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Chapter 2 : Truth is This
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The Old Rectory always did its utmost to look like it had fallen out of a postcard. In autumn the house preened, limestone walls in dazzling contrast to the opal shades of dying leaves. The season’s Midas touch turned summer’s green to shimmering gold, and the view from Rose’s old bedroom window of the back garden was like staring into a Gringotts vault.
But she couldn’t care about the view at the best of times, and right now she wasn’t even going to pretend. She had to deal with her father.
‘Eight months!’ he was saying, stood in her door with his arms folded across his chest. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit soon?’
She unfolded another box, spellotaped it together, removed her cat Artemis upon her immediate lunge into said box, and looked at her bookshelf. There was a lot on those shelves she would never read again, but she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away. Even if they might as well have belonged to someone else. ‘If you count how long we were together the first time,’ she said, stacking dusty volumes, ‘it’s about a year. How long were you and Mum a couple before you moved in together?’
Ron Weasley scowled. ‘Four years. Ha.’
Damn. ‘That’s only because you had a bachelor pad with Harry. And I’m pretty sure parental disapproval shouldn’t deliver its victorious blows with smug laughter.’ He looked guilty, the way he did when she implied he was being a bad father, and shame flooded through her. Thankfully, Artemis was back in the box, so she could hide her expression behind the extraction of an indignant cat.
‘I’m just looking out for you, Rosie. I know nothing’s been normal. And I’m not really worried about it being too fast, I know you’ve known Matt for years and if it’s right, it’s right.’ She didn’t want to point out that this advice from a man who’d married his first and only love was not particularly well-informed, but then he’d sat on the bed, hands clasped before him, and she couldn’t bring herself to be any more sarcastic. ‘But nothing about this is simple.’
Artemis was dropped. ‘Why does everything have to come back to Scorpius? It’s been over two years -’
‘And you still miss him,’ Ron said, voice level. ‘And it still keeps you up at night. And it’s still changed you. I remember when my little girl used to laugh.’
She stood. ‘I’m not a little girl any more. I haven’t been a little girl since long before Scorpius died. And I’m a graduate of Hogwarts, I’m a Gringotts Curse Breaker, I’m nineteen. You weren’t a kid when you were nineteen.’
‘I suppose it doesn’t count for much if I say that I’d wanted something different for you.’
Rose wilted at the creasing in the corners of her father’s eyes. ‘I’m sorry the world didn’t work out that way, Dad.’
He stood and crossed the bedroom to wrap large hands around her shoulders. ‘I want you to be happy. I wouldn’t care if you’d known Matt five minutes if he made you happy, really happy. I just don’t want to see things go sour for you.’
‘Matt doesn’t hurt me. He won’t, he couldn’t.’
Ron watched her for a moment, blue eyes trying to pierce her masks, but people who knew her better than he had tried and failed to breach her defences. ‘I sometimes wonder if that’s the problem.’
It was more astute than she was comfortable with, and so she pulled away, turned to the wardrobe. Artemis followed, keen at the prospect of invading dusty corners. ‘I’m not leaving because of you or Mum. I want my own space, Dad, you can get that?’
‘I get that. It’s just a father’s job to worry.’
‘If you’re going to worry,’ she said, rifling through old clothes she’d never got around to throwing out, ‘worry about international terrorists.’
‘That’s my other job. But when they’re coming for you, I take my work home. I’m still looking into this Castagnary fellow.’
‘Raskoph is a loon. An intelligent, diabolical, dangerous loon, but he’s a loon nevertheless, and he’ll take any bid for power he can get. Gringotts has had dozens of run-ins with Thornweavers competing for old magical artifacts, either for their powers or the money they can make as a result. He wasn’t chasing us because it was Matt and me; I bet Raskoph doesn’t bloody care about the remainder of the Hogwarts Five. But he’d love anything he could get out of Ranisonb’s tomb, and Castagnary’s like a dog doing tricks for his master. He’s amateur league.’
‘I don’t care if he’s the Chudley Cannons of Thornweavers, he’s still been coming after you.’
Rose gave her father a suspicious look. ‘Did you just concede the Cannons are terrible?’
