inky silhouette moved with both arms turning, head tilted as though in surprise as it made to Apparate, too.

“What’re we doing?” Fred asked once they’d all straightened themselves again.

“Yeah,” Cedric wanted to know. “What’re we doing?”

“We’re going out on the town for shenanigans!” Regulus cried gleefully. “Tradition for after the third round.”

Cedric studied him, dubious. “I don’t remember that tradition.”

Regulus clocked him on the arm with his fist, swinging around in a circle as he did so. “New tradition. Say – either of you lads seen Colin Creevey? He could do with some cheer, as well.”

Fred and Cedric both pointed towards the beach. “Over there, usually,” answered Fred, who was only just realizing that he was still wearing pajamas (which explained Cedric’s abundant smirks). “He goes round looking for seashells all night, looks like. Him and that Olaf.”

“Orla,” Cedric corrected.

“You really aren’t much fun when you’re cranky,” Fred observed. “Still sore about losing, then? That was practically ages ago, you ought to be congratulating me on my success by now like a well-mannered chap like yourself.”

Cedric looked ready to jinx him, so Regulus smoothly intervened by throwing an arm over either of their shoulders, coaxing them along the lane until they met the main avenue. Frail pink and blue clouds coasted along an iridescent indigo sky – their colors quite the oddity, considering the lateness of the hour – and the three young men set off towards a crescent of white beach.

“Hang on,” Regulus murmured in a roguish voice that could not bode well, stopping short. Cedric and Fred merely stood there, bemused, while the boy with gleaming black hair leapt over a hedge and into Severus Snape’s front garden, falling flat onto his face. He popped right back up again, grinning wickedly, and slunk over to a shadowed patch of grass directly underneath Snape’s radiantly-lit terrace on the second story.

“Psst!” He called in a hoarse whisper, cupping both hands around his mouth like a trumpet. “Snivellus!”

Fred sniggered; Cedric’s eyes were huge.

“What’re you playing at?” he hissed, but Regulus ignored him.

“Snivellus!” Regulus repeated more loudly, crouching to his knees. “It’s meee, the spirit of your mother! Eileeeen! I’ve been watching you from earth where I am very old and ugly, and I wanted to express my infinite pride that is all due to your severe lack of hygieeene –”

The curtains flew wide open, and the profile of a hook-nosed man simmered into view.

“– which was undoubtedly inherited from myself, Eileen the Uncleeeeaaan. I also wanted to let you know that you’ve got hair like a dead animal that rolled around in butter and then crawled on top of your head and diiiied.”

Regulus tousled his own cherished locks, unaware of the five long fingers slowly drawing back the sliding door to Snape’s terrace. Cedric and Fred scrambled over each other in their haste to hide, both of them suddenly plagued with memories of what exactly Severus Snape looked like whenever his wrath was aroused. “Your father and I just want you to knoooow how thrilled we are that we’ve got a walking Inferius for a son. Your skiiiiiin is reminiscent of a blobfiiiish that was pulled inside-ouuut and then –”

But what Snape’s skin might look like if he were a blobfish that had rudely gotten its odds and ends flipped inside-out, they would never learn, because Snape threw open the door and sprang over to the balcony. Regulus yelped, diving away; Snape’s fingertips grazed the ends of his hair, not quick enough to yank him up by the roots of his scalp. As the three of them escaped, sprinting down the beach where they then slid and slipped around in the sand, Snape glowered contemptuously.

“Arrogant little berks,” he muttered, retreating back into his house and then slamming the door shut. He pinched the wicks of his candles between two fingers, pitching the room into darkness so as not to tempt any more tomfoolery from passersby. Little did the small-brained Black know that Eileen and Tobias Snape were both actually dead.

After much searching, Severus had been forced to conclude that neither of his parents were here in Cliodna’s Clock. While this news was not especially surprising where Tobias was concerned, as he was a Muggle, Severus found himself wondering what had become of his worthless waif of a mother. The unintentionally cruel barb in Regulus’s ridicule was not wasted on him, and he spent the better half of that night wondering about the woman who had once taught him to cast spells before her voice was snatched away for good.

Meanwhile, Regulus was crowing with his feet kicking out, lying in the sand dunes on his back like a turtle. “Did you get a load of his face?” he hooted, wriggling one hand in the air for someone to help him to his feet. Cedric stared at him, exasperated, but Fred assisted the mad little man who was prone to falling down quite often. “I’ve never seen him move that fast! He’s all the time so sullen, he just needs a laugh.” He appraised Cedric’s face, searching for the hint of a smile. “Well, he does look like an Inferius, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he? I mean, I for one ought to know – that squibbly lot killed me.”

Cedric frowned again, preparing to ask what ‘squibbly’ meant, but all three were temporarily arrested by the sight of a balloon skidding down the beach, not even seven feet off the ground. Attached to it was a small basket with a candle in it, the illumination blasting all around the red rubbery balloon like an infrared glare. A figure chased after it, his white grin preceding him. He was snapping pictures of the whirling balloon, hopping wildly about from one foot to the other so as to catch it from different angles; photographs slid into his outstretched palm, one by one. Fred grasped one of them, turning it right-side-up to squint at it.

“Not bad, Creevey. Not bad.”

Colin reclaimed the picture from him, looking slightly territorial as he slid the pictures into the pocket of his robes. “What are you lot doing out here?”

“Collecting you,” Regulus responded brightly, steering the boy away from his balloon. The tongue of flame within the small basket swayed back and forth until finally going out, and Colin gave a lopsided frown.

“Collecting me? For what?”

“You’ve been on your own too much,” Regulus told him airily. “You’re getting ready to enter the fourth round –” He glanced at Cedric, who was suddenly sour-faced. “Sorry to bring that up, Ced. But Colin and Fred here will be going into the fourth round soon and you both ought to let your hair down for a spell.” He winked. “Might be your last chance.”

Fred stuck out a hand for Colin to shake. “Peace treaty, just for the night?”

Colin sized him up. “Dunno about you, but I don’t need a peace treaty. I’m plenty peaceable already.” He shook Fred’s hand energetically.

“Brilliant.” Regulus rubbed his hands together, eyes glinting ominously. “Let’s get cracking.” While Fred, Cedric, and Colin stared warily at him, unsure whether or not to trust the wily Slytherin, Regulus pointed and spun around four times before settling his finger on a smokestack in the direction of Little Hollow – a quaint, archaic neighborhood designed to look like a miniature version of Godric’s Hollow. It took up less than two blocks. “There.”

“What about it?” Cedric asked.

As it turned out, Regulus’s idea of a delightful evening entailed bullying Cedric into shimmying down someone’s chimney while Regulus looked on unhelpfully from the roof, whispering (very loudly, which defeated the purpose of whispering) at him to hurry up. The argument behind Cedric being the unfortunate one to slide down the chimney was that Fred and Colin had to be at the top of their game for the next duel and couldn’t risk injury, whereas Cedric was now useless and could do whatever, while the ever-insensitive Regulus orchestrated the whole ordeal. “Just Vanish all their furniture right quick and we can have a go at the next house. I’ve got a new jinx I want to try that makes your nose squirt jelly whenever you cast a spell.”

“I am hurrying!” Cedric called back. To himself, he mumbled, “Git.”

He dropped into a thick pile of logs, wincing as ash rose all around him in a billowing black cloud; he couldn’t help but cough.

“Did you hear that?” someone spoke sharply.

“I did,” Albus Dumbledore replied in a serene tone. “I believe we have guests, Gellert.”

“If he hasn’t got a sack-full of toys over one shoulder, I’m hexing his tongue to stick to the back of his head.”

Cedric’s burning eyes widened, both hands firmly smacking against the stone chimney. Terrified, he stood utterly still – as if not moving would make him invisible. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he groaned to himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Listening to a Black is always bad news…Dumbledore’s going to kill me…ought to have brought some Floo powder along to help get myself out of this…

There was the sound of muffled laughter from the roof, and then Fred hissed, “Careful, now, we’re going to lift you out.”

Cedric’s heart thumped away in his throat. He tilted his head back to scan for any signs of Fred or Regulus above, keeping one ear pinned on the footsteps pattering into the room where Cedric had trespassed. “Will you hurry it up?”

Colin, who had been stationed at the front window to keep a look-out, gaped as his former headmaster and another wizard he did not recognize poked around the hallway into the parlor. Cedric’s shoes were visible even amidst the swirling cinders. Thinking fast, Colin pointed his wand towards Dumbledore’s friend and bellowed, “Wingardium Leviosa!”

The man called Gellert was upended at once, swinging round and round with his arms and legs stretched out in a magnificent cartwheel that he surely would not have been able to achieve without the help of magic. He rolled back down the hallway, Dumbledore’s alarmed gaze following him.

“What’s the meaning of this!” Gellert roared, unable to stop whizzing around like a Fanged Frisbee. He came barreling back down the hall again and whacked into a picture frame over a small three-legged table, causing it to fall down and break a vase resting on the aforementioned table. “Get me down! Get me down!” He swiped at the air with his hands, incensed. “What’re you just standing around for?”

Albus raised his wand to release his friend; Colin decided that it was necessary for Albus to be levitated, too, and performed the charm on him while letting go of his concentration on Gellert, who crashed over the back of the sofa and onto the floor.

“Get me out!” Cedric yelled hysterically, beating on the bricks. “Weasley, I swear to God, if you don’t –” His words were abruptly sliced off by someone else’s hollering.

Gellert’s head appeared over the sofa’s back, livid as a bruise. “Trespassers! Thieves! I’m going to transfigure your ears so much that you’ll be able to hear your own last words over and over for months!”

Cedric tapped his foot impatiently, bouncing around in a jumble of nerves. He rather liked his ears. He’d always been told that he had handsome ears, much like the rest of his face, and didn’t fancy them being addled by magic. Unwilling to wait for Fred and Regulus to assist him, he clawed at the bricks in efforts to climb his own way out.

“Keep your hat on,” Fred called down good-naturedly. “We’re lowering a rope for you.”

Humiliated, Cedric clutched tightly to the rope that slowly inched its way down to be level with the tip of his nose. Gellert’s head sprang up the fireplace precisely the same moment that Cedric’s feet had left the ground.

“Oh, no you don’t, boy!”

Cedric screamed, abandoning all pretense of valor.

“Mr. Diggory!” Albus greeted him genially, ignoring Gellert’s hands gripping Cedric’s flailing ankles, pulling him back down while Regulus and Fred yanked on him in the opposite direction from above. Cedric felt like he might be torn in two. “How kind of you to drop in on us. You could have simply knocked, you know.”

“Hooligan!” Gellert raved. “Who sent you? What are you after? My dragon’s blood? My Elixir of Youth?”

“You could really use a dose of that yourself,” Regulus’s muted voice taunted, filtering down through the layers of soot. “I’ve got a joke for you. What did your bald head say to your liver spots?”

No one responded (and Gellert’s lips mashed together as though he’d just swallowed a lemon), so he continued, “It said ‘Where did you go?’ Geddit? It’s ‘cause all your liver spots are hidden, see. In your massive wrinkles. I’ve got another one: What did the moth do when it flew into your ear?”

Gellert held on to Cedric’s knees, both of them scrabbling against each other as Cedric shrieked (his trousers were falling down, exposing underpants decorated with little dancing broomsticks that moved by magic) at Regulus to shut it. Fred grunted with the exertion of pulling the brawny young man up, as Regulus was distracted and the bulk of the mission fell to Fred. Colin was presently running in frantic circles around the house, trying to find a way up onto the roof.

“It forgot what it was doing in there in the first place!” Regulus exclaimed. “Because you’re old and you’ve got a bad memory! It’s contagious, I ‘spose, rubbing off on the moth…”

“Not as bad as your memory’s going to be when I’m through with experimenting on your brain!” Gellert yelled, transfiguring one of the logs into a hot poker and wielding it threateningly.

“Oh, now,” Dumbledore interrupted delicately, flicking open a newspaper. “Let’s not resort to violence.”

“I’ve got another one,” Regulus began, but was promptly knocked off his feet by Fred’s elbow, which had hit him in the stomach when he finally gave a heave and pulled Cedric all the way out of the chimney. One of his shoes had fallen off, which kicked Gellert in the nose. Regulus rolled down the roof tiles and into the garden hedge, which coincidentally was full of scratchy brambles. The two other boys on the roof fell off in a similarly ungraceful fashion, but luckily managed to land in a swampy pocket of mud that broke their fall.

“Did you know that was Dumbledore’s house?” Cedric demanded through a mask of brown sludge. “You knew, didn’t you?”

“Course I knew,” Regulus guffawed, his hair infested with tiny twigs. He looked like a bowtruckle. “C’mon, we’d better scarper before Grindelwald makes us swallow our teeth.”

The four boys bounded down the curvy lane and out of Little Hollow, watched by a rather envious Vincent Crabbe who was wandering down an alley by himself. “What next?” Fred inquired breathlessly.

“Him,” Cedric demanded, thrusting a finger into Regulus’s spine, which made the latter speed up a little to escape him. “It’s his turn to make an idiot of himself.”

“No problem.” Regulus conjured a goblet out of thin air and dunked it into the ivory lily fountain as they raced past it, bringing it to his lips. Most of the liquid sloshed all down the front of his robes. “At your service, my liege.”

“Is he insane?” Colin whispered to Fred, who snorted in response.

“That’s probably the best word for it.”

Colin wafted a photograph under Fred’s nose. “Look at what I got, though.”

Fred drank up the image of Gellert-the-flying-saucer as he floated past an amused Dumbledore, his eyes crinkling as he smiled. “Amazing. Truly a work of art.”

They hurried along after Cedric, who seemed to be leading the quartet with determined zest, his skin and clothing easily blending into the night from a combination of ash, mud, and resentment. “Here we are,” he announced haughtily, placing his hands on his dusty hips and tossing his head towards the black ocean. “This challenge is all yours, Black. Go have a look and tell us what’s in there.”

Fred’s eyes were bulging, but Regulus’s eyes were even huger. “There?” he sputtered. “You want me to go in there?”

Small waves lapped at the iron walls surrounding the Grotta, stifling but not entirely silencing the ghostly yells from within.

Cedric’s eyebrows rose. “Afraid?” he dared.

“'Course not.” Regulus puffed out his chest, fists swinging purposefully at his sides as he strode through the water and over to the smaller island. “There’s hundreds of tossers in there I used to know, but never mind that. Or Inferi, who’re probably swarming all over the place. I might remind you that I was murdered by Inferi.”

“Oh, you’ll be fine,” Cedric replied loftily over him. “Can’t die again. This is small potatoes for you, I’m sure.”

“Yes, it is,” Regulus answered bracingly, stopping every now and then to ensure that the three others were still behind him and hadn’t scattered into the wilderness. “Tiny potatoes. Miniscule potatoes. So itty-bitty that they couldn’t satisfy a caterpillar.”

“Caterpillars eat loads, though,” Colin pondered out loud. “Don’t they?”

Fred grinned as he watched Regulus’s stony shoulders tense from the prospect of his task, clapping his hands twice. “Bravo!” He launched into whistling a funeral march, which Cedric jubilantly joined in on.

Unsure of what else to do, Colin snapped a picture.

Showing off for his audience now, Regulus conjured a ladder and rested it against the wall, trying to climb each rung two at a time so that he might seem all the more impressive, but stumbling often because his robes kept getting caught under his shoes. “Tradition,” he reminded himself forcibly. “I’ll just poke my head in and then get right back out. Won’t take more than a second, and if I’m lucky, none of those rats will notice me.” He inhaled a deep breath, climbing high enough to just barely skim his gaze over the top of the wall. “Wonder if I could find a souvenir to prove my outstanding bravery…”

“Hello, there,” a reedy voice replied, not two inches from Regulus’s nose.

“Aaaghhh!” he shrieked, letting go of the ladder immediately and falling backward through the air.

A thin wisp of a man, insubstantial as smoke, tipped his head back and laughed maliciously. Fred, Cedric, and Colin all dropped their jaws – Colin’s magical camera flashed of its own accord, irresistibly capturing the moment, and all three of them gave great shouts before turning around, arms waving high over their heads, and made a run for it.

“Wait!” Regulus shouted, tripping all over himself from fear. “Wait for me!”




A/N: Thank you so much for reading! I’ve heard people saying such kind things about this story and it makes writing this such a surreal, wonderful experience. Thank you, thank you, thank you! And I’m updating this a day earlier than usual because tomorrow’s my birthday and I might not have time to post.
 


Chapter 22: Line in the Sand
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She turns gracefully away from you, as if to Apparate on the spot, but you can see that she is laughing. With the click of a button she has been immortalized, frozen in time, with one man’s eyes on her waves of dark hair and another man’s eyes fixed on the hand that she keeps wrapped around her wand at all times, the hand that should have beheld a sapphire ring.

Even as you move, adjusting to view the photograph’s subjects more clearly – to admire it and memorize every face in the background – she moves as well.

The man who is standing far behind them all can see through her to her heart, and the man standing just to her side can only see what she wants him to see – which is her laugh. He doesn’t hear it, though. When he looks at her with his leaf-green gaze, all he wants to hear are wedding bells, and so that is what he listens to while he watches her form his name on her tongue.

A light tease, warm affection that is somehow never enough. She drips wit, a quality that he deeply admires. He holds out his hands to her as if to catch some of it.

The photograph soon disappears. Everyone searches for it, even you, but it now belongs in the hand of the jilted man in the background, who is a receding suit of black robes, black eyes, and black heart.


*


I am powerless, he thought as he watched the willowy figure dismount from her horse. She was wearing a long cloak that draped around the hindquarters of her horse, falling between the clipped tips of grass chewed almost bare by wandering sheep. She revolved her waist just fractionally to sweep the doors of a tavern with her shrewd gaze, and then the chapel sidled snugly up next to it, before her attentions came to a rest on the rigid shoulders of a gentleman who was clearly waiting for her.

“My dear.” He was by her side in six strides, extending a hand for her to grasp. A sapphire sat in the middle of his fingers, a delicate queen among many kings, but the woman paid it no mind as she slid downward into his arms, falling into his dark eyes and bright smile that he reserved only for her.

“And mine,” she replied demurely, lowering her gemstone-studded hood. The red dawn spangled her face, weaving a pattern of diamonds that matched everything else about her. “Come, let’s move away from here. I don’t want to linger in the open.”

Salazar’s smile faltered just slightly, but he regained his pleasant demeanor soon enough. “You were not followed, I presume?”

Her voice was light, but her eyes were tight with ill-concealed worry. “Why should I have been? I’m an unmarried witch and Helena has her nursemaid to care for her. I’m at liberty to go wherever I please, whenever I wish to do so.”

“A wealthy widow running around without a chaperone is cause for great distress in our tiny, meddlesome country,” Salazar responded tartly. “If a woman of elevated rank sneezes before ten o’ clock, it’s practically news.”

Rowena tugged reprovingly on his arm while looking up and down the street, noticeably distracted. The lane was slick and wet from a twilight bath, snaking between shops and cottages like a black river; the only prominent lights in the vicinity were from the tavern and a crooked building across the street, its wooden placard bearing the words CANDLEWICK INN that hung from long chains. A broken tumbler of ale had been tossed out of one of its windows, and a married couple could be heard already arguing with each other even through the closed shutters. “Let’s find somewhere else to go.”

Salazar couldn’t help the resentful feeling that passed over his expression as he observed her. “Afraid that he’s going to see you with me?”

“Oh, I don’t care,” she contested, cupping her elbows in her hands. It was late autumn, and while the ground was still thickly smattered with rotting leaves, it had snowed three days previously. The snow had melted, but the cold remained in a curling vapor that rose around their ankles. The chapel’s stained glass windows were blurred in the morning mist, and a bell in its tower was soon to strike six.

“But you do care,” he couldn’t resist saying, still nervous about her body language. “I thought you were done with him? I told you not to respond to any of my letters until you were ready to give him up.”

“I am done with him, and I did give him up – which was easier than you imagine it to be, so spare me a bit of credit. There is nothing more to be said about that matter, Salazar, I’ve already promised you.”

She lifted her fair palms up to cradle his face, and he couldn’t suppress a slight smile that marred his otherwise troubled expression. “I’m yours. You’re safe.” She hesitated – he could see it written plainly across her face in Godric’s fancy penmanship – and added, “But he does live here. It’s his Hollow, after all. I don’t particularly wish to rub his nose in it.”

“You’re the one who arranged that we meet in this village.”

“Yes, I did. I still have a home here. You mentioned your dislike of Herringsworth in one of your letters, so I thought this location to be a compromise.”

Salazar frowned. “You have a home here? You still have property here, even after you’ve finished with Gryffindor?”

Rowena let out an exasperated groan. “I have properties up and down the entire country. Come, now, I only have an hour to spend. Are we going to waste it bickering again?”

His eyes flashed, despising that she alluded to their most recent reunion, in which both of them had left each other in a flurry of anger. “Of course not. How could I waste such valuable time?” To emphasize his statement, he drew Rowena close and kissed her, folding both arms around her back to press her closer to him. He enjoyed it quite ardently until he realized that Rowena’s attention was, once again, being spent on something out of his range of vision.

She didn’t even notice when he stopped kissing her.

“What?” he snapped, turning around to pierce the sleepy village. Without having to consciously think about it, Godric’s foggy cottage slipped into his mind’s eye; he knew it was situated in the direction Rowena’s focus routinely darted to.

She bit her plush pink lip, staring down at one of the buttons on his sable cloak instead of meeting his critical eyes. She rested both hands on his arms, which were turned skyward, and leaned into him again. She recalled the timber frames of her unused house and its wattle walls, and her patiently-waiting pallet stuffed with dried rushes. She could have possessed something grander, something riddled with magic, but had found the idea of that beyond her tastes. She felt safe in Godric’s Hollow, her property aligned at the seams with Glengale Abbey. It looked lovely at this time of year, radiant with the fiery reds and creamy yellows of autumn. “Somewhere private,” she murmured, giving her tone an edge of a plea.

“I don’t care if he sees us,” Salazar confessed, his insides beginning to boil. “Let him see us. I had to endure the sight of the two of you together this time last year, and you made no efforts to conceal yourself from me. If you spare his feelings now, then you shall injure mine.” He turned them both so that all she could see was the tavern and church, trying to force her to forget. He wanted her to absorb him and only him, and not have room in her thoughts for anyone else. “Do you love me?”

“Of course I do. How could you ask such a thing?” She peered up into his fathomless black eyes, desperate. Her eyelashes beaded together with cold, clear droplets. “But I am not heartless. Please. I don’t want to make this more difficult for him than it already is.”

He sighed, disappointed. “Of course. Whatever you prefer, my love.”

As they trotted off together, leading Rowena’s horse by a leather rope, a third pair of eyes looked on at them from the bell tower. His gold hair glistened, made grizzly by the infant stages of rain, and his wide green stare bore down on them with equal measures of jealousy, pain, and loathing.


*

Far as we can tell, she died of a broken heart.

That’s what the letter from Helga had said, although Salazar had never been able to make sense of it, no matter how many times he turned it over in his mind. A broken heart because Helena ran away from home and wouldn’t return? A broken heart because she ended her engagement to Godric?

Because of Salazar himself?

Salazar had not lived much longer after receiving the news of Rowena’s death. He could still remember the morning his owl delivered it, and how he had been gazing out the window at a portrait of rising dawn, feeling like he might finally be able to start over. Now that he was away from Hogwarts and presumably finished with Rowena – soon to be Rowena Gryffindor, the way he heard it – he would be able to recover from his emotional wounds. He had smiled and closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of late spring blossoming on his face, bringing a cup of hot tea to his lips. Today will be a good day, he’d decided.

And then the owl came.

He’d cried so much that his eyes were plagued with popped blood vessels, and he began to swiftly age, growing old over the course of a month. When he lay in his coffin, his once-black hair now curls of silver, his thin supply of friends had barely recognized him.

They’d whispered to each other that Salazar wasted his life pining over Rowena, who had never been able to choose between her two colleagues. She was disgusted with Salazar’s pride and proud of Godric’s selflessness. One was too clever for his own good and the other a humble hero, and she was perpetually confused with herself for loving Salazar at all. Surely, in light of Godric’s many majestic qualities, Salazar didn’t hold a candle to him. Rowena, for all her wisdom, had become nonsensically enamored with a man who did not deserve her, and so all three were destined for a lifetime of emotional torture until met with death.

From the point of death, it was worse. Godric and Salazar swirled back and forth around Rowena, alternating between bitter envy and being consumed in love but also wary, knowing that it wouldn’t take much for Rowena to trade one for the other. Other men would not have put up with it. They would not have thought the fair Ravenclaw woman worth the effort, but both Gryffindor and Slytherin had invested too much of their hearts in Rowena to pull back. So she kept one broken heart and one vital one in her possession at all times, and only when she exchanged lovers did the broken heart begin beating back to life.

But the afterlife was long – it was so very long and boring, and Rowena decided to stop trying to make herself choose. She let one suitor halfway into her life – as he was the safer one, the stronger one – and shut out the other altogether.

Salazar’s heart, therefore, had been dead for centuries.

*

Salazar sat at a small writing desk overlooking the window. Rowena’s house was in full view, with her bed of flowers and the lamp in her first-floor parlor lit as usual, for she never switched it off. He’d long since memorized every inch of her dwelling, taking it in turns to hate and love the silhouette who flitted behind the five narrow windows. On nights when there were two silhouettes rather than one, Salazar yanked his curtains closed and rolled into bed, although he could not find sleep.

Tonight, while he’d watched and ensured that Rowena was quite alone, he still could not sleep. Rowena hadn’t permitted Godric to enter her house for the past month, and for once in their lives, this did not mean that she wanted Salazar instead.

The vision of Godric and Rowena together burned in Salazar’s brain, igniting his wrath, and he realized after this month of Rowena preferring neither of them that as long as he had that wrath burning bright, he needn’t feel those pangs of loneliness. He told himself that the only thing standing in the way of a warm and rosy future with Rowena was idiotic Godric and his fistfuls of bouquets. Now that Godric was seemingly being shunted aside and Rowena had drawn no designs of reuniting with Salazar, the latter was forced to come to the conclusion that she would rather be alone than with him at all.

He pressed his hands to his forehead, relishing the cool pressure of his thumbs against throbbing memories, while Rowena’s horse and long riding cloak and Salazar’s rich sable furs whirled together in a horrific dream.

Below, lying on his antique desk, was the second draft of a letter to Vincent Crabbe. He’d outlined specific disadvantages of each contender, including Vincent’s own flaws so that the boy could hopefully work on them, but the words had started to blur together into meaningless sentences and Salazar, of course, could think of nothing save for the bruising question of where Rowena’s love belonged, and where his own love now lived if she wasn’t using it.

