Blood of Birds

Note: Hi! The following is a 2nd generation Harry Potter fanfiction, with main characters being Rose Weasley, Scorpius Malfoy, and Albus Potter. It will be comprised of four parts, the first of which will follow Rose. There will also be seven one-shots (or side-alongs) following other characters at points throughout the series, each uploaded separately. I've also taken the liberty to include a few re-quotes, courtesy of JK Rowling and Steve Kloves of course, to pay homage to the original books and films. So without further ado, here is Chapter 1. Happy reading!

~ Lauren

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43. Black Hawk Returns

39 – Black Hawk Returns

There had been a short period of Al's life, sometime between the ages of three and seven, when he'd been obsessed with laying his eyes on a real, honest, breathing phoenix. All children of wizarding families were told stories of magical creatures when they were young – the girls liked the ones about mermaids and unicorns, the boys about werewolves and dragons. Most of those creatures tended to scare Albus because of the way his older brother would impersonate them when jumping on him after hiding in a corner somewhere, but the one sort of animal Al had never feared were birds. Perhaps that was because most birds were innocent, small, and free. Even the predatory ones weren't very frightening, thanks to their human-like eyes, which was exactly why Al had searched so religiously for the phoenix. It wasn't because of the bird's beauty or mystery; it wasn't even because of its immortality. It was because a phoenix could cry.

Now, however so many years later, when Albus was a full-grown seventeen year-old wizard, he suddenly found himself looking for a phoenix. He saw one rising up in the mixture of fire and smoke that surrounded him. The smoke was the ash encircling the ice of the Black Lake, and the fire was coming from a nearby dragon that was writhed over in pain. The people who were running toward the ice were all dressed in black, their clothing beginning to meld with the slowly darkening sky, but the speckles of blood that covered them were the bird's wings. Those wings were flapping in wave-like motions against the shores that were as still as Al. He was the phoenix's beating heart, his breathing keeping a time that seemed unnaturally slower than everyone else's, maybe because it was connected to another heart that was barely beating at all.

It was the cold wind – coming from the ice or from Ilana, he would never know – that brought Al back to his senses. Suddenly, his vision of the phoenix disappeared, his heart started racing like it should have been before, and time sped up so that it was going twice as quickly as it usually did just to make up for when it had slowed down. Al was yelling at the Forbidden Flock to stop in their tracks, though he didn't actually hear his voice say anything, and then his feet were dragging his body to the shoreline, where another body had painted the sand a brilliant red that would soon turn brown, where that same body had been laid across a layer of ice that would soon be melted, and where that same body had been hit by a curse that would soon be fulfilled.

"EXPELLIARMUS!" yelled a male voice that made Al's ears ring like they'd just heard three consecutive blasts of thunder. His wand flew from his hand almost willingly, for Al didn't really care who was taking it or where it would land. He was more concerned on where he would land, which turned out to be a patch of miraculously clean snow beside the miraculous girl he thought he'd never see again.

Ilana remained silent as Al took in the sight of James and his manifold scars that were still opening up across his chest and arms and face, but Al could feel her eyes on him. They felt like arrows puncturing every bit of his skin, and oddly enough, they made him feel better. He knew that he deserved every last one of them.

The worst daggers of all came from James's eyes, which were the only parts of him yet to be tarnished. When Al looked at them, he wondered for a moment if James was already gone, because his pupils were so small that they could barely be seen and his blinking was so weak that his eyelashes barely vibrated. All this was the opposite of what Al's eyes were doing, with their constant dilating and crinkling and watering. Al's eyes were the blowing leaves on James's steady trunk, and they would survive on their branches even after the trunk's death but would die themselves if they fell to the floor.

Al still hadn't said anything, but if there was any hope that James could hear him, he had to get the next words out of his mouth. "I didn't – I – I didn't see you. I didn't mean it, not – not this time. Not this. Never this." With every sentence, maybe even every word, his breathing hitched like it was threatening to forever disappear.

He didn't realize how tense he'd become until he banged his closed fist into the snow, where it made contact with the ice, and then felt the freezing water seep into its fingers. Just like Ilana's glaring eyes, though, the pain was almost comforting, because at least it let Al know that he could still feel.

"Al, I think he's-" Scorpius tried to say from his spot on the other side of James's body, but he was interrupted by a croaking voice that was just as difficult to believe as it was to understand.

"Nnnooo. Is o... kay." The final syllable had been made with a clacking of James's tongue against the top of his mouth, and a groan came after as if even that amount of pressure was painful.

Realizing this made Al completely break down, the veins in his neck throbbing like a swelling fire and his chest rising and falling so tremendously that the simple act of breathing cracked one of his ribs. Soon, spit and tears were flooding out of every orifice on his face, and, as if succumbed to waterboarding, he started to feel like he'd drowned in his very own sea. It took all the energy he had left to exhale with sounds that were even slightly comprehensible, "I'm. Sa. Ree. So. Sa. Ree."

Then, because he couldn't hold himself up any longer, Al let his spine curl over until his body formed a complete circle and his sweaty, soot-stained forehead was leaning against James's bloody one. His own hands were still buried in the cold snow where they were starting to turn various shades of violet, but soon James's hands had moved from his sides to the back of Al's head, his fingers grabbing hold of Al's black hair as his wrist dug into Al's scalp. At first, Al wondered if James was trying to kill him too, and if he was then surely Al would let him, but then he felt the grip on his head loosen and tighten over and over again and he knew that James wasn't trying to hurt him at all. He was trying to hold on.

"Is o... kay," he repeated, and this time Al believed him.

In response to his fight, Al told his brother, "You're the bravest man I've ever known."

"Yeah," James tried to laugh, but he stopped himself when blood trickled out of his mouth. At this point, he and Al were breathing at very different rates, almost as if the harder it became for James to take in any air, the more Al tried to breathe for the both of them. So, as Al heaved warmth onto James's cheek, the latter used that warmth to say his final words before letting the cold take over. "But, you're, the, sur-vi-vor."

Breathing came in pairs, except for twice. "You know, brother, sometimes I really love you," said Al, and it was then, on Christmas Night of James's eighteenth year, there, at the Boat Landing in Hogsmeade where James had first laid eyes on Hogwarts School, that Al's breathing began and James's said goodbye...

"Bye, Mum! Bye, Dad!" waved James from the edge of the back porch. Harry and Ginny were just about to Disapparate separately, Harry off on an Auror mission and Ginny heading to the final Quidditch tournament of her professional career.

"Bye!" yelled Al, who was much smaller than his brother and also seemed much more concerned for his parents' well-being, since his voice was noticeably trembling.

Harry and Ginny turned on the spot the exact moment that the teenage Teddy, who was holding an exhausted ginger-haired girl in his arms, was the last of the three boys to wave goodbye. Once the adults were gone, Teddy's previously black hair turned a shade of dreary blue as he lifted Lily higher onto his chest so that she could cling onto his shoulders, turned around, and walked back inside.

Al, however, stayed where he was, still staring at the green grass that didn't bear any sign of his parents' presence. Would the place miss them if they never came back? Would the four year-old Lily even remember who they were after a few months? Would there be anyone left to make James stop tormenting Al for the various mud potions he desperately wanted to store in his room? Al was completely certain that he would miss his parents more than any of his siblings would, but would Harry and Ginny miss him more than they would Teddy or James or Lily? For some reason, he didn't think so.

