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



46. Slim Defeat

Something was different. The dark green of the forest was still absconded with the light of fire, but now that fire was brighter, hotter, stronger. Al could feel the blistering sparks whipping his arms and illuminating the binding tattoo he'd shared with the largest dragon from Fingal's Cave. Keeling over and screaming as the burn spread, Al tried to focus enough energy on his ears so that he could hear the thumping footsteps of centaurs and Order members retreating in fear. He looked up from his spot in a nestle of pines to see the thestrals, whose home paddock was being scorched right in front of them, galloping for the Order's protection, but they were too late. The giant dragon, who Al had never had the chance to name before letting it loose to ravage across the Hogwarts grounds, only had to take a few wide steps to catch up with the runt of the thestral litter. Before any of the colt's herd could even attempt to protect him, the red-eyed beast had scooped him up by the talons, then threw him in the air tauntingly before catching him in a pit bordered by three-inch teeth and swallowing him whole.

"Well, that's unfortunate," Al gulped, trying to ignore the crunching sound of the colt's bony skin against those ferocious daggers. For a moment, he wondered how it was possible that the dragon could even see the thestral, for not all wizards could, but then he remembered that this dragon had seen plenty of death in the last twenty-four hours. In fact, he'd been responsible for a great deal of it.

And if the dragon was responsible, so too was Al. He had brought all the dragons here, and though he should have had complete control over them, they had clearly rebelled since his switching sides. Now all they listened to, especially the one Al currently faced, were the cries of a brighter, hotter, stronger golden hawk who circled overhead. Astoria had been out of the castle and in her Animagus form for the past half hour or so, and her presence was changing everything. While Al was glad to know that she'd stopped torturing Rose and was hopeful that Scorpius had been able to rescue her, he wasn't exactly thankful for the morale boost that the Flock was currently feeling upon seeing their leader fight amongst them. The Order of the Phoenix had no perk ever since Scorpius had left for the castle, and of course, Al was partially responsible for that as well.

Telling himself to look away from the bird that was sending Killing Curses down at Hagrid's Hut, Al shut his eyes momentarily, took a deep breath, and set his sights on the rogue dragon. Jumping out in front of the dragon and behind the trailing thestrals, Al stretched out his burning arms and yelled, "STOP this! These people and creatures are no longer my enemies."

Pools of crimson stared back at him with eyes that glistened in smoke, and for a moment, Al actually thought that the dragon was listening to him. That was until he heard a loud grunting noise coming from that deadly pit and had no time to run before a stream of fire was started thirty feet above his head and was headed straight for him. He was backing up as quickly as his legs would go, but the flames were faster than he was and soon they were only fifteen feet from him, then ten, then five, then one.

His eyes were shut again and the heat was pulsating against his lids and he was ready for it. He was ready to leave everyone here because they would survive without him. He was ready for the light, the sunrise, the new beginning. He was ready to see Arthur and McGonagall again, ready to apologize for what he'd done to them. He was ready to start over. He was ready to never say goodbye. He was ready to die.

So when he didn't, Al couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed. He could no longer keeps his eyes closed, however, for he was rolling down a long, spiny neck like tumbleweed, and until he looked around he had no idea what was going on. His eyes opened as his body tried to balance on the back of the one dragon he still trusted. Zephorien had been facing off against the sibling Blacks, but it seemed as though he had returned when he'd felt Al's fear. Interestingly, he hadn't let Al die even when Al had been ready to, but perhaps being ready was different than wanting it. And of course, Zephyr knew Al better than Al knew himself.

The smaller, younger dragon was baring its teeth to the larger in a fierce growl, setting aside the fact that they were relatives and instead listening closely to his master's commands. Realizing quickly that Zephyr wouldn't be able to attack with a nice smelly wizard on his back, Al silently urged him to use the arrow-shaped tip of his tail and, as soon as Zephyr started to swing it, Al leaped off of him and watched from behind as the arrow crashed into the opposing dragon's cheek, impaling him directly underneath one of those red eyes. He would have continued to watch the brawl so that he could help Zephyr capitalize on his opportunities in battle, but this became impossible when he felt himself being dragged out of the thestral paddock and into the centaurs' clearing by a pair of round, cushioned arms covered in as much hair as a werewolf.

"What do yeh think yeh're doin' Al? Plannin' ter get yerself killed?" The voice was wretchedly loud, husky from years of life and lifetimes of care, and it was one that Al would know blind.

The first thing he saw through the night was Hagrid's bushy grey beard, and around him things were a blurred mixture of orange and brown, the dragons were hissing and what must have been giants were grunting while Order members conversed in harsh whispers. Hagrid had pulled Al into the clearing that was now protected, a sort of refuge meant to give the Order, from wizards and witches to giants and centaurs and thestrals, some time to regroup and heal wounds. With Hagrid's help, Al was able to push himself into a sitting position as his burns subsided, and he took in his surroundings more thoroughly. He and Hagrid were on the edge of the clearing, the closest to the still battling dragons, while about fifty centaurs joined a herd of twenty thestrals to his right, fifty or so giants remained behind him, and only a dozen soldiers sat exhausted in their wake. Al was surveying the group of them, hoping he might find the familiar face of a family member, when all color and all noise were obscured by Zephorien's screeching howl.

