Chapter 1 : Departed Souls
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Only James knows about the ghosts.
The wizarding world is full of ghosts, and everyone can see those. Nearly Headless Nick and the Bloody Baron are shocking at first, but they’re easy to get used to, and by the time you’re a second year you don’t notice them so much. My ghosts are different, and there isn’t anything about them in any of the books in the library at Hogwarts. I spent most of my first year checking. I didn’t want to be different, or mad, or – God help me – both. I wanted an explanation for what was happening to me, what had always happened to me for as long as I can remember.
Mum chalks them up to bad dreams. Dad always thinks they’re results of stress. I don’t think Lily remembers that I’ve ever mentioned them, which is kind of unsurprising. But James believes; he couldn’t have shared a room for me for the past sixteen years and not believe, when they used to scare me enough to make me scream. He calls them memories, though, not ghosts, to distinguish the two. But I like the word “ghost.” That’s what they are to me: Imprints of departed souls.
They haunt me. They always haunt me. I suppose that makes them ghosts too.
I’m starting sixth year in a little over a week, and I know they get stronger when I’m at Hogwarts. But this summer, some of the ghosts are sticking around, not melding back into darkness and dreams like they’re supposed to. They flit at the corners of my eyes like wayward shadows when they think I’m not looking.
I’m scared to go back to school. I don’t want to find out what’s going to happen.
Dad’s mum is the first to appear this year. I wake up in the middle of the night, and at first I think that it’s the storm outside that woke me up; rain’s slamming against the tiny tower windows, wind throwing itself at the walls and finding a few cracks to slip through. But then I see her at the foot of my bed, cross-legged, watching me sleep, and I know better.
She still looks like her picture in Dad’s photo album, for the most part: Long red hair, green eyes. My ghosts aren’t pearl-white or floating like the normal ones; I can see colors and humanity in all of them, but in a faded and transparent way, like I’m looking through an echo. Their feet, when they walk, are firmly on the ground, even if they don’t leave footprints or the sounds of steps.
But there are two things different about her, things that I know she didn’t have until she died: The first is the large, spreading black mark on her chest, just where her heart would be, if she still had one that worked. It’s like charred paper, like a winter tree that’s spreading its branches over her skin. A burn. I have no idea how she got it; Avada Kedavra leaves no marks.
The second thing is a hunted, frightened look. It’s unnatural on her face, and I know it’s the expression she died wearing.
I sit up quietly in my four poster when I see that she’s there, propping myself against the headboard and wrapping my arms around my knees. I don’t make a sound; none of my roommates know that I can see these ghosts, and I don’t trust any of them enough to mention it. By the time I’d arrived at school, the ghosts were familiar enough to feel like friends, and none of the other sleepers get woken by the screaming.
At first, I think I know what she’ll do, and my pulse lessens somewhat, not thumping quite so insistently beneath my jawbone. Maybe nothing will be different this year, I think. Dad’s mother has lurked around all summer, coming and going just like the others, but that doesn’t mean things have to change now. Everything’s going to be normal.
And then she lifts her hand towards me, palm up, like she knows I’m looking at her. I have to lift my own hand and bite it – hard – so I will keep silent. Because my ghosts have never acted like they could see me. Not once. And I think, maybe she’s only moving, going through long-dead motions, but her eyes are locked on me.
And she looks so unbearably sad. This, too, is new; her expression has never changed. I didn’t know it could change.
She raises her hand and points above her, at the drapes over my bed, the ceiling, the sky, I don’t know. There is a connection there, she says without words, a connection between Albus Potter and whatever she is pointing at now. My ghosts can move, they can walk and sit and stand, but none of them have never moved like this.
I don’t sleep that night, even though classes begin the next day. And when the sun peeks over the horizon and lights the worn floorboards of our dormitory, she is still there, still watching me, still sad. She is there as I dress, and when I go down to breakfast, and she is watching me as I talk to the other Gryffindors and as I get my schedule from McGonagall and as I act like nothing’s wrong. And she is so sad.
If I knew what I could do to make her happy again, what would take that new expression from her face, what would make her leave me and pretend to be normal – I’d do it.
Dad’s mum is still sticking around, following me through all my classes and free periods, all my meals and study sessions and late-night games of Gobstones. I speak less and less because I don’t want her hearing what I’m saying. She still looks at me with large, sad eyes, and I know she’s looking at me, not through me. I know everyone thinks there’s something wrong with me. I don’t want to tell them about my ghosts. I don’t need everyone thinking I’m insane.