The paranoia had started years ago and it had never faded. For as long as Al had been alive, Harry would leave multiple times a year, sometimes for just a few days and sometimes for an entire month, to go on his missions. Granted, he'd always come back, but there were cases when Ginny would sit Al and his siblings down to tell them that she didn't know where Harry was, or that Daddy would be coming home with what she liked to call 'fragile bones.' It had only taken one of these instances for little Albus to learn that Harry's bones weren't fragile. They were broken.

"He's going to be okay, Ally McNally." There was only one person in this world who called Al by such a nickname, if only because it matched the nickname he'd come up with for Lily the day she'd been born.

Al hadn't realized that James had yet to follow their babysitter inside, so he was slightly surprised to turn his head and see his brother standing next to him, his hands stuffed in his pockets as if he was completely relaxed. James was always relaxed, even though Al never was.

"How do you know that?" Al looked to James with pleading eyes. He was disappointed to find that James's eyes were the opposite, his brows raised with one eye showing more than the other as if the answer to Al's question was privy information that only he had access to.

Al was relieved when James let him in on the secret. "Because," he said while shrugging his shoulders, "Dad's a survivor."

Blood was still seeping from James's wounds even after Al closed his eyes with fingers that were as cold as his brother's skin. Al didn't like the idea that a person could keep bleeding even after they were gone, like a tap that kept leaking even after being drained. It was sickening, because of course when people died their loved ones needed to believe that their soul had fled to a better place, and seeing their body be anything but completely still was a test of that theory. Maybe people were no more than skin and bones after all.

Thinking this, Al pulled himself back up to a sitting position and said to anyone who would listen, "We have to get him out of here."

His eyes remained locked on James as he continued to grimace at the red bubbles that were popping around the scars that Al had brandished him with, but somehow he could feel Scorpius and Ilana having a silent conversation beside him. Al already knew what they were going to ask him; he was just waiting to find out which one of them would dare to say it.

It was Ilana, of course. Her voice was hesitant yet steady as she asked, "Then what?"

Then what? After he took James's body away from here, what would Al do then? Would he stay with James or would he keep fighting? If he kept fighting, who would he fight for – the Flock or the Order? For once in the last two years, the choice was clear to Al; he only hoped that it wasn't too late to make it.

It took a minute for Al to clear his throat and get his thoughts in order, but finally he wiped the soot and blood and spit off his face and said, "My dad used to tell me, 'It's not our abilities that show who we truly are. It is our choices.'" For the first time since facing him at dawn, Al looked into Scorpius's frozen eyes to ask, "Can I still choose, or is it too late?"

Scorpius took the question seriously, which was made clear when he resisted the urge to run a hand through his hair. In this moment, he was the spitting image of Al's very best friend, a boy who had never learned to judge and who had spent his entire life listening to other people make ultimatums that never included him. He was the one person in the world who understood what it felt like to be forgotten, to want to be wanted, so much so that the first person who'd truly wanted him had become his everything. Really, the same thing had happened to Al, only the first person to want him had been the wrong one.

"The Sorting Hat put you in Slytherin because you never asked it not to," he told Al, because he had been there that day. "Maybe you could ask it now," he added, because he was there now.

Because one opinion was not enough in this circumstance, Al found himself turning to Ilana as if it were her turn to speak. He was still unsure how she had gotten here or when she'd arrived on the Hogwarts grounds, but for whatever reason he wasn't questioning her presence. She was supposed to be here for this, just as Scorpius was. They were the only two people who could witness something this unspeakable and still forgive Al so quickly, because Harry, Teddy, Lily, and even Rose all loved James far too much to remember that they also loved Al. And Al needed people to remember that... he needed people to forgive him, because there was no way he would ever forgive himself.

Just as she always had, Ilana understood, and Al let himself sink into her perfect skin that didn't look hollow to him even though it was, and fly through her dark hair that to him didn't look ratty even though it was, as she said, "Do you remember what you said to me when we first met? How you told me not to judge you for your name or your family?"

Al nodded. It felt like a hundred years ago, but he remembered – Rose had taken him down to the dungeon knowing that they would find Ilana in the Potions classroom, and when they did she had refused to help them, at least until Al had convinced her that they were no better than she was and that they were therefore worth her time. Looking back on it now, Al supposed that he hadn't exactly held up his own beliefs lately, what with the Forbidden Flock's treatment of Muggle-borns and his simply standing by.

"You can still be what you want to be," continued Ilana, and her purple-tainted lips had never looked more beautiful. "What you thought you were when you met me," she added, and her life-filled eyes had never looked more inviting.

Al didn't know how long it would last. He didn't know how sure his decision was, or how long he would be able to keep going like this. He already hadn't eaten in days, let alone slept, and he wasn't sure whether he was in denial of James's death or still in shock. He didn't know if or when gravity would pull him under, but for now, he did know what he needed to do. He knew that he needed to start making the right choices, because this couldn't happen again. He wouldn't let it.

Sensing what he'd decided, Scorpius reached over James's center very carefully so as not to brush over his torn shirt, the Elder Wand lying flat in his palm, and said to Al, "You'll need this."

"No," Al replied, holding up his hands to make Scorpius take it away. That wand was the last thing he wanted right now, for it had only ever led to his worst mistakes. Rose had told him about its origins just before the summer he'd aligned with Astoria, he'd used it that Christmas to make the Unbreakable Vow between Astoria and Ron, and now it had been the wand he'd used to kill his own brother. Rose had been right about that bloody stick all along: it was dangerous, and Al wasn't strong enough to handle it.

But that wasn't the only reason Al refused to take the wand from Scorpius. "It doesn't belong to me anymore," he explained. "You – you disarmed me just now. You defeated me, which means that the master of the Elder Wand is you, Scorpius."

Now, it was Scorpius's turn to go into shock. He should have been used to titles being thrust upon him at this point, especially after the leading position of the Order of the Phoenix was simply given to him without any forewarning. Yet he still seemed taken aback as he pulled the wand toward him to inspect it more closely, tried holding it in both of his hands to see if it made him feel any different. He was still looking at it when he began to shake his head and say, "No. No, I don't want it. I have my wand – multiple wands. Nigel would want me to use the one he made for me, so that's what I should do."

Scoffing because this sort of righteousness was typical of Scorpius, Al pushed aside another wave of pain and guilt so that he could refute, "Nigel would say that the wand chooses the wizard, and the Elder Wand has chosen you."

"Maybe it'll help you get her back," Ilana piped in, making Al remember why exactly Rose wasn't here. Astoria was still holding her captive, and Al had no idea what she was planning to do with Rose since this was one of many plans Astoria had been keen on keeping Al out of.

"Except that it won't help me get into the castle, which is what needs to happen if I'm to get to her," Scorpius argued. Al was surprised by this as well, because he hadn't expected Scorpius to be so willing to leave his army behind just so that he could rescue Rose himself. That sounded like something Al would do, not Scorpius.

The more Al considered this, though, the more he realized that he was lying to himself, because this was exactly what Scorpius would do. Before these two years – before Astoria had gone crazy and Draco had divorced her, before Scorpius had taken on the role of the next Chosen One, before McGonagall had been killed and had left Scorpius all alone to lead the Order in a war – all Scorpius had ever cared about was Rose. Before these two years – before his two best mates had fallen in love and made Al the third wheel, before Astoria had made him feel more powerful than anyone in the world, before Ilana had taught him how to love one person over everyone else – all Al had ever cared about was leading. Through a series of both fortunate and unfortunate events, Scorpius and Al had attempted to take on the wrong roles. Maybe this was their opportunity to return to the roles they'd each been born to play.