His arms collapsed at the elbows, his hands now smearing the drying ink on his parchment. His memory from Godric’s Hollow was from another life, from another time. Godric’s Hollow had been in its infancy, long before the Dark Lord met his first downfall in baby Harry Potter there. The autumn leaves blowing east into winter and the spooky church bell that beheld too many stars in its rounded, reflective surface, had gone up in a pinch of gray smoke. The lovers in that dream were extinct, as well.

You’re all that I need, she had once told him. And don’t ever let me forget it.

Somewhere between the space of now and then, Rowena had chosen Godric over emptiness and Salazar had ended up alone, unwanted. What did it say about himself if Ravenclaw would prefer to be lonely, as well, instead of with him? How could he have allowed her to forget that she loved him? How could he have singlehandedly destroyed his senses, thinking about her so frequently and with such despair that it ruined him?

Salazar rubbed his bleary eyes, wiping yet more ink onto himself.

“She could never love me again if I continue to help the races persist,” he murmured, folding his hands together over the parchment. His mind was a flat canvas, all of his previous problems battered with blow after blow to his pride until there was no more room left for arrogance. There was nothing except for the hope of a fresh start. Until Salazar decided to give up his smug façade and make himself vulnerable to rejection – rejection of his genuine self and not the easier, more bearable rejection of the persona he fronted – then Rowena would not want anything to do with him.

Dear Vincent, he began to write.

It has been a tedious honor to help you along your path in the Devil’s Duel, but I regret that I can do so no longer. I am hereby withdrawing from my agreement to keep you under my tutelage. Good luck in Rounds Four and Five. If you focus on the third plan we discussed, I have no doubts whatsoever that you will be the champion.

Salazar Slytherin

The letter shimmered in the candlelight, growing dim until it gave one last shudder in Salazar’s ink-splotched hands, and then it was gone.
 


Chapter 23: The Beauty of Someday
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A clatter of voices interspersed with laughter fell in strips from the broad light of a window, pooling in the center of the kitchen in a place one wouldn’t think to look. It went unnoticed by the five friends; and as if there was a crater in the floor under the kitchen table, the sounds and anxieties rolled into a gathering heap so that they would not disturb their dinner. In the midst of these anxieties, now forgotten in light of recent events, was a newspaper article from the Daily Departed, with two paragraphs in particular standing out:

Cassandra Trelawney has admitted to experiencing a vision about the winner of the Devil’s Duel, although she is bound by the laws of the tournament to keep her knowledge a secret. She is also not permitted to bet on winners with the rest of the residents who are eyeing the Devil’s Basin. As of this morning, Nymphadora Lupin was tied with Fred Weasley for ‘most invested’, according to the diameters of their respective blood trajectories in the Basin.

Reporters for Daily Departed attempted to get a hold of Miss Trelawney for more details, but she has retreated indoors and has refused to divulge what she knows. One witness attested that Trelawney has been acting quite eccentrically since her vision, and can be heard making hysterical sorts of sounds within her house. When we enquired after a Cliodna’s Clock resident who is rather famous for her involvement with the Devil’s Duel, Lily Potter brushed us off with the response, “Doesn’t apply to me any longer.”


The Lily Potter in question was leaning over her kitchen table, pointing her wand at Sirius’s empty plate and goblet to whisk them off into the sink. The warm sun shone cranberry through the gingham curtains, its zenith level with Lily’s waist.

Sirius stretched, yawning heartily. “Fantastic dinner,” he informed her. “Mind, you should cook the noodles a little longer next time, but overall –”

James whacked Sirius in the back of the head with the salad tongs. “Thank you,” Lily told her husband, and James stuffed another hot roll into his mouth before she could take those, away, too.

“You know I’m joking,” Sirius amended with a smile. “It’s no small wonder why I’m constantly dropping by during mealtimes.”

“You should have invited your brother over,” Lily replied, sliding back into the chair next to James. Earlier in the afternoon, Sirius had rather insensitively settled himself between Remus and Tonks at the table, as a small but effective way of irritating his cousin (an opportunity he rarely passed up if he could help it), but upon seeing how hard Tonks was trying to acclimate herself with James, Lily, and himself, he’d subtly excused himself to the loo for a minute and when he returned, he’d slipped into another chair unnoticed. As much as he loved getting under Tonks’s skin, he truly wanted her to fit in well with the rest of his family.

Sirius waved a hand, shrugging. “He’s at the pub, playing cards with Phineas Nigellus – who’s a right cheat, I’ll tell you. Phineas stations Dilys Derwent directly behind whoever he’s playing against so that they can both disappear into their Hogwarts portraits and discuss card details.”

“That’s all right, I cheat, too,” James said pleasantly. “My Invisibility Cloak isn’t quite as infallible as the one I used to have, but it gets the job done.” He jutted a thumb at Lily. “And this one just changes everyone’s cards around, muttering spells under the table.”

“Not true,” she clucked, but no one believed her.

Sirius glanced around the table, his mouth turning up into in a soft smile. It filled him with a radiating warmth to witness the effort, to feel the gaps in the air knit themselves together when Lily carefully complimented Tonks’s new hairstyle and when Tonks expressed interest in James’s tales of accidentally swallowing some of his father’s prized memories when he was a child (apparently they had been very old and valuable, and once belonged to Adalbert Hufflepuff).

For the first time in a long time – since Sirius was young and whole and alive – he felt at peace. Everything was going to be okay, and not because he wanted it and willed it, but because that was the natural course their situation had taken. Despite their many differences, they had built a common ground out of midair, finding a way to salvage their friendships. Sirius did not think he would ever complain about anything ever again.

He’d forgotten what it was like to be living. After his death, he was keen to smooth over recollections of a life mostly divided between a childhood home he hated – Grimmauld Place – and Azkaban. He was shut away in small, suffocating spaces, but he’d never shut down himself.

He’d nearly gone mad. He’d wished many times that he could find a switch in himself and turn it off so that he would be immune to the ever-present knowledge that he was trapped, that his existence was one horror right after the other. But always, always, there was that undying hope. It never went out.

He’d been publicly denounced as a mad mass-murderer who killed his own friends, his reputation beaten and bruised by newspaper articles, word of mouth, and the icy glares of those who’d once been his friends. Therefore, Sirius Black did not take his freedom for granted. In Cliodna’s Clock, there was no Voldemort. There was no Grimmauld Place or Azkaban, and he didn’t have to hide inside a house that made him ill with resentment, with bitterness.

He was so ecstatic, so happy to be reunited with everyone he’d loved – except for Harry, of course – but everyone else. He was reunited not just with James and Lily but also the Prewetts and the McKinnons, and so many others he’d read about in history but never dreamed he’d meet, and actually do mundane things like share a tea with them – and he was so ready to really live again that it was easy to ignore the worries his friends kept with them at all times.

After hearing about little Teddy Lupin, Sirius was forced to recognize that Teddy was a real person, not a faraway memory. He could not expect Remus and Tonks to share the blissful verve that he was bursting with, that he treasured above anything else because he knew what it was like to lose it, and they could not claim the sort of life he’d forged for himself here. For once, Sirius was whole and happy and on his way to being young again, but his friends were not. He was starting to see that James and Lily were not, either, no matter what he would prefer to believe on the contrary.

Sirius knew and appreciated how short life on earth really was. Someday, with patience, Harry and Teddy would be with their parents again. Sirius understood that this would not bring about the sort of peace that the Lupins and the Potters craved – because Harry and Teddy would undoubtedly leave loved ones behind themselves. This idea of peace deceived them all. One generation would not be content until the next generation joined them, and the cycle would continue and continue forever.

While Sirius could enjoy the here and now, pacified with the unavoidable truth that life spans were not so very long and if they only exercised patience, they would all be reunited eventually, a little bit at a time, he knew that his friends did not yet see it that way. They were still bound to earth in ways that Sirius had learned to let go of. Their hearts were not completely present.

Sirius knew that his perspective could be misconstrued as ignorance or willful discourtesy, trodding on the feelings of others in his annoying predisposition to be satisfied about everything, to focus on the bigger picture – the inevitable, the future. In the grand scheme of things, all is well, so why make yourselves so miserable now? All you can do is live, and wait, in the meantime.

He had a habit of selectively forgetting certain bits of his past: The years between James’s death and his liberation from prison were blurry, the individual days coagulating together into one long mass that couldn’t be dissected anymore, broken down. These years, however gloomy, however painful, were essential to who Sirius had become. If it were not for those iron bars, those walls that enslaved him for so long, he would not be able to cherish his freedom. He would not be forever on the lookout for silver linings buried under tragedies. He learned this way, the hard way, that there was always room for optimism no matter what the conditions looked like.

He was thirty-six, would always be thirty-six, and he was coming to terms with the fact that this was not such a negative thing. He must appreciate those borrowed years, every single one of them, instead of trying to deny them with the delusions of youth. There were events in James’s life that Sirius had not been a part of, just as there were many events in Sirius’s life that the Potters had not been privy to except for summarized hearsay from Cassandra Trelawney’s mouth. They did not have to have parallel histories in order to still be close friends.

Sirius’s eyes locked on Remus’s and the latter offered him a smile of understanding, both of them wordlessly relishing the smiles Lily and Tonks exchanged, the incredible difference in each of their attitudes since the conclusion of Round Three. With James and Lily out of the tournament and only Tonks remaining from their pool of friends, all allegiance automatically switched to her. There was such a concentrated outpouring of affection, of hopes, support, and well-wishes, that it was impossible not to feel that vibrant new energy coursing through all of them, pulling them together as they always ought to have been.

There were moments that had passed and mattered and moments that didn’t; Sirius lived in every single one of them with the upmost gratefulness while his friends trudged along, grappling blindly in the darkness. They did not quite understand the beauty of someday as he was able to, but that did not matter. All they had was today, and Sirius was happy to share that with them.

“Best of luck,” Lily said to Tonks. Her smile was genuine.

“Thank you,” Tonks returned quietly, and Sirius could tell that she was extremely pleased.

As Tonks and Remus edged towards the front door, Sirius stood up, as well. “Hedwig’ll be wondering where I am,” he told them with an air of boastfulness.

Lily rolled her eyes. After learning that Harry’s owl was in Cliodna’s Clock, Lily retrieved the bird and tried to get her to stay with them in the Potter house. However, Sirius had visited them two days later. Hedwig of course recognized him instantly, having flown between him and Harry many times over, and took a shine to his company. She now lived in the Blacks’ cottage, where Regulus was trying to teach her how to tap dance (with surprisingly tremendous results).

Through the sitting room window, a hunch-backed figure looked on at them with longing in his watery eyes. Peter Pettigrew knew that scattered amidst the someday and the today the five of them volleyed between, there was no room for the long-lost past in their circle.

*

A stack of Colin Creevey’s photographs blew across the village, nestled in a basket tied to a red balloon. The balloon swept over the Lupins’ roof, unnoticed by the couple entering through their front door. It nearly turned upside down when it blew past the back door of Taffet’s Trunk, buffeted all about by a gust of hot air.

The air streamed through vents behind Taffet’s row of ovens, each of them simmering with batches of treacle tart. Taffet was experimenting with a new recipe in preparation for the thirty-first of July, Harry Potter’s widely-celebrated birthday. Treacle tart was a wildly popular pudding of choice for the past several years, after it was revealed to be Harry’s favorite.

The balloon spun in circles, temporarily ensnaring itself in a holly tree pruned into a giraffe that climbed the twinkling sky; the sky itself was an astounding shade of ultramarine, as though it had been painted by someone who had not seen the heavens in a very long time and had forgotten what it looked like.

The balloon freed itself from the tree and plowed onward, weaving its way between tombstones in the Memory Garden. Crickets hopped over each other in the hard dirt, trying to avoid touching the sunburned ground. The balloon was buoyed to the right from a sudden spray of water coming out of someone’s hosepipe, and then buoyed left again when a passing owl beat it away with the gales it left behind from the force of its wings.

It was then popped by the tip of a wand Henry Montgomery snatched from Anne Marie McKinnon’s front porch. As he watched the rubber deflate, grinning delightedly with sticky ice cream stains all around his five-year-old mouth, the basket attached to the balloon freed itself, riding on the slipstream created by air gushing out of the shriveling balloon.

The photographs inside came tumbling out, most of them blowing sideways into Anne Marie’s garden. One of them, however, leapt into a current of wind and was carried onward, flying in curlicues across gardens and porches and roads, slipping between the shivering branches of trees. It skimmed just above the cobblestones, fluttering with life, until the heel of someone’s shoe smashed it.

The shoe drew back, its owner pausing mid-step.

As he lifted the photograph to face-level, aligning precisely over the Potters’ sitting room window, Severus Snape felt a tug of resignation. Upon first glance, he thought the man in the picture was Harry, but it wasn’t. It was James.

He was grinning, of course, because anyone would be hard-pressed to capture a moment when James wasn’t smiling about one thing or another. He wasn’t carrying a wand, just like he hadn’t been carrying one on the night he told Lily to save herself and their son, that he would hold off the Dark Lord for a few precious seconds to give them time. “Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him! Go! Run! I’ll hold him off.”

Take Harry and run.

And run.

The words Severus listened to second-hand echoed in his mind, sifting like dust over the last of his feebly flickering anger. How many times had he heard the Dark Lord boast about it, rejoicing in the way James Potter was so easily defeated? How many times had Severus gloried in the knowledge that in the end, James was not as skilled as he appeared, not as clever? Severus was the better wizard, or so he had thought. He’d told himself that while Lily’s death had been an abomination, James’s was inevitable, almost deserved; he hadn’t been holding a wand. He was practically asking for it.

If their roles had been reversed, would Severus have carried his wand with him to the door? Would his mind and thoughts not have been walking up the stairs while Lily did, cradling their son? James’s first instinct was to make a human barrier out of himself, with no regard for his own protection. All that mattered was Lily and Harry, at the very end of James’s life. In his last seconds. With his last breaths.

There was a moment where Severus felt his heart constrict, and then the flame was gone. It blew away in smoke that could not be distinguished against the ultramarine sky, inhaled into a setting sun by its invisible mouth.

He watched the husband and wife’s profiles embracing through the window, just over the tip of the photograph where a defenseless James Potter was now studying Severus with a perceptive expression.

Severus died for Lily, who died for Harry. And James had been the first of them, dying for both Lily and Harry. His parting gift to her was the final few minutes that she needed to say goodbye to her son, inadvertently cloaking him with ancient, protective magic. James walked right into death’s arms, giving her what she needed.

What she needed. Time, precious time. Severus had never given thought to the fleeting moments between James’s death and Lily’s, but he saw now that it had made all the difference in the world: The difference between a third name on their tombstone in Godric's Hollow – a dead child slain in his nursery as the Dark Lord intended – and the boy with the scar on his forehead. Dumbledore was right, after all. Love was everything.

The photograph had become so blurry under Severus’s gaze that the smiling figure had come to resemble Harry again.

Feeling like he had been torn in two, something took hold of Severus’s direction and coaxed him forward, leading him across grass decorated with flowers that Lily had pruned herself, helping each little plant thrive and grow. His shoes made no noise against the stone steps, his heart strangely quiet as he raised his fist to the Potters’ front door and knocked.

When James’s face appeared behind the silver mesh, Severus halfway hoped that he wouldn’t open it; but James pushed the door open, his eyes alight with cautious curiosity rather than loathing. This might have been due to Severus’s palpable vulnerability, emphasized with the deep dejection searing throughout every inch of his countenance. And when Severus spoke, his voice was lacking its usual venom: “May I come in?”

Baffled, James wordlessly held the door open for his visitor. Severus fumbled into the sitting room, feeling his cheeks sting with ugly red blotches as his eyes found Lily’s. She stood between the sitting room and the kitchen, one foot in either room, as if she might sprint off in the opposite direction at any given second.

Feeling not at all like himself, and with no idea why he had knocked or what he was going to do, Severus waited for James to shut the door, staring at the carpet. He could feel James and Lily throwing quick glances at each other, communicating silently.

“So…” James began when it seemed that Severus had not yet found his voice. “What are…well…” His hand slid through the back of his hair, ruffling it. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”

Severus had to swallow a hot retort, reminding himself that this was not the James he once knew. There was no sarcasm in James’s tone, and although Severus was sure he did not mistake a sort of displeasure that hung in the air surrounding James, now was not the time to reignite old rivalries. Some quarrels must stay dead. Severus had resolved to leave his behind him, buried on earth with the man who’d been bitten by the Dark Lord’s snake.

“I wanted to say…”

Severus’s eyes roved desperately back over Lily’s, simultaneously thrilled at their close proximity and horrified. She was still gaping at him, although she’d closed her mouth, and her eyes were large and unblinking. It suddenly occurred to Severus how strange it must seem, for Severus to interrupt their evening with a knock at the door, inviting himself into their home and then proceed to stare at James’s wife while not speaking.

“I wanted to apologize.”

Lily remained stationary, face unchanging, but James replied, “Apologize?” He stepped forward, studying Severus in exactly the same way that his photographic likeness had done just minutes ago.

Severus had dreamed of this, he had wanted this, to be in the same room as Lily, to be given his chance to speak to her. But now, here in the flesh, with his dreams fusing at long last with reality, Severus had eyes for no one but the man with the glasses and black hair, the vision of his son. Severus felt tears well up in his eyes – hot and ashamed. He hastened to wipe them away, hating whatever was going on inside of him, tearing his resolution apart, but he couldn’t resist the sensation that everything, everything he once knew was melting, and he would drown in it if he didn’t find a way out.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

Lily’s fixation darted between Severus and James, the heel of her left foot still trapped in the kitchen. The sight of her would’ve been comical had the situation been different, for she looked like a ballerina about to fall, but she somehow remained motionless, just watching and listening.

James’s eyes reflected the astonishment Severus felt. For a very long time, no one uttered a single word. And then, a great many ticks of the clock later, James managed to say, “It’s quite all right.” He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t have to ask what Severus meant. He already knew.

Embarrassed, Severus cleared his throat and cut his eyes over to Lily’s, heart thrumming. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, his voice so thin and small that it could have popped. “For the…” He cleared his throat. “For the prophecy, everything about it and my involvement.”

Some time went by, with James gazing at him expectantly, and with the last of Severus’s dignity dissolving, he added, “I apologize for what happened to your son, as well.” As if afraid that she wouldn’t believe him, he opened his hands toward her, forehead lined with distress. “I do not expect your forgiveness, but I am sorry.”

Lily nodded. “I know you are.”

The tension in the room was painful. “Here.” Severus cleared his throat again and dug around in his pocket, thankful for something to do besides stand there looking like an idiot, and proffered a photograph.

Lily stared at the small, unassuming thing as though it might explode, heart hurting as she reacquainted herself with the familiar papery tone of Severus’s white flesh. He was aged, and he was lined, but he was the man who helped her child defeat Voldemort and she had never once questioned his ability to keep Harry alive. Glancing furtively at James to make sure that he didn’t have any objections, Lily’s arm reached out and she accepted the photo from him, careful not to touch Severus’s skin as she did so. She feared he might break if they made physical contact.

“I’m – I’m sorry, too,” she offered quietly, unable to look at anything but the blank plastic back of the picture. “And thank you.” She tried to fill those few words with as much warmth, meaning, and appreciation as possible, since she could barely breathe through all the strain in the room, the surging emotion. “Thank you for everything. You saved my son, which is something we cannot begin to dream of repaying.”

The ‘we’, referencing herself and her husband, did not hurt as much as Severus expected.

He felt his chest relax. He knew James’s eyes were trained on him, narrowed like a hawk’s, and that this might be his only chance to say whatever he wanted, to live in this short space of time. However, none of his thoughts from a lifetime ago occurred to him, none of the long soliloquies, the impassioned speeches expressing his rehearsed love. Instead, all he said was, “Do you remember it?” He nodded at the photograph, and only then did Lily remember that she was holding something in her hands.

“Oh.” She looked at it for several seconds before truly absorbing it. “Oh.” She jerked her head back up again, face full of wonder. “Yes. How did you…?”

It was the white oak tree, the picture she had taken when they were children.

“No idea,” he responded, surprised by the casual way he spoke to her, addressing her as easily as he did when he was eleven. It felt effortless, but still not quite right. It wasn’t like he imagined it would be – she might only have been a very familiar stranger, their paths crossing naturally and without premeditation.

“I found it the other day, in a park here.” His eyes glittered, body lurching forward unconsciously while the heels of his feet lifted off the ground. “It’s here.” He sounded like a boy again, phoning Lily to discuss the witches. “Parasol Park is real, Lily. It’s just like the one we played in as children, but it has the same name as the park from the storybook.”

“That’s impossible.” Her musical laugh spilled through the air, pouring down Severus’s throat like a replenishing potion. But it didn’t rouse any romantic or wistful images; he could think only of their childhood, of the summit of happiness he had known and cherished when he was young. All of it was due directly to the young woman standing in front of him. His eternal silver lining.

“This is…” She gaped at it, marveling. “This is incredible. It feels impossible to believe, but not really, when you think about it.” She surveyed him with her lovely gaze, slipping back into their friendly pattern of long, long ago. “If anyone could recover something like this here in Cliodna’s Clock, it’s you. You always did happen upon the strangest things.”

Severus felt his eyes crinkling, a foreign smile twisting his lips. “But you do remember it, don’t you? I wasn’t sure if you would. Remember how you used to bury things there?”

Lily was still smiling, but she blinked, evidently puzzled. “Bury things where?”

His smile fell somewhat. Maybe she didn’t remember after all? “The sandbox. You used to hide things in the sandbox for me to come find later…” He gestured to the photograph. “That, for instance.”

James watched and listened, allowing them the illusion of privacy while staying put right where he was.

Lily’s eyebrows knit together, but her smile was still genuine. Severus loved the sight of it, seeing her happy – and it was all because of him. She was smiling because of him, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t a smile of romantic love. It was a smile. Severus would take it, take it and be grateful. “Yes, I did bury stuff there all the time,” she admitted freely, “but not this particular photograph.” She held it back out for him to take, held tight between thumb and forefinger. “This was yours. You held onto it for heaven knows how long. I never did understand why you liked it so much, carrying it around all the time like you did.”

Severus’s heart stuttered in his chest. “But you…but you hid it there. You put it in the sandbox, that’s how I found it.”

She shook her head. “No, Severus. I didn’t.”

 

 

 









A/N: The line “Lily, take Harry and go! It’s him! Go! Run! I’ll hold him off.” is from page 343 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, USA edition.
 


Chapter 24: Twisted Towers
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Victus: Nymphadora Lupin, Fred Weasley
Mortuus: Vincent Crabbe, Colin Creevey





“Run.”

It echoed in the Pensieve in a whispering run, run, run, spreading throughout each swirl and streak, tunneling downward after the four falling contenders. Colin could still hear Claudius’s reverberating final order even as his feet made contact with hard ground within the confines of a memory far from Cliodna’s Clock.

Your wands have been taken from you, as I am sure you have noticed. They have been hidden. Let your clues find you, and you will find your wands. First person on either team to Apparate back to their platform, and then Apparate from their platform out of the Pensieve, wins. As there are so few of you left, we will allow you to be visible to one another.

Colin’s platform was an octagon – ancient, dirty, and leaf-strewn, and raised only a couple of inches off the grass. Tonks stood on an identical platform three feet to his right, with Vincent three feet to his left. Fred was on the other side of Vincent; each of them gaped upwards, open-mouthed, at the wide, inky night smattered with distant stars. While in Cliodna’s Clock it was only eight in the evening, here it was quite late.

Right underneath The Little Dipper, as if the constellation was ladling darkness right onto its forbidding roof, there was a tall, crooked building bearing the name TWISTED TOWERS in blinking florescent lights.

There were several windows ablaze, but an equal amount of windows still held in blackness – with smoky silhouettes gliding by behind those delicately lit, making their way presumably up and down many sets of stairs within. There was nothing else around for miles and miles – just this monstrous building breaking up the landscape, sticking up out of brittle grass and sand coalescing into rocks. A hand-carved sign above the door read:

Magical Fun-House


There was nowhere else to go but in.

Feeling vulnerable without wands to clench, the four of them set off simultaneously in single file, queuing through the tilted front door. Muffled laughter filtered down from the many levels above, and they tipped their heads back to view landing upon landing upon landing, all splitting off into separate rooms and corridors, like a maze. The stairways were crooked, many of them missing several steps, and a few of them moved, sliding to different destinations so as to confuse their patrons.

As they began to climb, silently deciding that splitting up would be wisest to do sooner rather than later, they quickly grasped that magical fun-houses were much different from the phony, simplistic Muggle ones that operated only on clever illusions.

Ahead of them, off one landing that curved to the left, was a room with a wide, vast clock face fixed right into its floor. It creaked, spinning at a snail’s pace, meant for people to stand on it.

Without preamble, Fred walked over to the two o’clock position and aligned his shoes with its brass markings. After a loud click, the clock began to move – it ticked with every second, filling up the dark, dusty space, revolving Fred halfway around the room to the eight o’clock numeral. A trapdoor in the gilded VIII swung open beneath him, and Fred dropped through the floor and out of sight.

While Fred had still been traveling in ticks, his heartbeat keeping time with each one, Vincent had strayed down a corridor opposite and into a small room with a domed kaleidoscope ceiling, its colors like the Aurora Borealis swimming in the floor with reflection. He spied a smaller door inside the room, one that had been pretending to be a fireplace, and opened it with curious eyes and a slack jaw. Through that door was a smaller room with kaleidoscope walls instead of ceiling, and an even smaller door beyond. On and on he went, through room after miniature room, until finally the last one was barely big enough to squeeze into.

He began to berate himself for choosing this particular path when there was a pop, and the four walls around him seemed to lock with the floor and ceiling in a screech of metal. Before he could blink, the room slid sideways through a chute, bolting faster than the speed of light. It shook and groaned, his small, lift-like compartment whizzing up and down the building’s many stories and then around and around throughout individual rooms, moving inside the gaps between floors and walls.

A traveling Vanishing Cabinet.


*


Glancing warily at each other, Tonks and Colin made their way down the remaining corridor. The building was seemingly empty, save for the ripple of voices splashing down the walls on either side every so often, pounding like drum beats under their shoes. They abruptly jerked around, searching for the laugh or call or cry, necks awash with gooseflesh, but no one was ever there.

And then, Colin discovered them.

They were pale, paler than ghosts. Colin saw them only when he squinted, peering hard at the winding stairways climbing to his left and the quiet corridors dipping down below. They were as insubstantial as breath in winter, wispy and flickering. Their voices were muffled, too, like shouts being heard only as forgotten echoes, separated by many, many doors. As one of them shouldered past Colin, not noticing his presence, he realized that they must have been the people who’d actually walked here in the flesh once upon a time, visiting Twisted Towers for merry amusement. They, like everything else all around him, were now only memories.