Rose draws me aside between Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts, just as I’m going back to the common room for a free period. She has the serious look she sometimes wears, something she got from Aunt Hermione, folded across her eyebrows, crinkling the skin at the corners of her eyes. She folds her arms across her chest.
“What’s with you, Al?”
“Nothing,” I mumble, looking down at my shoes instead of meeting her eyes. “I’m just tired.”
She clears her throat, and I chance a look up. Her eyes are blue, icy, unforgiving. “You always say that. You can’t constantly be tired. You spend nearly half your weekends in bed. We don’t see you before noon.” That was true; it was because I spent most of the nights staring at Lily, wishing she’d go back to wherever she came from.
There was something else I couldn’t tell Rose, too: Lily wasn’t alone anymore. Another one of the ghosts had started hovering around in the shadows, and it was a matter of time before it became more corporeal, too. I didn’t know who it was going to be this time. I hoped it wasn’t going to refuse to disappear, too.
“I’m fine,” I insist instead, injecting enough conviction in my voice that the lines of worry wrinkling my cousin’s forehead lessen slightly. “I just want good N.E.W.T.s next year.”
Rose shakes her head, but doesn’t say another word. She walks away without saying good-bye, and I see her catch Scorpius Malfoy by the elbow as she reaches the end of the corridor. She talks to him quietly for a moment, and they look back at me. The worried lines are back on her face.
I turn away from both of them and look out the window across from me, splattered with the first fine drops of an impending rainstorm. The clouded sky outside is so dark it could have been dusk; I can see my reflection in the mirror, face drawn, eyes dark, cheeks hollow. I press the tips of my fingers to my jaw, tugging at the skin to get it to look more like the me I remember.
Lily, my dad’s mother, appears next to me in the window, but I’m not afraid. The black spot on her chest stands out starkly against the leaded glass; the corners of her mouth are tipped down sorrowfully. She raises her palm to the ceiling, and just as she does so, the storm breaks.
Dad’s father James has come to stay by Lily, his wife, and now there are two ghosts that dog my footsteps to watch me eat and study and sleep. He has the same sad expression, the same mysterious spreading black burn that comes from nowhere. This time, it wraps its tendrils around his abdomen. When he stands next to his wife, the burns connect seamlessly, like two halves of a parchment drawing some cruel god has sketched in fire and allowed to smolder.
By the time the autumn rains and winds have firmly set into the castle, most of my free time is spent in the library, reading everything I can about ghosts and spirits and spells that cause black burns. I can’t find anything to diagnose, except myself.
I’ve written to James a couple of times, but I don’t tell him that my ghosts are sticking around. I don’t want to worry him.
My grades are slipping, and I feel like I can’t control them. The library is my obsession. I can’t see the point in nonverbal spells or turning animals into objects when I can’t sleep at night for the ghosts that pace the floors of the boys’ dormitory. It’s the first place I go when I’m not in class – I skip meals now, whenever I can avoid being cornered by Rose or Roxi or my sister – and it’s the last place I go before I’m kicked out, still reading as the doors close behind me.
I can’t find anything like what I’m seeing. Nobody else can see them, and as far as I can tell, nobody has ever seen their own version of them.
The only thing I still maintain is my Potions grade, but that hardly counts. Brewing potions has always come naturally enough to me that it’s hardly considered effort, and there is something soothing in the preciseness and tediousness of the art of it. There is perverse satisfaction to be found in knowing that just one extra porcupine quill, one extra drop of syrup of hellebore can turn an entire concoction into a worthless mess.
Professor Veratrum stands at the front of the class, nearly swallowed in shadows, to give us our instructions for today’s potion. I don’t need them; I’ve already flipped to the page she’s written on the chalkboard, running my finger down the list of ingredients, mentally preparing the quickest way to grab the ingredients from the cupboard so I won’t waste time preparing the potion. Her voice is a hum in the background of my brain.
“Make sure to heat your potion for exactly three minutes and thirty seconds,” she stresses. She flicks her wand, and the chalk in the tray rises up to underline the time in one thick mark. “This is one of the most important parts of the process. Your potion should be a nice, rich red by the time you reach the end of this step. If it’s still orange, you’ve done something wrong.”