Finally feeling like he had a goal, an actual destination to steer for, Al said to Scorpius, "Then I'll get you in. I'll get everybody in." When both Scorpius and Ilana looked at him with understandable skepticism, he added, "I'm not saying that I can lead the Order of the Phoenix to victory for you; I'm well aware that none of them will listen to me. I'm saying that Ican lead the Forbidden Flock to defeat, or at least to momentary failure that will allow you enough time to get inside. Those twats won't see it coming from me!"

Al had tried to play both sides once before, and it hadn't exactly gone well. Because Scorpius had been the one to convince him to do it, he was the one to try to talk him out of it now. "Yes," he agreed, "But who knows how easy it will be for them to figure it out? And remember, you won't be as powerful without the wand you're used to! I mean, what wand do you even plan on using?"

Without even thinking of his answer, Al let his eyes fall back onto his brother and the corpse that was beginning to smell something foul, and let his gaze move from James's tousled hair, to his shoulder that had been shattered three times over and twice because of Al, to his limp arm that was attached to a half-severed hand. There, nearly obscured by the explosion of blood and tendons, Al found James's wand. He picked it up and held it gingerly, and even though it was an inch too long for him, even though it was pliable instead of stern, and even though it was made of rosewood instead of elder, it felt right. It felt like this wand, with its phoenix feather core, was the one Al had always been meant to have.

"I'll be fine," he said with a newfound confidence, pointing the wand over James's body and silently cleaning off the dried blood from his skin. "And anyway, I've got Higgs."

Now it was Ilana's turn to be stared at by both of the boys, for of course she didn't need to give in to Al if she didn't want to. Still, she found herself looking back at Al in order to ask him, "I thought I was your greatest weakness?"

That was something he'd written in his letter. Al's jaw dropped when she said it, because he remembered very clearly the moment he'd written those words, just after Astoria had said that the notes he'd been keeping in his pockets were holding him back from his utmost potential. Tears began to well in his eyes now, because Astoria had been so incredibly wrong, because without Ilana here he might have died with James, and because he didn't know how Ilana had gotten that letter but would be forever grateful that she had so that he could set her straight himself. Trying to make her see all of this, he said, "No. No, Higgs, you're my greatest strength."

At that, a plan was set in motion. Al and Ilana were to take James back to the Quidditch pitch, and Scorpius was going to stay close to Hogsmeade to keep fighting this flank until Al sent him some signal to say that the front doors of the castle had opened. Then, Scorpius would somehow get inside, and although Al wasn't sure how he would get across the grounds quickly enough, Scorpius assured him that he'd be capable.

"The Flock will come at you as soon as I Disapparate," said Al after agreeing to believe Scorpius. His orders were the only things keeping the army from swarming the lake right now, and once Al was gone the orders would be defunct.

"I know," said Scorpius while shifting in his spot, collecting his various items and straightening his blue bowtie. Holding up his three wands for Al and Ilana to see, he added, "But I can handle them." And then Al discovered that Scorpius hadn't been straightening his tie at all; rather, he'd been loosening it. Once it was off his neck, he wrapped it around James's wrist, just next to the watch Harry had given his son nearly two years ago now.

With the tie secure, Scorpius decided that he was ready, so he stood up and walked all the way around James's long legs to plant a kiss on Ilana's cheek. Then he came to the now standing Al, his arm extended and hand waiting to shake, but Al didn't take it. Instead, he stepped forward and pulled Scorpius into the tightest hug they'd ever shared.

"I'm sorry. For everything," said Al as he tried to hold back another wave of tears. He wondered if Scorpius knew that he'd killed McGonagall, or that he'd brought these dragons here, all while Scorpius wondered if Al knew that he'd sent Ilana that letter, or that he'd been the one to convince her to leave him in the first place.

"Me too," said Scorpius as he clung onto his best mate's black sweater. "For everything." They both understood the risks they were taking and that they may never see each other again, so in that moment none of their lies mattered. The only thing that mattered was the truth, and the truth was that they were brothers. They'd always be.

When they broke apart, Scorpius walked away without turning back, straight into the awaiting Forbidden Flock. Al and Ilana, on the other hand, kneeled back down so that they were low enough to the ground to each grab hold of one of the few parts of James's body that were still fully attached to the rest of him. Then they spun on the spot, whirling themselves through space in the most difficult Apparition Al had ever experienced, until they opened their dizzy eyes to the Quidditch pitch that seemed more like a lurid graveyard.

James's body landed perfectly within a row of other bodies that were less messy, and for a moment Al thought that it was because they hadn't put up as much of a fight. He stood up as soon as his nausea wore off, but precisely when he was back on his feet another had taken his spot on the crowded ground. Looking around for some clue as to whom else might be there, Al saw an inert Nigel sitting in a ball beside two covered bodies beneath the Christmas tree and, not far from him, Ron Weasley was slowly walking toward Al.

Gulping with fear, Al tried to think of what he might say to his uncle, who surely wouldn't be pleased with him. Luckily, though, he didn't have to do anything, since Ilana's piercing glare made Ron go still and take in what had really happened, from whose body was on the ground to who was crying next to it.

Mercy was, if at all possible, a bigger mess than James himself. She was weeping uncontrollably, her entire face that normally looked so stunning now all crunched up so that she looked like a cross between a troll and a ghoul. Al was taken aback by the idea that Mercy could actually look ugly, even if only in the most extreme circumstances, but not in a bad way. In fact, he thought that he liked seeing her this way, at least more than he liked seeing her any other way. She was more human like this... more like him.

Ilana was asking Mercy why she was there in an attempt to make her talk, and the only explanation Mercy could provide was, "Broke a leg. Keyes. Sa – Salem." Al had no idea what she was trying to convey, but Ilana seemed to, since she immediately summoned a flask from a bag that was hanging off her shoulder.

Because he was the only one of the three still standing, Ilana handed over the flask to Al, stating urgently, "Bone-mending potion. Get it to Salem."

"Er-" Al started to say in an attempt to express his confusion, but stopped when he heard the blonde girl speak once more, a little clearer this time.

"I love you, James," she said before kissing the part of James's forehead that Al had been connected to before. After kissing his lips one last time, she shuttered from their temperature and inhaled sharply. "I wish you could have believed me."

For a while, everything was quiet. Mercy just sat there crying, Ilana sat there watching her, and Al stood there trying not to move. When Ilana saw that he hadn't, however, he tried to turn around but didn't get the chance to walk away before Mercy finally noticed his presence. That was when her beautiful, terrifying, dangerous face returned as she looked up at Al and said without any questioning, "It was you."

"Go, Potter. Now," hissed Ilana as she grabbed Mercy's wrists so that the witch wouldn't be tempted to hit Al. He wasn't convinced that Ilana's restraining technique would work, but he followed her command nonetheless, heading off to look for his old Quidditch teammate while trying to ignore Mercy's screams and Ilana's subsequently harsh tones that surely wouldn't be calming enough.

Smoke wasn't billowing here like it was at the lake, but it should have been. Al may not have had any way of knowing just how many bodies were piled on this pitch, but as he walked the line between the dead and the injured, going from a wasteland to a chaotic frenzy of professors and nurses and students and parents, he realized that just about as many people stood on this side of the field as the amount that laid in the other. There must have been at least fifty, maybe closer to a hundred.