‘I’m that determined to make a point, yes.’ Ron nodded sombrely. ‘Though if I ever hear you say anything like that ever again, I’m disowning you.’
She sighed, and started to toss clothes out of the wardrobe and into a box. She could sort them on the other side. ‘I’m careful, Dad. I’m always careful. Even you would struggle to get through my security wards.’
‘I promise I won’t stage a fake break-in at your new house to test this and make sure you’re taking safety seriously.’
‘Thank you,’ said Rose, ‘for not being a complete freak of nature.’ She bit her lip. ‘Is there any news about Albus?’
Ron flinched at the change of topics. ‘The same as usual. Reports a few weeks old; if Harry chases them up, he’s long gone. He was in the Azores last we heard. Mermaids haranguing ships.’
‘How’re Harry and Ginny?’
‘Tense. Worried. Harry keeps busy, and there’s always Council activity to deal with. Even if it’s quietening down.’ Ron shrugged. ‘It sounds like Al’s okay, but he’s still gone, and after this long… I mean, everyone thought he would be back by now.’ He shifted his feet. ‘They don’t say it. But they wonder if he’d speak to you -’
‘I’d have to find him,’ Rose said quickly. ‘And if Harry can’t find him, how am I supposed to? Besides, he won’t talk to me.’
‘You both -’
‘No. What’s going on with Al is different.’ I think. ‘And I can’t begin to unravel it. Only he can sort this out, Dad. And he will.’
‘After two years?’
‘Time heals all injuries,’ said Rose, and proved the world had a sense of irony when she reached to haul Artemis out of the wardrobe and instead pulled out the green knitted jumper.
Colour drained from the world once more, reverting faded shades to cold, stark black and white, and for a long moment she could only stand there, blood rushing in her ears, heart clawing its way out of her chest to scream and gnash its teeth and tear the world asunder.
I’ll come back every time -
She shoved the jumper back in the wardrobe, expressionless, and prayed her father, the professional Auror, hadn’t spotted this. ‘What’s the news on Raskoph?’
Ron took so long to answer that she knew he’d seen. ‘Brazil, still. He’s got full control of the Council of Thorns, though these internal power-plays have gutted the organisation. It’s like they’re eating their young, vying for power so wildly they’ll kill themselves. They’ve lost so many big names that there’s nobody to compete with Raskoph any more.’
‘It’s not just internal power-plays, though, is it.’ Rose closed the wardrobe slowly, deliberately, and stared at it until grey turned to sepia to faded mahogany. At her feet, Artemis looked up, whiskers dusty, but she couldn’t bring herself to scold the cat for her irksome explorations. ‘It’s Prometheus Thane.’
‘We don’t know that Prometheus Thane isn’t working on Raskoph’s orders -’
‘He tried to kill Raskoph in April. I saw those reports, Dad. I don’t know what that man’s up to these days, but he’s been murdering his way through some of the biggest names of the Council of Thorns, and Raskoph was almost on that list.’
Ron sighed. ‘It is the opinion of the Auror Office and the IMC that Prometheus Thane has gone rogue, yes. He gutted the higher echelons of the Council, and it looks like it was only dumb luck that saved Raskoph in Panama. Then again, he also killed Romano Vida in May, so he’s clearly not on our side if he’s going to target major faces in the IMC. We’re still treating him as just as much of a threat as the Council.’
‘No, you’re not.’ She turned to face him, and by now her chest was still and silent, the howling only an echo. ‘You’re not going to pour as many resources into hunting him down so long as he’s doing your job for you and fighting the Council.’
‘Don’t say “you” like that,’ Ron admonished. ‘Thane’s not been spotted in Britain since Phlegethon. The Auror Office has nothing to do with hunting him. Hell, the IMC doesn’t have anything to do with hunting him any more. Believe it or not, Rose, things are starting to return to normal. Lillian Rourke’s talking about disbanding the IMC come the year’s end if things continue in this vein. The International Magical Convocation’s become nothing more than a means of governmental liaising, and at this stage it’s better if it’s the law enforcement bodies coordinate than legislative branches.’