Colin stared at the hazy form of a woman in constricting, old-fashioned robes leading along a small girl by the hand. The girl turned around, her pale eyes locked on the place where Colin stood. She wore a pointed witch’s hat with asphodel on the brim – which suggested she might have been alive seventy or more years ago, when asphodel was superstitiously thought to keep Dark creatures away. “Come,” the mother spoke in a barely-there voice, melting into the floor. She tugged on the girl and they plunged through the smoke that represented a crowd of people. Colin blinked and the two of them wavered away into thin air.

Tonks did not notice the chattering families milling about all around them, some of them stepping right through their bodies. She charged forward without a second glance behind her, brows drawn to a crease in her forehead in determination. She left the boy behind, ignoring his sudden lapse in lucidity, his eyes clouding over, and proceeded to a rope bridge.

The netting was inlaid with fireflies – or maybe even stars that someone had tethered to earth, as their luminescence nearly blinded her in the darkness – and she grasped the gold head of a stanchion, a velvet rope hanging between its vertical parallel, and stepped onto the bridge of netting. It swayed back and forth. Tonks immediately crouched down, feeling the cold gusts of wind spraying up from below.

It felt like infinite space expanded just below her shoes, below the bridge. She hurried across, feeling the netting give way under her soles, like running over water. The ceiling flashed with neon black-lights that disoriented her, churning around and around on the walls in circular motions.

She envisioned Remus reaching for Lily’s hand, who reached for James’s, and three wide-eyed figments of her imagination watched with bated breath on the other side of the Pensieve as Tonks resolutely made her way down the tunnel of lights and through the other side.


*


Fred had found himself in a hall of mirrors.

They were of all shapes and sizes, some of their glass too opaque to produce a reflection and some of their glass only a gaseous substance undulating within a frame. Fred crept closer to one of them, watching the gas congeal together and then rip apart in whirlpool patterns always in motion, almost hypnotized by it.

Fred moved onward, one of his hands absently trailing against an ornate oval mirror as his eyes roved across many pairs of reflected ones in the ceiling, each of them his own but still foreign – they were different colors, wore different expressions. Some of them were different ages.

Behind him, his hand that lay in front of the ornate mirror brushed its surface; the two-dimensional twin made to swipe at him, trying to pull him inside of it.

The hall of mirrors led into a circular room of portraits. The floor was a revolving dais that changed direction whenever a person stepped on one of its invisible pressure points, rendering walking quite difficult. Fred, however, found that he couldn’t have walked even if he’d wanted to. He gawked at the portraits with terrified eyes, his whey-faced complexion almost perceptibly dripping the last of its blood supply down his throat and towards his shoes.

The portraits on the wall were stuffed with occupants meant to be familiar to passing patrons of Twisted Towers. They were designed to look like the friends and relatives of those looking on at them, but they were no ordinary likenesses. Some of the people in them were moving or speaking, but all were unaware that they were being spied on. They were documented in their last moments on earth, flashes of memories yet to be made that showed the viewer how all of their various loved ones would die.

Fred’s wet gaze popped from one portrait of Ron in a hospital bed in St. Mungo’s to Arthur in a flying car, jamming at its buttons in a panic as the car nosedived in a spiral toward an iron river; just underneath Arthur’s portrait, Ginny was still and lifeless, a dementor hovering over her slumped body. Spells shot off the walls behind her, illuminating shadows of many people fighting against each other in a tense struggle.

Angelina Johnson was there, too, although Fred had no idea why. She was standing in the rain, calling for someone – a pet, maybe – and there was Harry Potter’s scar come to life, hot and yellow in the storm. It connected with the ground, stealing Angelina’s voice.

There were dozens of them, everywhere, in generations: Fleur as an old woman, mistaking a bottle of outdated, intensely potent Sleeping Draught with her strengthening potion. Fred’s eyes wandered over to Percy and a woman Fred did not recognize, conversing in low voices in a dark room. They sounded afraid, trapped. A door swung open and a trio of people came inside, shutting it and bolting its many locks while one of them laughed wickedly. And there was a girl, too – a girl who looked just like Ginny when she was younger – but Fred looked away, unwilling to see what sort of fate awaited her.

Can’t be real, he told himself, horrified gaze glued to a spot on the spinning floor. He felt like he was going to vomit, and lowered himself to his knees. As the tortured cries of three blonde, middle-aged siblings cut across the room, Fred crawled on his hands and knees through an arched door. The cries followed him, unrelenting. In a bid to escape them, he managed to stagger to his feet, tears trailing down his cheeks as he stumbled blindly against walls. All the while, the image of a much-older George continued to spark and go up in flames before his eyes, surrounded by raining ash and debris that had once been purple packaging paper and Weasleys' Wildfire Whiz-bangs.

It’s just a fun-house. It’s just Cliodna messing with my head. They can’t really know these things. Fred rested against a wall, inhaling a shaky breath, and instinctually reached into his pocket for his wand. He patted at the place where it should have been, teeth snapping together as he remembered the objective of this round. He hated not having a wand on him.

“Get it together,” he ordered himself out loud. “Or you’ll lose for sure.”

Taking stock of his surroundings, Fred noted that he was in a room with no ceiling at all, and it was merely a tunnel of arbors. Lily of the valley lay draped over the arbors, their tiny bell shapes either wilted and gray or dead altogether. He reached up to touch the puffy orange clouds in the sky beyond one of the arbors but felt only smooth glass; the ceiling was enchanted, much like the Great Hall in Hogwarts. The evening breeze and sunset were not really there, a trick playing inside his own head.

It’s not supposed to be sunset, he thought idly. It was night when we arrived.

The floor rocked underneath him, turning to fluid. Not knowing whether that was an illusion, too, Fred ran as fast as he could towards a winding stairway at the end of the tunnel. Behind him, the wind blew a bough of lily of the valley off the arbor and it landed on the floor, bubbling white-hot as it sank right through the wood grains.

As Fred darted up the steps, words began to appear on each one. They trailed upwards, forming sentences in the color of spilled ink. Fred stopped in his tracks, rereading each line before they disappeared:

The only way out is always in
Every lock has a key, its perfect twin.
The key shall appear
Only for you
When you appear in front of you, too.



*


Colin had followed after Fred, wandering into the room with a floor comprised of ticking hands and numerals. He stood on a numeral that glinted six o’clock, counting each beat until he shifted, slowly but steadily, around the face of the clock to twelve. At XII, a trapdoor gave way beneath him and he plummeted through space, arms pinned tightly to his sides, and landed on slick red tiles.

The corners of the room were smoky and dim, but the rest was radiant with light from an enormous fountain. It was molded into the shape of a candelabrum, all seven of its candlesticks twisting up into crystallized amber wax frozen in mid-drip. Instead of flames blossoming from its wicks, it poured molten gold.

Colin stared at the pale yellow substance, watching the steam rise from its pools. As he continued to look, the gold began to cascade down its sconces at a more violent pace, overflowing from the base of the fountain. Colin backed away, eyes widening, as the gold sizzled when it made contact with the red floors. Tiles simmered into scarlet soup, rushing forward with bubbles and spreading smoke to greet Colin’s shoes.

Swallowing a shriek, Colin felt at the walls behind him for a door but found none. The trapdoor above had closed already, waiting for someone else to travel to twelve o’ clock.

Something about that thought tugged at Colin’s mind, the times on the clock above seeping into Cliodna’s Clock with its blackbird statue, and he glanced at a triangular window high on the wall, the lone spot of light. The moon was engorged to the point where it seemed almost fake. Colin struggled to recall seeing the moon from the outside perspective of Twisted Towers, and could not.

There had not been a moon.

As the gold foamed and gurgled, Colin scrabbled up the walls and grabbed the iron bars slanting over the window, swinging himself across to a rusty rectangular vent in the wall. With one tug underneath its loose frame, the door to the ventilation system yanked open and Colin kicked off the wall with his feet to project himself inside. He almost missed; he slipped downward, barely holding onto the smooth metal floor inside the vent, but with a groan of exertion he propelled himself inside it just in time to escape a blistering tongue of something that wasn’t fire or water, but a cross between both.

When he was wholly inside the tight, crammed space, Colin painfully jerked his neck around to look at the fountain and found that it was tranquil again, all of the molten gold securely contained inside its base.

He heaved himself along the shaft, passing something that was moving rapidly inside the walls. He could feel the power of it just inches away from his skin – metal grating against metal to cast sparks that warmed Colin’s small tunnel. There was a great crash soon after, its screeches and cries emanating from a dead end ahead of him. Colin worked his way towards a vent in that direction and punched it open with his fist, knuckles stinging. He dropped face-first into a vast, circular room.

It was at least seven seconds later before Colin prised his eyelids open, waiting for the hard impact of ground to shake his bones apart. There was no impact. There was no ground. There was only air.

“Ha!” he yelled triumphantly, paddling himself around. Nearby, Vincent Crabbe was floating in the midst of what looked to be a shattered box, his eyes blinking in dumbfounded surprise. “It’s enchanted!” he told the boy, too consumed with relief to care that he was chatting with his only opponent. “We’re levitating!”

They swam through the air like frogs, arms and legs kicking and mauling, higher and higher until they found a strangely-placed terrace – beautiful like it should have belonged to an Italian villa rather than tacked three-fourths of the way up a beige brick wall. Gravity attacked them the moment they swung over the terrace’s railing, making them so heavy that they had to take a moment to recover before shooting upright again.

Breathing heavily, Vincent and Colin walked through a corridor – the entire building was composed of corridors and rooms that made no sense, with rooms that led to rooms without corridors and corridors that led to corridors without rooms – and through a beaded curtain. The rosy glow of a fireplace washed up one wall with shadows of people stirring in front.

Colin passed the shadow of a young Cassandra Vablatsky’s profile, seated on a velvet pouf with her back severely hunched. Garbled mist rather than words escaped her mouth as she spoke to a young man about his future, his upraised palms trembling under the grazing back-and-forth of her long fingertips.

Another woman on the other side of the room was telling fortunes, as well, arranging teacups into the shape of a half-circle on her spindly-legged table. Vincent could not see any of it, and thought that something was rather wrong with Colin’s brain when Colin inched over to a patch of supposedly unoccupied space, peering and peering…

He swiped at the air, and a small white square materialized between three of his fingers.

“Where’d you get that?” Vincent demanded.

“I saw it in the teacup!”

Vincent scowled, his thick neck swiveling all around. “I don’t see any teacups.” He lumbered over to Colin, who was excitedly studying the contents of the card, and tried to take it from him. “Give it to me.”

Colin ducked, eluding him as he clutched the card protectively. “Is it a clue?” Vincent wanted to know. “If it’s the clue that tells us where our wands are at, give it here.”

“Yeah, no thanks,” Colin quipped, darting through an exit.

They emerged in the same tangle of landings they’d found themselves in soon after entering Twisted Towers. Vincent threw himself at Colin, who tried to push him out of the way of a small boy holding a purple balloon. “Careful!” he gasped. “You’ll hit him!”

“Hit who?” Vincent spat, his hand poised to strike Colin in the gut. Colin took advantage of Vincent’s split-second of perplexity to roll out from underneath him, scrambling bandy-legged down a corridor that split off into a spiraling staircase. As one of his shoes touched the seventh step, he was jerked backward, a finger around his collar.

“Get off me!” he yelled at Vincent, face contorted with fury. He aimed punches at the boy, but Vincent’s layers of muscle absorbed them easily. He didn’t even flinch.

Vincent searched him for the white card, grunting as Colin tried to resist him. Despite his anger at Salazar for bailing on him at the last minute, deciding not to mentor him anymore, he hoped Slytherin would still be proud. His new goal was to find Colin’s wand and break it, and prevent Creevey from Apparating back to his platform. He couldn’t imagine how Salazar wouldn’t be impressed. Vincent was, after all, acting on Salazar’s parting instructions, the only plan with potential to work:

Rules and etiquette be damned. Attack the weakest first, while those stronger than you tear each other apart. By the time it’s done, you will still be strong and your final enemy will not.

“Give it!” he shouted at Colin, digging around in the latter’s pockets. Colin twisted, more nimble than Vincent but much, much less powerful. Without his wand, he could do nothing to defend himself…


*


Tonks was in a corridor that went in and out of order, the adjacent rooms electrified with gaslights that flicked between whiteness so bright that it fizzled and popped, and then faded into dimness, into night. The furniture was bolted to the ceiling and walls instead of the floor, or in some cases the ceiling was the floor, and as Tonks moved along, so did the rooms, switching places with each other to confuse her.

Holes in the floor spewed up colored gas to face-level, creating a rainbow fog that Tonks tore at with her fingers, coughing. She heard someone else coughing, too, but when she turned around she found herself to still be alone.

Someone else coughed again.

Tonks’s skin bristled, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. It was then that she heard a deep voice, a threat to throw someone else down the stairs. Tonks skidded along the corridors, heading in their direction, but almost fell down in shock when she heard a whisper in her ear:

Which friends do you keep?
Can you count them by the hour?
You must be quick,
for time is steep
And ever-changing in the Towers.


Tonks realized she had stopped breathing. Her skin was wan, lungs taking small, bite-sized spoonfuls of oxygen as the disembodied clue floated through her ear. Something about those words rattled around in her memory, another poem of sorts. What was it? Ever-changing in the Towers… Twisted Towers?

Ever-changing time?

Tonks pressed her hands to her temples, trying to subdue a migraine. She was good at riddles. She loved puzzles and mysteries and anything that wasn’t at all what it appeared. She knew that the answer was already there in her head, waiting to be discovered.

She focused on the first half again, since she was certain that she’d heard it somewhere before. Which friends do you keep? Can you count them by the hour? She did not think this could be literal, as she had no friends inside the races. They were all her enemies, both Victus and Mortuus. Her only friend was her husband, and maybe the Potters, Sirius, and Mad-Eye, but they were gone…sitting up in the stands with Remus…

And there it was, in dull gray typeface spanning between Remus’s fingers. She’d been looking at his hands as they turned the pages of the Daily Departed, missing the sight of his shiny wedding ring. It was in the same issue as the advertisement for their house on Polaris Crescent, in a silly, rambling article that she and her husband had both mocked because of their speculation about losers of the third round going insane.

When the clock strikes ten and two, no one shall sleep. At eight, they must count the friends they keep. Midnight is no friend to its parallel, six; and four is an hour for mavericks.

At eight. They must count the friends they keep at eight.

The room with the clock floor, and the trapdoors under each numeral, clicked into place with the riddle, and Tonks understood. Each numeral on the face of that clock led not only to different rooms but to different times, and Tonks needed to journey to eight o’ clock.

“Get off!” a voice cried again, startling Tonks out of her thoughts. Her heart beat against her bones, the desire to get out of Twisted Towers fighting against the impulse to save the person being harassed, to rescue them. Before she could decide which one would take precedence, Colin was being thrust halfway over the railing on a staircase above.

“Give me it!” Vincent Crabbe roared.

“I don’t – I won’t do it! No!”

A miniature flutter of white tumbled out of Colin’s shoe, its crisp, neat edges folding perfectly into the palm of Tonks’s hand. Colin’s clue.

“Hey!” Vincent yelled. Tonks froze with her eyes still soaking up the card’s five lines. Vincent’s hand was around Colin’s throat, and he had evidently seen the card drift into Tonks’s possession. “That’s mine!”

“It’s mine,” Colin corrected woozily. Vincent dropped him at once, and the two boys threw their weight at each other as they dashed down the stairs, drawing closer to a bewildered Tonks. Not knowing what else to do and still puzzling out Colin’s riddle in her mind, she took off like a speeding bullet to the clock room.

Copying Fred’s actions earlier in the round, she planted herself on the two o’ clock position and waited to be escorted to VIII, her face pink with a sheen of sweat. She dropped through the eight o’ clock trapdoor just as Vincent and Colin appeared around the doorway; she thought for a moment that they would dive in after her, but Colin had grabbed a hold of Vincent’s shoulder and punched him right in the face. The last thing Tonks saw before she zoomed out of sight was Vincent raising his own fist in retaliation, a livid bruise already developing over one swollen eye.

Tonks’s tailbone pounded with pain, and her tongue had somehow gotten caught between her teeth as she fell, slicing a shallow cut into it. She spit out a mouthful of blood and wobbled to her feet, so dizzy that an ornate floor-to-ceiling mirror in front of her split into seven. It took a full three seconds for Tonks to see that it hadn’t merely seemed like seven because of her dizziness, after all – there were seven mirrors.

There was a whole hall full of them.

Limping but quick, Tonks flitted from mirror to mirror. Some of them twinkled with a portrait of the setting sun, faraway stars dotting the heavens to mirror what was outside the building rather than inside. Some of them mirrored other rooms in the fun-house, displaying dodo birds with fuchsia feathers, plumes of golden smoke spurting from a fountain, and occupant-less parachutes falling down a wishing well in one room into another room teeming with children’s slides.

Tonks passed one mirror showing a room of living toys and other mirrors with telescopic lenses that made everything appear closer or farther away than it all really was, all the while ironing out Colin’s riddle. She would have only seconds to act, after all. Surely, Colin and Vincent would figure out the time-traveling clock and come after her. It was very important now that she accomplish what she’d set out to do before their imminent arrival.

And the riddle…yes, she was right. She must be right.

The only way out is always in. Every lock has a key, its perfect twin. The key shall appear only for you when you appear in front of you, too.

The only way out of the tournament was to get your wand back, which meant that wands were the metaphorical keys. Each lock had a key, a perfect twin

Tonks stared at each passing twin of herself in a row of mirrors, adrenaline pumping through her veins. Now the only thing to do was to appear in front of herself so that the key could, too.

Tonks settled in front of a mirror cracked with age, the upper corners splattered with what might have been old blood. As she faced her reflection, she screwed up her features in concentration and watched them change. Her hair shrank back into her skull, her arms swelling with bulky muscle as her nose flattened, widening. When all was complete, Vincent Crabbe stood staring back at her, wand in hand.

She reached right into the mirror and took the wand from his possession. It was slender, fourteen inches of oak with a ribbed handle. He surrendered it willingly, but his eyebrows bore the unmistakable mark of mystification. The Vincent in the mirror knew that something was not altogether right about his three-dimensional doppelganger.

Tonks then transformed back into herself, the clangs of the trapdoor reeling off the walls as Vincent and Colin dropped through it, still wrestling with each other. From the looks of their blood and bruises, Colin seemed to be winning.

The reflection of Vincent melted into that of Tonks. Tonks snatched her wand from her reflective self, who winked as if they shared a mischievous secret, and she Apparated on the spot.

“Where’d she go?” Vincent inquired, neck snapping up. Colin crab-scuttled away from the other boy, backing up against a mirror. As he did so, his reflected self reached across and tapped him on the shoulder.

Colin turned around, pinched with shock. A copy of himself waved happily, smiling, and in his waving hand was Colin’s own wand.

“No!” Vincent cried, lunging over to him. Colin plunged his arm through the mirror and seized his wand, feeling the brush of flat skin as he did so. The Colin in the mirror felt papery, soluble. Muttering a quick ‘thanks’ to his double, he rolled behind the mirror’s heavy frame.

But I’ve never Apparated before, he thought, panic beading on his brow with sweat.

Vincent was struck by his reflection in a vanity mirror on the ceiling, pulsating with glowing bulbs. The face staring back at him greatly resembled his father, but there were pieces of his mother there, too – her eyes spaced far apart with long lashes. It was a middle-aged Vincent Crabbe, as he might’ve been if he’d lived long enough to see that period of his life.

His heart dropping somewhere into his stomach, Vincent lifted his battered, brutish face to the mirror Colin had deflected behind. His reflection was normal now, bleeding along the hairline from where he’d tumbled down one of the staircases in his fight with Colin. The twin of Vincent grinned at him with a face that did not feel like his own, his hands empty.

“C’mon,” said a voice. It was Colin, squirming his way out from behind the mirror. Clasping Vincent’s hand in his own, they turned on the spot with a crack, Apparating onto the open grounds beyond Twisted Towers.

Vincent landed on his stomach in the grass, but Colin was already steady on his feet, bolting over to his platform. Tonks Lupin was sitting a few inches away from hers, cross-legged on the rocky soil, staring at the sky with stars shining in her dilated pupils.

“What’re you doing?” Colin exclaimed, the toe of his shoe hovering just above the octagon platform that would take him home to Cliodna’s Clock. “Get on, then! Why are you just sitting there?”

“Oh, I’m just saying goodbye,” she replied, a benign smile twisting at her lips. Her arms were wrapped around her knees, which were tucked to her chest. Two wands stood side-by-side in her pocket.

“But you’ve got to hurry up!” Colin whispered, as if Fred might overhear them. He glanced at Vincent, who was still lying down, sprawled in grim defeat. Colin wondered if Vincent had gotten splinched. “You have to hurry or else you won’t win!”

“I already lost,” she said. “Fred got out ages ago – I saw him Apparating through a window.” She patted the knee of Colin’s trousers in the way that someone might do to a beloved pet. “Congratulations. And by the way, I just bought you a few extra minutes, mate. You might want to hurry up and run...”

It echoed in the night in a whispering run, run, run, spreading throughout heartbeats and laboring breath, chasing Colin through the Pensieve with a flash of light that felt like hope – a strong hope, a foreign hope, like someone had taken their own hope and given it to him. He could still hear Tonks’s reverberating advice even as his feet made contact with solid ground again.

It was eight o’ clock in Cliodna’s Clock exactly. Due to the time-traveling nature of their challenge, the seconds had not ticked away in their absence, and it was as though they’d never left at all.

 





A/N: 200 STORY FAVORITES, AGHHHH! Thank you so, so, so much for the favorites, for the reads and reviews and wonderful encouragement. You guys are the best ever.
 


Chapter 25: Impending
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“Come off it! Don’t tell me you’re actually afraid.” An impish grin spread from the corners of George’s mouth, his eyebrow raising with the intent to goad. “What kind of Weasley are you, anyway? Never pegged you for a Percy.”

“And what if I am a little bit nervous?” Fred replied testily. “This has got to be the worst week of my life. You could show a little more support. All that besides, Percy’s hair would look awful on my perfect face. We both know that. Even considering our fusing mutation is just really too ugly for words, George.”

George disregarded the subtle change in topic. “Support isn’t what you need right now, mate. Trust me. You need a good kick.”

“I’d like to kick you. I’m a man on a ledge, I am. Could be uttering my final speeches here, but you keep on poking me with taunts about the Devil’s Duel when it’s the last thing in the whole bloody universe I want to think about.”

“So what? Suck it up! Round Five’s coming whether you’d like it to or not.”

“Oh, it’s all fine and well for you to act that way, you’re not the one sticking his neck out!” Fred told his brother, stuffing his hands into his pockets so that he couldn’t be tempted to punch things at random. “Need I remind you of the stakes? I only have two possible futures and they’re such extremes – you either win and you get a glimpse of everything you want, or you lose and…that’s it…”

“Are you barking?” George laughed. “It’s Colin Creevey we’re talking about. Remember how he used to go round Hogwarts hiding behind statues so that he could jump out at Harry, begging for pictures and autographs? A strong wind’s likely to do him in. You’ve got your work cut out for you, really. Don’t see what you’re complaining about.”

Fred’s lips thinned. He didn’t like this, not seeing eye to eye with his twin. He resented the time they’d spent away from each other, because it was now layered between them in a wide berth, all fifty-four days they’d not seen each other glaringly emphasized. Fred spoke louder as if that would permeate the deepening space.

“But I don’t want to do him in.”

“I don’t understand.” And from the look on George’s face, he really didn’t. They both stared at each other, frustrated. It was new and unpleasant, this being out of sync. It grated against their voices. “I thought you wanted to win? Isn’t that the point of you entering the races in the first place?”

“I do want to win, I’m not a complete nutter. Or at least, I don’t want to lose. But I don’t want Colin to lose, either.” There was a stagnant pause. He was terrified of losing, horrified that he might win. In a quieter voice, he said, “Colin’s a good kid.”

George nodded absently, not looking at him. “Yeah, I’m sure he is…”

Both seemed to be thinking about Fred’s lapse in conviction for some time before George ventured, “Reconstruction of the school’s going on, you know.”

“Oh, is it?” Fred felt a prick of homesickness, imagining the castle not in shambles but as it once was – magnificent, indestructible. An extension of his home.

“Yeah.” George scratched at a nonexistent itch on his nose. “Naming the seventh floor corridor after you, actually.” He said this very casually, but Fred could tell that his brother was working quite hard to quash the emotion rising up in his thin, high tone. “They’re doing that with a lot of corridors and courtyards – there’s even going to be a room named after that little Ravenclaw who kept trying to nick all our Puking Pastilles in seventh year. Evidently he got a leg cursed off when he jumped onto Dolohov’s back.”

George clapped his hands together with a stab at enthusiasm. “A whole corridor, though, eh? Don’t see them naming so much as a toilet after me, but hell, what’s an ear lost…”

“Only the seventh floor corridor, then?” Fred returned with the hint of a smile. “I would have thought I deserved the whole Great Hall.”

“Yeah.” George looked uncomfortable all of a sudden. “Well, you didn’t die in the Great Hall, did you? It happened up on the seventh floor, so I suppose that’s more fitting…” He fidgeted with the sleeves of his robes, mouth grim. “Going to be a trophy or plaque of some sort in a little suit-of-armor niche where Harry and Perce propped you up.”

Fred blinked, his lungs shrinking a bit when he forgot to breathe. For some reason, he’d never devoted much thought to how the immediate aftereffects of his death might have played out – at that time, he was already swimming in the sea, head bursting to the surface in full view of the depot.

What had he looked like without his soul? What would they have said, the bystanders who saw it all happen? Would they have tried to revive him? Fred frowned without realizing it, trying to remember who all had been present at the time of the explosion. Ron was there, he remembered his voice…

There was a ripping noise, with vibrant light smearing across his vision as the walls cracked behind him, stone by stone, all of them giving way into the world beyond. The seventh floor corridor blew up from all around, inside him and out, his body shielding Percy from a chunk of wall that would’ve collided with his brother’s head.

If he could have chosen anyone to die for, it still would have been Percy. This way, Percy would never, ever turn his back on his family again. That guilt would calcify into a sense of what was owed, what he should always be grateful for. He would be a better son, a better brother, a better Percy than he had ever been or would ever be were it not for Fred’s death.

Fred sat up straight in bed, the particles of dust illuminated in a strip of moonlight floating away from him as he sighed. There, on the bedside table, was a newspaper folded in half, with the exposed print detailing the reconstruction of Hogwarts. All of the things that George had just pretended to say had actually come from the Daily Departed, listing parts of Hogwarts that were to be named after both fallen heroes and survivors alike – from the Lupin Library to Longbottom Bridge to the Fred Weasley Corridor. It was all just a dream, but that didn’t make parts of it untrue.

Hogwarts was durable, permanent. It would live on. They would make it even more wonderful than before, but Fred would not see it. Fred smiled softly to himself as he imagined generations of students running down the corridor displaying his namesake. George’s grandchildren would undoubtedly one day defile it with graffiti.