The last cold face he saw was one of few that hadn't been covered with a body bag yet, and the only reason Al paid particular attention to it was because its hand was connected to Salem's. Knowing that the Slytherin graduate was close enough to the person to hold his or her hand, Al found himself having no other option but to look at the body's face, even though he'd promised himself that he wouldn't look at any of them. When he saw her, he wished that he had kept his promise.

He had never technically met Arnia Samuels, but she had been the young girl to sign up for the Quidditch team the same year Al had signed off on it. Scorpius had had some ridiculous faith in her flying and Beater skills even though no one else had seen the same in her, but Al swore that he could see it now. She was fierce even in death, the bones that stuck out of her body looking sharp and strong, the dark curls around her face looking soft but sure. She reminded Al of Lily, who was her same age. Al didn't know why, but he hadn't ever considered that underage witches and wizards could be killed too. That was until now.

"How did this happen?" asked Al as he sat beside Salem, who looked completely fine but for the swollen leg that he had magically propped up. Salem's best friend, Aaron, sat on the other side, and the latter's girlfriend had just stood and was slowly making her way over to Arnia's side of the pitch. Caitlin Finnigan must have heard Mercy screaming James's name.

The rest of the Quidditch team was standing in small groups around them, but Al only wanted an answer from Salem. He told him this by opening the flask and pouring the potion into Salem's mouth. Two seconds later, the swelling on his leg subsided and Salem found enough trust in Al to say, "We were fighting in the center with Mercy; she was leading us. But the Flock's made up mostly of bandits over there, and Astoria must not trust 'em, 'cause she's got 'em all corralling the Muggle-borns to take 'em inside the castle for a so-called 'inspection.' When Arnia tried to stop 'em, some crazy blonde just killed her and then broke my leg as I was trying to carry Arnia away."

Al didn't know about any of this. Why didn't he know about this? In a mixture of confusion and fury, he pointed a finger at Salem's chest and asked, "You said this is the center flank, yes? The ones by the Whomping Willow?"

"Yes," replied Salem.

"And a crazy blonde, you say? Were her eyes even crazier than her hair? Eyes like a forest?"

"Yes."

It was Vega; she was the one leading them. Al had one last question for Salem, and this was the one he most wanted an answer to, but for some reason he wouldn't let himself ask it. He wanted to know how the Muggle-borns were being "inspected." He wanted to know what was happening inside that castle, but he also knew that it would more beneficial if he didn't know, at least not yet. That way, he'd have even more reason to keep his promise to Scorpius, even more reason to open the doors.

So, before he had the chance to say any more, Al thanked Salem, stood up, and started the long trek back to Ilana. Throughout the journey, he tried to think up a plan, because of course he already hadn't been sure how he would make it all the way to the castle even amongst his old allies, and Mercy's retreat combined with Vega's ongoing secret made things all the more complicated. The bandits may be easy enough to fool, but Vega wasn't an idiot. She'd see right through Al unless he had a legitimate reason for leaving the army he was meant to be leading and going inside the castle. Then there was the issue of Ilana, whose life would be put in just as much jeopardy as his if he tried to sneak her through an army that was training itself to be able to smell her blood.

He was still thinking of her when he caught sight of her again, and only stopped walking to figure out what he would tell her. The thing that made him stay put for more than a minute, though, was his overhearing the ending of Ilana's conversation with Mercy.

The air was admittedly calmer between them now, but Mercy still sounded frustrated as she asked, "How can you be doing this? How can you fight with him?"

Al was far enough away for Ilana not to notice him, but he could still see her thanks to the lack of people standing around the dead. There was something subconsciously wrong about standing with people who had no choice but to lie flat; it felt better, more respectful even, to huddle beside them as if waiting for them to wake up.

"I'm not fighting with him," Ilana fired back at Mercy, though the flaming arrow was aiming directly for Al's chest. "I'm fighting with the Order. It just so happens that Potter is our only chance of winning."

His mind hadn't ordered them to, but suddenly Al's legs were moving. When he grew close enough for Ilana to hear his footsteps, Mercy returned her focus to James in an effort to ignore her anger with Al, but Ilana was focused completely on the living Potter as she jumped up and ran over to him. He tried to tell his heart not to flutter as it was absconded by her wind, because she didn't want him after all. But he was okay with that, because he didn't deserve her and never had. What he wasn't okay with was that his heart fluttered anyway.

"Mercy told me that the center flank's gaining power, and with that power they've turned themselves into snatchers and are marching all the Muggle-borns into the castle like Jews into concentration camps." Al had never heard Ilana speak so much or so quickly, but then again, he'd never really known the Muggle side of her before.

Nodding, Al said through the thickest skin, "I know. Salem told me. I'm still trying to figure out how to get in there with them."

Ilana must have had her response planned, because it was perfectly timed, perfectly concise, and perfectly confident. "Use me. I am one of them."

He didn't even bother to fight her on it. In retrospect, Al supposed that he should be more protective of Ilana, like Scorpius had always been with Rose, even before they'd become an official couple. But then there was the voice in his head reminding him that he and Ilana weren't together in any sense, and his double-sided nature made him fear Ilana's own plan of action. Plus, Ilana's idea was a good one, and it was the only one Al had.

That was what brought the pair to the Whomping Willow, where they camped out in safety and waited for some snatchers to show. This didn't take long, since these grounds were teeming with the Forbidden Flock thanks to Mercy's retreat, and after a while Al began to wonder if any of the Order of the Phoenix was left here at all. They were all battling in the Forbidden Forest or Hogsmeade, and Al doubted that they were winning on either field.

Voices could be heard all the way from Hagrid's Hut, one of them asking about a list and another shouting Bobby Dormer's name. All of them had wretched cockney accents, so they must have been part of the runt litter that Al had walked past on the moving staircases before leaving the castle for the Hebrides. Thinking this, he finally thought he recognized one from afar, though it was hard to tell considering the fact that the last time Al had seen him, he'd been hanging helplessly upside down.

"They're talking about Bobby Dormer; I know that name – he was one of the Gryffindor prefects, and I'm pretty positive he's a Muggle-born as well," Al whispered to Ilana from their crouched positions next to the tree's magical knot. "This is our chance. Let's go."

"Wait!" Ilana grabbed Al just as he was leaning forward to start running down the hill. When he turned around, he almost felt hopeful – hopeful that she was as scared as he was, or at least scared enough to back out. But of course, she wasn't. She was just a step ahead of him, evident when she said, "You can't just run down with me. I'm supposed to be your prisoner, remember?"

He hadn't said no to her yet, maybe because he'd said no to everyone else in the world at one point or another, but this was too much. Al could read straight through her eyes and into the dark thoughts she was having, and they reminded him of ones that Lily had as a werewolf, or ones Astoria had in her sleep. If he was ever going to say no, now would be the time.

"If you won't do it, I will," said Ilana when Al had waited too long. Then she pointed her wand to her neck and shut her eyes with a grimace, but Albus made sure that she felt no pain.