Turning back to the place from whence he'd came, Al saw Zephorien helplessly twisting himself and craning his neck for Al upon being surrounded by not just one, but all five of the pirate dragons. The large one was spearheading the group that had all returned from their various positions within the forest. The siblings, one male Zephyr's same size and a female slightly smaller, were on one side while the mother and son were on the other. Each was stepping closer and closer to Al's friend with every second that passed, just waiting to simultaneously send fire his way.

"NOOOOOOO!" yelled Al without even thinking before he spoke. The sound of his voice triggered a whole slew of reactions from within the Order, but he didn't care about any of them at that moment. Luckily, the one whom he did care about also seemed to hear him.

Zephyr was backing up and plowing through the youngest dragon just to get to Al, while behind Al Lysander Scamander was coming closer and asking worriedly, "What is he doing here? Hagrid, you better not have let him in here!"

Ignoring the naïve twin, Al scrambled to his feet and addressed Hagrid in one of the most desperate tones he'd ever used, "DO something! Stretch the barrier; let him in!" He could feel the rage swimming up from his core, and the only person he thought might sympathize was Hagrid. Al would have stretched the barrier himself if he knew what spell the arrogant, on-looking centaurs had used to put it up.

They and Lysander were still staring at Al with contempt, and their mouths all gaped open when Hagrid pointed his pink umbrella toward the closest dragon and stretched the barrier just long enough for Zephorien to duck under it while bucking heads with the others to keep them out. As soon as he was safe, Al rushed to the dragon and pressed his forehead against a cut Zephyr had received on his nose. Without voicing the charm, Al gripped onto James's wand and wished for Zephyr to be healed, and then he was.

Meanwhile, the large dragon's continuous flames were turning the clearing into a sauna even though the fire couldn't actually enter the area, and everyone had backed away from Al and Zephyr except for Hagrid, Lysander, and Lorcan, the latter twin having momentarily left his fiancée to approach the creature he had always been fascinated by. Instinctively, Al hunched over to hide himself from the stares, for they made him feel the way Scorpius must have felt last fall, back when Astoria's crimes were only just beginning to spread. Nobody had listened to him or trusted him then, including Al, and Al had never had any notion of how much that isolation might hurt until now. The stares he could handle; every Potter and Weasley child had grown up being stared at by their peers. Even the fear didn't bother him, for that was one of the usual prices of power. What really tore him apart from the inside out was the judgment, the stubbornness, the unwillingness to see anything in Al that they didn't want to see. Al could be stubborn too, but he never judged a book by its cover. Never had, never would.

"Tiergan, tha' one," stated Hagrid, oblivious to everyone else as he looked up at the fire-breather. "Strong-willed."

"Yeah," Al nodded. He hadn't heard the Irish name before, but it suited the dragon perfectly. "Tiergan."

The friendly dialogue didn't last long before Lysander butt his head in once more. Unlike his brother, he was keeping a safe distance from Zephyr, but still couldn't keep his mouth shut when Al was so near. "We're already down in numbers, mate," he told Al. "There's no need to plant another dragon on us, not now that this war's already over."

Lorcan shared a tentative glance back at a battered Lucy as he cautiously came closer to Zephyr, and he went in for a detailed look when Al answered Lysander, "Look, he won't hurt you. won't hurt you. I dunno' what's going on with these other dragons, but I finally know what's going on with me, and believe me when I say that I'm on your side. This war isn't over until I decide that it is."

Lysander still looked questionable but kept quiet as Hagrid crossed his arms and chuckled with pride. The sound made Al's attention sway back to the half-giant, whom Al asked, "Have you seen my parents? I thought they'd be here." Al recognized a few of the other Order members in the clearing – Neville Longbottom was talking with the centaur leaders, new wife Luna was feeding the thestrals large hunks of raw meat, Holly was making bottles of water to pass around, and Colin Creevey was helping the giants get ready to move somewhere – but his family was nowhere to be found.

Sensing his concern, Hagrid answered Al quickly and to the best of his ability. "Harry an' Ginny went with that blonde cousin o' yers ter look fer the spiders after I told 'em they might be able to sniff out young Lily."

"Lily?" asked Lysander before Al could take in any of Hagrid's information. He seemed to have forgotten about his anger toward Al as he said, "But she's not missing! I saw her a couple of hours ago; she looked like she was running off toward the Black Lake."

Sighing, because running was never a good sign, Al broke the confusion by explaining, "She was running because she was being chased. There's a member of the Flock who wants her dead... her specifically. She won't stop at anything to make sure it happens." Al himself would have been off and running for the Black Lake by now if it weren't for the dragons waiting close by who wouldn't stop killing unless he figured out how to tame them.

Lysander, on the other hand, didn't feel any such responsibility, and after yelling to Lorcan to take care of himself, he sprinted from the barrier and Disapparated before any dragons could stop him. Al couldn't explain why, but something inside of him was certain that Lysander would in fact find Lily and would bring her back safely. After all, Al had seen Lysander in action back at his apartment in Montrose, when he'd taken care of Lily like a true soldier. Lysander loved every part of the Potter family because he loved every part of his best friend, and Al only hoped that he would still love said family once he found out that his best friend had been killed.

Al's smile was busy fading when Hagrid returned to their previous conversation and said, "I always knew yeh'd come 'round."

"You did?" asked Al, because Hagrid was the first to say so. "How'd you know that? Because I warned you about the giants last year?" he added, because he himself had never known, had never had that certainty, had never had that faith.

"Nah," Hagrid laughed. "Because yeh were the on'y one ter visit me on yer own, and because Saber always loved yeh, just like this here dragon loves yeh now."