It was a funny thing, his relationship with George.

He did not resent his brother for living, nor did he envy him. He didn’t even miss him as much as everyone else he came into contact with expected him to. Despite the populace’s flabbergasted response at this, Fred honestly missed the rest of his siblings more than he did George. He missed his parents more. This was because Fred could feel the empty holes where Charlie should be, where Ginny should be. He didn’t have that sense of loss with George because he could still feel George.

There was an ever-present, everlasting, and undying bond that connected Fred and George with each other – one in life and one in death – and this was not something that could be severed. It was more than magic, more than love or the usual link between twins. Therefore, Fred did not feel the need to dwell on the fact that he could no longer speak to his best friend. He rarely felt the urge to mope or pity himself.

It was quite a difficult concept to explain to others. In his memories, his blood and being, the essence of Bill was stone cold. Arthur was vague and faraway, and the image of Ron’s goofy, lopsided grin brought an excruciating ache to Fred’s gut. But with George, there wasn’t any of this. Whereas Percy and Molly and Charlie were very much gone, George had never left.

Fred stood to his feet, stretching on the tips of his toes with his fingers brushing the ceiling, yawning. As if unavoidable, Fred’s gaze dipped over to a corner of the room where a trunk waited patiently, hoping to be packed with his scant possessions. It had been given to him by his own uncles, Gideon and Fabian Prewett, with the reminder that while he was the only Weasley in the boardinghouse, he still had family elsewhere in Cliodna’s Clock.

But he could not accept houseroom with them until he knew for sure that he was going to be alive next week. And so the trunk waited, gathering dust, until the upcoming Tuesday passed into Wednesday and Fred’s fate was decided.

Six days. He could feel every second between now and then. Even when he’d marched into the Battle of Hogwarts, he had not felt like this, so very close to the edge. George had been there to remind him that they were invincible, that they would come, destroy, and conquer.

Fred swallowed, cold terror stealing up his spine again. He tried to shove it back down, unwilling to think about the death of himself or Colin. He’d gotten this far in the tournament without going mad, and was determined to stay sane for a little while longer.

His mortality stretched into a thin wire, near to breaking point, but with that rush of fear came the reminder that everyone would prefer his wire to snap rather than Colin’s – sweet, innocent Colin, whose double death would be a tragic event. Fred had noticed the collective anticlimax when he emerged victorious out of the Pensieve in Round Four, and the somber, disappointed expression on Remus Lupin’s face because he was already enduring Tonks’s agony at having lost.

Why should Fred, a young man who’d never seemed to take anything seriously when he was alive, get to further his chances of winning when Tonks had a child waiting for her? Surely Tonks was more deserving of the prize.

No one, in truth, was rooting for him to win. Perhaps they wouldn’t have minded if it had all boiled down to him and Vincent, the Death Eater’s son, in the end, but with Colin there instead it was unbearable. It would be blasphemous to defeat Colin. Fred would be crucified for even trying to defend himself.

There was little desire to support the well-adjusted and strong, the adaptable. Fred was all of those things, which didn’t recommend him to anyone picking him apart in search of darkness or depression. He’d heard their whispers, their boggled conversations: He hasn’t even cried yet. Have you ever seen him cry?

But what was there to cry about? Fred straightened up in the darkness, indignant. He was alive, at least in one way, which was a miracle in itself. George was safe – another miracle. The rest of his family was safe, Voldemort was gone forever, and the only member of his very large family that had been lost in the Battle was Fred himself, who wasn’t really lost at all. Even Auntie Muriel had outlived him. But existence – whether it be here or there or somewhere else, Fred thought, was not something to turn up your nose at. Existence was a beautiful thing.

He strode over to the window and lifted the sash high over his head. A gust of four-in-the-morning breeze blew his copy of the Daily Departed off the bedside table: An article about Colin versus Fred and the lack of success reporters had met when they vied for interviews with the two remaining contenders stared pointedly back at him.

As Fred looked away again, the article’s letters rearranged, transforming into a tense section about Barty Crouch Jr.’s recent escape from the Grotta and his subsequent attack on his father, Barty Crouch Sr., in Cliodna’s Clock. The suspect had been escorted back to the Grotta and his father was all right but obviously shaken, and was rumored to have installed extra locks on his doors.

His eyes fell once again on the empty luggage, unable to keep his mind off it. It continued to draw his attention, reminding him that his life was tilting precariously on the tip of a sword, doomed to fall down either one way or the other. Fifty-fifty.

“If you win, you’re welcome to come live with us,” Fabian had told him earnestly. At least Fred had managed to capture the sympathies of his uncles. Everyone else who looked at Fred was hoping under thinly-veiled smiles that he would lose so as to spare Colin’s life. Colin was younger, child-like. He grinned at everyone he passed and had even less of an idea about death than Fred.

At the time of Fabian and Gideon’s offer, the former had been suffering a head cold, so his complexion was quite pink. Coupled with his enlarged pores, his nose looked rather like a strawberry. “You look out of sorts,” Fred had remarked. “Don’t they have Pepperup Potion here?”

“Oh, they do,” Fabian had assured him. With a quick glance at Gideon, he said, “But there’s more important things to be thinking about right now than my own health.”

It was in that brief moment, that snap-second, that Fred realized exactly how close he was to not existing at all. It took the perspective of someone else to make it real, the knowledge that others were even more scared for him than he was for himself; and ever since, Fred had been able to think of nothing else. He was going spare, counting the hours and minutes until all that remained of him might be only a memory.

What would George think when he someday died and came to Cliodna’s Clock? He would be so thrilled to see all of his deceased loved ones, would perhaps look forward to reuniting with Fred above anyone else. And if he discovered that Fred had stupidly snuffed it after only two months of living in the afterlife…Fred couldn’t stand to think of it. Every time a loved one came to Cliodna’s Clock and heard of Fred’s demise, it would be like Fred had died all over again.

And it was all his own damned fault.

He leaned against the windowsill, the warm night swelling with his breath, beating against a pulse that refused to calm. How many more nights would he see? What would his last words be? Would he be granted the opportunity to say goodbye to everyone or was death instantaneous? And along that vein, how would he die? Would it be painful? Would he simply…disappear?

Cease to exist, as if he’d never been there to begin with?

He wondered what sort of stories would circulate after his death. There would be an obligatory atmosphere of melancholy, of course, but lying beneath that there would be roaring congratulations for Colin. Fred understood it. He was sort of rooting for Colin himself. There was something irresistible about the underdog triumphing when no one believed they ever had a chance.

The only downside was that this meant Fred’s failure.

The shame and embarrassment his family would feel when they eventually found out about how their beloved Fred sailed into death with a loud, dysfunctional ‘bang’ would be thick in the village. How could anyone be brainless enough to sign up for a wonky tournament like this? Especially when they’d never witnessed one before and had no idea what to expect? Fred could perfectly envision Bill shaking his head in disapproval, and Molly’s horror-struck surprise.

Fred let his forehead bang against the sill, releasing a low groan. Out of all the stupid, senseless things he’d ever done, this had to make the top of the list.

His future never looked more brilliant, more bright, than it did right when he might be about to lose it.


 


Chapter 26: Blue and Bronze
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On the twenty-seventh of June, a Saturday, Mrs. Tonks Lupin awoke to a rough tongue licking at her hand. It lay draped over the side of the bed and contained remnants of a sugary late-night snack, which explained why the Lupins’ new pet was being so affectionate.

Remus’s left arm was still encircled around her waist, his right hand in her hair. Tonks’s eyes slid sideways to view the obstructive limb, and while raising a finger to her lips so that Pepper knew not to bark, she carefully lifted Remus’s heavy hand and placed it onto the pillow.

“You hungry?” she whispered. The Norfolk Spaniel wagged her tail, head cocked to the side. According to Newt Scamander, who lived next door and liked to pet Pepper over the fence, her breed was said to be extinct now.

She padded across the oak floor, following in the direction of Pepper’s click-clacking toenails, and down the steps into the drawing room. She raised one arm against the sunlight pouring in through the three narrow windows, which were supposed to be self-tinting but for some reason never worked correctly on weekends.

“Here you are,” she said in a hushed tone to the dog, pouring some food into a bowl. Remus probably wasn’t in any danger of being woken by her voice, but she chose to whisper, anyway. Oddly, rising early in the morning often made her walk more softly, talk more softly, as if she did not want to disturb the rest of the slumbering world. Pepper seemed to agree with this, as she licked Tonks’s hand to answer her and eagerly plunged her nose into her breakfast, small chunks of kibble flying everywhere as she did so.

Tonks put a kettle on and drifted over to the small table. There was something soothing in the way that they had obtained the furniture piece by piece – the table and both wooden chairs were mismatched, the one Tonks sat on upholstered while the other had an imbued Cushioning Charm. There was no third chair, which was just the way she preferred it. No empty seats – no emptiness.

“Accio post,” she replied, aiming her wand at the open window. Her post flew out of the letterbox on their front porch and zoomed around the side of the house to greet her, flopping lifelessly onto the table. She smiled in satisfaction to herself and couldn’t suppress a glance at the stairs, half-hoping that Remus had seen it. He was never around when her spells did exactly what she intended them to. Or maybe it was because even after all this time, his presence still flustered her, made her nervous. She was forever dropping something onto his foot or opening a cabinet right into his face, smashing the poor man to pieces.

“Hmm.” She surveyed the post in the same way her mother did, even tilting her face back just a smidge as though looking down the bridge of her nose through a pair of reading glasses, even though Tonks of course did not have any reading glasses. Her hair was happily messy, as she called it, with bits of snow collecting there through the open window.

She shut the window with another flick of her wand. “Must be on Winter Walk today.”

As she filed through the post, most of it advertisements (Half-price Polyjuice Potion at Clagg’s Supply Shop! Wholesale seasonal jellybeans available for pre-order, Sunday only!) or calling cards inviting her to Exploding Snap at Marlene’s or a ladies-only brunch at Emmeline’s, she sorted them into piles – one to keep, one for the dustbin. When she came across an invitation from 'Master Regulus Black' (his penmanship ridiculously fancy, with an imprint of his own face in the wax seal), a slight smile curved at her lips. Regulus was always suggesting tea at his house and then expecting everyone else to provide the food.

Tea quite forgotten, she picked up a newspaper while a groggy Remus Lupin swished past her and planted a light kiss on her cheek. She leaned towards him as he did so, eyes never leaving an article she was now scanning. She’d expected him to come down to the kitchen soon after coming down herself, as Remus could never sleep for very long in bed all by himself.

“Relocation hearing for Meryn the Merciless today,” she mused. “He’s been waiting ninety-seven years for this appeal – which is a miracle if there ever was one. They say he probably won’t get it, though. Lots of recorded attacks on the Guard even in recent years, so he’s still not docile enough for integration.”

“I feel sorry for the Guard, then,” Remus said, busying himself at the stove to take over the neglected kettle. “They’ll have to split their number in half just to escort him to the Town Hall. It’s probably quite a business here whenever there’s a hearing.”

“Lily says the hearings are rubbish,” Tonks noted. “Everyone on the council’s biased against Grotta residents and they never get a fair go.” Remus hid a smile, privately pleased that Tonks had been chatting more with Lily without being prompted to do so just because Remus and James might have been talking nearby.

She sucked in a breath. “Says here that he murdered one of the Guard in 1924, a witch by the name of Terpsichore, and the standard punishment was to double his sentence but he got out of it because someone from Cliodna’s Clock fancied himself a vigilante and nearly killed him.”

Remus leaned against the sideboard, scowling. “What a shame that would have been.”

“Remus!” she pretended to gasp. “But you’re always so impartial and…” She searched for the right word. “Justice-y.”

“Yeah, well, haven’t gotten my morning tea yet, have I? I’ve been known to slay a few wrongdoers with my words before I’ve had caffeine.” He waltzed over to the cabinet and opened it, craning his neck around to better peer inside the deep spaces. “Do we still have any of those –”

A loud, alarming noise cut him off, slicing through the snowy wood around their house. A flock of birds roosting in the trees took flight, squawking, and Tonks gave such a start that she let go of her newspaper. It fell back into the pile of calling cards and an advertisement for Edgecombe Antiques, pushing her wand away until it rolled off the table altogether.

It was the enormous blackbird statue in City Center, emitting long, loud tolls.


*


Vincent finally gave up.

His hand was starting to bruise, anyway, and it was now glaringly apparent that Mr. Slytherin was not going to answer his door. “Coward!” he shouted at the window; a shadow moved behind the lacy curtain, souring Vincent all the more.

“It’s all your fault!” he yelled, a wave of furious emotion crumpling his face. He leaned against the front door, close-cropped hair damp with humidity, and stood there in defeat for several long minutes until a woman walking by stared at him.

“What?” he demanded, wiping the sweat on his upper lip onto his sleeve. “Got something to say?”

Salazar pinched the embroidered edge of his curtain in one pallid hand, breathing a sigh of resignation. He knew the boy blamed him for his failure in the tournament, knew that Vincent had tried everything in his limited range of power to win the fourth round. It had not been enough. Salazar told himself that he wouldn’t have been enough either – he could not, after all, step into the tournament with him. He could no longer pretend to hold Vincent’s hand.

“Just go,” he softly urged the boy through the window, though he dared not present his face. He preferred to stay behind the scenes at all times, backstage, occasionally manipulating the marionette strings but never performing himself.

Yes, he thought. You are right. I am a coward.

The woman in the road sniffed haughtily, tucking her handbag more tightly to her waist as if worried Vincent might try to steal it. He turned back to the door, slapping his hand weakly against it and wiping more moisture off his face with his arm – salty and clear like sweat, but something else entirely.

“You said you would help me win,” he said, voice breaking. “You said they would let me go home.”


*


It was now more than ever, even though he didn’t really know who she was anymore, that Cedric visited her the most. She was a safe, comfortable place, and he pretended to be seated opposite her in a chilly location like the Owlery at Hogwarts in midwinter. He preferred envisioning that particular season because he could still remember what the cold did to her skin – the two blooms of pink on her cheeks and nose that could have passed for shy embarrassment, just the way she had looked when he first asked her to the Yule Ball.

And as he daydreamed, her fringe fell into her long eyelashes and she lifted her strong gaze to pierce his. From here, the daydream stalled, frozen in time as he watched her watching him. She was strength embodied, quiet and graceful. Her almond eyes penetrated his thoughts at least once a week, if only for a few scattered seconds, but the ghost of her dark, steady stare stayed in his mind long after he ceased to focus on her.

Always watching.

The image of her grounded him when nothing else did, when everything else around him was moving too fast, spinning around his thoughts and body with flashes of blood in a basin and the name DIGGORY popping all over the newspaper in bold ink; when he needed a place to hide, she hid with him, and when he needed someone to talk to, she listened.

I’m not crazy, he thought with a smile, reaching out to stroke her cheek, dimpling now with a smile of her own. He loved the way her black eyes glittered when he looked at her, joy and hope bursting out of her features every which way. He loved everything about her, in fact: The way she tapped her quill against her textbooks whenever the choir was practicing and she was listening to their songs instead of doing revision; the way she listened to each of her friends spill their problems all along the Ravenclaw table at meals while she listened, listened, listened, speaking only in the softest of tones.

She made everyone feel better, happier, as if she’d taken their unhappiness and extinguished it, or perhaps shelved it for herself.

He loved these individual facets of her framework, and he could have loved her as a whole, too, if he’d been given enough time. If he had known in his last year of life, when he visited her not in his mind but in the flesh, maybe he would have tried – no – he thought firmly now that he definitely would have – he would have loved her. Love was the most beautiful thing. He’d seen the way his father once looked at his mother and he clearly recalled his father’s reaffirmations of ‘I would be nothing without her’. It would be nice to be nothing without someone else, to know such special and consuming love.

He wondered how she was doing now, what her life was like. He’d heard rumors that she briefly dated Harry Potter and still didn’t know how he felt about it. Harry was a nice enough boy, Cedric supposed. He hoped that wherever she was, Cho was as happy as she had once made him.

The thought of it made him smile again.

Being forever seventeen was not a dark thought that preyed upon Cedric in the late hours of the night when all was still and the boardinghouse eerily lifeless. He did not dwell much on Cho, except when he saw married couples together and felt that sense of loss, of longing; nor did he dwell on missing out on N.E.W.T.s and possibly being made Head Boy. Those were parts of his past, he knew. He did not even think much about the fact that his murderer, Peter Pettigrew, resided so close to him.

It did not make him uncomfortable or angry that Peter lived in Cliodna’s Clock, that he had been placed on Cedric’s own team of Victus so as to ensure that the two of them saw plenty of each other. Whether this was intentional or not on the part of Cliodna was neither here nor there. Cedric pitied the dead man, because while Cedric himself felt very much alive, Peter had never really come back to life. Part of him was permanently lost, sacrificed when he committed murder.

No, none of this bothered him. Cedric was in a place where it was difficult to be perfectly content, but strived for contentment, anyway. He had pushed down the memories that crept up at a near-constant pace, throwing himself into Quidditch or practicing spells he hadn’t gotten the chance to learn in his school days. Everything was a stream of learn, practice, perfect, day after day spent with teeth gritting together and his concentration wrapped around some tangible object right there in his hands. He was tightly-wound, a spring ready to rupture.

He was charitable, too, dividing his time generously between a laundry list of hobbies and the young children of Cliodna’s Clock, playing with them or teaching them magic they could perform without wands, reciting stories passed down from Diggory to Diggory. Since those stories would never get the chance to be passed down to any more Diggorys, he felt the urge to spread them wherever he could, injecting fresh life, new mysteries into the empty veins of Cliodna’s Clock. Every laugh he received from them was a reward, every cry for ‘More! More!’ tantamount to a trophy.

This was his new existence. Cedric presently rested at his window seat in the boardinghouse, forehead pale against the cool glass pane. Even now, with Cho raising an inquisitive eyebrow as she glanced shyly up at him from a faraway table in a library, everything around her blurred at the edges, Cedric could not shake the feeling that he was not there at all, and neither was she; that she was not looking at him and surely was no longer thinking of him.

Which is a good thing, he reminded himself forcibly. After all, she was only a distorted figment of his imagination now, presenting itself whenever he needed that something extra, that false feeling of love blossoming in a heart that didn’t always remember to keep beating.

He could learn Gobstones and how to play the guitar, and he could fill his shelves with books that he made sure he never had enough time to read because he was always too busy moving, moving, moving, distracting himself until he was too exhausted to think at all – but he could feel his energy burning low, his hopes that he would see his parents for twenty-four hours completely out the window now that he’d been eliminated from the tournament by a pugnacious little Slytherin with no respect for human life.

Cedric had gotten tired.

He would have expected me to win, Cedric inwardly sighed, reflecting on his father’s broad, beaming face, lit up with pride for his only son. He wondered what he could have witnessed if he’d won those twenty-four hours. He hadn’t entered the tournament for the prize, but for the competition, for the ultimate distraction that locked away all other thoughts, even the ones of Cho’s burning gaze.

Her quill rapped and tapped against a stack of textbooks, listening to the music in Cedric’s bedroom that spouted quietly from a gramophone. An ebony disk rapidly revolved on the small platform, a silver needle counting each rotation. Cedric closed his eyes in the present and opened them in the past, peering closely at her parchment.

O.W.L.s revision.

His eyes reopened again, heavy heart sinking. But she would have already sat those exams ages ago, along with her N.E.W.T.s…by now she would be out there in the real world, a young woman. Accomplished and strong, and everything about her now was completely hidden from him. He was fine with this. Sometimes it was best not to know the truth, so that he could be free to invent it himself. This was where he could still hide, when he needed it, and he couldn’t hide with a Cho who no longer knew him. They must be intimate, of course, every aspect of her familiar and well-developed to him if only in his vault of dreams.

Cedric’s breath expelled all along the glass pane but did not cloud it. He pressed a hand to the barrier and saw no reflection. He looked closer and almost jumped, startled; the reflection forming there was not of his own widening eyes or parting mouth, but the dark, mysterious eyes of the girl in the library, blue and bronze swimming at her collar with a curtain of black hair falling over her shoulder. He swallowed and she smiled knowingly at him, almost smirking because she knew his innermost thoughts.

If it had lasted only two seconds instead of ten, he might not have believed it. But she had lingered – perhaps by mistake – and there was no confusing what had just taken place. Cedric jolted upright, both hands pressed against the window as he searched hungrily for her. No matter which angle he positioned himself from, the only thing he could now see was his own eager face staring back. His disappointment was so thick that his fingertips streaked the glass, roughly sliding downward…

And then there was something there, after all:

One figure behind his left hand and another behind his right, and they were holding hands themselves, backs straight as they made their way down the main street of Cliodna’s Clock. They looked nervous, confused, with that unmistakable air of desperation hanging about them – he could tell because he’d seen it many times in couples who arrived in the afterlife together, clinging to each other with fear rampant in their eyes. They were searching for something, taking it in turns to cry out to passersby who continued to keep walking, gazes trained on some unknown destination ahead.

His eyes stung, heart beating fast. It was Cedric’s own parents, Amos and Portia Diggory.


*


Rowena had fully intended to go home, her mind busy with details about dinner and the book she was editing for Helga – it would have been a nice way to cap off her evening – and she almost didn’t see him.

He was sitting on a stone wall in the park, back hunched slightly as he stared at the ground. Rowena’s lips pressed into a weary smile. He was always frowning, always so determined to be miserable. She knew that she might regret it, but something inside her gave a gentle tug of pity and she tossed the sky a brief roll of the eyes before drawing her heel back and turning.

Mouth twitching, her gaze roved over his somber form. He seemed unaware that she was watching him – quite odd, really, seeing as how perceptive he usually was – but he continued to stare at the ground, black hair falling into his equally black eyes.

As she walked closer, leaves shuffling under her footsteps, he glanced up at long last. He said nothing, eyeing her silently but suspiciously as she seated herself next to him on the stone wall. She crossed her legs at the ankles, fingernails tapping the gray stone surface that hoisted them off the ground.

“Hello, Severus,” she offered.

He still said nothing, petulantly turning his profile away from her.

She chewed on her lower lip, unsuccessfully trying to stifle a smile. “Well, if you’d rather keep conversation with your demons instead of me, be my guest.”

He was still looking away, but she distinctly thought she saw him roll his eyes. “I know a joke,” she went on, determined to break his silence. She leaned forward, trying to catch his gaze, but he resolutely kept it from her. “Oh, now you’re just being stubborn. Well, let’s see how sulky you are after you’ve heard my joke.” She cleared her throat, wriggling in place as if to make herself comfortable on the severely uncomfortable wall. “What would the Ravenclaw student get if he put a Gryffindor into a boiling cauldron and then threw in a handful of beetle eyes?”

This finally coaxed a response out of him, albeit a surly one: “Psychological evaluations?”

She grinned. “He’d get docked five points from Professor Snape for wasting beetle eyes.”

Severus laughed in spite of himself, applying her with a sidelong glance. Her eyes were so bright, so earnest, that when she smiled warmly at him he could feel some of the ice breaking around his own smile. The laugh still tickled his throat, unnaturally rough. It had been a long time since he’d laughed at anything.

“There it is,” she said triumphantly, and he quickly melded his lips shut into a tight little line, displeased that she had swindled him out of his bad mood. “Come now, don’t be so glum,” she advised cheerily, giving him a nudge with her side. He jerked at her touch, head snapping up so that he could survey her and better prevent any more uninvited attempts at making him smile when he so clearly wanted to be peevish.

“I’ve got another joke,” she said, plastering another winning smile on her face. The effect was so ridiculous, with her high, arching eyebrows and a great many teeth baring at him, that he tried to keep from laughing again and ended up snorting instead.

“I think I’m a hoot, too,” she informed him smugly, lifting her crossed ankles high into the air and then tapping them against the stone wall to match the beat of footsteps flooding down the road, each of them marching to the Town Hall to have a look at the Devil’s Basin. It was a daily event at six o’ clock, the custom during Devil’s Duels.

As quickly as Severus’s smile had arrived, it passed, and he adopted an even more irritated expression than before. Rowena shook her head, wondering why she bothered at all, wondering why she was always so drawn to hopeless works in progress.

But then he looked up at her again and said, “I come here to watch the people trip.” He pointed to a series of uneven holes in the nearby road, cobbles gouged out every few feet. “They’re all so busy trying not to look at each other that they forget to watch where they’re going.” As he stated this, a plump woman in tartan dress robes stumbled over one of the potholes, cheeks heating up as she looked around furtively to ensure that no one had witnessed it.

“There are worse pastimes one could have,” he added defensively, but he didn’t seem very ashamed that he derived mild joy from watching others fall down. “I find that this one suits my current tastes.”

Rowena studied Severus carefully, trying to place who exactly he reminded her of. There was something familiar about his manner, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. With all plans for dinner and editing forgotten, she continued to watch people walk to and fro on the street without noticing their quiet observers, occasionally tripping over holes in the road and prompting gleeful, fleeting amusement from Severus Snape.

Perhaps not so hopeless after all.

 




A/N: So I’ve officially finished writing this story! Woo-hoo! It wraps up at thirty-one chapters. I’ll continue to update every Wednesday. Thank you, as always, for reading, and if you have the time to review, your feedback is greatly appreciated.
 


Chapter 27: Memories
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Colin picked up another seashell, and then another one, and another, hurling them each time with more force back into the ocean when they revealed nothing to him. He paced the crescent of beach with desperation in each harried step, his hands tearing through his hair as he sought an answer. Frantic to escape, terrified to die, half of his mind was busy at work trying to figure out a way to get that flying carpet back…perhaps he could grab Orla and they could be off, they could just escape…

He yanked off his trainers and waded into the sea, cool bubbles sticking to his ankles. His black robes looked like sealskin when wet, the saturated material floating along over the water. He tried to swim towards the moon, paddling until his limbs hurt, but no matter how vigorously he lashed against the ocean, he never moved farther than eight feet out to sea.

Bitterly disappointed, Colin stomped back to the beach and wrung water out of his robes. He felt so heavy, not just physically but emotionally as well, and he thought that maybe he wouldn’t live long enough to see Round Five, anyway. Maybe his anxiety would kill him first.

“Colin?”

He turned, nostrils flaring, and stopped short when he saw Remus Lupin standing there at the end of the road. It led right into the ocean, a path for those coming in from the depot, but could not be used in reverse. They were all eternally stuck on the two-island chain, barred from the building on stilts and the strange person within who ushered newcomers into the afterlife.

“You all right, Colin?”

Colin became suddenly aware of what he looked like – dripping wet, fingers snarled in his hair and his face as white as fear itself, gulping down shallow breaths as he staggered around the moonlit beach with seashells discarded at his feet. The shadowy silhouette of Mr. Lupin stepped closer, head tilted as he examined his former student. Colin felt the last gust of resolve pull right out of his mouth as though by force, and he lurched forward on weakened knees.