He put his hand around hers so that he could seek the control of her wand, and instead of letting her perform the Cruciatus Curse on herself like she wanted to, he used a simple charm that painted fake bruises in blasts of purple and yellow all across her perfect skin. Once her neck was covered in one large blotch, he paused, reaching out his hand so that he could tear open the collar of her thick sweater, letting its sleeve fall down and expose her left shoulder. She opened her eyes but didn't move to help or stop him. He pulled that soft hair off her shoulder and then painted some more, and continued this way until her entire arm looked like it had been stood on by a giant troll. When he was finished, Al let go of her hand but held onto her wand, using it to procure a rope out of thin air that he fastened around both of her wrists, tight enough that they burned in their rubbing. Looking at his masterpiece, he wanted to kiss every part of her that he'd hurt, whether fake or not, but he resisted the urge when they both stood up to be on their way.

Ilana was a terrific actress, though of course Al shouldn't have expected any less. She limped the whole way down the hill, and once they made it to Hagrid's abandoned homestead, she was heaving from exhaustion. Al was a few steps ahead of her with her rope in his hands, and he pulled on it ever so slightly as he called out to his fellow Flock members, "Oy! I think you forgot one!"

The runts were all sitting inside the dying pumpkin patch, kicking on three lads who were also bound with rope and were squirming sadly in the snow. Al didn't wait to be invited in, pointing James's wand at the gate and blasting it open. The Elder Wand would have blasted it off its hinges to make for an appropriately intimidating entrance, but upon missing it Al reminded himself exactly what else that wand had been capable of.

He had just crossed the threshold, Ilana yet to have stepped inside the patch, when Al heard a rather familiar barking sound from the other side of the group. Telling himself to look past the staring Bobby Dormer and two of his Muggle friends, Al found Saber the hound standing by the opposing fence with his tail pinned mercilessly to the wood. The sight of Al was making the dog, whose normal golden color had been absconded by splashes of mud and blood to turn his fur a terrible brown mixture, attempt to jump out of his imprisonment in order to visit with his favorite student. Al had never particularly liked the slobbering Saber, but hearing his cries and seeing him pull harder and harder on his punctured tail made Al's own blood coil in anger. Hagrid's bloodhound may have been dumb, but he was more human than the men he'd been taken hostage by. Albus could attest to that, because of course he knew a certain human who'd always been more animalistic than the rest...

Lily's cries woke Al before they did anyone else. His bedroom was the closest to hers, and all he had to do was walk through their shared bathroom to find his little sister sitting in the middle of her floor with her entire collection of stuffed animals sprawled around her. She made up the center of their circle, with the majority looking like they'd been thrown behind her with very little care. Only three animals made up the part of the circle that Lily could actually see. On one side of her was a brown rat about twice as big as it should have been, on the other side was a too-small stag with dilapidated antlers that drooped over in their softness, and directly in front of Lily sat a shabby, black dog with its sharp teeth snarled at the ready.

One would think that Lily had been crying simply by the sight of this ferocious animal, but Al had been there the day she'd picked it from the magical toy shop. She'd looked for the perfect dog that Harry had told her about for years, and none had been fierce enough until this one had come along. There must have been some other reason for her tears, and in an effort to find out what it was, Al tip-toed around the animals that were now staring up at him in curiosity and sat down next to Lily, on the side of the stag that attempted to buck Al's knees but was obviously unsuccessful.

Lily's howling was louder than ever now that her brother was there to hear it, and because Al didn't know how to handle such a situation, he soon found himself placing a hand over Lily's open mouth and telling her, "Shh! You have to be quiet or you'll wake up Teddy. Or worse, James."

The idea of waking up James must have done the trick, since when Al took his hand off her mouth, Lily went completely silent. The animals seemed to appreciate this just as much as Al did, many of them curling up into balls to prepare for sleep, as it was well past their bedtime. Only the three Lily was most focused on stayed awake, because the rat and dog were nocturnal and the stag was too fearful of the latter's presence to close its eyes.

Al watched closely as Lily turned her gaze from the rat, to the dog, to the stag, and back again, but he still didn't know what the problem was, or why she needed to sort it out at three o'clock in the morning. Finally, he caved and asked, "What is it, Lil? What's wrong?"

"Only three!" Lily practically screamed at him, her eyes wide with urgency and her hand held up to show him three short fingers. "Should 'ave FOUR."

"Four what?" asked Al in the midst of a yawn.

"MARAUDERS!" This time, Lily's words came with a slap on Al's shoulder. Once she was sure that Al was listening, she pointed her index finger at the rat and said, "Wormtail," then the dog, "Padfoot," then the stag, "Prongs."

By now, Al understood. Finishing her explanation for her, he said, "Moony's gone."

Her nod was heavy, her tears even heavier. Moony was the werewolf dog, with a longer body shape than Padfoot and the ability to stand only on his hind legs. He had always been Lily's favorite, though Al was rather grateful that he'd disappeared. There was no telling where he'd gone, but Al had learned many moons ago that it was always best to wait till morning when searching for something, because chances were that it would simply show up. At least, that was what Al told himself every time he woke up in the middle of the night with the sudden urge to find his father.

It was this thought that made Al realize that Lily's worries were most probably concerned with more than just her missing stuffed animal. So, as he copped hold of Lily's hand and steered her back to her bed, leaving all the animals right where they were, he told her, "Maybe Moony had to go away for the full moon. He'll prob'ly be back tomorrow, just like Mummy and Daddy."

"What if don't?" asked Lily while tucking herself under her Holyhead Harpy-themed bed sheets. "What if they die like Marauders?"

Harry had told all of his children about the Marauders and their deaths with as much honesty as he could, saying that Moony – Teddy's father – had been killed by one of Voldemort's people in the Battle of Hogwarts, that Wormtail had died earlier and cowardly, that Padfoot had died earlier and admirably, and that Prongs – Harry's father – had been the first to go but the last to truly leave. They had all been ghosts to Al and Lily, so sometimes it was hard to believe that they'd ever been real in the first place.

What had always been real to the Potter children were their parents, and how much they'd already survived. It was like James had said – surely, they could survive a little more. So, Al told Lily with the utmost certainty, "They're not going to die. None of us are. We're Potters, and that means we survive. Trust me."

Somebody was snapping in Al's face, and as his eyes re-focused he saw that it was the man he'd spotted before – pot-bellied, dark rags as clothes that were either too big or too small, little to no hair on his round head, with crooked teeth that matched Saber's new fur color. Up close, Al was given a whole new appreciation for just how desperate Astoria must have been to have sought out the likes of this git.

"How dare you snap at me!" Al spat at him, and though he was embellishing his tone for effect, a part of him really had just wanted to say that. "Do you have any idea who you're talking to?"

Behind Al and the fat man, Ilana cowered in fake fear, and the Flock bought it. Soon, one of the other runts, thinner and most likely smarter too, had stood up behind his superior, whispering in his ear, "That's Albus Potter, tha' is."

"Right," laughed the fat one. With a full smile that only made him look uglier than he already was, he bowed as far as his stomach would allow him to and said to Al, "My apologies...sir."

Around them, fire was being engulfed by the black sky and screams all blended together into a subdued humming noise. Al's ears were trained to hear it, though, as were Ilana's. With one look at her, he knew that she was thinking the same thing that he was: they were running out of time.

"And who's this pretty little thing?" asked the fat man just after Al broke eye contact with Ilana. He had turned his body around and was now stepping toward Ilana to inspect her. When he reached out his puffy hand to cup her chin, Al flinched instinctively. The runt may not have noticed it had it not been for Saber's subsequent bark, making the man turn back to Al and ask suspiciously, "You sure this one's a Mud-blood? She seems pretty pure to me, and I dare say you think the same, Potter."