Al was thinking back on the dog he'd recently rescued and was looking at Zephorien as the dragon basked in a gentle pat from Lorcan but gazed directly into Al's eyes, when Hagrid finished with, "Creatures, 'specially the magic ones, they don' pay much attention ter brawn or brains, but they always know how ter dig fer the buried hearts."

As if he understood every word that Hagrid had just said, Zephyr lowered his neck to nudge Al's shoulder lovingly, but as soon as he did so, Tiergan growled as if in pain from outside the barrier. It had been his tattoo on Al's shoulder that Zephyr had touched. For a moment, Al thought about the difference between these two dragons, both proud and fierce, but one loyal to death and the other rebellious as a goblin. It didn't take long for Al to understand which parts of himself they each represented, and while Hagrid was right in thinking that Al's heart had been deeply buried for a long while and that now it was finally coming to the surface, there was still an anger in him. There was still envy, still power, still guilt.

His head hanging low, Al clenched his fists then opened them once more so that he could say to Hagrid, "But I've still done terrible things. You wouldn't believe what, who I-"

He was going to tell Hagrid everything. He was going to admit to killing McGonagall and even James, because Hagrid deserved to know the truth and he deserved to be the first one Al gave in to. But unfortunately, his admission was cut short by the interrupting yells of Colin Creevey from over where the giants were beginning to march along the river and out of the forest.

"HAGRID, I think they're ready!" Colin was trying to halt their progress by holding his hands up as high in the air as they would reach, but of course even that was only as high as the giants' knees.

Nodding and tightening his belt buckle along his widening waist, Hagrid yelled back, "All right, all right! I'm comin'!"

Before letting him leave, Al asked with more than a hint of concern, "Wait, where are you taking them? Aren't they supposed to be fighting the dragons?" They were the only magical beings big or strong enough to face the dragons with even the slightest chance of winning; the last thing Al wanted was for them to run away.

"Aye," Hagrid replied, "But they've bin fightin' all day and night already, and they're still not winnin'. I'm startin' ter think they're too big targets; one blast o' fire can bring 'em down. They'd be better suited fer the Quidditch pitch, where they can help guard the wounded an' maybe even fight in the center."

Al couldn't argue with this, because Hagrid was right. He was only afraid of what might happen here, with these dragons, once all their targets disappeared. But because that would and should be up to Al, he allowed Hagrid to lead his giant clan out of the barrier alongside Colin, Holly, and the newlyweds. The only wizard and witch who stayed behind with Al and the centaurs were Lorcan and Lucy, the former of whom hugged his mother goodbye as he told Hagrid that he couldn't bear to leave these creatures this way. Hagrid understood.

After they were gone, Al found himself staring at the frozen ground where tiny black spiders were darting around his shoes, headed for the forest's edge. He was trying to decipher whether they were pointed more toward the Black Lake, the castle, or the Quidditch pitch, when Lucy approached to question her cousin. "What are you doing here, Al? Don't you think you've already done enough?" Her voice wasn't as accusatory as Lysander's had been; it was more pitiful.

"No," said Al as Lorcan finally left Zephorien so that he could stand beside Lucy and hold her hand. Al was at first transfixed by those intertwined fingers, seeing not just how perfectly they fit together put also how Lorcan and Lucy both sighed in relief once their hands were clasped, as if they literally needed to be connected in order to stay awake and keep fighting. Shaking his head so that he would stop seeing this and worse, stop seeing Ilana, he blinked multiple times and said, "No, I haven't done enough. I don't think anything will ever be enough to make up for the wrongs I've caused, but I need to start somewhere, and I've decided on the dragons. I could really use your help in taming them."

Lorcan had plenty of experience with magical creatures, and perhaps Lucy, the budding herbologist, might know of some sort of sedation herb that could bring the dragons down. They, however, didn't see the same necessity or talent in Al, evident when Lorcan asked, "Why should we trust you?"

"I'm the only one who can stop these dragons before they burn the whole forest down," Al answered after looking behind to see that all five were still stationed right outside the barrier. By now, the centaurs had conjured enough bravery to step closer to Zephyr in order to provide back-up for new leaders Lorcan and Lucy.

"And why is that?" asked a centaur with astonishingly blue eyes that matched the girl he stood firmly behind, and whom Al recognized from recent history books as Firenze, an ex-professor of Divination at Hogwarts.

Al thought for a while about his next answer, because he didn't want to scare anyone off now, but he also didn't want to lie and say that he was an expert dragon trainer when he had no way of following through on such claims. So, for once, he opted for truth, and said, "Because I was the one who brought them here in the first place."

The news hit the party like a wave, the shock echoing from one mind until its owner turned to another and passed it on. While they were all taking it in, Al began to wonder what was happening in other parts of the grounds. He could still hear Astoria squawking and flapping from somewhere in the sky, and he was beginning to think he heard footsteps in the surrounding area. There hadn't been many Flock members fighting in the forest since the dragons had been able to take out most of the Order themselves, but now Al could have sworn that he heard their groans and smelled the clouds of rotting flesh that tended to hover around their peasant bodies like flies around a corpse.

Before he could turn around to inspect his suspicion, Lucy's shock wore off and she became the first one to speak again when she asked, "What about the Flock? You know, yourallies?"

This time, Al didn't need to think about his answer. Remembering what Scorpius had first threatened Astoria with when she'd captured Rose, Al tried to perk up the spirit of the soldiers that were now his by repeating those same words. "Well, I figure we should keep our original promise to them. Let's burn them alive."