‘So we’ll let Thane run riot? Let Raskoph warp South America -’
‘We will not,’ said Ron. ‘But my entire job, your mother’s entire job, the entire Ministry, has spent the better part of three years with one focus: fighting the Council of Thorns. The security legislation, the extensions of Enforcer and Auror authority, the restrictions on international trade and travel - that’s not as necessary any more. The Council of Thorns will be brought down and brought to justice, but we can manage to not live and breathe them in everything every government in the world does.’
Her shoulders sagged as his words thudded into her, and she hid her expression by setting about closing and labelling every one of the boxes now littering her old bedroom.
Ron watched her, and gave a guilty sigh. ‘I’m sorry, Rosie. I don’t mean to snap. But the world’s moving on.’
‘I know it is,’ she said. ‘And I’m trying to, too, but you’re questioning that!’
For a moment he didn’t say anything, and she heard the shuffle of his feet. ‘Your boss was pleased about Egypt?’
‘In so far as a goblin can be. Yes. We’ve got a few weeks off, but Matt’s putting in the request for us to get our own team. I think Griznak’s going to go for it.’
‘Good. We’re really proud of you, you know, Rosie.’ Her father sounded gruff, awkward, like he always did when he was trying to be affectionate and wasn’t sure if he was being overbearing. ‘And I know I fuss, but I’m your father, I’m supposed to. If you’re good in your work, and if Matt makes you happy, then I’m not going to question that. I’ll support you, whatever you do. And I’m glad your job’s giving you these weeks off in Britain. Victoire really wants everyone together for the wedding. It’s been too long.’
‘And I’m looking forward to it. Really. I’ve not seen Victoire in - God knows how long.’
Ron brightened at that. ‘Then come to Sunday lunch at your grandmother’s. She and Teddy will be there, and Harry and Ginny, and I so said we’d come - I bet they’d love to see you. Bring Matt. Scare him with the wider family.’
‘Grandma is the least scary wider family imaginable.’
‘Yeah, I know. It’ll lull him into a false sense of security so I can corner him.’ Her father grinned toothily, and she couldn’t help but return the smile, even if the reflection lost power. ‘It’s the least I can do if he’s trying to sweep my little girl away to some sordid pad of depravity.’
‘It’s Cambridge, Dad.’
‘Fine. Some swanky pad of depravity.’
She had to laugh, because her father could always make her laugh, and that brought colour creeping back into the world, even though her gaze kept flickering back to the wardrobe in which sat, shoved to the back of the closet like it was shoved to the back of her mind, the knitted green jumper.
‘If there is anything more we can do -’
‘No. Thank you. All has been good.’ They both spoke Russian, and neither of them very well, because the Elder’s Russian was better than his English and Albus spoke absolutely no Polish. ‘You have been very kind.’
The corners of the Elder’s eyes creased, and he shook his head. ‘You were here before the government was. More would have died without you. Food and somewhere to stay is yours, for as long as you need.’
‘Thank you,’ Albus said again, because it was one of the phrases he could pronounce with any reliability, and because he wasn’t sure what else to say. It had been three days since James’s visit, and he had yet to leave the village magically hidden in the depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest. Normally he didn’t linger so long after a job. Normally he did what he came to do, rested as long as he needed to recover from injuries, and then moved on. Else the gratitude of the locals would feel too much like making roots. ‘But it is time for me to go.’
The Elder inclined his head, and cold autumn sun shone through the single-paned window to paint his grey hair silver. Albus had paid for this room in the inn for the first two nights, even if it was a prison of cold, creaking wooden boards. Once he’d hunted down the first feral werewolf, the innkeeper had tried to refund him; Albus had refused that, but he’d accepted free board so long as he was doing the village the service it needed. Scorpius’ money remained abundant but wouldn’t last him forever. Still, he’d only take these kinds of offers so long as he was doing something to earn his keep. Now he was threatening to out-stay his welcome.
‘Where will you go?’ said the Elder at last, and Albus winced.
‘South, I think,’ he blurted, and paused to gather his words. ‘I will go to Africa. Starting at Turkey.’ Rose is in Egypt, he remembered, and resolved to not go to Egypt.