Remus hurried quickly over to keep the boy upright, arm around his shoulders. Colin hunched inward on himself slightly, head lolling into his hands as he made a faint, animalistic sound that slurred between his fingers. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”

Remus glanced at the road, where his wife was waiting. They had just fulfilled their Monday tradition of having dinner at Sirius’s house and then walking around the circumference of Cliodna’s Clock. Tonks was a slim bolt of white under a tall lamppost, gleaming like a Patronus. He waved at her to go on, letting her know that he was going to stay for a minute or two, and Tonks obeyed; she looked back at her husband over her shoulder every few steps, curious.

“What can’t you do?” Remus asked gently, giving Colin his undivided attention.

“I can’t do it,” he answered, his words taking the shape of a plea. “I can’t go into Round Five. I never thought I would get this far, I –” He choked on whatever was coming next, his enormous, dumbfounded eyes swiveling to stare all over the sand as if he had no idea how he’d gotten there. “It’s tomorrow.”

Remus nodded, sympathetic concern molding lines into his forehead. “Yes, it is, but you can’t back out now. The only thing you can do is try your very best, Colin, just remember that.”

This didn’t help him. Colin turned away to hide his panic, stomach churning with the threat to vomit. “It’s me or Fred.” He looked at Remus again, one hand idly grasping the older man’s robes. He could feel Remus’s heartbeat through the fabric, quick but not as accelerated as his own. “I don’t want either of us to die!”

“Neither do I.” Pain washed over Remus, and he looked back at the dark town in hopes of seeing Tonks still under the lamppost, but she was gone. He couldn’t imagine what his state of mind might be like if his wife was jumping into the Pensieve tomorrow. She’d helped Colin in the previous round of the Devil’s Duel, but Remus feared she might grow to regret it. If in helping him, she’d only opened the door for Colin to lose his soul… He could see her horrified face already, how much she would despise herself.

And Fred… Remus knew Fred. He knew and loved his whole family. He’d had Fred as a student, as well – and the young man was so bright, so vibrant that for the world to lose him would surely make the sun burn just a bit dimmer. Fred changed each and every life he touched, leaving smiles and laughter in his wake everywhere he went. He had no idea how precious his existence was, how his energy and brilliance made those surrounding him shine, as well. A walking light.

“I should never have signed up.” Colin hung his head. “Fred knows loads more about magic than I do.” He hated thinking like that, strategizing against the redheaded Weasley boy who’d always made his sides ache from laughter.

Remus privately agreed that Colin should not have signed up, but knew that saying ‘I told you so’ would do nothing to ease Colin’s nerves. “Listen,” he said quietly, gripping the boy’s shoulder with one firm hand. “Colin, look at me.”

Colin lifted his head, crestfallen features slipping into temporary shadow as a blackbird soared over him, blocking out the moon.

“If you could go back in time to the day you died, what would you do differently? Besides prevent your death,” he added quickly. “Think, now. Would you still have gone into battle?”

Colin didn’t even have to consider it. “Yes.”

“What else would you have done?” Remus hedged.

Colin considered this. “I don’t know,” he replied slowly, mulling it over. “I suppose I would’ve just tried to remember everything – capture it perfectly in my memory, you know?”

Remus recalled Teddy’s peacefully sleeping form. “Yes, I do.”

“That’s what Fred’s up to,” Remus went on. “I’ve seen him walking around all evening, just looking at everything, soaking up as much as he can. It’s a small goal, but an important one. I think you need to distract yourself with that.” He offered the boy a grim smile of understanding. “Tonight, my friend, there is not a soul in this village who is not thinking of the two of you. We’re all thinking about tomorrow plenty enough so that you don’t have to, as well. Just…” He trailed off, unsure of what to say. He felt that he was failing Colin miserably, unable to come up with the perfect advice to leave him with.

“Just keep your head above water,” he said at last.

Colin stared at him, not knowing what else to say, and Remus felt his hand slide off the boy’s shoulder. He patted him twice before backing away several strides. “Good luck,” he said, imparting one last grave glance at him before turning up the street. He felt like he might splinter into a thousand pieces.

But Colin had rotated on the spot, staring now over the ocean while Remus’s words rang in his head, mixing with Orla’s speculation and Colin’s own theories and the missing piece – that last, elusive piece of the puzzle – and for once in his life, everything fell into its perfect place.


*


Orla waited until sunrise to join him, reluctantly respecting his wishes for making herself scarce the previous night. Orla found the whole prospect of everlasting death to be utterly fascinating, not at all something to fear, and frequently wondered out loud what it might be like in one’s final moments, the sort of things that would run through your mind. It was something Colin could deal with by day, when the bright world spun around him with plenty of distractions to invade his senses – smells of the bakery, the soft sloping of sand under his feet, the fluttery conversations of the village pouring into both ears. By night, in the quiet and the dark, it was more prudent to be alone.

“I don’t remember what my final thoughts were, after all,” she said to the morning mist, sitting side-by-side next to him in the sand. The ocean was a mixture of gold, red, and vivid orange, reflected in the dawn. It might be the last dawn Colin would ever witness, for today he was fated to go head to head against Fred Weasley in the most intense fight of his life.

But all of this was suspended in the back of his mind as he turned and looked at her, mouth twisting into a quizzical frown. “How exactly did you die?” he wanted to know. “You never did tell me.”

The girl looked away, uncharacteristically perturbed. Her gaze settled on a bird flying in a loop far out at sea, searching for a way out of whatever they were trapped inside but finding itself perpetually enclosed. “To be honest, I don’t remember,” she said at length. “I think that…there might’ve been a werewolf...” She trailed off, frowning sadly. “I can remember pain. It took me a while to die.”

“Greyback?”

She shook her head emotionlessly. “I don’t know. I could be wrong about the werewolf – like I said, I really don’t remember it. For all I know, I fell into a cauldron.”

He scrutinized her, wishing she would brush the fringe out from behind her glasses so that he could view her properly, wondering if he would ever indeed find out. He was standing on the giant clock in Twisted Towers once again, listening to it tick, waiting to drop into the unknown. He felt like Orla remembered more about her death than she was letting on, but he would never dream of disturbing her comfort by pushing the issue.

He bit his cheek, tasting the salt of the ocean there, and drummed the fingers of his left hand against one knee. “Well, how would you like to spend what could possibly be my last day?”

Orla grinned. “Thought you’d never ask.” She reached into her robes and withdrew a familiar object – Colin’s camera. “I think you should take some pictures, help mark down your life.”

They toured Cliodna’s Clock in the bustling morning, everyone around them staring at the boy whose hourglass was swiftly depleting, the two teenagers taking it in turns to snap pictures: The view of the sky from inside the ceiling-less Town Hall, the Grotta, Regulus through his window, pouring a cup of tea while Sirius perused Godric Gryffindor’s first-edition autobiography. And there were tons of pictures of Orla and Colin, too – solemn at first but then smiling, wider and wider, in clicks and flashes of Colin Creevey was here.

They passed Fred, who bestowed a white-lipped smile, eyes tight with worry. Colin snapped a picture of him, as well, and the developed photograph that soon appeared in Colin’s hands was that of a young man with slumped shoulders and no smile for anyone, although he deigned to wave at a few people who called out to him, wishing him hearty wishes for a long, prosperous life. Wishing him luck.

Orla grabbed the camera from Colin’s hands and he chased her throughout the village; she took pictures as she ran, of the tree houses and the cliff dwellings and the underground burrows, and Colin collected the ones she let fly out of the camera’s slot, not bothering to pick them up. He stuffed a load of them into his pockets – shots of random strangers and a whole series of Vesper Lovegood arranging flowers in a vase – until he had no more room. When he found the last one, a picture of a white oak tree twisting up into a ‘Y’ shape, blurry because Orla had been running while she took it, Colin slid it into his shoe and kept going, shouting out at her to slow down.

She would not slow down. Orla evaded him easily, forcing Colin to focus on her and only on her so that all other thoughts were drowned out. Orla mapped Cliodna’s Clock in pictures, a sea of faces that should have been permanent but unfortunately could not be, pondering to herself which of them would be missing in the years and years to come.

They started passing out the photographs at random. Some looked confused but others seemed to realize what they were doing, and by evening they had delivered photographs to each and every townsperson they could get their hands on. Pieces of Colin, through his eyes and Orla’s, would still be here tomorrow even if he wasn’t. It was Dumbledore’s wisdom fleshed out, the ordinary magic of memories enabling Colin to live forever.

They captured those memories, making them immortal, spreading them to the masses so that they would be sure to remember Colin, too. At sunset, which arrived much too soon for his liking, Orla clasped his hand and they walked together to City Center, to the one place they had not ventured too close to all day: The Pensieve and stands, most of which were already starting to fill up with viewers. It was rare that the residents of Cliodna’s Clock were given the chance to watch all five rounds of the Devil’s Duel from so up-close, the perfect bird’s-eye view of everything Colin and Fred would soon endure.

Colin met briefly with Mr. and Mrs. Lupin behind the stands before he walked out into the open. They’d wanted to personally and privately wish him good luck, to give a bit of advice along with their strongest reassurances that he would do well.

And then it was time.

Colin swallowed thickly, recognizing a head of ginger hair lighting the way in front of him, his own face as pale as Colin’s. Only two people would join Claudius next to the giant scallop serving as a seashell, such a contrast from a few weeks ago when there were ten of them standing there, nervous but also excited, their anxiety diluted due to the chance that they had five opportunities to be eliminated. The prize was grander from the perspective of Round One, much more worth the risk.

“Hi,” Fred croaked. Colin nodded vaguely at him, looking as bad as Fred felt.

If he won, Fred hoped he would never forget how awful he felt just then, finding his place next to Colin Creevey as Orla slipped past. She picked her way over to the stands and shoved herself between Ariana Dumbledore and Regulus Black. Fred didn’t want to forget how much he regretted signing up whenever the prospect of another twenty-four hours loomed in a year from now, when news of registration swelled during the month of May. It would be exciting anew, and tempting, but he willed himself to remember, to remember, to never forget.

He glanced sideways at Colin, taking in the nauseated expression on the face of a boy renowned for his undying liveliness and joy, and he knew then that he would always remember.

Fred searched across the rows of familiar faces – Orla tilting forward with her wide eyes, drinking it all in, with Regulus right next to her, matching Fred’s own gaze with a look of pity, and Dumbledore leaning across the aisle to speak to Armando Dippet, and finally the Potters (along with James’s parents) and the Lupins, Vincent and Cedric. Scrimgeour was there, too, with Snape three chairs behind him and even little Peter Pettigrew lost somewhere adrift. Each of them were keenly aware that it could have been them down there with Ptolemy, but fate had decided against it.

Fred turned and watched Colin stare at the row containing Remus and Tonks. Remus’s face was a mask of poorly-hidden dread, with Tonks looking quite ill at his side. Remus slid his arm around Tonks’s shoulders while James Potter, who was seated nearby, took his wife’s hand in his own.

Fred and Colin were quiet as the blazing sunset descended on them, igniting the planes of Claudius’s face with radiant fire. He smiled sadly at the two lone contenders, extending both arms to his east and west as if he meant to embrace them.

“Ahh. It is a sober day in Cliodna’s Clock,” he began. “Today one of our number will achieve eternal glory and the other will soon be gone forever.”

How? Fred wanted to ask. What happens to the person who loses?

“Years of practice has taught me that the fifth round is an experience best dealt with sooner rather than later,” Claudius continued, and Fred’s heart rate sped up. No, it’s fine, really. Slow down. Take your time. Take forever…

With another grim smile that Fred was certain did not reach Claudius’s eyes, the older man retrieved two glass phials from his robes. They were empty. He stepped towards them, wand lifting outward. “I’ll be requiring a bit of cooperation from the final contenders of Victus and Mortuus,” he explained, glancing quickly at Cliodna. Cliodna was hidden under her veil but she shifted her face infinitesimally, and Claudius aimed his wand higher. It found its mark on Fred’s right temple.

“You will be dueling inside your own combined memories,” he told them. “In the Battle of Hogwarts.”

A gasp spilled out around the stadium, many hands flying to their mouths. Fred looked aghast, but that was nothing to the damage on Colin’s face – he was wan and sickly, sweat beading all along his hairline. Claudius pressed the tip of his wand harder into Fred’s temple and Fred squeezed his eyes tightly shut, feeling one long memory extricate itself from a mess of others, yanking away from him against his will. Images of George and Ginny and Rookwood, and Percy dueling Pius Thicknesse, passed before his eyes without invitation, and then they were gone.

A silver thread, like a tiny cloud, was now attached to Claudius’s wand. He directed it to one of the empty phials and guided it inside, and then corked it. A greedy glint lit up his eyes as he then turned to Colin.

Colin opened up his mouth to speak – to object? – but he glanced again at the audience and pressed his lips firmly closed. His eyes shut just like Fred’s had when Claudius prodded around in his brain for the second day of May, to unravel the terrors out of his mind and make them real once again. The memory flowed from Claudius’s wand to the second phial and Claudius held them both up to the light to examine them.

“The objective of this round is to make yourself survive – and by that I mean your other self,” Claudius went on. “Your doppelganger in the memories, the ones who were really there at the time. You must find your actual selves as they lived and breathed, and actively prevent their deaths. Within the confines of this memory and with the aid of Cliodna’s special magic, you will be able to change the course of your lives.

“If you fail, you will have to watch yourselves die all over again. If you win, you will get to see what it would have been like to survive, what might have happened next. You must continue to protect and spare your former selves, all the while trying to destroy your opponent’s doppelganger. Mr. Weasley, you will be expected to prevent Mr. Creevey from protecting his doppelganger, and vice versa.”

Fred’s wand slipped out of his hand, clattering against the ground. He did not notice. Colin bent down to pick it up and handed it to Fred, who accepted it without even being aware of his own movements. When the wand passed from Colin’s hand back into Fred’s, it became a weapon.

“You will not be visible to your former selves or to anyone else participating in the Battle, but you will be able to see each other,” Claudius said, gesturing between Colin and Fred. “Whoever keeps their former selves alive until the deadline of one o’ clock in the morning – one o’ clock in the memory, that is – will win Round Five. If one of you kills the other’s doppelganger, that qualifies as an instantaneous win.”

He paused. “Any questions? If not, then I shall count down from five.” He winked. “May the best man win.”

Neither Colin nor Fred could speak, even if they had wanted to, and were still trying to process the information when Claudius started to count. How had they gotten to June thirtieth already? What had happened to the endless eternity they’d been promised?

“Five,” Claudius began, the word as smooth as ice.

Fred half-wondered why Claudius waited until the eleventh hour to give them the rules and objectives, to tell them what they would be doing. Giving them this precious information at the last second put them at a horrible disadvantage. They could not plan, they could not absorb what was laid before them. Their ears rang with every sentence and by the end of the speech, much of what they could remember was already becoming garbled.

“Four.”

Claudius swerved to dump the memories into the Pensieve, and a swirling silver gas rippled across the surface. The boundaries between both memories were easily discernible, as they were unwilling to congeal together. They made fizzling noises of electricity, of static, when they touched; thin, jagged bolts of lightning flashed just underneath the stormy waves, illuminating the shadowy silhouette of Hogwarts Castle.

“Three.”

Colin’s gaze locked on the black castle, on the spells he could already see that formed a barrier around it. Tiny dots representing people flocked far, far below, students, teachers, and the Order of the Phoenix preparing themselves to fight against the Death Eaters. Fred could remember seeing it all from ground level, watching the spells shoot into the clouds like fireworks, sparkling over turrets and towers before molding themselves into force fields soon to be destroyed.

“Two.”

Lily Potter was crying. James pulled her tightly to him while Fred stared; Colin was gazing in a similar fashion at the Lupins, and it was at that precise moment that they received the full effect of signing up for the Devil’s Duel. Those they loved were more scared for them than they could be for themselves, because they did not have time to be frightened. They had no time to grasp for final words and goodbyes.

Their time was up.

“Run.”

Together, Fred and Colin twisted sideways into the thrashing Pensieve, their bodies flickering with the lightning their memories created when fused into one substance. The audience held their breaths as the bodies swam away, growing smaller and smaller until they were tiny enough to join the raging fight against Lord Voldemort.
 


Chapter 28: Fight or Flight
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Victus: Fred Weasley
Mortuus: Colin Creevey




If either of the two young men had been given enough time to form expectations, they would have expected to fall onto the lawn overlooking the entrance hall of Hogwarts Castle. As it was, they felt themselves separate somewhere inside the smoky Pensieve as they continued to plummet, and ended up in different locations.

Fred popped into being next to a prim white bed in the Hospital Wing. Three of the beds on the wall opposite had been blasted apart, and a crumpled, motionless figure lay underneath another. Fred stepped tentatively forward, fearful that he would recognize whoever it was, but heard a thin hissing noise crawling outside a window behind him. He turned to see white sparks bursting in the night sky, ones that Fred had seen before: They were a signal for help.

He grasped his wand tightly in his sweaty hand and chose to ignore the person under the hospital bed. Whoever it was, he couldn’t afford to waste time on them. What was done was done, and their ultimate fate would not be changed no matter what Fred did within the memory. All he had to do was find himself and prevent his own death, if only in this sinister scenario, and then it could all be over.

But where was he? The real Fred?

He felt the skin on the back of his neck prickle coldly, tiny hairs standing on end. He would see himself. He would see his family but it was nothing like he would have wished – he would be viewing them on the worst day of their lives, reliving a nightmare all over again. Gritting his teeth together and thinking to himself about how evil Cliodna must be to throw them into this, how twisted, he pointed his wand at the Hospital Wing door.

“Reducto.”

He could have opened it manually, of course, but it felt so cathartic to be able to destroy something, to take out his frustrations on an object that couldn’t feel or think. The door blasted off its hinges with a satisfying shriek, and Fred stormed through it with his wand at the ready, its handle burning red welts into his palm.

The first floor corridor sprawled out ahead of him, with a tapestry on the left that he knew would take him to the fifth floor, but before he could focus on where the other Fred might be, a fizzling golden light stole his attentions. It slithered up one wall of the corridor, electrified gossamer that blinked white every other second, and as he watched, it began to stitch fibers together in thin air, knitting across the corridor to attach to the other wall. The surface of it boiled and shimmered; it was thin enough that Fred could see something on the other side, something moving.

Spellbound, he drew nearer, trailing the tip of his wand over it. What was it, exactly? As he examined the substance, he was reminded of the threads of lightning on the surface of the Pensieve, distinguishing the seams of where Fred’s memory met Colin’s, in one tangled mass that refused to completely coalesce. His eyes widened slightly as the large body of a giant stomped across a burning lawn right on the other side – a lawn that had inexplicably become juxtaposed with the first floor corridor.

Colin’s memory was just through that electric webbing.

Maybe he was curious, or maybe Fred just wanted to prolong seeing his family in their current state; but whatever the reason, he thrust his wand through the barrier and then pushed his hand through after it. He felt the warm, balmy open air of somewhere outdoors, and the hot, disintegrated ash that had been part of Hogwarts’s ramparts before someone had blown it away.

He stepped into Colin’s memory without a second glance over his shoulder, the thin mass holding Colin’s thoughts together resisting Fred’s body with weak effort. It felt like congealed jelly as he penetrated it, and then he was wholly in the Forbidden Forest.

What had Colin been doing in the Forbidden Forest? Nearby, Remus Lupin was dressed in a long traveling cloak, engaged in combat with a hooded Death Eater. Kingsley Shacklebolt ran down a rocky path just behind them, chasing after a white-haired witch. Far above their heads, Hagrid’s enormous half-brother Grawp had seized the head of a larger giant, and was attempting to crush his skull between his thick fingers.

Fred ran to the castle as quickly as his feet could fly, feeling that familiar pumping of blood in his veins, the same mixture of elation and terror he had experienced when he was here not in a Pensieve, but when he was still alive.

The world looked so different from the view behind the veil.

He squeezed between Neville and Professor Sprout, who didn’t seem to notice him. Their arms were laden with spiny plants of every variety, both of them shouting at others to get out of their way. Something about it struck Fred as odd, although he couldn’t quite place why; he flung open the door to the entrance hall and dove between people, all of them ignoring him, and raced along another corridor. Along that side there was the entrance to a different courtyard, but he couldn’t recall if his other self would have been there or not. It wasn’t until he heard his voice – his own voice, but echoing from far away, that he stopped dead in his tracks.

“Nice night for it!” the other Fred called, words ringing off the walls.

Skin chilled to ice, Fred swiveled on the spot and started to run the opposite way. Before he could navigate the quickest route to the floor above, heavy with the footfalls of children evacuating through Aberforth’s pub into Hogsmeade, an electric white barrier had sealed itself across. Fred ground his teeth together in frustration.

The barrier made a ripping noise as he plunged through it.

His frustration mounted as he found himself on the seventh floor, with no glimpse of himself in sight. Portraits full of shouting, screaming people raced alongside him, the throng of students and staff all trying to speak and be heard over everyone else – there were young children talking about going up to their dormitories to fetch a few of their belongings, and others asking, Have you seen my brother? Where’s my sister? Where’s my cat, I can’t find him – has anyone seen my cat?

Tonks ran by, just outside the Room of Requirement, her face lined with frantic worry. She was calling for someone, her wand aloft with a precautionary Shield Charm radiating from it. And just behind her, ready to twist down a flight of stone steps, was Ginny.

“Ginny!” Fred yelled. He couldn’t help it, even though he knew she couldn’t hear him. He stood there helplessly while her red hair licked the air like fire, whipping down the stone steps. Heart beating fast, Fred had half a mind to follow her but was nearly knocked off his feet by the passing of a coarse cotton stretcher held between two people: Colin Creevey lay on it, not breathing.

“– a few hours ago,” one of the people was saying. “We’ll just take him to Gryffindor Tower, then?”

“Yeah, his mum and dad’s on their way. Dennis owled them early this morning.”

Fred stared, paralyzed, at the lifeless body as it made its way down the hall, literally disappearing into a blend of people. He found it in his legs to move, and when he charged forward, there was no sign of the stretcher or dead boy anywhere.

“But that’s…impossible,” he murmured dazedly.

And then Harry Potter came whipping by, with Ron and Hermione (Ron! He called for him but Ron would not turn, would not listen…), and the door to the Room of Requirement soon sealed shut behind them. Right after that happened, someone from the stairway below shouted, “He’s alive!”

“Who?” called Katie Bell.

“Harry Potter!”

Fred looked back and forth between them, a puzzled frown puckering at his forehead. Of course Harry was alive – hadn’t they just seen him run by with Ron and Hermione?

“Down in the Great Hall!” said the boy on the stairway. “Come quick!”

Katie Bell eagerly followed. Not sure of what else to do, Fred decided to follow, as well. Maybe he would find the other Fred down in the Great Hall.

As he rounded down the stairs, following after the oddly fading footsteps of Katie and the nameless boy, Harry, Ron, and Hermione passed him once again – sloping upward. Fred stopped, watching in bafflement as they made their way towards the Room of Requirement all over again. The word ‘Ravenclaw’ slipped from one tongue to the other, speaking in quick, hushed tones. They vanished as soon as they reached the top of the stairs, wavering away into nothingness as the echoes of their voices continued to discuss Ravenclaw.

Fred slumped against the staircase for a moment, uncomprehending. There had to be something wrong with their memories, a sort of defect that made their timeline inconsistent, reeling back and forth in the past, present, and future. It could have been Cliodna or Ptolemy, but Fred wasn’t so sure. After all, Ptolemy had pulled a memory straight out of Fred’s head and concealed it in the glass phial. There had not been time to manipulate it before dumping it into the Pensieve.

This left the only other explanation: The error lied in Colin’s memory. But how could that have occurred? Why would Colin have tampered with his own memory?

As if summoned, the boy in question slipped past him and down the stairs, taking each step three at a time. His wandlight painted a silver-blue streak on the curving wall, bobbing like starlight on water. “Colin!” Fred called out. It could have only been the real Colin, which meant he wouldn’t be able to hear him, but he felt compelled to try it, anyway.

The boy did not slow down. Fred ignored the stabbing reminder that he was supposed to destroy that version of Colin, to kill him even sooner than he’d died in real life. He would have preferred to just leave him alone, to wander into a disused classroom and wait for Colin to win or lose so that none of this would be on his shoulders, on his conscience, but something about the young running Gryffindor struck him as odd.

He didn’t know what it was.

Fred followed him, emerging on the sixth floor. The walls were shaking, jets of red and green light spiraling overhead that indicated that wherever and whenever they were, the battle was still raging on. Hot, sweating faces illuminated by spells passed on either side of him, blurring together as he chased the receding boy. But he was quick, quicker than he should have been because here he was only a ghost, and soon caught up to him.

Panting heavily, he stepped in front of the boy, who’d stopped without explanation in the middle of the corridor, staring at a spot of wall. His eyes were dull, expression blank. There was something not quite right about his eyes… They were green. Not a deep, leafy green like Lily’s, but touched with spots of it on the outside of his irises, as though mirroring the Avada Kedavra. Colin did not blink or move, and even as Fred looked at him his irises continued to change color – from blue to brown to hazel, as though he couldn’t remember what color his own eyes were supposed to be.

“Colin?” Fred repeated, so quietly that he could barely hear it himself.

And then a second Colin turned down the corridor, much more vibrant than this one, with a wand pointing the way ahead. There was grim determination in the set of his face, a spark of dynamic, thrumming energy exuding from him in a way that was not at all like himself. He did not notice Fred standing there, or his other self, but he froze mid-stride when Fred put a hand around his elbow.

His eyes were wide, fearful.

“What are you…?” Fred’s brow furrowed, glancing from Colin to the immobile boy who allowed himself to be elbowed about by passersby. The ghost Colin followed his gaze and snapped upon his doppelganger; immediately, the other Colin turned away from the wall, alert, and started running off again at full-tilt as though obeying a silent command to do so.

“Aren’t you going to go save him?”

“I’m – I’m going to,” came the unsteady reply. He twirled his wand dexterously between his fingers, sharp gaze never leaving Fred’s, and the latter started to get the creeping feeling that Colin was trying to tell him something. He opened his mouth, ready to ask a question that had yet to form in his brain, when something strange happened.

It was fleeting – so brief that it would have been impossible for anyone around them to notice it. He could have explained it away with a trick of the light, as there were so many rebounding spells shooting off the walls and off of people that such a thing could easily occur, but the meaningful way that Colin studied him spoke volumes that it had been fully intentional. In the space of a heartbeat, his eyes had changed color from brown to gold and then back again.

Fred’s mouth dropped open. “You’re –”

Colin grabbed him, eyes flicking violently upwards, and Fred suddenly understood that he was motioning not towards the ceiling but to the roiling surface beyond, and the masses of people watching their every move from above the Pensieve.