Everyone was smiling and the centaurs were even cheering, but it was the haggard, out-of breath voice coming from behind Al that earned their attention next. "Sounds like a plan," he said, and Al caught the mixture of confused astonishment and pure joy in Lorcan's bright green eyes as the better twin took in the sight of a man he hadn't seen for over eight years.

Rolf Scamander looked just as Al remembered him from Azkaban: so gangly that his flesh was snow white thanks to its proximity to bone, hair so long and so blond that it lit up the entire clearing, ears so uneven and pointed that he might have been mistaken for an elf had he not been uncannily tall. He was still wearing his prison rags and his shady sister was nowhere to be found, but the stench Al had noticed before was coming from five magically killed stags each being cooked and eaten by a distracted dragon. Al had no idea how long it had taken Rolf to sail all the way to Hogwarts or to catch those deer, but he was pleased to see that the naturalist dealt well with the dragons and that he was greeting his son with open arms.

Lorcan didn't even say hello before he yelled at the centaurs without looking back at them, "Stop wasting time and let him in!"

The half-breeds exchanged a few worried looks but eventually did as Lorcan commanded, and Rolf was crying as the dragons finished up their meals and he stumbled forward to place both his hands on Lorcan's face and say, "I've missed you, son."

"I missed you too, Dad," said Lorcan, and suddenly Lucy understood who this odd-looking man was and was grinning from cheek to cheek. From what Al knew of the twins and their father, all of which he'd learned from James, Lorcan had far fewer qualms with Rolf than did Lysander. It had been solely Lysander's idea to send his father to prison, and perhaps he and Lorcan hadn't been as close as twins could be over the years because Lysander had never asked for his brother's permission.

Breaking apart after a long hug, Rolf buried the wand he'd stolen from an Azkaban guard deep in his loose pockets as he teased Lorcan about his dirty suit and laid eyes on the lovely Lucy for the first time. "And who might this be?" he asked with his hand extended to the girl in a ruffled red dress.

"Lucy Weasley," she shook his hand, her brand new diamond ring not going unnoticed by Rolf. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Scamander."

Rolf was nodding but looked to Lorcan for further explanation, and without hesitating his son wrapped his arm around Lucy's back, which he'd already covered with his suit jacket to keep her warm, and said, "Lucy and I are engaged."

Laughing in the best possible way, Rolf wiped his thick hair away from his face and said, "Well, we certainly have a lot to catch up on, don't we?"

Lorcan nodded and then Rolf suggested that they walk around the barrier's perimeter to talk for a while. Lorcan agreed, but he dragged Lucy along with him for both himself and for her. That left Al alone with Zephyr, a group of angry dragons that were now ready for their real meal, and the centaurs that wouldn't have trusted him even if he hadn't fought with the Forbidden Flock half the battle.

He didn't trust them either, but he knew about as much about centaurs as they knew about him. He knew that they believed they could tell the future and were flattered by wizards who believed they could, and seeing Rolf again reminded Al that the future was ever-changing and highly unpredictable. Al had gone to the Hebrides looking for dragons and had found pirates and Azkaban along the way. Now, he was expecting to tame the dragons and then use them to end this war once and for all, but he of all people knew that plans could change in an instant.

For both strategy and his own curiosity, Al turned to Firenze and asked, "How will this all play out? You know, according the stars, or whatever."

Ignoring the insult, Firenze trotted forward, looked Al up and down, and stated, "There is no real prophecy attached to your name, Albus Potter, but I do see this: a decision that was once made for you will soon be made by you, and it will change the world."

Once the father and son had made it through their lengthy discussion, they and Lucy joined Al and the centaurs with a newfound sense of enthusiasm. Rolf was about as ready to end this war as Al was, his brown eyes searing with fire, and Lorcan had never looked happier than he did upon having both Lucy and his father all to himself. Now, he wanted nothing more than to protect them and his happiness, while Lucy was like Al: she hadn't seen her parents or sister since the wedding, and though she knew they were battling somewhere, she had no idea if they were still alive and would do anything to make sure they were.

So, they all had motive, but best of all, Al had gained some serious knowledge from each of them. They were just beginning to formulate a plan of action when Rolf brought up the dragon binding process, wondering to himself how these dragons could be so adamant to kill certain people if they were still wild and unbound.

"They're not wild. They're bound to me," Al stopped him before he could go any further. After explaining what that meant to the confused Lucy, he confessed, "But they're not listening anymore. They're still set on the orders I gave them before I switched sides, even though Zephyr is following me perfectly. I was beginning to think that perhaps they'd beenunbound."

Charlie had told him, Astoria, and Knox that it was possible for dragons to separate themselves from their master if not taken proper care of, but this only occurred in the direst of situations. Knowing this, Lorcan shook his head and said, "No, if they were unbound we'd know it, believe me. They'd most likely have flown back home by now, especially with the giants around."

"Lorcan's right," Rolf piped in as he gazed between Zephyr and his five relatives. "But it may be worth looking at what happened to Zephorien here in comparison to the others. Clearly, there must be some difference, either in how they were first bound to you or how they have been treated since."

Al thought back on his 'adoption' of all the dragons, but what he saw was the same: he performed the exact same process on all six of them, and he rescued them all from unpleasant circumstances, Zephyr from his chains in Romania and the other five from the darkness of Fingal's Cave. No one seemed to have a reasonable rebuttal when Al told them all of this, at least until Lucy used her feminine perspective to ponder an alternative explanation.