‘There is need of you?’
Albus looked to the window, to the depths of the Polish forest that sprawled with darker and deeper horrors than even he’d expected to see. Rural eastern Europe was no easy place for witches and wizards to live. He understood why the villagers took precautions to protect themselves which made Diagon Alley look like it was on the main London maps. ‘There will be work. There is always work.’
The Elder crossed the room to grasp his hand, part-clasp, part-shake. ‘You are always welcome here, Albus Potter. You always have a place here.’
I have a place nowhere. But he shook the Elder’s hand with both of his, forced a smile, and said, ‘Thank you.’ Because it was the easiest thing to say.
The Elder left, ostensibly so he could get on with his packing. Albus had spent the last two years living out of the battered leather rucksack he’d picked up in Montenegro, and he wasn’t Rose. He could only magically expand it a little. It was still big enough to contain all of his worldly belongings; the battered and heavy clothes which provided protection as much as warmth, the smattering of books on magic, monsters, and rituals which came in handy in his line of work, the few pieces of equipment to augment his magic. The road was no place for a full set of luggage.
He was already packed, but instead of leaving he crossed to the window, draughty with the cool autumn breeze dragging itself through the cracks, and in the mid-morning sun he for the umpteenth time read the wedding invitation.
It was just a wedding invitation. They were never long and they were rarely personal, and this one was not. The calligraphy was perfect, though, and that said as much as Albus needed to know. This was no contrivance, no trick from James. Maybe Victoire had known and maybe she hadn’t, but Teddy at least had sat down when the invitations were arranged and made sure there was one made just for him. The unwritten message was as plain as the ink.
Albus sighed and shoved the envelope back inside his leather jacket. ‘I’m sorry,’ he breathed, and jumped with an instinct that had his wand in his hand and levelled at the door when there was a knock. It took him a moment to slow his breathing, to slip his wand up his sleeve in case he’d still need it. ‘Come in.’
The innkeeper, at least, spoke English, and wore an apologetic expression. ‘I’m sorry, Mister Potter. But there is a visitor for you.’
Albus’ expression pinched. ‘The same man as before?’
‘No. Another. My height, red hair.’
That narrows it down exactly not at all. He sighed. ‘That was inevitable. Send him up, please.’
He was expecting a cousin, though he wasn’t sure which one. The innkeeper was too short for it to be Uncle Ron, who was the most likely person after his father to come to drag him back by the ankles; Ron would at least do it with an apology and a smile.
Uncle George was not the last person Albus expected to walk through the door. But Uncle George wasn’t someone he ever really thought about. He ducked into the gloomy, dusty bedroom, shoved his hands in his pockets, and gave that half-smile Albus recognised from James sometimes. ‘Hullo, Al.’
‘What’re you doing here?’ Albus blurted before he could stop himself.
‘A fine welcome. Top manners. Your mother would box your ears.’ But George’s voice was light, airy as he wandered in and shut the door behind him without invitation. ‘Jim told me. Good lad, Jim. Conscientious.’
Albus gritted his teeth. ‘He said he wasn’t going to tell Mum and Dad.’
‘And he didn’t. Like I said, conscientious lad. But you know, he’s become a bit of a suck-up the last couple years. He always used to be up for a laugh. Now he runs around like he’s got to be all responsible. I think your dad’s finally getting to him.’ George looked about the room, and in the end settled for perching himself on the edge of the creaky bed. His jacket was worn, his boots muddy. He had to have taken the long hike to find the bridge. ‘This is a nice place. I can see why you’ve stayed.’
‘I’ve only been here a week or two. I’m not staying.’
‘Oh, the life of an international man of mystery never can wait. I take it you’re not back to Blighty, though?’
Albus leaned against the window-frame. ‘There’s nothing for me there.’
‘No, you’re right.’ George clicked his fingers. ‘Just your family. Who miss you. My sister, who’s terribly upset. Your dad, who’s been running around like a bear with a bad head, and while that’s made him a right terror against the Council of Thorns, that’s not fun and games for the Potter household.’