Al already had his fists balled, but he couldn't ruin the plan now; he couldn't do that to Scorpius, to Rose, to James. Instead of punching the man in his hidden jaw, Al stepped between him and Ilana, pulled up Ilana's sleeve roughly so as to expose the scar she'd expertly faded with both magical and Muggle concoctions, and said, "Here, look."

The man peered at the word but looked only half convinced. Gesturing to the skinnier one, he took a piece of paper from his hand and prepared himself to start reading before asking Al, "Name?"

"Higgs. Ilana Higgs."

It took a minute for the man to peruse the list, but Al already knew that he would find no such name on it. He knew this because Al himself had been the one to write the list, back when he'd observed Astoria's marking ceremony in order to record the names of every Muggle-born student at Hogwarts. Ilana had been careful to avoid him that morning, and had run out of the Great Hall before he'd caught sight of her dripping blood.

Sure enough, the man stated with an arrogant smile, "Tha' name's not on the list."

"Yes, well, maybe you forgot one," Al offered, thinking too quickly to come up with a better excuse.

In retort, the man suggested, "Or maybe you just want to get your girlfriend a free ticket into the castle." Al knew what he thought. He thought that Al, like the rest of the Forbidden Flock, worshipped Astoria like a god and therefore wanted nothing more in the world than to see her in the flesh. But he didn't know what Al thought. Al thought that he'd already seen Astoria in the flesh a hundred more times than he'd ever wanted to. Al thought that there was only one god in this world, and it most definitely wasn't Astoria. It was the god of death, and the last thing Al planned to do was worship it.

But none of this changed the fact that this man was the one thing standing between Al and the Hogwarts Entrance Hall, so Al had to make him believe. Hoping that words would be enough, he scoffed and said in the peasant's own language, "You think I would ever taint myself by shagging this Mud-blood scum?"

The man shrugged. "Maybe she's not a Mud-blood. Maybe she's actually as pure as this snow."

Al had an idea. He had an idea that he absolutely hated, but like the one that Ilana had come up with before, he couldn't think of anything better. Before he could change his mind, Al placed his face so close to the fat man's that he could smell rotting meat from the breath exiting the man's flared nostrils, and seethed, "Fine. I'll prove it to you."

Then, as if in slow motion again, Al faced Ilana and grabbed her scarred wrist, being careful not to rub the binding rope too much as he got himself into a position to move his wand ever so meticulously over Ilana's skin. He was just about to begin when he heard her voice in his ear, trembling with fear. "What are you doing?"

Quiet enough so that none of the Flock members would be able to overhear, Al turned his neck so that he could see Ilana's eyes beneath all those bruises and said, "Trust me." He didn't wait for a nod before he started, and soon she was gasping with pain as his wand acted as a carving knife, retracing the same scar that he'd branded her with last spring so that it would be fresh, open, and unhealed.

Just as Al had planned, every drop of Muggle blood poured from Ilana to make tiny caverns in the snow, and the man was convinced of the truth as soon as the snow turned brown. It was common knowledge that blood went from red to brown soon after escaping the body's heat, but purist wizards liked to believe that only Muggle blood did such a thing. The blood of magic folk was red, red, always red.

Ilana was hunched over on the ground and the man was gaping at the scene. Al was simply standing between the two because all he wanted to do was sit down with Ilana and apologize a thousand times over, and all that was stopping him was that fat man's fat face and fat ego. Al was about to tell that face to get a move on when another voice he hadn't expected to hear spoke for him.

"You know, I could have easily seen that she was a Muggle-born," said Knox as he stepped inside the pumpkin patch, his journey to get there having gone completely unnoticed by everyone grouped inside. He was gently pulling Ilana to her feet when he added, "Would have been nice to save the bloodshed for later, no?"

Unlike how he'd acted when Al had arrived, the fat man shot his head down in Knox's presence and listened closely to Rookie's every word. Clearly, he knew who Knox was and didn't have to be told twice that he was far inferior to Astoria's right-hand man. "Y-yes, Master Rookwood. I'm terribly sorry for the misunderstanding."

"Don't waste my time," Knox said back with squinted, judgmental eyes. "Just get this load to castle, all right?"

The fat man nodded and then pulled Ilana away with the rest of the group. Al was about to run after them when Knox put a hand on his shoulder and told him quietly, "Stop. You're supposed to be leading the army, Black Hawk. They'll question you even more if you try to go with them."

This wasn't part of the plan. Wherever Ilana had to go, Al would go too; they weren't supposed to be separated! He hadn't even known that Vega had ordered Muggle-borns to be taken into the castle for custody, so he couldn't possibly know what Vega planned to do with them once they got there. Yet here Al was, standing in the now empty pumpkin patch and watching Ilana being marched to the castle's double doors and not even trying to look back for him.

"Screw that, I'm going with her!" yelled Al, but he had to leap past Knox to get outside the patch, and for whatever reason, Knox was determined to make sure that Al stayed right where he was. He caught Al in his arms before he made it two steps, and the feeling of having any sort of arms to lean on made Al break down again.

His heavy breathing had returned and his tears would have as well had he had any left. Instead, his eyes went so dry that Al felt like his corneas might start peeling at any second. He closed his lips a thousand times over to see if that might help, but it only made it worse, as if his body was rejecting even the idea of sleep on a night like this. The whole time, Knox patted Al's back awkwardly as if burping a baby, for he didn't know how to hold somebody the way Scorpius did, but Al took what he could get because at least he knew that Knox was a good listener.

"I can't lose her, not after everything else," Al complained once he came to, leaning away from Knox but crossing his arms against his chest so that he still felt confined, less alone.

"You did the right thing. You got her inside." Knox sounded completely serious, but Al still had a hard time believing him.

For a moment, Al debated telling Knox that it wasn't just Ilana he was trying to get inside the castle, but outing Scorpius seemed like too much of risk, even when the subject was someone Al trusted implicitly. That was why he decided to reveal his own secret, because Al knew that he needed to say it aloud, whether it made facing the truth any easier or not. "James is dead."

It wasn't any easier. Knox didn't know what to say as he looked at Al and as Saber whimpered inconsolably in the background. Still, Al preferred Knox's silence to the question that he knew everyone else would eventually ask: who killed him? When Knox did think of something to say, it was exactly what Al needed to hear, asking almost worriedly, "What about your other siblings? Are they okay?"

Al didn't take time to consider why Knox might be asking such a question before his thoughts went straight to Lily. Surely, she'd be fighting with the Order, but she hadn't been with Scorpius or James at the lake and she hadn't been with Nigel at the Quidditch pitch. Mumbling more to himself than to Knox, Al said, "Lily – she's probably still with our parents. I'm sure she's fine. Ryder was supposed to stay in the castle, so as long as Astoria kept her there, then Lily will be okay."

"My Ryder?" asked Knox with ten times as much interest as his previous questions had contained. The last Al had seen of Ryder had been before he'd rescued Knox from Azkaban, so it was entirely possible that Knox hadn't laid eyes on his twin sister since before his imprisonment, and therefore had no idea of Ryder's not-so-secret plan to avenge Calder Anhinga's death by killing Lily.

Al nodded. "Your sister wants my sister; it's a long story."

"Sure," Knox dismissed the quick explanation. "But I saw Ryder running outside at dawn, and she most definitely wasn't headed for the castle."

Jaw dropped, head leveled back, knees ready to snap in half, eyes going dizzy, thoughts swimming with pictures of the worst possible outcomes of what Ryder might have done to Lily, Al breathed, "Bloody hell."