I prop my chin on my fist and look at her through half-lowered eyelids, bored beyond words. At the edges of my eyes, my grandparents, Dad’s parents, hover around, looking at me and trying to get me to look back. I won’t. I’ve become adept at ignoring them, at pretending I can’t see things that others can’t either. Most of them have forgotten the strange looks I gave to thin air at the beginning of the year, which I’m glad for. I’ve fooled everyone into thinking I’m normal again.
There’s a scraping sound, and I realize she’s finished; the rest of the students are rising from behind their cauldrons, moving toward the stock cupboards. I’ll wait. And as I cast my eyes back down to the book, I notice for the first time the title of the potion we’d be attempting. My heart immediately starts hammering against my ribs.
Elixir of Liquid Fire. A potion meant to scorch and burn without the aid of wood, gas, or other fuels.
The stock cupboards are no longer my first priority. I’m up out of my seat, thumb pressed between the pages of the book to save my place, and I stand before the professor’s desk almost before I’m conscious my feet have taken me there. Professor Veratrum’s face is bathed in shadows, an occupational hazard of working in the dungeons. She looks up as I draw near and smiles pleasantly.
“Ah, Albus. Do you have any questions about the potion?” She says this wryly, like she’s joking, but I ignore that. I lay the book out in front of her and jab my finger at the title.
“What does this potion do?” I blurt out. She looks at me confusedly.
“Do? It’s liquid fire,” she says patiently.
“Could it burn – scorch, I mean – people?”
Now Professor Veratrum looks worried, almost like she thinks I’ve gone mad, and I’m inexplicably depressed that she’d think that; her opinion had always meant more to me than nearly anyone else’s. “It could,” she says slowly. She reaches out and draws the book toward her, taking a pair of spectacles from a drawer of her desk and pushing them up her nose. “It would leave a considerable mark on the skin, of course, just like real fire.”
My vision spins at her words, and I wrapped my fingers round the edge of her desk, looking down at the book. All I can see are the marks on my dad’s parents’ skin, the burn marks that spread like the gnarled branches of trees from one to the next. And I know. This has to be it.
The clock on my bedside tells me that it’s three in the morning, and it feels it; I can tell there’s been no sun in the castle for hours. The floors and walls are chilled with winter, and I shiver as I slip from my bed, throwing my cloak over my shoulders. They’re holding hands, their burns connecting. Elixir of Liquid Fire, I think, and a chill that has nothing to do with the temperature races up my spine and makes my skin tingle.
This is the first night in two weeks that I’ve been able to pick out to do this. Other nights the prefects have patrolled too close to Gryffindor Tower, or my brother was up too late doing his homework for me to sneak around him, or my ghosts have kept me trapped on the bed like a prisoner. Tonight, they part and allow me to slip between them, down the tightly-winding spiral stairs and into the emptiness of the common room. The fire in the grate is barely alive anymore, little more than faint red memories of embers.
I wasn’t allowed to keep a sample of the elixir when we made it in class, and even if I had asked, Professor Veratrum would no doubt have found it suspicious. I thought she must have been watching me closely anyway, after my reaction once she’d told me what the potion did in the first place. The only other option left to me was to sneak down into the dungeons when no one was around and recreate it for myself. I can’t say why I need it – but knowing what it does isn’t enough. I must possess it.
The corridors and stairwells are silent and looming, but completely deserted of life. I am like one of its shadows myself, the three of us slipping further and further down: Dad’s parents and me, like I am one of them, another ghost no one can see. The further I get into the bowels of the castle, the more I begin to believe that I am a ghost. It is a weirdly exciting thing to be.
The dungeons are no different from the rest of the castle in that they are just as oppressively quiet, unless it is that they are also darker. Most of the torches here burn out more quickly than in other parts of the castle, because the air here is slightly harder to come by, and all the ones I passed have long since been reduced to blackened nubs in their brackets. If I listen closely, can I hear their hissing, the fuel that longs for energy but has none? I am a shadow, I am a figment of someone else’s imagination, I am no longer Albus Severus Potter as I make my way to the dungeon room and slip inside. I feel detached from this world, ethereal and fleeting, and more shivers trickle and zip up my spine.
My ghosts stand sentry at the door to the classroom, and I am almost sad they do not come into the room with me. After all these months in the continued presence of these imprints, I miss them even across the way. They have become that much a part of me, and though in a distant way I know that should frighten me, it doesn’t.
I keep the potion with me at all times now, secreted away in an inner pocket of my robes. I didn’t need much – only a small phial’s worth, one hardly larger than the width of my little finger and only slightly longer. I still don’t know why I’ve kept it at all, but I have to find out if it’s what’s caused the strange burns on the memories of my dad’s parents.