Wordlessly, Fred stepped aside and allowed his opponent to make his way past.


*


“No.” Remus shook his head vehemently, tension trembling on his skin with such force that Tonks could feel it in waves of heat. “No. No to the Polyjuice Potion, no to using your abilities to take his place, no to keeping my mouth shut while you destroy our family.”

“Don’t you –”

“No!” he roared. “No, I do not understand!”

“I have to intervene.” Tonks touched his arm, turning his face into the light with her other hand so that she could see the terror in his eyes. She felt like if she just spoke more quietly, more calmly, he would be more likely to see things as she saw them. “He’s just a boy.”

“He signed up for this,” Remus insisted weakly. “That is…his problem.”

“Remus!” his wife snapped, the venom in her tone bruising his flesh as though she’d slapped him. “Shame on you. What if it was our Teddy in there? God knows what sort of hell they’re going to put him in for the fifth round, and he’s already at such a disadvantage with everything he has yet to learn about defensive magic. He couldn’t inflict an Unforgivable if he tried, and that could very well mean the death of him.”

“But what about Fred? You would rather he died?”

She gazed at him sadly. “That is not at all what I’m saying. Can’t you see…what I’m trying to do? What needs to be done?”

He swallowed, selfish and burning. “I can’t. No. I can’t let you do that.”

“Remus, I love you, and I know you don’t want to understand. I know how hard this is for you – imagine how hard it is for me. I don’t want to go against your wishes, but so help me, if I don’t get your blessing I am going to do this, anyway.”

The pain in his features, the uncontrollable anger that brought back memories of what he’d felt like during transitions into a werewolf, the stage where he felt not quite human and not quite animal, exploded in a fit of rage and the glass on their casement window shattered to pieces. “Why do you keep doing this to me?” he demanded, voice breaking. “Please, Dora. Please just do what I say, just this once, and leave it alone.”

“I’m the only one who can save them both,” she said, and he turned to finally look at her, seeing the tears slipping down her cheeks. “I’m a mother, Remus. Maybe not here, in Cliodna’s Clock, but in my heart I will always be a mother and I cannot in good conscience sit by while one of those boys dies.”

“Damn it, Dora, they’re not Teddy. They’re not your sons.” His face fell into his hands, exhausted. “I wish I’d never told you what he said. I cannot convey the regret I feel for saying anything, for telling you about Creevey’s fears. Purposefully losing the duel and making a martyr out of yourself isn’t going to make anything better.”

“You’re right,” Tonks replied stiffly, and Remus jerked his head back up, disbelieving. “They’re not my sons. But they are someone’s sons.”

“And what about your son? What about the real Teddy? What will he have when he dies someday and comes here, and his mother is gone?”

She smiled softly. “He’ll have you.”


*


She could see the milling bodies, the ricocheting spells, but heard none of it. Her ears had sealed away all sound except for the last vestiges of Remus’s laboring breaths, teardrops hitting his collar one by one with tiny splashes. His last words lived inside her heart, tunneling between pleas for her to change her mind and the dead, hollow pangs of his goodbyes when he realized she was firm in her decisions. The air tasted several days old, already inhaled and exhaled by a hundred mouths.

Those toneless murmurs of love had gotten stuck in his throat on the way out, and while he said them, standing there a ruined man, Tonks could feel both of them sinking under the weight of what they knew was going to happen. He did not hinder her, did not stop her. He would support her because he could not and would never try to control her.

At least this time, she knew exactly what she was getting into when she left for battle. She had not thought it would be the exact same battle as last time, but there was poetic irony in the setting, the suffering. Everyone in the stadium around the Pensieve who had been present at the Battle of Hogwarts would suffer right along with her, the post-traumatic stress curling their hands into claws, clapping around their ears with eyes squeezed tight. Reliving such a horrifying experience might very well kill them twice.

Tonks pushed through electrified web after web that walled off her memories from Fred’s, thin and feeble because she’d had to tinker with her memories with only seconds to spare, thinking fervently of Colin Creevey and only of him while Claudius strode expectantly towards her. She had tried to imagine the things he might have seen, what he might have witnessed, so that those thoughts and those thoughts alone would pass through her temple and into the silver strands collected by Ptolemy’s wand.

She knew that there had been mistakes made. Her memories, as well as Fred’s, were irrevocably changed by what they had come to learn in hindsight. She’d stitched together pieces of information from many, many point of views – Cassandra Trelawney’s, Severus Snape’s, Remus’s, Phineas Nigellus’s and others who had portraits in Hogwarts, Benjy Fenwick’s relays about things Scabior mentioned in the Grotta, as well as miles of speculation, theories, and guest articles in the Daily Departed.

Once she had read those things, learning about everything else that had happened all around her at the time of her death that she had not been able to pay attention to while it occurred in real time, she could not un-read that. They filled in the gaps of her own memories and warped the preexisting ones. Adding to this the fact that she tried to tamper with this further by trying to replace herself with Colin Creevey before Ptolemy could take the memory from her, and they’d been given a maze to navigate that could not be navigated. They could not make sense of the twisted monster their pasts, when pooled together, had become.

There were multiples of everyone. As Tonks pushed through one of Fred’s memories – which was actually from the viewpoint of Dilys Derwent, as Fred had already been dead by this time and he had heard her talking about running through the portraits along this corridor, so this was indeed Dilys’s memory and not his own – she stepped into one that she knew to be Remus’s. She had not been able to rid it from her mind while fiddling with her memory, trying to wash it over with white noise.

The twisted, red-menaced face of Dolohov had been beaten into a grimace. There was no smile of cruel delight, no mercy, no unaffected mask of one who did merely as he was told, a small piece in a greater machine. He was clearly exhausted. The Death Eaters predicted an easy defeat, with someone as omnipotent as Lord Voldemort acting as the brain of the operation while they, the limbs, took down their foes as easily as shooting fish in a barrel.

They had chosen the worst place in the world for their battleground.

Their eagerness to fight, to win, had been their undoing. Tonks often thought that the Death Eaters might have won if they had waged war on Harry Potter anywhere else. If they had waited a few days, after Harry Potter left Hogwarts, there would have been fewer Horcruxes, yes, but Voldemort would still have been alive. He could have privately dueled Harry, and then the outcome might have been quite different. Even if the Dark Lord still died at Harry’s hands, the Death Eaters wouldn’t have witnessed it. There would be no crushing blow to their morale, no reason to discontinue fighting.

Voldemort, after all, was only one person.

Their flawed planning backfired extraordinarily on them, engaging themselves in combat in a school of magic of all places, surrounded by magical people, creatures, and walls who would all help protect The Boy Who Lived even if that meant sacrificing their own lives.

The man Dolohov was dueling cast a shield of sparks, holding up one arm to mute the blinding white light of it. The fire roared, reaching for Antonin’s wand. A smaller figure stood there next to him, protected by the shield. The contours of his face were paved with wonder, with vivid fear; a silver kitchen knife in his fist glittered in the firelight, and when Remus bent down to speak with him, Tonks could not hear his words over the deluge of everything falling apart, debris and screams and the cries of centaurs, elves, and giants; but she watched his lips move, forming the one-syllable word that would save the unfamiliar student’s life.

The boy obediently ran as fast as he could back into the castle, turning his head over his shoulder frequently to make sure he wasn’t being followed by Dolohov’s curses. As Tonks swerved to watch his progress, halfway thinking that she could maybe protect him if anyone tried to attack, her eyes lifted to a gouged-out hole several stories up the length of Hogwarts. Two windows on either side of the hole were cut in half, the intact halves still preserving jagged glass, and between them she could see two figures circling each other, predator and predator, prey and prey.

One, with wild black hair, was tight-lipped with hatred, wide eyes fixed on the young woman with pink hair. The younger one snarled in return, wand rolling quickly in her hand as she crouched low, anticipating Bellatrix’s every move.

The time to save that person was long gone.

Eyes slipping down to the grass, she absently watched a cinder, its edges glowing ember-orange, float along over her shoe. It might have been a textbook or a student’s essay. It might have been carefully-detailed curriculum plans or the result of someone’s N.E.W.T.s. Or maybe it wasn’t paper at all. It might have been human skin, due to the foul odor it emitted while wafting past.

She couldn’t stand it anymore, sitting around while she was about to die, while Remus was about to die. Colin – the real Colin – was running around somewhere in that castle right now, not knowing what was going to befall him. And Fred was enduring precisely the same thing. There was nothing else for her to do except sit idly and wait for Fred to do what he was supposed to do. When everything was over, Tonks would accept her fate with the full knowledge that she had asked for it, and Fred would not have had to reduce himself to attacking her in order to win. Life spared, conscience spared.

It would have been lovely, she thought, to dash off into the Forbidden Forest and not look back, to somehow be able to exist here. Perhaps if she ran hard enough, fast enough, she could escape the boundaries of the memory and live in this world forever. It was at once so wonderful and so terrible to be back, seeing her loved ones and the school she’d grown up in. If she could hide away in a memory and not have to discover which way she would die for the final time, she would have done it.

Moisture welled in her eyes as she fumbled at the doorknob of Hagrid’s hut. She pictured Remus in the stands next to Colin, who was saturated with enough Polyjuice Potion to make him look like Remus’s wife for the duration of Round Five. They would be staring bleakly down on her, Remus devastated and Colin guilty, ever so guilty. But she could not have let him enter this round when it was her own fault he should have had to. If she hadn’t interfered in the previous round, and had instead allowed Crabbe to win while Colin was escorted to safety, she and Colin would have both been watching Round Five from afar.

But this was the perfect solution, she told herself as she shut Hagrid’s door behind her. She found his bed in the darkness and sat on it, mattress creaking. The shouts weren’t nearly muffled enough, Hagrid’s curtains blazing every other second with spells hurling back and forth on the other side of the windowpanes. Colin would not have to die, and neither would Crabbe, and neither would Fred. It all would have been quite the triumph if only Tonks could have found a way to spare herself, too.


*


Fred’s gaze followed Percy Weasley’s untidy mop of red hair as it wound around yet another flight of stairs, calling instructions down to his brothers. Fred and George had done all that they could do with protecting secret passageways – they’d already been blown half to hell – and had congregated on the sixth floor to decide how to proceed. Percy reasoned that they should split up to cover more area: Bill would go assist Kingsley on the Astronomy Tower, Percy himself was to go up one level to the seventh floor, and Fred and George would go down to the fifth floor where they knew Greyback to be prowling.

Bill and George had already darted away, heeding Percy’s directions (Percy had always been the most organized, the most level-headed under pressure, and they were only too happy to let him assign posts), when something dawned on the real Fred. “Percy!” he shouted. “Make sure to check on Ginny! Make sure she’s still you-know-where!”

But Percy was gone, footsteps already carrying him to the seventh floor. Fred panicked for a moment, hardly seeing as Peeves the poltergeist swooped past, his arms filled with trophies from the Trophy Room to drop upon heads of Death Eaters. Glancing at the place where George’s back had disappeared into the throng of people, Fred turned quickly around and rushed after Percy to the seventh floor.

The other Fred, the one who watched him, felt a sickness hook around his stomach. He did not want to follow himself up there. He knew what awaited him, could once again feel the cold air blasting against his skin as the walls wrenched apart, rubble assaulting every exposed inch of his body. And even as his feet moved, one in front of the other, following suit, he kept waiting for the scenery to change. He waited to see Percy flying up the stairs again, or see Ginny charging down them, or to hear a boy exclaim to Katie Bell that Harry Potter was alive and she needed to come down to the Great Hall.

He ascended slowly, listening to life raging against life, listening to people die all across the dotted lawn far below. Windows glinted with rosy reds and ambers from torchlight that flared both shadows and flames every which way over the rounded walls, wriggling like snakes. The air was constricting, claustrophobic, and as he passed each window he thought he could see the stars shrinking away from him, coldly sneering as he contemplated whether or not he should try to live.

A cheer erupted from somewhere on the floor below – he did not know whose victory it was, his side or the enemy’s, but plowed onward with heavy footsteps. He seemed to weigh a thousand times more when the last step broke into a long corridor, heliotrope with curses bursting from many wands. The bodies were thick, swarming under and over and around each other in a synchronized mess. And there was the real Fred, and there was Percy, and even Ron, Harry, and Hermione further down the corridor.

Fred had already known, of course, that by this time he had been plucked aside by a masked and hooded Death Eater, chosen for fighting even though he was too weary to fight anymore, even though all he’d wanted was to find Ginny.

It was all the real Fred could do to keep one eye out for Percy, who simultaneously dueled Thicknesse, while struggling to stay afloat versus the Death Eater unrelentingly shooting deadly jinxes at him; blood flooded out of the observing Fred’s head, swimming down his legs, making him faint. Even though he was not alive, and his doppelganger was, he had never felt more alive than at that moment, experiencing the most painful déjà vu he could ever imagine.

A fleet of giant spiders hurrying up the exterior siding of Hogwarts threw them into temporary shadow, and there was the high voice of Voldemort even though he should not have been speaking at that time. The memory distorted itself, unraveling at its frays while two Neville Longbottoms streaked by him in a whir of colorful motion, one of them chucking Stunning spells while the other wiped blood and sweat away from his forehead. His hair was so matted with it that it resembled tar, and Fred had never seen him more lined with age. He looked like a younger Remus Lupin.

Time stalled as Pensieve-Fred instinctively mirrored real-Fred’s movements, drawing his lower lip between his teeth as he tensed for each blow, muscles rigid. The real Fred was fast but never fast enough for his liking. Fred tasted blood coating his mouth, metallic like steel, the popping blood vessels making him weaker than he already was to begin with. Nausea, strong and uncontrollable, boiled in his stomach, sloshing up his throat.

He leaned against the wall and heaved, vomiting everywhere. It disappeared as soon as it spilled over the flagstone floor, just as insubstantial as the person who’d made it. This was not a situation he could see clearly when inside of it – he could not put together plans or act coherently. Knowing what he knew about the future of the grinning red-haired boy in the hallway, opening his mouth to say something to Percy, his mind ground into a slush of conflicting perspective, dread, and that ever-present scent of blood lingering in the air.

He stepped over something spiny – an unconscious body that someone had cursed to look like a thorny sea creature, with needles shooting out of his pores. Next to him, the Death Eater Fred had been dueling fell across the spiny body from the backlash of multiple Stunning spells. His mask had gone askew, revealing the perpetually glazed eyes of a middle-aged witch who had been Imperiused. It was too much to relive, too much to digest. Fred’s arms ached from tensing his muscles. His head hurt, his heart hurt…from somewhere far away, he heard the voice of Oliver Wood shouting over a din of a hundred other voices, begging for back-up.

It was only when he saw Augustus Rookwood’s thin black wand pointing over his own head – over the real Fred’s, as well, though he did not notice, to the wall behind them all, that he sprang to his senses. He felt as though he had been asleep all this time, and now waking up in a bright, ripe world, bubbling with the cries for help; and he helped even though no one had solicited it. He flung himself like a human weapon into the heart of the crowd with such force that he thought Ron himself stumbled out of the way, and raised his own wand in response to the silent oath inching from Rookwood’s lips.

Tears of rage poured from Fred’s eyes, his teeth audibly chipping into powdery grit as he clenched them against each other. And in his peripheral vision he saw the mirror image of himself, still smiling at Percy, and Percy saying something he couldn’t hear, and Hermione shielding her eyes from a warm rain of debris that had been a painted person inside a portrait, flayed to shreds.

Love blossomed in Fred’s heart, adrenaline burning in his veins with love and revenge and protection that he knew he couldn’t really give to any of them. He felt all of it combine in a power that surged through his right arm like a fuse that had been lit, traveling through his wand before ripping the air apart with a phosphorescent glow.

The Death Eater’s large, malevolent eyes flashed green with the Avada Kedavra, and he and Fred both blew backwards off their feet.

Fred’s skull made a sickening crunch as it hit the stone wall. It was the wall that was supposed to have exploded, but intact it had done just as much damage to him. Fred felt his lungs deflate, skin oddly freezing. The world rocked around him as he rolled into an agonizing ball on his side. There was no choking masonry lining his throat, no hand squeezing around his heart, but there was a small, thin cry coming from nearby, and that was even worse.

On his right, another figure on the floor exhaled shallow breaths on his neck. Fred opened his eyes to see three dizzying images of Percy, gradually melding into one as Fred’s eyes adjusted through a searing migraine. His glasses were smashed but still dangling cockeyed on the bridge of his nose. The back of his head looked strangely dented.

“Percy!” Ron urged, kneeling right through the Pensieve-Fred to assist his fallen brother. “Are you – are you okay?”

“Perce?” the real Fred echoed.

“Fine,” Percy mumbled, but the other Fred knew that he was lying. He could feel it in the stillness of his body, his voice. The Fred that no one could see, that no one knew was watching, realized that in changing what had happened on the seventh floor corridor, he had somehow made Percy attack Yaxley, too. Percy had seen him in time, and in a knee-jerk reaction he retaliated with an Unforgivable Curse he never thought he would have to use to defend himself. The blow-back of such a spell had sent him right into the wall that ought to have been shattered moments before, injuring his head.

Harry joined the congregation huddled around the wounded young man, who assured them feebly that he was all right, to keep fighting elsewhere.

“We’re not just going to leave you here,” Fred told him, his previous grin overtaken by worry. “We’ve got to – hang on, has anyone seen Pomfrey?”

“Who knows?” Ron began, but was interrupted by Seamus Finnegan, who’d come from nowhere, and told them that Pomfrey was last seen in the entrance hall, tending to a heavily-bleeding abrasion on Cho Chang’s face. Someone else was yelling out – a musical purr in her voice that stirred images of Fleur Delacour to his mind – but the tenor was deeper. Madame Maxime.

The memory Fred was still lying on the floor next to Percy when the flash of gold appeared, the ignited walls between Fred’s memory and Colin’s – or Tonks’s, rather – rushing closer. They were moving, fluid, changing form as the people who had donated them shifted the events of those memories in response to everything that had just happened. It occurred to Fred, as he lay there, that memories were living things, fragile and powerful, and that Cliodna had underestimated this when she chose them to be the settings for this year’s Devil’s Duel.

As the white-gold wall of memory bubbled, washing up and down the walls and steadily drawing nearer, Fred saw a blood-red dawn staining the other side. If the barrier overtook them, it would carry them into morning. Midnight would be over and technically, Fred would have succeeded in the task of keeping his other self alive until the required time was up. The only question remained: Had Colin kept his other self alive, as well? What if both had succeeded in their tasks?

Who would win, then?

He rolled wholly onto his back just as Percy released his last fluttering breath; Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the real Fred squinted against the blinding light of electric webbing as it stole right through their flesh with a zephyr of wind, pulling them into the other side. It touched the Pensieve-Fred in warm tones, in laughs and cries that he had heard himself or heard about from word of mouth long after the fact. It was like the sun – the brightest thing he’d ever seen, but it streamed from inside of him, illuminating his very bones.

And then he knew no more.

 

 




A/N: RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU’RE EMOTIONALLY EXHAUSTED. *raises both hands* This chapter took forever for me to get around to writing because I did not want to revisit this particular time and place. I’m not sure why I always feel compelled to punish myself by writing sad/mentally draining things. As always, thank you so much for reading my monstrous, scary-long chapters and I would love to hear your thoughts on Round Five. Also, after a lot of internal debating I've decided to post the rest of Run today because of momentum reasons. I think that if I drag this out for another month, spacing the remaining chapters once a week, it will lose momentum with readers who regularly keep up with updates. And I know that I owe a lot of review responses - I'll get getting around to them very soon, I promise.


The real Fred Weasley’s line of “Nice night for it!” is from page 621 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, USA edition. All scenes/characters/what-have-you from the Battle of Hogwarts that you recognize belong to JK Rowling and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

 


Chapter 29: Evanesco
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“Where do Vanished objects go?”

“Into nonbeing, which is to say, everything,” replied Professor McGonagall.




 
Scarlet spurted three feet high in the Devil’s Basin, droplets leaping over each other like arcing fish. Fred Weasley’s trajectory shot the highest, followed by Nymphadora Tonks’s, and in a phenomenon never before fathomed in Round Five of the Devil’s Duel, there was a third presence: the blood of Colin Creevey.

However, no one was there to witness it.

The depot attendant had not left his station yet, taking a few extra minutes to cross off the name of a man native to Edinburgh who had been scheduled to arrive at midnight but had been delayed in St. Mungo’s. The attendant was not altogether certain how the paperwork had mixed this up, as he was more knowledgeable about death than anyone he’d ever met and knew that there was nothing as concrete, as sure-fire as one’s precise date and cause of death.

While he took his time entering the island of Cliodna’s Clock, grimacing slightly (as he did not care for the place and therefore only visited it properly once a year, on this very day), the stadium surrounding an enormous scallop-shell Pensieve was erupting into chaos.

Remus Lupin had seized Colin Creevey the moment he stumbled out of the Pensieve, leading him by the hand through the crowd swarming down the stands to congratulate Fred Weasley. Claudius Ptolemy craned his neck all around, perplexed while he searched for the young boy and did not find him, but was soon nearly knocked off his feet by Mad-Eye Moody, who had chosen that moment to accidentally shove his cane right into Ptolemy’s lower spine.

“How will you spend your twenty-four hours?” cried one reporter for the Daily Departed, elbowing her colleague out of the way. She conjured a notepad and quill out of thin air, leaning forward eagerly.

Fred looked helplessly back at her, at a loss to respond, and searched the sea of faces for the young, brave boy he had grown to know better than he’d previously wished. “I don’t – have you seen –?”

“Mr. Weasley!” called someone else, jumping up and down to be seen over many converging heads. “Would you consider it cheating that you did not physically have to wait until midnight? Would you say that the planning in this round was flawed?”

“It wasn’t cheating, he won fair and square,” Gideon Prewett growled, shoving a finger into the chest of the man who’d spoken. “Back off if you know what’s good for you.”

The other man stuttered into silence, frowning peevishly all the same, while Fred drowned under a deluge of questions and intense speculation about the fairness of him having won when the contenders hadn’t been given as much time as promised. Fred’s being overtaken by a memory that occurred after midnight had allowed him to beat the system, and when he was yanked from the Pensieve, Colin had had no choice but to vanish along with him.

“But there were other memories post-midnight and those didn’t count,” Orla Quirke yelled angrily, red cheeks dimmed under a sky now sparkling with stars. The heavens were vast, cathedral-like, and unfeeling as celestial specks shone over Fred Weasley’s shaking shoulders.

“There were,” chimed someone else. “Remember what someone said about Dennis calling Colin’s parents to retrieve his body? That had to have been well after dawn.”

“Calm down,” Claudius shouted over the roar of voices. “At that point, no one had done anything to try to save their doppelgangers. No one would have won. This is how the tournament goes, everyone. Someone’s got to win and someone’s got to lose, and both contenders were well aware of the stakes upon signing up – voluntarily, I might add. Now I know that you’re upset, since our town is about to lose a beloved citizen, but –”

“You helped Weasley win,” Florean Fortescue accused, and a ripple of snarling agreement ripped the air. “That barrier didn’t appear until after Fred was in the lead. You fiddled with the timing to ensure he would come out victorious.”

“Codswallop,” Fabian told him. “Creevey wasn’t doing anything to try to win. You all saw him hiding out at Hagrid’s, just sitting on his hands.”

Claudius was beginning to look nervous. He held out his arms. “Quiet! Everyone be quiet! Just listen to me for a moment.”

Hundreds of faces turned towards him, half angry and half unsure, and that was when Salazar Slytherin’s voice broke out, louder than the rest:

“Listen to your lies? To hell with that! This isn’t the first time you’ve staged a win in your favor, Claudius, which you damn well know.”

“We have never staged a win,” answered Cliodna herself, brittle voice quivering behind the thick veil. “Do not dare make such accusations.”

Her rare input stunned a majority of the protestors into silence. Claudius’s bright eyes roved around the dark stands, most of the seats empty because everyone had drained out of them down to sea level, bodies packed tightly together. A smug smile of satisfaction touched at his lips, pleased that Cliodna’s words had rendered them docile, and he continued, “As per tradition, Mr. Creevey will not be Vanished quite yet.”

“Vanished?” Fred whispered hoarsely. There was a wide berth around him, an airless circle that no one wanted to occupy. It was not entirely his fault that he had won, but people didn’t know how to treat him. If the duel had been thrown, tailored to give Fred an undeserved edge, then how could they applaud him?

“He will have until midnight to say his goodbyes,” Claudius went on. Fury swelled in the crowd again, threatening to surmount his domineering presence, so he fairly shrieked, “Fred Weasley, as the grand champion of this year’s Devil’s Duel –”

“Rubbish!” Orla screamed, violently tearing her way through people in efforts to get to Claudius. James Potter and Regulus Black grabbed her and held her back; she was sobbing but still fighting against them, trying to wrench herself free.

“– he will now receive his promised twenty-four hours on earth. I am sure you have all of our hearty congratulations. Your actions in the duel were most worthy of such an honorable prize, and –”

“Colin never got a fair fight!” Cedric yelled.

“This is ridiculous,” Lily Potter added, her voice somehow carrying over everyone else vying to be heard. “If Fred wins under fair conditions, then he’s the rightful champion. But that duel was nowhere near fair.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Claudius barked, composure slipping. He petitioned Cliodna with an imploring look, but she said nothing and made no move to interfere.

Lily exchanged glances with Sirius, who nodded fervently. “We want a do-over!” she announced, and several people close to her clapped passionately. “A different Round Five.”

“We have never done a do-over, nor do we intend to. Not every little detail about duel conditions is under our control. What is done is done. What you call error I prefer to think of as fate.”

Lily glared at him in outrage. “Are you really as daft as you look?”

He gazed sharply back at her, patience wearing thin. “I advise you to take a more respectful tone with me. I am not someone you want to cross.”

“If you knew the first thing about me, you wouldn’t want to cross me, either,” she shot back.

Fred’s stomach was tied up in knots. He’d gone from feeling relief at not being the one to die to guilty that Colin came in second, to absolutely hating himself. All around him there were titterings of, “Nothing against Fred, but…”

The murmurs changed direction after a few minutes. Fred’s eyes darted around, noting the absence of Remus and Tonks. Orla had somehow slipped away unnoticed, and more importantly – although it took an embarrassing amount of time for everyone to realize it, Colin Creevey was nowhere to be seen.


*


“When I said I would take your place, I meant it,” Tonks reminded Colin, sliding her arm around his shoulders. She cast an anxious frown behind her at the faraway lights of the stadium, a draught of memories in the Pensieve still shining like a silver sea. They walked as quickly as they could towards the nearest house, not caring which one that might be. It would be empty, of course, just like all the others. Every resident was in one place tonight, their cries of dissent shattering City Center, and she knew that their time was limited.