Trying to refocus Al, Knox put a hand on each of his shoulders in an attempt to steady him, searched for his eyes with his own, and said, "Never mind them; there's nothing you can do if you don't know where they are. What about your other brother? What about Teddy?"

"I – I dunno'. He's probably in the forest somewhere; he'd want to be in the thick of it." Yet again, Al hadn't thought before he'd spoken, but when Knox released his hold of Al's shoulders as if he'd finally been given all the information he'd needed, Al realized that Knox was beginning to remind him of Astoria. They both liked to confide in Al when they needed him to do something for them, but neither of them ever revealed the whole truth, because Al would always be seen as a liability rather than a trustee. Deciding that he wasn't going to take such treatment any more, Al asked, "Wait, why do you care?"

Sighing, Knox licked his lips before answering, "Because I'm looking for him."

"What? What could you possibly need Teddy for?" Teddy had been the one to arrest Knox when he'd first been found guilty for murdering Arthur Weasley, so it wasn't as if they were old friends.

"I can't tell you that. As long as Astoria's alive, her secrets have to remain hidden."

Perfect. Yet another thing that Al couldn't be told. Why was it that Astoria had always trusted Knox but never Al? Was it really only because of Knox's capabilities, and the fact that she wouldn't have been able to hide anything from him anyway? Or was it possibly all about Al, and the fact that he was somehow attached to everyone who'd ever been a part of Astoria's master plan – Scorpius, Rose, Lily, and now Teddy? And if that were in fact the case, why was it that Al suddenly felt even more left out than he had before? Why was he the only person who wasn't part of her answer, and also didn't know what the answer was?

"Are you going to hurt him?" asked Al, as if Teddy was his sole concern.

"No," replied Knox, as if Teddy wasn't his.

And Al believed him, because like he was for Astoria, Knox was one person Al implicitly trusted. "All right, then, do what you need to do." Knox was about to be on his way when Al added, "But that goes for me as well, and I need to get inside the castle. The portrait tunnel's not enough."

Knox thought about this for a moment before he suggested, "Why don't you just blast the doors open?" Then he disappeared into the forest that was still hidden in flames.

Flames... and blasting... that was it! Al didn't know why he hadn't thought of the idea before, nor how he could have forgotten his other half so quickly after James's death. He liked this idea better than any of the others he'd come up with today, and because he needed to keep moving if he wanted to get Scorpius in on time while also subduing his own waves of pain, Al practically bolted to the other side of the pumpkin patch so that he could get started. Once there, he magically freed Saber, healed the wound on his tail, and warned the dog, "Get out of here. Hide somewhere safe, and go fast. If you don't, you might become dragon food."

As if the animal understood Al perfectly, Saber was soon running in the opposite direction as Al, who, within minutes, was standing in the castle courtyard awaiting the summoned Zephorien to arrive. He couldn't see the Hogsmeade battle from here, but he could see the forest that was calling his name, just daring him to go looking for the rest of his family. Then there was the center flank that the Order had abandoned, which was being guarded by just a few small Forbidden Flock groups, not including the Muggle-born snatchers. It had been easy to walk through the area to get to the castle, but Al was expecting some serious protective charms would have to be broken to get inside.

He was thrilled when he heard Zephyr's familiar wingtips beating through the air, and his thrill only heightened when the dragon landed in the very middle of the courtyard without knocking over a single wall or stone. Regardless of how he may have treated it lately, this place – Hogwarts, and the castle itself – was sacred to Al, and that was one thing he and James had always agreed upon, as well as their father. Al had to protect it.

Al took a moment out of his time to greet Zephorien and make sure he wasn't wounded. Zephyr had been fighting alone in Hogsmeade since Al had Disapparated from the lake, and he wasn't completely sure which side the dragon had been fighting with. He was bound to Al, sure, but was he bound to the old Al or the new?

Trying to think through his plan so that he could give Zephyr an accurate picture, Al placed his hands on his pet's giant, burning hot nose, and said confidently, "You've got this, bud. No pressure." When Zephyr snorted, Al knew exactly which part of him the dragon was bound to after all.

Under Al's command, Zephyr started to hit the bolted double doors with his spiked tail, pounding them harshly to the beat of his own breath. Meanwhile, Al sent all sorts of spells racing for the doorway, trying to burn the molding with a laser in hopes that it might soften the hinge, and even blasting the giant knockers off until they smashed onto the tiled floor. Every bit helped, but what finally did the barrier in was when Zephyr leaned back onto his hind legs and used his front talons to claw his way through, growling with bared teeth the entire time.

Once a big enough hole was made in the door for Al to squeeze through, he ordered Zephyr to stop pounding and then scurried his way into the Entrance Hall alone. This wouldn't exactly help Scorpius find his own route inside, but Al was temporarily distracted by the thought of making sure that Ilana was safe before he did anything else. Plus, he was hoping that he could blast out just as easily as he'd blasted in.

That hope disappeared the moment he took in the sight of what the Entrance Hall had become. Al must not have smelled it outside because of the thickness of the doors, but now both his senses as well as his entire lower body were, quite literally, being flooded with blood. All around him laid puddles of it, some so large that they formed rivers flowing down the steps from the Great Hall, where young Muggle-borns were seated against walls with expressions that made them look like they were dying. When Al squinted his eyes to get a better view, he realized that they were, for every single one of their right wrists were collapsed on the marble floor, and every one of those wrists bore a vertical scar from which the blood was gushing like badly brewed Polyjuice Potion. Beside each of them was a member of the Forbidden Flock with a stoutly pointed wand bearing what Al knew to be the Imperius Curse, a precaution to make sure the victims didn't try to stop their own blood from being drained. In the middle of the line-up, sitting in the center of the top staircase, was Ilana looking paler than Al thought possible, and in front of her was a woman with wild hair and even wilder eyes.

Since beating around the bush hadn't worked for him so far, Al decided to just say what he wanted to say. Standing right in front of the doorway and waiting for everyone to notice him, he called out in a voice as biting as Zephorien's teeth, "That's ENOUGH!"

As expected, Vega was the first to turn around and fully face Al, who was fine with her glare because it meant that she had temporarily lost control of Ilana. Or at least, Vega seemed to be under the impression that Al's distraction was only temporary, as she smiled smarmily at him and said, "Black Hawk, so nice of you to join us. Astoria forewarned that you may not be very pleased with our process, but we did hope that it would stay behind closed doors. You know, for your sake." She was speaking to him like he was a toddler and she was the wicked babysitter, but she didn't know about the nightmare he had waiting for her.

"How kind of you," said Al as genuinely as possible, right before he disarmed Vega from afar, threw Ilana her wand, yelled at all of the Muggle-borns to follow him, and made for the Great Hall.

But they were too weak, and because of such were also too slow. Al had nearly all of them in the hall and was about to close its doors when he saw that he wouldn't be able to do so before Vega found her way in as well, and she was the last person he wanted to survive this. Changing his plan on the spot, Al silently urged Zephorien to come inside while pointing his wand toward Vega and surprising her when, instead of yelling out the Killing Curse, he screamed, "PROTEGO!"