‘My family has never been the picture of sweetness and light everyone, from the Weasleys to the Daily Prophet, likes to pretend it is. I’m not responsible for everyone’s damage.’
‘You’re not. I think they’re responsible for your damage, actually. It’s what your family does when there’s trouble. You cut and run and you go to other people, instead of sticking together.’ George reached into his coat and rustled about the pockets before he pulled out a packet. ‘Boiled sweet?’
‘What? No. Why’re you here?’
‘To see you. I don’t tromp around the forests of Poland for my health. I hear there are feral werewolves out here. Terrible business.’ George unwrapped a sweet noisily, and looked him up and down. ‘I see it’s done wonders for your health. You’ve got muscles on top of muscles now. Though you forgot how to shave and your hair’s a mess. I don’t care, me, I’m just saving you a right telling off from your mum.’
‘Would tell you to stop dressing so shabby and to get cleaned up. Your Gran would have a fit; you’re lucky Ginny grew up with Fred and me, or she’d have ended up just as wound up as her.’
Albus exhaled slowly. He’d never known how to handle Uncle George. The Weasley family had forever seen a strong divide between the serious-minded and the pranksters, and the latter was both larger and more united. George was their commander-in-chief, so he’d always had a closer bond with James, with Lily and Hugo, with his son Freddie. He’d never been cruel, had always been good-natured in his jokes and his mockery and never pushed it too far, but all Albus had known to do for years was just laugh along. Not join in or joke back.
Of all his family, George was the one who had least reason to come for him.
‘I’m not going to the wedding,’ said Albus. ‘Aside from anything else, I don’t want to distract from the day by showing up and causing a calamity.’
‘Poppycock.’ George popped a sweet in his mouth. ‘That’s a good word. I should use it more often. Teddy and Victoire would be pleased as punch if their wedding was punctuated with the calamity of your return. And even if they weren’t, you’ve got weeks until the wedding. You could come home sooner and get all of that drama over and done with. So nobody’s going to gasp and fall over when you walk in at the ceremony, as they’re supposed to do that at the bride.’
‘It’s not a -’
‘The only reason you’re staying away, Al, is you.’ George stabbed a finger at him, gaze sobering. ‘Your fear, your hurt. Not for other people. And that’s fine, but don’t act like you’re martyring yourself by staying away. They want you back far, far more than they’re angry at you. They’re angry because they’re afraid and because they’re upset, and even if they do yell, they’ll probably burst into tears and hug you halfway through.’
Albus looked away, back to the sprawling dark forests beyond the village outskirts. A man could lose himself in those forests, he thought. Run with the wolves for a time.
It was tempting.
When he returned his gaze to George, his uncle’s expression was firm, hard, though the effect was ruined a little by his voracious sucking on the boiled sweet. ‘Why did you come here?’
‘To see -’
‘Why did you come? Why did James tell you? Why not Ron, or Bill?’
George paused at that, breaking the silence by crunching on and swallowing the boiled sweet. ‘I was enjoying that,’ he muttered, but his gaze sobered. Apparently this answer was too important for sweets. ‘James came to me because out of everyone, I’m the one who understands what you’re going through.’
Albus frowned. ‘I don’t -’
‘Fred was my brother. My twin. The other half of me.’ George stood, and then he wasn’t the funny uncle who owned a joke shop and always gave the best Christmas presents and seemed to like Al’s wittier, more light-hearted siblings more. He was a grieving man with war-wounds as rough and raw as they’d been twenty-five years ago. ‘We did everything together. Opened a business together. Made every joke together. Losing him was like losing a part of myself.’
Albus dropped his gaze. ‘Scorpius wasn’t my brother.’
‘Yes, he was. Because there are brothers and there are brothers. I love Percy, but he’s no Fred, and that’s a terrible thing to say but it’s true and I’m not ashamed of it.’ George padded across the creaking room to join him slumped against the window. ‘You take after your father, but in the ways which make you a pain in the arse. I know you struggled to find your place. James was the poster-child for the new generation. Full of hope and humour. But you walked around like you had the burdens of the bloody world on you, even when you were eleven, and it didn’t help that you were a terrible twosome with Rose, who was the fussiest child I ever met. And I know that cut you off from the rest of the family.’