"Maybe it isn't about them so much as you," she said. "Maybe it's about how you felt when you bound them to you, or where your mindset was at the time." She looked exhausted even in her crouched position on the ground, but as much as her body urged her to, she wasn't giving up. Tiergan had already proved that will was more powerful than strength.

Taking himself back to both occasions, Al thought aloud, "With Zephyr, I had a plan. I was using him and Uncle Charlie to save myself while also stopping Astoria. I didn't want things getting out of hand again, so I was ready to finally do something right, something for the Order. When the plan backfired, I used Zephyr to take me certain places and to fight in battle, but every decision I made for him came directly from me. It was never an order from anyone else."

"And who gave the orders to take the others? Who gave the orders to make them fight for the Flock?" asked Lorcan, catching on to a possible pattern.

Al looked to Rolf when he answered, "Eleri. She wanted me to destroy the cave so that she could have a reason to blackmail me, so that I would help her break into Azkaban. And when I bound myself to the dragons, I was doing it for Astoria, because she needed a bigger army. I made them fight for the Flock because, at that point, I was still fighting for the Flock."

It was Rolf who really solved the puzzle, saying through squinted eyes, "The dragons cannot fly in alternating directions. They are bound to your heart at a certain point, but when your heart changes course, they do not change with it."

"So, what do I do to fix it?" asked Al once everyone went silent, even the centaurs looking disappointed by the lack of optimism following Firenze's promising premonition.

Rolf and Lorcan looked at each other for a long while before the former shrugged and said, "I suppose you're going to have to re-bind them."

"No," argued one of the centaurs that Al hadn't met yet. He had dark skin and even darker eyes, making it easy for his words to be taken very seriously when he warned, "If you re-bind them, those dragons will still waiver, and worse, they will fight for their individual power. They will kill your other dragon for it."

Al panicked because he could see this future just as clearly as the centaur could. There was a part of Al that still wanted power, because that part stemmed from the core within him that wanted to be loved, to be recognized, to be someone. If he were to split himself into six pieces, they would all fight for the same thing, knowing that only one could have it. Zephorien would be killed, along with the others, and Tiergan would win through his wrath. Al knew it because it already happened to himself, and the only reason he had chosen to fight for the Order now was because enemy, his brother, his ally had beaten the bad out of him.

But if there was only one Al, one leader and one to call the shots, perhaps the other pieces of him would all fall into place. They would trail behind him willingly and would present themselves when needed rather than when threatened. If these angry dragons were bound to Al via a route filled with content, then they would have no reason to defy him. That was what made Al say confidently, "Then I won't rebind them to me. I'll bind them to Zephyr." Like a pack of wolves, Zephorien would be their alpha, and his control would be overseen, but not enforced, by Albus.

No one seemed to disagree, and Rolf even stifled a laugh upon being so impressed. Then they went to work detailing exactly how they would accomplish such a heavy task, Rolf explaining a dragon taming tactic known as 'sweet spots' when Al was unsure how they would hold them off long enough to even go near them. Apparently, dragons had pressure points that, if aroused, could momentarily calm the beasts, much like the special knot at the base of the Whomping Willow.

"How do you know where that spot is for each individual dragon?" asked Lucy after hearing the willow simile.

"Ah!" said Rolf excitedly, having hoped that someone would ask that exact question. His pointer finger in the air, he leaned across the ground toward Al and poked his tattooed shoulder once lightly. In the background, Tiergan blew fire at the barrier, something he had long since given up on.

Realizing that the dragon's sweet spot must have been the same spot on them to which they were bound on Al, he figured that such pressure would cause opposing pain for the other. That was why Al's chest would always ache when Zephorien was in any pain or danger – because they were bound to each other at the chest.

With this information, Al frantically whipped off his black shirt to reveal the slew of branded tattoos all over his upper body, allowing Rolf and Lorcan to look over the markings as he told them which body parts were connected to which dragon. "The mother was bound first, right to my stomach. Then came her son, the little one, who took a side of my neck."

"What about Ponto and Pixie over there?" Lorcan asked, referring to the sibling dragons that were currently jumping toward the stars with open mouths as a flock of bats flew past.

Chuckling at their new names, Al turned around to give a better view of his last two sweet spots, together covering the whole of his back. "Pixie on the left, Ponto on the right."

"All right, then," Rolf clapped his hands together. He seemed to like having a goal again, and Al didn't blame him. It must have been hard to live in Azkaban, where every day was longer and less fulfilled than the last. "Albus, you'll ride Zephorien and help him with the bonding spells, while I'll go for their sweet spots."

Lucy was next to offer her services, saying, "I can look for some hellebore leaves; combine those with the dragons' next meal and they might calm down some." The centaurs were kind enough to volunteer to accompany her while hunting for more deer.

That only left Lorcan, and there was only one job left to be done. "I'll be the bait," he said, and though both Rolf and Lucy didn't seem pleased by the thought, they knew that Lorcan was old enough to make his own decisions now. Al wondered if the same could ever be said about him, because he was only a year younger than Lorcan but felt about twenty.