The barrier went up instantaneously, but Al wasn't sure how long it would hold. Yelling for the Muggle-borns to crouch down low, he made sure that he was close to Ilana as she joined him by procuring her own invisible barrier right against his. A fire ball was coming their way, straight from Zephyr's mouth and through the door hole. The Forbidden Flock was running in their direction to escape the flames, no longer caring if they were halted by the barriers along the way. Al could feel the heat growing stronger and closer, but he tried to hold onto his wand and his spell and Ilana. Especially Ilana.

They were huddled into one being, clinging onto each other the way they used to tear each other apart, and as Al grabbed her open wrist and held so tightly that not one more drop of beautiful blood would escape, he yelled at her over the fire, "I'M SORRY!" He shouldn't have put her through the trauma of receiving that scar all over again; he shouldn't have put her through her through the trauma of receiving that scar in the first place.

Her eyes were distant, almost hollow, with frailty as she placed her good hand on Al's cheek and mouthed, "I forgive you."

He couldn't help but reply with, "I LOVE YOU." And as soon as all the fire exploded within the Entrance Hall and spread across their barrier, he kissed her.

They broke apart as soon as the fire vanished, releasing their spells and opening their eyes to a blackened room that was now covered with even more ashes than blood. Ilana stayed where she was, looking around at her peers and trying to figure out how she might help them, but Al stood to inspect the premises.

He didn't find any trace of Vega – not her flawless skin, nor her forest eyes, not even a strand of her long locks – or any other member of the Forbidden Flock. They had all been reduced to ashes, and the only reason Al hadn't heard their deadly screams was because he'd been too enraptured by Ilana. He was about to return to her when he glanced at the ground, searching for the marble floor that he knew so well but that had been utterly obscured by the muddy brown mixture of blood and ash, and saw the first sign of life rising from the liquid.

It was small but sharp, steely but slick, stained red but purely gold. It was made of two parts clasped tightly together, pointing up at Al like an arrow. As it rose, more red came in boundless feathers, and then there were beady black eyes and outstretched wings and curled talons and a tail as long as a peacock's. The phoenix was rising and then flying, a child and then fully grown, naïve and then wise. It was a stunning sight, and Al was so focused on the one bird that he didn't even notice the others.

There must have been ten of them flying around the Entrance Hall by the time Al broke his gaze with the first, which was now perched on Ilana's shoulder and dropping tears onto her wrist, healing the cut and the scar until she was whole again. The other phoenixes did the same for the other Muggle-borns, restoring their skin and in it their hope, and Al watched the scene unfold as if he was seeing magic for the very first time...

"Those stuffed animals are the only magical things Lily owns, except for her miniature broom of course," Al stated as if this was an obvious fact that absolutely everyone would know. "But she gets upset once in the night and throws them all on the floor as if most of them don't mean anything to her. She needs to treat magic with the respect it deserves, otherwise she'll end up just like that bogus werewolf of hers... lost."

Teddy laughed as he sat down at the breakfast table across from Al, placing a bowl of steaming porridge in front of the black-haired boy. His own hair went from blue to black as he said, "Your dad used to tell me to respect magic as well, Al, but you and Lily are still young – you don't need to worry about that sort of thing just yet." Teddy was going to enter his fourth year at Hogwarts once the summer was over, and Al hated to think about all the magic he must have been dappling with at school.

"And anyway, I'm sorry you had to deal with her at all. I should have heard her and gotten her back to sleep myself," Teddy added when Al was still daydreaming about Hogwarts.

"Oh, that's okay," Al shrugged him off, taking a bite of his porridge and pretending that it wasn't still much too hot for his mouth to handle. "I talked her back to sleep."

"Good for you. What did you tell her that was so convincing?" Lily was still asleep as the boys ate their breakfast now, so clearly Al's words had done the trick on their sister.

Al had resorted to blowing on his bowl now, but in between exhales he informed Teddy, "I told her that she shouldn't worry about Mum and Dad, because they'll be fine. We're Potters. We're survivors."

"We're not all survivors!" came a voice that didn't belong to Teddy, making Al look up in search of its source. James appeared from around the corner a moment later, and though Teddy was glaring at him to shut it, James always liked to stir up a bit of trouble in the mornings.

He made his own bowl of porridge and started sipping it without even waiting for it to cool as Al asked helplessly, "What do you mean? You told me that yesterday, when Mum and Dad left."

"No," James shook his head, his body leaning against the kitchen counter lazily. "I said that Dad's a survivor, not anybody else, and definitely not you."

Teddy tried to interrupt then, but Al cut him off with, "Why can't I be a survivor too?"

"Because Dad was the Chosen One. One as in one person; you can't just have another!" exclaimed James as if this should be simply understood, even by a six year-old. "And anyway, you can't be a survivor if you've nothing to survive."

Al was on the verge of tears at this point, but James didn't seem to care. He merely continued to eat his porridge even as Al splattered his all over the floor on his way out of his seat, storming past James and yelling in his wake, "You know, brother, sometimes I hate you!"

Ilana must have sensed the void into which Al had fallen, for it was the feeling of her hand on his arm that pulled him from his past. But he avoided making any eye contact with her, turning his head to the entryway of the castle that no longer held any sign of a door once existing. Through the hole that was left, Al could just make out the tip of Zephyr's tail swinging peacefully at the far side of the courtyard, and beyond that the fires blazing above the Forbidden Forest. There were other dragons there, dragons that didn't know to switch sides, and the giants wouldn't be able to hold them off forever. Lily was there, Al could feel it, and Harry and Ginny too. They needed to survive, he needed them to, and he couldn't possibly know that they would unless he was there with them.

When he finally turned back to Ilana, her eyes looked full again, her skin was no longer peaked, and behind her the phoenixes were breaking through windows in their search for freedom. He remembered how strong she'd been when he'd cut her, how confident she'd been to put herself in so much danger, how swift she'd been when Salem had needed her bone mending potion. The only question he had for her was, "What do you see in me, Higgs?"

"What do you mean?" she asked with a tone that was genuine, or at least as genuine as Ilana could ever be.

Al looked at the other Muggle-borns, who were staring at him with puzzled expressions that showed both gratefulness and fear, when he explained, "I mean that when most people look at me, what they see is a murderer. But you don't. You see something else. I'm asking you what it is that you see."

After taking one long, deep breath, Ilana moved her hand up to Al's cheek, turned his eyes until they met with hers like magnets meeting across a plane, and said as wisely as the phoenixes flew, "I see someone who's willing to take risks – risks that will put himself, the people he loves, the people he wants to love, in copious amounts of danger. But I also see someone who isn't willing to give in to the danger of those risks. I see someone who wants to live, who wants to survive, but possibly too much."

Al had his own hand placed over hers now, and when she finished speaking he slowly pulled their hands off his cheek until he was gripping hers at their sides. He nodded solemnly to thank her for what she'd just told him before gesturing toward the waiting Muggle-borns and saying to Ilana, "You should stay here. Help them. You're good at it."

Ilana nodded solemnly to thank her for what he'd just told her before she shook his hand off hers and said, "You should go. Protect them. You're good at it."

They each did as the other had suggested, and as Al walked out of the castle and into the courtyard, he hopped onto Zephorien's back and flew into the sky to find his missing stars. Al and his dragon were a good ten meters into the air when the former looked above them for the first time and saw all of the phoenixes shooting in and out of the open windowpanes from every possible angle of the castle. Amongst them was a regal, white falcon that held a bulging blanket in his talons, and as Zephorien flew higher to give Al a closer look at the bird he'd never seen before, Al could have sworn that the phoenixes weren't the only ones that were crying.

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