‘I love James.’
‘And I love Percy, but you’ve seen us at Sunday lunches.’ George shook his head. ‘You should have seen Ron when your first letters from Hogwarts came and you gushed about your new friend Scorpius. I mean, he was fine, but he plays up how much of a big deal it is, and I think he was being melodramatic to wind your dad up. Harry, of course, fussed about it. But I, and all of them, saw a different kid come back for those first Christmas holidays.’
Albus frowned. ‘You did?’
‘You had a place. A best friend who was all yours, not part of this wider family, not part of our baggage and our craziness.’ George shrugged. ‘Sorry. I might be the joker, but you know what divides a good joker from a great joker? Knowing how to read people. A joker who’s only amusing himself becomes obnoxious. A joker who knows his audience will become astonishing.’
Albus ducked his head. ‘You lost your brother, your twin. I don’t -’
‘There’s no competition on grief.’ George punched him on the shoulder. ‘There’s no entitlement. You lost your best mate, and Rose lost her boyfriend, and Draco Malfoy lost a son, and I care about two of those three people. I don’t know how to help Rose.’
‘But you know how to help me?’
George hesitated. ‘There are no magic words. You will miss him. Rose will move on; she will love new people and marry some toff and she’ll always hear his jokes at the back of her mind, but it’ll be different. You’ve lost a part of you, and you will miss him every fucking day, until it chokes and drowns you and you think you’ll die, but you know what? You don’t die.’
Albus slumped. ‘I know I don’t die.’
‘And I bet that running across the world doesn’t make you choke less.’
‘It doesn’t -’ It means I don’t have to face the people I failed.
‘There was only one thing I found which worked,’ said George in a low, sombre voice. ‘Living. And family. I wasn’t the only one grieving. Mum and Dad and all my siblings and Angelina - maybe I was the centre of that storm, but we were all caught in it. We didn’t get better. When you lose a leg, the leg doesn’t grow back. But you maybe get a peg-leg and it’s pretty shit but you learn how to hobble around, and sometimes you can dress up like a pirate and have a good laugh.’
‘It’s not -’ Albus stopped, then the words tore up his throat. ‘It’s more complicated, George, it’s not just that I lost him, I got him killed -’
George’s hand clasped his shoulder. ‘The Council of Thorns got him killed -’
‘No, no, you don’t understand, nobody gets it, they found us because I trusted her and he wouldn’t be dead if I hadn’t been such a stupid, useless -’
‘Hey!’ Both hands came up, and now there was none of the joker in George’s eyes or demeanour, but the harsh, firm voice of a survivor. ‘They did it. Not you. You were his friend, you were his brother. And you can survive this, but hiding out here doesn’t make it better, and I can promise you - I can bet you the next ten years of my profits - that your parents want to see you way, way more than they want to be angry with you.’ Albus hesitated, and a small smile tugged at George’s lips. ‘If James can get over being jealous of you enough to beg you to come back, I think your parents can forgive you. You didn’t do this, Al. The Council did this. But the more this goes on, the more this is you hurting everyone. Including yourself.’
Albus couldn’t meet his eyes. ‘What the hell am I supposed to do? Just walk up to the door and knock?’
And pretend like it’s not my fault, like I didn’t as good as kill him, like my stupid sense of honour didn’t hand him over to the Council and sign his death warrant…
‘Yeah,’ said Uncle George, and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘It’s easy. I’ll even give you a good knock-knock joke.’
A/N: The Białowieża Forest is a real place (like, my Polish is so non-existent I would not make up that name). It spans the borders of Poland and Belarus and is one of the largest ancient woodlands in Europe. I figured somewhere that vast and undisturbed would make for a pretty logical place for magical settlement, especially for the stereotypical ‘things which go bump in the night in Eastern Europe’ sort of environment.
I feel lost and forlorn without my lengthy, self-indulgent Author’s Notes on my butchery of history. It’s like we don’t talk any more, guys. Er, I promise we get Selena next chapter? Will that do?