The centaurs led Lucy toward the unicorn cropping, leaving only Rolf, Lorcan, and Al to face the dragons by Zephyr's side. Before Al mounted him, he walked up to Zephyr's front and rubbed his chest consolingly as he told the dragon who had somehow become his friend, "Be careful, you hear? We've got work to do after this, and I can't have you going down now." The words were meant just as much for himself as they were for Zephyr. Al was going to tame these dragons like a knight bringing kingdoms to their knees, but to do so he'd need to find the queen.

"All right, Lorcan, you first," Rolf was commanding as Zephyr knelt down and allowed Al to hop onto his back. Rolf was a natural leader, and though Al didn't see any signs of insanity in him, every now and then Rolf's eyes would light up and his hands would shake and he'd have to shut himself down in order to remain grounded. Al wondered if this was a symptom of spending nearly a decade in Azkaban, or if this was what had put him in Azkaban in the first place.

Lorcan clutched his wand tightly, walking out from the barrier with two of the five awaiting dragons already staring at him. They knew just as well as Lorcan did the exact place in which the barrier ended, and as soon as he crossed it, fire and smoke was engulfing the area once more and Al could barely see where Lorcan had run to. At this point, Rolf had run off too, headed for the mother dragon where Al and Zephyr were supposed to meet him. The father and son were both quite spry, leaving Al with only a few instantaneous glimpses of their blinding hair as they hopped through the fire and beneath the dragons' bellies. They were one in the same amongst the beasts, working perfectly together to make a fire-free pathway for Al.

"Come on, Oreo," Al began to steer Zephyr toward the trapped mother. "Let's go dig for these buried hearts."

Lorcan was zipping around the others in hopes of providing enough time for Zephyr to march up to the mother, who Rolf was standing under in preparation of stroking her stomach. Once Zephyr was close enough, Rolf did just that, looking like he was petting a frightened dog as he repeatedly mumbled the Welsh word, Madrona, under his breath. The dragon responded much like a dog would, immediately relaxing her stance and curling her spiny neck in search for the source of such kindness. As soon as she looked away, Al urged Zephyr to breathe fire. He did so willingly, and Madrona sensed it instantly, meeting his flames with her own and letting Al perform the binding spell between the two. As it was cast, he could feel the tattoo on his stomach fading slightly, leaving little but a darkened scar in its place.

Madrona's young son had been looking on as his mother was bound. When it was over, she walked with Zephyr to meet the little warrior who seemed to want to do exactly as his mother had just done. Binding him was an easy task, but the siblings put up a harder fight. Rolf had to jump on their backs somehow to reach their sweet spots, and their swinging tails made doing so rather difficult, especially with the furious Tiergan raging and stomping from close by. But when Lucy returned, the centaurs were able to wrap Tiergan up in the roots of the forest's strongest trees so that Lorcan could rest for a moment and Lucy could throw up a dead ferret, recently infused with light sedative hellebore. That gave Zephyr, Madrona, and Hogan – the son Al had named for the sound he made when he sneezed – the chance to gang up on Ponto and Pixie, whom Zephyr was bound to simultaneously.

Now with a strong family of five dragons, Al was fairly certain that binding the final one would be a breeze. Like he'd been about so many things in his life, he was wrong. The hellebore wore off on Tiergan within five minutes, and then he was back to his terrifyingly stubborn self, only now he was fueled by betrayal along with his usual willpower. Zephyr, who was the second strongest after Tiergan, tried to come after him with sheer force, flapping his outstretched wings against Tiergan's shoulders himself, but it only made things worse. The flapping wings turned into flying ones as Tiergan pushed off from the forest floor and prepared to spread his wrath across the grounds. For a moment, Al considered what could possibly happen if he didn't follow the rogue beast, but when he saw Lorcan hanging onto the soaring Tiergan by the tip of his balled tail, Al's own anger caused the other five dragons to follow Tiergan with roaring cries and flames aimed for every last survivor of the Forbidden Flock.

They were led all over Hogwarts, fleeing from the forest and over Hagrid's burnt down hut, gliding over the shores of the Black Lake that had melted in patches over the course of the night. Al searched for Lily by craning his neck over Zephyr's side, but neither she nor Lysander were anywhere in sight. The other twin was attempting to scale Tiergan's back mid-air, and his balance proved good enough to do so until Tiergan started to feel the extra weight and began changing direction every ten seconds. Madrona and Hogan were falling behind, but Ponto and Pixie each took a side of Zephorien and zig-zagged across the lake until they were flying over Hogsmeade, where most of the village was covered in smoke and dead bodies with browning blood lay stagnant in the snow. All Al could think about was James as they swerved back toward the lake and he spotted the piece of overturned ice that James, Scorpius, and Ilana had used to drown Wynn. They left soon enough, though, and were then approaching the brightly lit castle, with its hundreds of shattered windows and cheering ghosts. Outside in the center flank, giants were marching in time with the thumps of the Whomping Willow, below which a group of witches and wizards were fighting their way through the remaining Flock. In the middle of the group was a girl with flaming red hair who limped along as steadily as she could, her blond boyfriend supporting her weight and his clan of soldiers defending them from every angle. Al smiled at the sight and kept searching the crowd for a certain phoenix-healing witch, but he wasn't able to find Ilana before he was distracted by a different kind of bird call.

Astoria whizzed up and over Tiergan and was headed for Al before Zephyr swerved beneath her. She was closely followed by a smaller rook, who Zephyr had grown somewhat attached to and was more than happy to blow in the hawk's direction to help Knox speed up. They were hovering over the Quidditch pitch, on the outskirts of which stood Harry and Teddy waiting for Knox to bring Astoria back down, when Zephyr caught up with Tiergan once more and Al spotted the stilled body rolling off his back.