“No, I don’t want that.” Colin shook his head, opening his mouth to speak again, but was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Orla.

“I’m here,” she piped up breathlessly, taking one of his hands in hers to lend emotional support.

“Colin,” Tonks chided gently, “you don’t know what you’re doing. I can genuinely say that I knew what I was getting into when I registered for the Devil’s Duel. I don’t believe you had that same realistic outlook.”

Although it pained Remus to hear her talking like that, trying to convince the boy to let Tonks take his place, he offered Tonks’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

“I didn’t,” Colin admitted glumly, “but that’s not your fault.” He stopped walking, the gravel beneath his shoes grinding into dust as he turned on the spot to face her. His eyes betrayed no hint of fear or regret as he said, “I know that you feel bad for helping me in Round Four because it enabled me to be in Round Five, which I lost, but I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. If one of us has to die, I’m quite glad it isn’t Fred. He’s got a lot more family members than I do, and they’ll be wanting to see him someday.”

She slumped weakly against her husband, all of the light gone out from her eyes. “But –”

He shook his head again, smiling ruefully. “Polyjuice Potion won’t last me forever. It barely got me through the duel, even though it was cut much shorter than it should have been.” He touched his hair, which had long since faded from pink to brown. “I can’t depend on that every day, pretend to be you.” He gestured to Remus. “And I think that trying to do so would kill him.”

“This is your decision, Colin,” Remus said quietly. “I will not begrudge you if you accept my wife’s offer, and will do my very best to protect you, disguise you. No one need know that you’re still here and she is not.” But even as he said it, trying to conceal the anguish making each syllable tremble, he could bear to look at Colin no longer and angled his face away.

“I’ve already made my decision,” he replied serenely. “I should never have let you go into the Pensieve tonight in the first place, Mrs. Lupin. You owe me nothing.”

“You’re so young,” she whispered, eyes filling with tears.

“I’ll be all right.” Without announcing it, he embraced her. “Thank you, really, for everything you’ve done.”

“Done?” she repeated hysterically, voice high. “I ruined your chances, Colin! I just sat in Hagrid’s hut and did nothing, I meant to die for you, to spare you both… But I could’ve done something if I’d known you’d change your mind. I could’ve won for you.”

“And then Fred would’ve died, which is no better,” he said reasonably. She gaped at him, marveling at how he could be so cool and unruffled in light of what was about to happen to him. “Thank you, Mr. Lupin – I mean Remus – for your support.” He grinned at his old professor, still unsure whether it was okay for him to call Mr. Lupin by his first name, and extended a hand for him to shake.

Remus did not speak, dumbfounded, as he permitted Colin to grasp his numb fingers and apply pressure.

“I’m going to go now,” Colin informed them. “I’ve only got a couple of hours left until they come and get me, so I want to make them count.”

“Will you…” Tonks trailed off, hand lifting to her bloodless lips. “Will you be okay?” She immediately chastised herself for saying such a thing. Of course Colin wasn’t okay. He was about to die. His deceptively calm front was only for her own benefit, and Remus’s, and as soon as they were out of earshot he would peel it off.

Colin only smiled, a gesture that did not carry to his eyes, and waved goodbye. Tonks and Remus held each other close as Colin and Orla walked hand in hand down the avenue and into the night, the taller of the two determined to Vanish in peace.


*


“We’ve got to hurry,” Orla muttered, dropping his hand once they’d sprinted out of sight. The sea rolled towards them with hungry, puckering mouths of sapphire foam, gurgling with every rush and recede of the tide. They had been planning this for what felt like ages, but neither could be positive that their theory was correct. Everything pointed to it – the seashells from the Adriatic Sea, the depot’s curious location, and the way that no one was allowed to swim away from the beach past eight feet.

And then there was the final piece of the puzzle that Remus Lupin had unknowingly given them just last night, before Tonks propositioned him with the offer to switch places: Keep your head above water.

Orla stared over the water, where everything in this life began, as if she could visibly see the mysteries lurking beneath its scrolling surface.

“I hope we’re right,” Colin said, turning around to scan the village behind them so frequently that he seemed to have a twitch. “We’ll never get another opportunity to have the attendant gone.” His eyes slid to Orla’s. “Or at least I won’t.”

She grasped his upper arm, beseeching. “I’m not leaving here without you.”

“You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Are you kidding?” She adjusted her glasses, haughty and defiant. “I’m seeing you through to whatever end you meet.” She pointed her wand at the dock jutting off from the depot, black and waterlogged. Several shapes bobbed up and down next to them. “Accio boat,” she said quietly while Colin continued to keep a vigilant look-out.

Her face radiated excitement when one of the little boats zipped away from its fellows, skidding over wave after wave until it thumped the sandbar. The two friends grinned deviously at each other, elated that their conjecture was right: While citizens of Cliodna’s Clock could not swim out to sea past eight feet, the boats designed to transport people to the island were immune to this rule. They would not have to journey far. If Orla’s endless hypothesizing was correct, then they would only need to pass the eight-foot boundary.

They hopped into the boat, cold water splashing their skin as the boat swayed back and forth. “And no one’s ever tried it before because people are so disoriented when they’re first using these boats,” Orla said earnestly, bouncing on the edge of her seat as the boat took off at full speed. “Maybe if they knew what we know now, they wouldn’t have tried so hard to climb on dry land.”

“What we think,” Colin corrected sternly. “Not know. We can’t be sure just yet.”

“I’m telling you, I felt something,” she plowed on, undeterred from her rapidly-snowballing theories. “It might’ve been harder for you to feel it, since you were wearing shoes. But I wasn’t wearing shoes when I died, and I distinctly remember kicking a –”

“Here,” he interrupted quickly. Without thinking twice, both he and Orla instantly dove over the sides of the boat, their heads slipping underwater for a brief moment before they swam back up to the surface. To Colin’s intense relief, they had not been magically yanked backwards behind the eight-foot invisible line. They were at least twenty feet away from shore, the windowless depot rising like an aquatic monster out of the water just behind them.

The weight of Colin’s clothes bogged him down; he’d never been the best swimmer, but he wasn’t utterly hapless, and treaded the waves with swift, manic bursts of his arms to stay afloat. Orla, naturally, was maneuvering around as easily as a seal. “Okay,” he said, spitting out a mouthful of water. His face was so pale and urgent, paved with moonlight, and as Orla gazed at him it suddenly struck her how wrong they could be, and what she would do if she were to lose him.

“On three,” she replied solemnly, tucking her glasses into a pocket. “One, two –”

“Three,” Colin added before the third second was up, ducking underwater with such force that his feet kicked open air for several seconds before disappearing.

The tips of their outstretched fingers met each other underwater, though it was too dark to see anything. Orla laced her fingers in his and they both kicked with all their might, delving deeper and deeper until the cool pressure felt heavy against their temples. With Colin’s other hand, he reached and swiped for substance, finding nothing. He felt himself drift sideways as Orla led the way, and he knew with a fierce jerk of his arm that she had found something.

His feet skimmed the sandy bottom, hand still swiping away at cold, black water, and then he found something, as well.

It was metal, and curving, and as he blindly grappled along its length, he found that it seemed to go on for several feet. Long and rectangular, and fixed right into the sandy sea bottom with only a handle to make it obstructive, noticeable, he knew what unmistakable form this was. Hope surged in his chest as a torrent of bubbles crept out from between his lips, floating away from him. He tilted his head backwards to view the waves far above, their caps dappled with silvery-white from the moon and stars.

He focused his attentions on the handle again, touching the hinges, feeling the perimeter. He pulled on the handle with every ounce of strength inside of him while Orla messed around with something else not too far away. Their hands lost touch as each grappled at the handles of separate doors. And although they could not see it, there were far more doors than they realized. Across the wide, endless sea floor, door after door after door lay under granules of white sand ghosting over top of them in currents. In his mind, Colin recalled Orla’s initial wonder at how they had ended up here:

“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked, perpetually curious about his final moments.

He didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to remember. “I don’t know, there was so much destruction going on. It was loud and –”

“No, no,” she amended, cutting him off. “I mean in the water. As soon as we got here. Don’t you remember coming from…below?” She gazed out at the ocean, eyes losing focus as she wrapped her arms snugly around her knobby knees. “I wonder how we got from there to here. I can’t remember what was in-between.”

“Does there have to be an in-between?”

She ruffled his hair affectionately. “There has to be, doesn’t there? That’s logic. If you want to get from one place to another, you have to have something in-between, even in things like Apparition and Floo. It all happens so fast, but nevertheless, there is real space you’re traveling through. And if there was no in-between that we can remember leaving, then that means that we’re still in it.”

After a final tug, the door handle came away in his grasp, heaving almost unbearable weight along with it. Rust coated everything, making it all the more resistant. He wedged one foot underneath so that it couldn’t fall down and crush his fingers. Just as he was about to search the water for Orla’s form, the last of his oxygen supply trickling out of his mouth in more bubbles, Orla grabbed him and pulled.

This way,” she said, words garbled but still distinguishable.

He frowned and pulled on her, as well, signaling that he had also found something. When she refused to budge, he sat there frustrated for a second before remembering his wand. Feeling like an idiot for not using it all this time, he muttered, “Lumos,” and the ocean sprang to life in pearly rays of cerulean.

Orla was trying to suppress the urge to breathe, her ribs concave with breath that had been sucked in long ago and then depleted in the ticking minutes since. She looked foreign without her glasses to magnify those ever-inquisitive eyes, hair floating all around her head like tentacles. Tiny bubbles clung to the strands of her hair and to her skin, which was slowly turning blue. He thought that she could have been an angel, or an Inferius – he couldn’t be sure which.

Colin’s wandlight passed over the ordinary handle he still clutched to a different hatch Orla levitated over, arms and legs splayed as she glided dreamily along. The handle to her hatch was a gilded round knob, the door itself painted a deep crimson.

Her eyes met his, and he knew then that he would let go, that he would follow her. Things always just happened to Orla, things mysteriously happened because of her. Without her by his side, there might not have been any doors scattered all around them, and the boat might not have agreed to be summoned, and a thousand hands might have held him back before he tried to flee the stadium. It was her special magic, a kind that could not be learned or necessarily even understood.

As he pulled his foot out of the hatch he had been investigating, heart palpitating violently against a set of shriveled lungs, the heavy door scraped off his trainer. The shoe fell down through the depths of the hatch, lost.

The door Orla had found was much, much easier to pry open – which told Colin that the other one was probably much less used to being messed with – and they dropped neatly through the red door without difficulty, pulling it closed behind them.

From there, their whole world turned upside-down. The waters on the other side of the hatch were warmer, brighter. They could see sunlight streaming down from a midday sky far above, penetrating the waters with heat, with life. The two of them kicked harder, the lack of air in their lungs somehow much more painful now. Colin could not explain how it felt – the panic, the dizziness enveloping his consciousness, the throbbing as his body told him to breathe and he could not heed its demands.

Orla’s hand found his once more and their fingers entwined; with her assistance, Colin seemed to float without volition to the delicate waves that washed right over their heads. When they broke the surface, lungs cramping from severe spasms, they turned in churning circles with eyes closed, gasping for breath, for more and more oxygen. It was not until some minutes later that they realized they had an audience.

Tinkling laughter filtered into their eardrums against a melody of a thousand other voices, other sounds – wind through tree branches and seagulls cawing and murmurs of secrets, and broomsticks passing by shops with a ding, ding, ding of their handle-bells.

Colin felt a hand on his own, flushed with warmth. His eyes opened against the harsh daylight to see a woman kneeling on the edge of a long dock. She had a large, curving nose and heavy brow that was currently arched in surprise, but there was something familiar about her even if Colin was sure he’d never met her before.

A gleaming chestnut horse stood on the opposite end of the dock, its hooves sinking into dunes of sand, wearing an elaborate sheath of medieval armor over its muzzle. A pretty woman was perched on top of it, flaxen hair swept up under a dented copper helmet. She stared at the two people thrashing in the water with happy disbelief etched across every inch of her face. Standing just a small ways behind her, wringing her hands nervously as she stood on tiptoe to see clearly, was Lavender Brown.

“Well, that’s one way to get here, I suppose,” said the woman kneeling over Colin. She smiled warmly at him. “My name is Eileen.”

She made to lift him out of the water but Colin took Orla’s hand instead and offered it to the woman, gesturing without words for her to help his friend first. When both of them had clambered onto the wooden surface, dripping wet and freezing from all the cool wind stirring their hair and clothing, Eileen turned to face the two others.

“Dorcas, Lavender, come and look at what we have here.”

But Colin had eyes for nothing but the world around him: It was not one cramped little island but a massive continent, extending farther than the eye could see. The sky looked so much higher than what felt possible, so much brighter, so much more natural than he remembered. With an aching twist of homesickness, Colin realized that this was what had been missing in Cliodna’s Clock. They had not had the same endless sky in Cliodna’s Clock as they’d had on earth, and this one was just like home.

But all the same, this was not earth. This was more than earth – he could taste it, sense it, feel it. It was uncomprehendingly huge, hundreds of times the size of earth, engulfing that flimsy little planet many times over.

And as soon as he drew his first step, he could feel his skin tingle, inherently knowing that if he were to scratch it, the cut would take days to heal rather than seconds…this was a place where one could feel, where one could age. He could already feel himself growing older.

Colin gazed open-mouthed at Orla, a different Colin than he was before. He was two minutes older now than he had been two minutes ago, and as he stood there while the seconds passed, they did not pass around him but also within him, and his first intelligible thought was that he wished Dennis was there to feel such an extraordinarily miracle right along with him. He wished his brother knew that Colin would not be a boy forevermore.

The pretty one called Dorcas dismounted from her horse and waltzed over, beaming at the both of them. “Welcome to Witching,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for more of you.”


*


Unbeknownst to Colin, his missing shoe had already soared across great distances, defying time and travel in ways its owner would never know. After it vanished through the rusted door, it found itself in a river snaking somewhere along a dense ridge of trees. In a whirl of fast-moving water, the shoe soon became wedged in a sandy riverbed next to a queue of canvas bags decorating the bank. Within an hour, all of those empty bags would be filled with heavy sand and then tied securely with twine, waiting to be loaded onto the back of a lorry.

Something inside Colin’s shoe, lining the bottom of it, fluttered as a gust of wind overtook it – and as though by magic, as though being helped by some undetectable source, the small white square tumbled on the breeze over those bags of sand. It rolled itself inside the open mouth of one of the bags, revealing a flash of white oak tree curving up into a ‘Y’ shape before sliding out of sight.

The photograph lay quietly on the bottom of the bag’s interior, innocently waiting, destined to be delivered to a play park near Spinner’s End, Cokeworth.

 

 




A/N: And so we see a glimpse of one of the other many, many afterlives! If you can call Witching an afterlife, that is, since the people there can age and seem to be very much alive.
The beginning lines: ‘“Where do Vanished objects go?”’ and ‘“Into nonbeing, which is to say, everything,” replied Professor McGonagall.’ is from page 591 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, USA edition, by JK Rowling.

Please review. :)
 


Chapter 30: Rules of the Prize
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The last thing Fred remembered before the depot attendant grabbed one of his shoulders, pulling him away from the angry mob, was a flash of bright light that blinded the stars far above. The thunderous expression on Albus Dumbledore’s face swam underneath this light as the powerful old wizard made his way towards a backtracking Claudius Ptolemy.

When Fred opened his eyes again, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet to avoid toppling over, there was an assault of sunlight on his eyelids and a constant stream of instructions already issuing from the depot attendant’s mouth.

The attendant clutched something small and shiny in his hands, faintly emitting a bluish sheen – which Fred realized belatedly was a Portkey. “Not allowed to interact with anyone, not allowed to be seen,” he was saying crisply. Fred noticed that he looked considerably different from the last time he’d seen him – he looked younger somehow, and his eyebrows weren’t as thick and dark.

“You are not allowed to use magical means of transportation that can be tracked by their Ministry of Magic,” he prattled on, reciting this speech from memory, “including but not limited to: The Floo Network, Apparition, the Knight Bus, the Hogwarts Express, and Portkeys. Muggle transportation in all forms is strictly prohibited.

“You are not to bring attention to yourself in any way – which includes speaking loudly, purposefully walking out in the open without magical concealment, and attempting to interfere with the lives of living humans. As a precautionary measure, certain spells and jinxes have been restricted from your wand’s normal capabilities, and you will find yourself unable to perform them should you attempt to try.”

Fred was barely paying attention to him, squinting all around while his nerves seized with shock. A tower glinted at him in the distance, a chunk of its roof missing. “Hogwarts?” he inquired breathlessly, forehead heavily creased in bewilderment. “Scotland? You took me to Scotland?”

“You are in Hogsmeade, yes,” the attendant responded, a shade put out that he had been interrupted. “I see your geography skills have not improved. Never seem to know quite where you are, do you?”

“Hang on,” Fred interrupted again, and held up his hand as if to physically stop the attendant from speaking. “You said I’m not allowed to use Ministry-regulated transport? Or Muggle?”

The attendant sighed, giving a long roll of the eyes. “Are you going to ask me to repeat every little thing I say? I am busy, you know. Lots of people dying and all that, needing to be ushered into boats. But to answer you, yes. Eschewing Muggle and Ministry of Magic-regulated travel is obligatory.”

“How exactly am I supposed to get to Devon, then?”

The attendant simply stared at him. “Devon, you say? Well, I suppose that you will have to walk, won’t you?”

Fred’s face flushed an angry red. “Devon’s in the south of England!” he yelled. “How the hell am I supposed to get all the way down there within twenty-four hours?”

The attendant’s reply was brusque. “Walk quickly.” Without waiting for Fred to talk again (which Fred couldn’t have done even if he’d wanted to, he was so upset), he said, “Abide by the rules and you will be eligible to compete in the tournament next year. Try anything funny that will get yourself noticed and you’ll be severely punished for it. As you well know, Cliodna’s Clock has two Seers who will hear about it if a dead man publicly resurfaces in Britain.

“I will be waiting in this exact location” – he paused and gestured to a signpost that pointed to Hogwarts in one direction and Hogsmeade Village in the other – “with this Portkey in precisely twenty-four hours from now. If you are not here waiting for me, I will come get you. I assure you that there is nowhere in this world that you can hide from me.”

His face perceptibly darkened. “If I have to come in and remove you by force, Mr. Weasley, you’ll be going somewhere much more unpleasant upon your return to the afterlife.”

And with a wink and a pop, he was gone.

Fred wasted six valuable minutes standing exactly where he was, seething. So this was his ‘prize’ for enduring five rounds of hellish anxiety? To be cast off in a place where he would care very little about anyone he might recognize and be denied the right to see his family in England, whom he’d entered the tournament to visit in the first place?

And it had all been done on purpose, too, with the attendant or Ptolemy or whoever was in charge of this ridiculous scheme choosing a drop-off location that was too far away to feasibly fit a visit at the Burrow into his allotted twenty-four hours…

Fred stared grimly at the outline of Hogwarts castle, eyes narrowing. Luckily for him, he was not one to give up easily.

Since he had recently been to Hogwarts, albeit within a memory, he had no immediate desires to return. It might have been interesting if it were September and the school was in functioning condition, so that at least he would be able to get a glimpse of Ginny, but it was only July and Hogwarts was still in a state of brutal disrepair.

With only one other option, Fred turned tail and headed down the road into Hogsmeade. It was quite hot out but the dirt was stained almost black, hinting that it had rained recently and the sun had yet to evaporate all of it out of the ground. Humidity made his hair cling to the back of his neck, shirt sticking to his skin, but Fred observed none of this. He was so consumed with raw wonder, with that familiar, disorienting sensation of déjà vu all over again, and was also so incredibly elated to be home – to be really home, not just inside a Pensieve – that he did not think he would ever find anything in this perfect, wonderful world to complain about.

The first thing Fred decided to do was cast a Disillusionment Charm over himself and search out a clock so that he could see what time it was, thereby figuring out when to be back at the signpost. He halfway hoped that the attendant might forget to show up or suffer a fit of compassion and just let him stay here forever, but he knew better than to dwell on this happy dream for too long. It would only lead to bitter disappointment.

No, today there was not room for dejection, for self-pity. Today was all he had, his only consolation for surviving when Colin was scheduled to die within hours, so Fred would take this gift in both hands and appreciate it as much as possible.

The little things stuck out the most to him, things he’d forgotten all about – the horizon, namely. In all directions he could see mountains, valleys, lakes. He could see the blurred shapes of faraway towns, with tiny people in them moving about their days. None of them had any idea that a ghost walked in their midst, and couldn’t possibly know how lucky they were to be able to do the simplest things like working and listening to the Wireless and visiting friends.

What Fred wouldn’t give to be able to work again! To serve a purpose, trading his service and goods for money, for loyal consumer support. What he wouldn’t do to hike for days, never once being thwarted by the tiny perimeter of an island barred on all sides by inescapable ocean! Every step reminded him of what he’d been missing since his death, what he knew now he never should have taken for granted. But none of these floating thoughts affected him as much as what he saw next.

Over to his left, just before the rest of Hogsmeade fell into a quick succession of shops, the Shrieking Shack loomed high on a hill. Small monuments poked out of the soil on the lower half of the hill, rolling steadily downward. Having been to Hogsmeade in his youth more than most other students, George excluded, he knew this village like the back of his hand. Those monuments had not been there a few months ago.

He knew, in a queasy stirring in the pit of his stomach, what he would find as he drew closer to the gates. He could already read some of the names – Severus Snape was there, and a slew of other names he recognized but could not believe: Jack Sloper, Lisa Turpin, Owen Cauldwell, Anthony Goldstein, Demelza Robins, Justin Finch-Fletchley, Romilda Vane, Daphne Greengrass. Situated just behind Daphne’s grave, as if hiding, was a plain gray slab bearing the name Orla Emily Quirke. There was no inscription, no religious quotes to sum up her life. Her dates of birth and death were not even included.

Fred felt a flood of disquiet barrel through his bones and blood, prickling at his skin. Remus and Nymphadora Lupin shared the same gravestone, though it was a large, handsome alabaster one and featured hand-carved roses blooming over both of their names. Fred’s eyes passed across many other names, newly sickened each time he read one that brought a specific face or memory to mind. He couldn’t help but wonder why he hadn’t seen them in Cliodna’s Clock. If they were dead, shouldn’t they have met up by now?

Where exactly were they?

Colin Creevey’s grave was notably absent, lending Fred to think that his parents had buried him elsewhere, probably closer to their home. For a few minutes he started to think that maybe his parents had done the same with his body, and he smiled at the idea of resting somewhere near the Burrow; but this thought was quickly stamped out when he finally saw his own name. He had to read it three times just to absorb that it was truly there.

Fred stood on top of his grave, staring with wide, unseeing eyes down at the 1 April, 1978 – 2 May, 1998. In this cemetery devoted to those slain in the Battle of Hogwarts that occurred just a short ways away, the real Fred Weasley was lying utterly still underneath a granite marker with both eyes closed, heart not beating, lungs not breathing.

He could not comprehend it.

Fred inhaled several light, rapid breaths that made his head feel lightweight and dizzy. He was right there, under the grass, under his own shoes. Fred. The decomposing Fred, the one who would wither and age when the newer version of Fred could not. Even though Fred was now temporarily in the world of the living, and somehow mortal once more, as soon as he returned to Cliodna’s Clock he would freeze again in time, never aging, never physically moving forward.

What would happen to him if he were to die here before his twenty-four hours expired? Would there be two Fred Weasleys buried on earth? Would he once again find himself thrashing in an ultramarine sea near the depot, waiting to jump in a boat and zoom off to the tiny, claustrophobic little island? Maybe he only got the one chance to appear in the afterlife immediately following death, and if he died here again then his soul would be gone forever.

Before he could dwell too much on what he might look like under there in his coffin, morbid thoughts creeping into the back of his mind with grotesque images of a putrefying corpse, he strolled briskly away from the cemetery. He had the rest of eternity to think about death. Today must not be wasted on such unwanted imaginings.

With every person he passed, all of them unaware of the Disillusioned man weaving between them, Fred hoped to see someone he knew. The miniature needles of someone’s wristwatch informed him that he had until noon tomorrow to get back to the signpost. He concluded it would be wisest to give himself at least an hour to spare, just so that he wouldn’t risk being late and having to go to the Grotta.

It would have been lovely to linger, but Fred had more important things to be getting on with than admiring the neatly-pruned lane or crunch of gravel under his feet, many trails of laughter drifting out of many chimneys to gather in the sky like a fog. And so when Fred happened across a broomstick leaning against the back door of the Hog’s Head, he took it without a second thought.

Ahh, he thought to himself with a satisfied smile, trailing his fingers across the engraved Cleansweep serial number. Broomstick travel, he knew, was not regulated by the Ministry. Looks like I’ve just found my loophole.

*


By evening, Fred had arrived in Norfolk, in a Muggle town by the name of Henley. His skin was cold and damp from flying through a nonstop shroud of mist that had descended over the East Midlands, and his bottom was stiff after several hours of sitting astride a broomstick that must have been designed more for actual cleaning than cross-country travel. This region of England was very much out of the way for him, seeing as how he could have just cut over Wales to reach Devon, but Fred was operating as more than just one person today, with more than one set of concerns and wishes.

The house was wider than it was tall, constructed from pine logs that shone like honey. The sun was already settling between yellow-capped daisy hills, burning right through the back of Fred’s head. He held up one arm to shield his eyes from its rays, tilting his broom against a clump of untended foxglove. In this lighting, the windows reflected blood-red. Striations of dust and pollen swirled in the pretty, blazing light; Fred moved through one of them, disrupting the flow of wind and air. He was not a memory, not a ghost. Here, for a fleeting space of time, he was just as alive and solid as everything around him.

A letterbox poked out of flowering honeysuckle, their coral-pink petals occupied by bees. They buzzed uneasily when he opened the half-circle door to the letterbox, hearing and smelling a trespasser but not seeing one. Fred withdrew a thick envelope from the pocket of his robes and stuffed it inside.

He was going to turn around again, ready to pick up Aberforth Dumbledore’s broomstick so that he could continue southwest to Ottery St. Catchpole, when he heard a bird-like warble trilling from somewhere inside the house. Against his every impulse, Fred tread the rest of the long drive and began to investigate its windows.

Andromeda stood in the kitchen, her back turned to him, and was busying herself preparing a stew. The next window over showed an empty, dim sitting room. Stale light barely penetrated the space, not touching upon deep shadows along the ceiling and corners. He moved along to the very last window on the ground floor, situated on the corner so that sunset could bathe the small bedroom in buttery colors.

In the corner of the pastel nursery, a woman with long, white-blonde hair was rocking in a chair with a baby in her arms. The infant was not quite asleep yet, though his eyes were heavy, and one chubby fist had wrapped itself around a tuft of the woman’s hair. She sang to Teddy until the little boy’s eyes fluttered closed at last, long eyelashes shadowing his cheeks. Now that Teddy was a bit older, beginning to take shape, Fred could spot the traces of Remus in him, and Tonks, too.