They are connected all the time now, and Lily’s free hand is nearly always pointing upward. They both still look at me with that sad, unreadable gaze, and now it only frustrates instead of frightens. I want to know what it means, and why they’re here for me, and what I’m expected to do; it’s become clear that they want something. There is a reason only I can see them – there has to be. And I must find out what.
It wouldn’t seem so pressing if another ghost hadn’t appeared.
The morning after I snuck down to the dungeons and made the potion, I awoke and my dad’s parents were joined by someone else. It was a memory I could only remember seeing a few times before, but I knew him at once. I bear half of his name. He was watching me from between curtains of dark hair, his dark eyes heavier than my grandparents’. Severus Snape’s arm was twined with patterns of burns exactly like those on the others. When he bends his elbow, it joins with James’s own burn.
The mark ends with him. There is no connection on his side. I do not know what that means.
My mother is worried about me. I think James must have written to her and told her something – I can’t imagine what – because every morning at breakfast there is the family owl, dropping letters into my tea and studying me imperiously. She asks if I’m eating enough, if I’m getting enough sleep, how stressful my classes are, and I have stopped writing her back. I am fine, I think indignantly, and then shred the letter into bits and stir the pieces into the ketchup so I won’t have to look at them anymore. She doesn’t need to worry about me.
I think I have found out what I need to do. I’m not scared. All along, these ghosts have been telling me, and I’ve been too stupid or too distracted or too busy to listen. Am I imagining that my grandparents look happier now that I know what I’m doing?
I am not afraid. I am just relieved. They will understand.
9 December 2022
James and Lily and Snape stand shoulder to shoulder at the end of my bed; they are the only ones in the dormitory. Everyone else is in the common room or the library, cramming for the midterm exams that are approaching faster than they’d like, or else drowning their sorrows in butterbeer still lying around from whoever snuck it in during the last Hogsmeade weekend. It is me, tucked into my bed, the sheets folded around my legs, and my ghosts.
In my palm, cork already neatly placed on my bedside table, is the vial of Elixir of Liquid Fire. It looks it, too, glinting different shades of red and orange and yellow – autumn in a bottle – as it catches the light from the window. The sun is almost down, and before too long, my roommates will come back up here, and I don’t want to run out of time when I’ve already planned so extensively for this exact moment.
I know exactly what the potion will do, even before I use it. My eyes rove over the living memories in front of me, and for the first time, I focus more on their burns than on their faces. The way they are standing, the way their burns move across their non-bodies, I think I see my name in the charring of their flesh. They have been preparing for me all these months – even years.
For just an instant, I am sad. Not because I know what’s coming, but because my family doesn’t. They will think I am sad and that is why I did it, and it’s not that at all. I was always meant to do this. I was gifted with these ghosts, these memories; it is not something that I chose. I think of my brother James, and how he was always the only one who took my ghosts seriously. In time, I think he will get it, and maybe then he can help the rest of them to understand too.
I look down at the potion in my hand, and then back up. I lift the phial to my lips.
I swallow the elixir.
For a minute, there is nothing, and then my entire body burns – just like it’s on fire, but I can’t see any flames. For the quickest, most fleeting second, I think I have guessed wrong, but then my hands start to hiss, and I raise my palms. In the center of each one, the skin is tingling, and twisting, and turning black, and as I watch, two perfect heart-shapes are burned into my hands.
Even as I smile, they are gone, spiraling out and working their way up my arms, but I am glad I saw them before I am gone. My ghosts are watching me, and as I turn my eyes from my hands, their own hands – unmarked by burns, not like mine – are all lifted up, pointing at the ceiling. Then they disappear.
I will join them. It was always what I was meant to do.
A/N: Happy birthday, Sarah! I know you had expressed interest in memory!Albus, and I didn't want to abandon it; writing it for you was a natural way to make myself sit down and see it through. I apologize for how dark this came out, because holy wow, it was not intentional, but you know me and my crazies. We are peas in a pod. ♥ Consider this a small token of my appreciation and gratitude for your always sticking through me even when I (frequently) am hard on myself! I love you!
Additional thanks are due to alicia and anne, who read through this and made sure I didn't do anything in this story that the powers that be would disapprove of. And if you've also read this and happen to not be Sarah (who should know my thanks to her are unending as always), thank you for reading!