Lorcan was just about to fall to the floor when Ponto zoomed past Zephyr and caught him, steering his sister and the others back toward the forest and allowing Al's fury to rise up in Zephyr. Moments later, Zephyr was sinking his talons into Tiergan's tail and Tiergan was wailing in response. The two dragons were caught in a round robin and were beginning to lose altitude, but for once Al and Zephyr had the upper hand because they were behind Tiergan. Like a dog trying to catch its own tail, Tiergan had nowhere to go but backward, only Zephyr was pushing him forward and was still clawing his way toward those reflecting red eyes. A few scratches at those orbs, along with multiple Killing Curses sent from Al, and Tiergan was falling to his death somewhere deep in the forest, where his decaying body would feed myriad other creatures for a lifetime to come. But even knowing this, even knowing that Tiergan would never have allowed himself to be bound again, Al still felt sorry for him. It was that sympathy that convinced Al of the reality of change. And if he was going to finally change, now was the time to do it.

Telling himself that he would be okay to face James again, to face death again, Al had Zephyr land in the centaurs' clearing, where the other dragons were waiting and grieving over a body that laid on the ground beneath a veil of long, dark brown hair. Lucy was sobbing as she clutched Lorcan in all possible ways, from his skinny red tie to his spiky blond hair to his father's pointed ears. Rolf was there too, kneeling on the ground about a foot away with his hand covering his mouth as he wondered what he was supposed to do. He didn't know how to be a father anymore; he never really had. But as Al looked at Rolf's helpless stance, he couldn't help but think of Harry and the fact that the two fathers weren't all that different. Al suspected that no parent truly knew how to cope with the death of their child.

It was Al's decision to leave the dragons behind as he walked through the surrounding centaurs and bent down to inspect what little of Lorcan's body he could see amongst Lucy's locks and tears. When he tried to touch the boy's wrist to see if he had any pulse left in him, Lucy swatted his hand away and lifted her buried head just enough to look Al right in the eyes and scream at him, "It should have been YOU!" He'd never seen his cousin like this, not the gentle, caring Lucy. Then again, while animals might know how to dig for buried hearts, death had a way of unleashing buried truths. Lucy wasn't the only one who wished Al dead in another's place, as he was well aware of the accusations he would continue to receive when he finally told his family about James.

"I know," he said, because he really did. "It should have been me. You're right." She really was.

Lucy looked like she was about to slap him, but Rolf stopped her when he crawled forward and copped hold of both his son's hand as well as Lucy's, whose ring had cracked in the midst of her swelling. Once they were connected, Al held on to Lorcan's cold, exposed shoulder, realizing quickly that his stunned body was the result of a perfectly aimed Killing Curse that could only have been produced by one person, or rather one bird. Without a second glance, Al turned on the spot and brought the Scamanders with him.

They were dropped off on the cold grass of the Quidditch pitch, Lorcan placed right next to his friend James on the half of the field that was reserved for the dead rather than the wounded. It was too quiet here, with even the echoes of panting and screaming from nearer the castle soft as whispers. That made it a whole lot harder to listen to Lucy's blubbering, which Al figured he couldn't handle much longer and eventually stepped away from. As soon as he did, his seat on the ground was replaced by a sopping wet Lysander, half-frozen water dripping from every part of his face so that it was impossible to tell whether or not he was crying.

It took a few minutes for Al to look away from Lysander, the soldier who'd suddenly lost everything – his best friend and his twin brother – and wasn't even paying enough attention to notice what he'd gained – a sister in-law and a father. Was I like him? Al thought. Had he been oblivious to all the good in his life simply because all the bad had seemed worse? Had his family and friends not held onto him hard enough, or had he pushed them away? Had Ilana ever loved him, or had she stayed for so long because she just wanted to feelloved? Had Astoria been the first one to care, or had she been the first one Al noticed? Had James been killed, or had he been murdered?

The sight of the Scamanders brought out a number of terrible thoughts in Al's mind, because there was very little good to be found in what had just happened to them. The one thing that Al tried to focus on instead was the one person he had never stopped looking out for, even on his worst days. He saw the trail of spiders first, and they led him straight to her. Lily was more beautiful than Al had ever seen her as she stood frozen – either from the icy water she too had been soaked in or from the shock of seeing James – with the heavy make-up washed from her face so that her scars, her fire, her secret, could finally be shown to the world.

"I'm sorry, Lil," said Al as he stepped forward and wrapped himself around his smaller sister in one smooth motion. "It's my fault. Everything – your bite, Ryder, James – is my-"

"EXPELLIARMUS!" yelled a deep voice that made both Lily and Al turn their heads. Harry was pushing Astoria onto the far side of the pitch, running her human version straight into the wounded Order members with Teddy and Knox providing backup.

Astoria deflected the spell with a flick of her wrist, but she didn't laugh like Al expected her to. Instead, she was silent, empty, blank. Her face was a white canvas without a splotch of ink on it, and while she had nothing left to gain, she also had nothing to lose.

Sensing this, Knox looked over to Teddy and held up three fingers that soon became one. In perfect time, the two enemies became partners and each conjured a rope that wrapped itself around Astoria's wrists so that she was leashed on both sides by the two men who, in an odd sort of way, had been the most important pawns in her giant chess game. From behind the boys, Ginny and Dominique attempted to disarm Astoria once more, but Knox threw them back before they came too close. He didn't want them to get hurt by the still armed Astoria, but even more than that, he wanted to do this himself.