Narcissa looked so in love with the small child that he couldn’t bring himself to hate her.

Eyes glistening in spite of himself, Fred glanced around the room until his gaze alighted on a carriage clock that looked just like the one he used to own. Seven ‘o clock. He grimaced. That broomstick was rubbish – barely quicker than vehicular commute. Judging by its unsteady wobbling over Lincolnshire, it would take every bit of two hours to reach Devon.

Two hours from home.

Fred slipped away from the window, hesitance unfurling in his small, dragging steps. Was he mentally ready to acquaint his sore eyes with the Burrow? To see its jagged peaks climbing into the twilight…to hear happy voices making a racket within, to witness dinner or Arthur’s unwinding stories about his day at work… His heart swelled in his chest just thinking about it, but that happiness was soon enveloped in fear.

He had a responsibility to himself to stay sane. After all, he was only too aware that his hours were numbered, that he would soon have to return to Cliodna’s Clock for a year at the very least before he could even hope to enter the tournament again. What are you thinking? Fred inwardly snapped. Weren’t you just one hundred percent against ever entering that stupid tournament again? Think of the risk. Don’t forget what you’ve just been through.

He sighed sadly, an invisible man screening the front garden of Andromeda’s house. It was difficult to remember those problems when he was here, on earth. He’d never been privy to anything more beautiful. “What a gift,” he said to no one in particular, head tilting. “What a miracle, and none of them even realize just how lucky they are to be here, with their homes and families.”

More anxious thoughts about whether or not he would be emotionally capable of handling seeing his family again stalled his determination. With cold footsteps of panic, he wandered without direction into town. It was much easier to immerse himself in a place where he didn’t know anyone, wouldn’t recognize anyone. He could walk much more freely, his head consumed with things like ‘Maybe they’re not even at home…they could all be gone’ and ‘You know that as soon as you step foot in that garden, it’s going to destroy you to leave it a few hours later’ while he was circling aimlessly in a foreign town that had no connection to his former life.

It was a risky game, weighing the benefits of seeing his loved ones against the hurt he was going to inflict against himself when he had to turn around and leave much too soon for his liking.

By the time he’d scraped together a flavorless meal in a pub (he nicked things off other people’s plates when they weren’t looking), it was half nine. Watching the stars pop against the night sky, a calm peace spread throughout him. It would take away all of the pressure to simply not go to Devon. He would not have to face the pain of seeing them only briefly, and would be free to imagine that flying home would only have been a waste of time because for all he knew, they weren’t even there.

It was midnight when he mounted his broomstick. The first twelve hours of his prize had been squandered away, wasted. The next twelve he would leave entirely up to impulse. He grasped the stick in both hands, projecting himself off the ground with a hard left kick. Northwest or southwest?


*


Two oil lamps had been lit on either side of a broad fireplace to cast light upon a row of gleaming medals spaced across the mantle. There were seven medals in all (the family had collectively received ten of them, but Bill and Fleur of course kept theirs at their own house and George’s was with him in London), lying on beds of purple silk. While every single one of these Order of Merlins were First Class, all of them were blue except for the one in the center, which was gold.

Mrs. Weasley polished them every day, taking care to pay the most attention to the gold one, the medal that told visitors that they had lost a member of their family in the war.

The Mrs. Weasley in question had scarcely left the sitting room all day or well into the night, whose hours were steadily creeping in on her. Various other Weasleys came and went, just as curious as she, but there wasn’t enough room for them all in the cozy, cramped little room. Most of them chose to sit in the adjacent kitchen and search each other for dismal conversation, trying to distract themselves from the oddity of the day. A few of them were asleep by now, being two in the morning, but there was no room in Molly’s thoughts for sleep.

Ginny peeped around the corner into the sitting room, her hand against the door frame. A basket of unfolded laundry lay disregarded on the floor, and the dishes in the sink had yet to be touched. “Mum?”

Molly didn’t seem to hear her. She was still staring raptly at her special clock, glazed eyes fixed on the hand representing Fred Weasley. Since his death, the hand had pointed to ‘Lost’, which was a source of constant grief for Molly. Her husband had suggested moving the clock to the attic so that she wouldn’t have to look at it, wouldn’t see the daily reminder, but she had refused. Today she didn’t know whether or not she was regretful or glad she hadn’t allowed it to be taken away; today, for many long hours, his hand had pointed ominously at ‘Mortal Peril’. It now flitted between a handful of other locations, the most recent one being ‘Traveling’.

“It’s broken, Mum,” Ginny said quietly. “It’s got to be.”

Molly’s face was pale, sickly. “It’s been correct about Percy and your father being at work all day. It showed Charlie at school this morning when he went to help with the rebuilding. George and Ron’s whereabouts are right, as well.”

As though he’d heard his name and dutifully joined them, Ron appeared at Ginny’s side. He seemed just as uneasy about the clock as his mother, for he couldn’t get Harry Potter’s tale of almost crossing to the other side out of his head. Harry had heard posthumous stories straight from Dumbledore’s mouth that were too detailed to have been imagined. He believed Harry. Though Dumbledore was dead, he had been conscious of the goings-on in Harry’s life and had been watching him.

Had Fred been watching them, as well?

Ron and Ginny simultaneously moved into the sitting room, squeezing between the overstuffed armchairs and piles of books and cauldrons, to stand on either side of their mother. Together, the three of them kept a silent vigil under the clock. All of them wondered where Fred was, what he was doing, what sort of horrors had taken place to bring him to ‘Mortal Peril’ and what he was doing now that he seemed to have escaped that danger.

Ginny felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end before anything even happened, Molly and Ron’s arms prickling with goosebumps. And when the hand on the clock that indicated ‘Traveling’ abruptly spun around the face of the magical instrument, they all jumped.

“Oh, my,” Molly murmured under her breath, one hand over her mouth. She was weak in the knees with terror, with excitement and agony that made her intestines ache. Before she could rush over to the fireplace and Floo Arthur, to tell him to come home, Ginny’s fingers found hers and prevented her from moving, pleading silently to remain put.

The house was as silent as a tomb while Fred’s hand spun madly in circles around the clock, passing place after place he could be. Ron had taken several steps backward, stumbling into a small table, and although Ginny very much wanted to run into the kitchen, she found herself irrevocably rooted to the spot.

The world grew still as Fred’s hand came to a rest on ‘Home’, and Ginny heard a soft thump as Molly Weasley fainted to the floor.


*


There was a flurry of voices, of limbs. George pushed his way in front of everyone, nearly stepping on Percy’s foot as he rushed hurriedly into the sitting room, wanting to see it for himself. When he reached the enchanted clock, he just stood there staring as if he wasn’t really seeing it, expecting it to change back to ‘Lost’ – where it had been ever since his brother’s death.

Harry Potter Apparated on the front lawn and entered the house without knocking, stumbling into Hermione Granger as he did so – who had just Floo’d into the kitchen fireplace. “Where?” she asked sharply. Harry pointed towards the sitting room, where a dense crowd of people waited silently for George to form some sort of sensible explanation.

But George could not speak. His face was bloodless.

“George, dear?” Molly tentatively hedged, brushing a ginger curl behind her ear. She looked like a mess, glancing around every so often in horrified but yearning anticipation that she might see her dead son hiding behind a cabinet or sofa, or looking down the stairwell at them all.

George half-turned, irises clouded over. Before his eyes settled upon her they roamed the length of a window, gaze unexpectedly sharpening as he did so. His shoulders became stiff, complexion draining of color to the point where his eyes looked like dark little holes next to such pale skin. Molly followed his line of vision, confused. “George?” she repeated. “Are you all right?” She surveyed the window again, frowning. “Do you see something out there?”

He looked at her, lips parting slightly. “No.”

She inched closer to him, holding one arm out to pull him to her. “No, you’re not all right, or no, you don’t see something?” she pressed.

George swallowed, staring at the clock again. “It’s nothing,” he replied dully. “Just got spooked by my reflection.” There was a long minute of thick, suffocating silence, with several pairs of eyes boring holes into his own, and finally he could stand it no more. “It’s broken, Mum,” he said. “Fred is dead. He’s not coming back. I’m going home to London, I can’t really be around this.” He leaned in to give her a swift peck on the cheek, and then strode smartly into the kitchen and through the door, slamming it closed behind him.

He took the long way around the back of the house, moving as quietly as possible, all the while trying to smother the irrational beat of his heart. His face was still whiter than the moon, all of the blood seemingly sapped from his body. But still, something urged him forward, yanking him by gravitational pull into the chicken-strewn vegetable patch, through the hedges and fields to a paddock where he had spent some of the best summers of his life.

A lone figure stood at the top of the hill, white moonlight flooding around him to bask his form in black shadow.

George’s heart was now in his throat, pulsing violently. “Fred?”

The figure trotted closer, matching his gait beat for beat.

“George.”


*


“And make Dad promise not to build any more flying cars,” Fred told him, idly snapping a stick in half. They were sitting in the orchard, surrounded by trees that would muffle their voices and prevent them from being seen by prying eyes, but Fred consistently spoke in mutters and murmurs, scared of being overheard. Would Trelawney or Vablatsky tell on him if they saw what he was doing? What would the penalty for such a crime be?

“Why?” George wanted to know.

Fred shrugged. “Just in case.”

“All right.” George’s mouth closed around the uttered words; he chanced another glimpse at Fred, still reeling. “I just…I can’t believe that…that you’re really here.”

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be,” Fred whispered, just as pale as George. It was unnatural for him to behave this way, so quiet and nervous.

“What’s happened to you?” George questioned, taken aback. “You’re not at all yourself.”

“It’s just…” Fred glanced all around, scratching his neck. “There are rules that comes with this. I am very clearly breaking them right now, talking to you. I’m not supposed to be seen or heard or anything.”

George frowned. He sat up straighter in the grass, one hand propping up his weight. “Isn’t that the allure of the twenty-four hours? You told me that you’ve just spent the past month dueling, that Creevey had to lose because of population control or whatever. What kind of consolation prize forbids its winners to be seen or heard?”

Fred studied the grass underneath him intently. Whereas here he could dig for days and days and find nothing but dirt, he’d always gotten the feeling that doing so in Cliodna’s Clock would reveal cardboard or packaging paper, something to prove that everything was fake. A pretend paradise. “Those are just the rules. They say you have to abide by them, but so far no one’s come to arrest me or anything, so maybe their methods are just to make threats and trust winners to uphold the rules…?” He threw a rock at the base of a tree. “I don’t know. I have no idea whether or not anyone will ever find out, but if they do, I’m likely to get into huge trouble.”

George just sat there for a minute, trying to digest all the things Fred had told him about ‘Cliodna’s Clock’ and the Devil’s Duel. “You can’t get into trouble if you don’t go back.” He abruptly stood to his feet, extending a hand for Fred to take. “Come on, then! We’ll just – we’ll go home! Can you imagine the look on Mum and Dad’s faces if they saw you? If they knew that we’ve got you back?”

“I’m supposed to be dead,” Fred deadpanned. “Seeing me again might very well kill them. And besides that, I can’t just go home, it’s not as simple as that.”

“I reckon not, not with that attitude,” George exclaimed, tugging harder on Fred’s hand. Fred remained rooted to the spot, not budging. “What are you playing at? Why are you just sitting there?” Fred could sense the emotion building in his brother’s voice, the overpowering grief working its way back up. “Come on,” he pleaded. “Please. You can’t go back, you can’t.”

“If I don’t go back, he’ll come in after me,” Fred cried, frustrated. He tore his hands through his hair, body shaking. “And then he’ll take me to the Grotta, George, you don’t understand.”

“Help me understand, then.” George kneeled next to Fred, eyes wide and insistent. “Who’s coming after you? Some Cliodna’s Clock bloke? No worries there, I’m always packing.” He held up a wand, waving it about. “Let me grab Ron, Dad, and Harry and we’ll make sure this git doesn’t do anything to you.”

Fred smiled bitterly, shaking his head. “Their magic is different from your magic, mate. There’s nothing you can do to protect me. I know this is hard to hear, but I’ve got to be back in Hogsmeade by twelve tomorrow.” George opened his mouth, ready to remark, when Fred anticipated what he was going to say and reminded him, “No Floo. No Apparition. Remember what I told you? Nothing that can be picked up on by magical or Muggle authorities. It’s got to be by broomstick, which means I need a solid six hours to get there.”

George examined his wristwatch, stricken. They had been talking for hours, catching each other up to speed with no regard for the time. Plum clouds now tinged the stars, five o’ clock in the morning bleeding into six.

“But that’s – that’s now.”

Fred wiped his eyes, turning away. “I wasted so much damn time, George. It was so stupid, messing around in Norfolk, waiting so long to come here.”

George’s responding voice was higher-pitched than usual. “You have to leave? Right now?”

“Yes.” Fred stood to his feet, neck sore from twisting it around to view George all night.

“Wait.” George shoved him back onto the ground, ignoring Fred’s indignant swearing. “Hang on. Just…let me think of something.”

Fred rubbed his lower back, resentful. “We can’t think our way out of this one.”

“We can think our way out of anything, you idiot!” George shot back. “That’s the beauty of having brains. I don’t like your pessimistic attitude, by the way.”

He threw ideas at Fred, who gave him specific reasons why each wouldn’t work, before George slumped onto the grass next to his twin. The reality that there was no hope, that Fred was leaving, sank in with a cold, heavy feeling. “At least let me fly back with you. That’s hours that we’ll have together to talk.”

Fred shook his head again, which irritated George greatly. “No?” he snapped. “Then why did you come at all, if you’re just going to go right back?”

“Because that’s how it works!” Fred shouted, storming to his feet. He stomped out of the orchard and into a glowing dawn, breathing rapidly. The cool air, the sky’s stain of blue and purple that could have passed for dusk, speared right through him with a moisture that promised of rain.

He wheeled around on George, who was right on his heels, and stopped him with one outstretched hand. “You don’t understand,” he repeated for what felt like the eightieth time in just a few hours. “I know that it’s not fair, but imagine what you’re doing to me right now, tempting me with ideas to go see Mum and Dad and everyone. Do you have any idea how long I’ve thought about that, about how wonderful that would be? But the thing is…if I try to escape, I know without a shadow of a doubt that they’ll find me. This is all I get, this meeting right now. And I’m not even supposed to have this.” He gestured to the air between himself and his brother, eyes watering from a combination of stinging wind and his heartbreak at seeing George’s hurt expression.

George watched him miserably, chin trembling. “But I have more stuff to tell you,” he said, arms dejected at his sides. “Reconstruction of Hogwarts is underway, did you know? And they’re naming the seventh floor corridor after you.”

“I know,” Fred said with a smile. “You already told me.”

“I did?” George wracked his brains, trying to think of when he had covered that subject earlier in the night.

Fred leaned in to hug him, to say goodbye, and George’s face bore the telltale sign of wanting to stall the moment, delay Fred’s departure for several more minutes. “This isn’t fair,” he said desperately, abandoning all poise as he wrapped his arms around Fred in a tight, shivering hug. Fred felt the warm trails of George’s anguish against his cheek, mingling with his own tears. He sniffed, eyes rimmed with red.

“It’s not,” he agreed.

“I’ve missed you,” George went on, voice breaking. He was barely audible even though he spoke so close to Fred’s ear. “Nothing is the same with you gone.”

In an upstairs window at the Burrow, Molly Weasley’s tired, puffy face appeared. She took a deep breath and lifted the sash high over her head, leaning out into the early morning breeze. The world was a rich blanket of indigo, colors muted without the sun to highlight them, to make them brilliant. The outline of two people stood on a hill not far from her property’s hedge. The strangers were the same height, same shape.

She sucked in a breath, watching.

Logic told her that the clock was faulty, old. Fred could not really be home, and George had announced he was going back to London last night. Therefore, it was impossible that the two identical figures could be her sons… She peered closer, halfway wanting to run down the stairs and out the door so that she could be sure, absolutely sure; but another part of her mind quieted this, telling her that they would surely disappear if she severed her gaze on whatever it was she might or might not be seeing.

She stood utterly still in the overcrowded bedroom that once belonged to Fred and George, curtains flapping on either side of her, while the figures embraced. She wanted to believe it was true, no matter what her better sense told her. And as the two people held each other, her eyes blurred over and they became one instead of two, impossible to detangle, to extricate from one another.

“I have to go,” Fred said resignedly, finally wrenching himself from his brother. His eyes were wet.

“We’ll see each other again,” George said at length.

“Yes. I promise we will.”

Fred struggled to keep his composure, which he could feel slipping. He didn’t want his brother to see the turmoil raging in his heart, and so he walked resolutely down the hill, not looking back over his shoulder for more goodbyes that would just make the pain worse.

His flame of red hair dissolved into the dawn with a Disillusionment Charm as he took flight on the stolen broomstick, soaring high over the Burrow one last time.


*


The return trip passed in a haze of recollected thoughts and memories, periodically punctuated by torrents of rain. He would be pushing it by the skin of his teeth to return Aberforth’s broom before planting himself next to the signpost in Hogsmeade. All things considered, he thought himself lucky to have survived such a long trip on Aberforth’s flimsy twig: With as shoddy as that broom was, he wouldn’t have been surprised if it had stopped working a mile over the Irish Sea.

After swooping into Hogsmeade, it was all he could do to dart into the village and leave Aberforth’s broom with its rightful owner before dashing back just in time to greet the depot attendant’s swarthy, grinning face. A Portkey of a little green doorknob was clutched in his hand.

“Was it worth it?” he asked Fred.

“Ahh, mostly.” Fred tried to smile, admiring his wand with a critical air. “It’ll feel wrong for a while, going back, but I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it. Can’t have everything.”

The station attendant clapped him on the back. “Congratulations on your win, by the way. Maybe you can go back in another three hundred and sixty four days, yeah? Try for another win?”

Fred laughed, envisioning doing it all over again in a year from now. “Yeah, that’s the plan, actually.”

“Got six seconds, better get your hand on this,” the other man replied. “It’s hectic in the Clock, I tell you. Madness. You’ll see what I mean – it’s hard to tell which way is up, rate things are going, and it’s damn near impossible to concentrate on my job with all the noise. Must say I was glad to have an excuse to come back here and collect you.” The attendant winced as Fred touched a finger to the Portkey, the two of them crouching side by side. “Say, mate, what happened to your ear?” He pointed at a dark little hole in the side of Fred’s head where an ear was supposed to be.

“Oh, that?” Fred fiddled with the hole, smiling crookedly. “Got blown off by a greasy-haired git.”

The Portkey rattled, radiating a pearly bright blue, and then both of them vanished.
 


Chapter 31: Newcomers
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31 October, 1999


The enormous beak cracked open and seventeen crows emitted. The crow statue paused for breath before tolling again – sixteen sharp, echoing rings. The villagers were sleeping, all except for Anne Marie McKinnon.

Anne Marie was sitting at her kitchen table, a steaming mug of tea cupped between her hands. She turned towards the window, wondering. The town would never know why this always happened every single month, or who the two mysterious newcomers were, because they always seemed to melt into thin air before the sun rose. There was no documentation of them, either, because over a year ago, some sort of record-book theft had occurred in the depot, thus preventing the attendant’s knowledge of newcomers’ identities.

The attendant could no longer see who was coming, and had to take them at their word when they shared their names. It all went down into a new log book, which was sadly ordinary and with no magical abilities.

Mrs. McKinnon watched two shadows jog down the street, elongated by the moon’s luminous shadow. Who would be announced MISSING in bold headlines tomorrow morning? Who would the next victim be? It was so strange, these disappearances. Somehow – astonishingly – no one had connected these frequent midnight tolls to the disappearances of Cliodna’s Clock residents. They refused to believe that a town like this one could be infiltrated, that anyone could truly go missing.

‘They’re in the underground burrows’, Cliodna liked to say, brushing off the Daily Departed’s reporters. ‘They’ve changed their appearances. It happens all the time. They just want attention.’

But Remus Lupin had not been an attention-seeker, and he had vanished last August, along with his wife. A month later, Cedric Diggory and his parents were reported missing by Vesper Lovegood, a witch who ran the local boardinghouse. They were followed by Sirius and Regulus Black, Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald, and Cassandra Trelawney. If Cassandra Vablatsky, the only Seer remaining in the Clock, knew anything of these mysterious disappearances, she was keeping her mouth shut.

The Potters had been expected to disappear soon, given that their closest friends were gone, but it appeared as though they would be staying put for now.

All of the vacancies left by those who had disappeared led to a controversial proposition made by Benjy Fenwick, asking for reduced sentences on Grotta residents who showed strong signs of repentance. It was because of this that Cliodna’s Clock had received an influx of new residents – about forty of them; they were stumbling, dazed, half-dead…most of them were murderers but there was no denying that they weren’t the same people they had been when they came to the Grotta. In a rare, cosmic turn of events, they had somehow lived to see the light of day again.

It was their second chance.

People had been disappearing with uncanny regularity since then. Every month, the clock crowed thirty-three times, always with a brief pause between seventeen and sixteen separate tolls. And in the morning, anywhere between one and four people had gone up in smoke, never to be seen or heard from again. Anne Marie found it lonely in recent months, especially after her own daughter Marlene had been one of their number to disappear.

It was a difficult thing to bear, losing your loved ones twice.

Fred Weasley had gone fairly recently. Everyone had expected him to go missing much earlier in the year, because everyone he was friends with had already disappeared, but he remained. He seemed quite unfazed about it, as well. He ignored all of the bizarre happenings in Cliodna’s Clock and entered the Devil’s Duel again when it came around in June, and remarkably won it again. When he returned after his twenty-four hour prize, neighbors buzzed that he seemed quite different upon his return. This wasn’t so very strange, though, because he’d acted very differently after sweeping his first Devil’s Duel win, as well. And then, three days after his return this past July, he vanished.

There was a knock at the door.

Anne Marie replaced her tea mug to the circular stain on the table, rising to her feet. She felt a strange stirring in her stomach even before she opened the door, wondering what she would see, if it was her turn.

Two teenagers stood on the doorstep. One was a boy, a very familiar boy – although he looked a bit older somehow, more filled out. His likeness had been painted in a portrait, hung up on the Wall of Lost Souls in the Town Hall. He’d lost the Devil’s Duel last year, and yet here he stood, whole and seemingly unscathed. “Hello, Mrs. McKinnon.”

Anne Marie clutched her chest, face paling. “Oh, my.”

“It’s all right,” the second teenager said in a soothing tone, reaching out to touch Anne Marie’s wrist. It was a girl. Her hair was pushed back under a black hood, enabling her to blend in with the night, and her large glasses reflected the silver light of Anne Marie’s table lamp. The older witch could feel the girl’s pulse – swift as a hummingbird’s – and only then did Mrs. McKinnon register the edge of panic that was slowly permeating her house. “If you don’t mind, though, this is a matter of urgency. You and your husband don’t have much time. If you wait too long to give us an answer, we’ll have no choice but to move on to the next house.”

“What – what are we doing?” Her voice trembled, the doorknob still rattling under her hand.

“Your daughter has invited you to join her,” Colin replied, eyes large and serious, “but we have to hurry.” He turned around, glancing down the street toward the depot. A lantern sitting on the depot's dock flickered to life, casting shimmering orange scales over the water.

“My daughter?” Anne Marie began to shake and sob. “Oh, God.” She leaned her weight against the door, threatening to collapse. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, God. I thought she was gone.”

“She is,” the girl told her matter-of-factly. “But whenever you leave one place, that means you have to go to another. That’s just logic. So, really, no one can ever truly be ‘gone’.”

Anne Marie’s eyes wandered up the stairs to the bedroom where her husband was peacefully sleeping. In a few hours’ time, he would be shuffling down the stairs to the kitchen, complaining about the weather, complaining about the late newspaper. But these complaints were halfhearted because he’d been a mess of a man ever since they’d woken one morning to find Marlene’s bed empty.

Gone.

 

*



Sixteen newspapers stacked up on the front porch of the McKinnon house before Odessa Waffling decided to pop her head in. She found the home completely deserted, not just in presence but in atmosphere. She could feel that the air hadn’t been tasted recently – hadn’t been breathed or moved around in. A mug of old tea sat on the kitchen table next to a still-lit lamp, stone-cold.



*



Somewhere out at sea, there is a floating photograph.

The picture is bright – snapped with its patrons standing just in front of the sun – but if you peer just a little bit closer, your eyes might slowly adjust to the brightness of someone’s teeth.

Those teeth would be followed by grinning lips and eyes squinting against the luminous day. You might be able to discern pale flesh-colored pigment amidst all the white that wasn’t quite there before, molding into arms and legs. Familiar red and gold clothing would then seal itself over top, right next to a vision of blue and bronze. Their arms are connected, holding hands.

Behind them, fading into view one by one, all of their friends begin to smile and wave; beckoning for you to join them.

You’re just in time,” they say.

 







The End!

So, just in case there’s any confusion: Fred switched places with George after he won the Devil’s Duel the first time around. This gave Fred another year on earth to be with his family – a gift from his brother – while George spent that year in Cliodna’s Clock. George then entered the races the following June and won, although I’ll leave it up to your imaginations to decide who lost. After George went back to earth for his 24 hour prize, the twins switched places again and when Fred came back, Colin and Orla retrieved him later for relocation to Witching.

Also, if you didn’t already connect the dots, the hatch that Colin lost his shoe in led to Earth circa the year 1970, and so the photograph Orla took and he placed in his shoe for safekeeping ended up in the sandbox in the park that Severus and Lily played in – which means that Orla snapped the picture that Severus kept all of his life.

I’d love to hear your feedback on what you thought of “Run” as a whole. Any favorite scenes? Favorite characters? Which round of the Devil’s Duel did you like the best? And of course, if you have any questions about the plot or characters that I haven’t answered, feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to clear it up! This story originated in my head as a four-chaptered short story about three boys sitting in a pub in the afterlife. That fluffy plot quickly snowballed into something I’m quite proud of and I’m so, so happy with the response Run has gotten. Thank you so much for reading! And I want to extend a special thanks to TenthWeasley/Rachel for being one of the most invaluable people in my life and for being my proverbial rock while I’m writing, unconditionally reading everything I write and providing feedback.

*Edited 11/28/12* If you'd like to see what the final round of the Devil's Duel would look like in two years from now, go read a story called "Don't Look Back" by TenthWeasley. It's an absolutely stellar Christmas present one-shot she wrote for me that takes place in the Run universe!

Also major thank you to WitnesstoitAll/Melissa, who is such a wonderful and supportive friend of mine and is just plain awesome in general, and of course thank you to each and every one of you who has stuck around long enough to read this sentence, and for nominating this story for Snitches and Dobbys.

On to the next grand adventure! ~

 


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