Al had a front view of Knox from across the pitch, only able to see Astoria from the back, and he reveled in the fierce expression on Rookie's face. Holding on tightly to his rope, Knox walked up to Astoria until he was only a few inches from her and snatched the wand out of her hand without any magic, seething at her between his perfectly straight teeth, "I've been waiting to do this for a very long time."

By now, hundreds of Order members had gathered around to witness Astoria's imminent end, all of Al's many cousins having survived the battle and now breaking off from their parents to go in for a better view. Hagrid had brought the giants back, along with an unknowing Luna and Neville. Colin had joined up with his younger brother and Ron, who was now standing next to Harry and waiting patiently for Hermione to show up and complete the original trio. Hogwarts professors were there too, wands ready to assist Knox if anything went wrong, and Al had pulled a very hesitant Lily closer to the action so that they could join everyone.

Astoria looked around at them all with a miraculous glint of hope in her eye. She must have known that she was doomed, but as Al studied the face he knew so well, he saw a witch who had given up on life but wasn't about to let death roll over her like a gentle wave. She wanted more than that. She wanted a display. She wanted fireworks. She wanted unadulterated, undeserved, unending reason to be remembered.

So, when Knox stole a glance at Dominique and then turned to his old mentor and whispered two words that should have brought her to the floor, Astoria didn't need her wand to fight him off. She just needed her will. The rope was torn in seconds and soon after Astoria had her wand back in her hands as if all she'd needed to do to get it was snap her fingers. The first thing she did with it was blast Knox as far away as he would go, and then she proceeded to turn herself in circles so that her aim met just about everyone around her, waiting for them to test their power against hers.

When people started to do just that and when she blocked or rebounded all of them, Al slowly backed away before she saw him there. He didn't know what to do and he was beginning to think that no one did, because Harry was fighting, Ron was fighting, Ginny was fighting, Teddy was fighting, Mercy was fighting, Smethley was fighting, parents were fighting and their children were fighting, everyone was fighting, and nothing could stop her. That was where Al's thoughts were at, his body positioned a few meters from the crowd as he tried to avoid stepping over the wounded, when he heard the phoenixes.

Directly to his left, Ilana and Hermione were leading a group of fifty or so Muggle-borns across the grounds that were now Flock-free thanks to Al and his dragons, a flock of singing birds flying overhead and a pair of disabled teenagers in their wake. As the crowd made an opening for Hermione to walk through and join her husband and best friend, Al tried to tear his eyes from the green eyes that had yet to see him so that he could look upon the slow moving Rose and Scorpius.

Rose had one arm around Scorpius and the other around her brother, but Hugo let her go when he saw a head of thick ginger hair rising above the sea of people, Rose understanding that he needed to join their father. Now just the two of them, Rose and Scorpius had a silent conversation amongst themselves – Rose pulling out a plain, brown fabric from beneath her dress and Scorpius shaking his head as if he was repelled by the idea that Al still didn't understand. Caressing his cheek in her feeble hand, Al saw Rose mouth the words, You can do this, to Scorpius as he closed his eyes and gave in to her touch.

Not liking how weak Rose looked and not knowing why Scorpius wasn't holding the Elder Wand, Al waited for more clues to present themselves before approaching either of his old friends. Rose's convincing seemed to work, for soon Scorpius was nodding lightly and Rose was unfolding the fabric into what at first looked to Al like a decrepit sack, but upon second glance he realized was an upside-down hat. This wasn't just any hat, either. It was long and well-used, and looked as though it had a face within its creases. Al didn't know where it was kept during the year or how Rose had come to have it, but he did know that she was holding open the Sorting Hat.

Al watched very closely as Scorpius the boyfriend bent his head and looked into the hat, even more closely as Scorpius the leader reached his hand beneath the rim, even more closely as Scorpius the Slytherin pulled from it a ruby-inset silver sword bearing the name Godric Gryffindor. He held it up to be examined in the light of the sunrise, and Rose was smiling at him because she'd believed in him for seven years even when he had never believed in himself.

They noticed Al long before he was standing right next to them. They knew not to say anything long before Al put a finger to his lips. They knew not to fight back long before Al extended his hand toward the sword. They knew it wouldn't disappear long before Scorpius placed the sword in Al's open palm. They'd known he was the truest, bravest Gryffindor long before he'd been granted the second chance to prove it to himself.

They walked with him, Rose hobbling and Scorpius strong, until Al was once again facing Astoria's back. Few eyes were on him this time, all still too focused on Astoria, and so he was easily able to ignore them as he continued on without his friends. Only a foot away from that straightened back run down with raven hair, Al considered waiting for Astoria to turn around so that they could face each other, but then he remembered that he was the only member of the Forbidden Flock who didn't owe her a single thing, let alone his respect. So, after stashing James's phoenix-feather wand in his pocket, Al wielded the Sword of Gryffindor with both hands and met his father's green eyes when he plunged the pure silver into Astoria's corrupted blood.

Pools of crimson flooded from her back and chest as she gaped and coughed and fell into Al's awaiting arms. He had cracked her spine so that she'd been unable to stand, collapsed her lung so that she'd been unable to breathe, ripped open her heart so that she'd finally be able to feel something. That pain radiated throughout her shaking body until it relaxed and reddened her cheeks as if she was blushing. As Al looked closer at the face that suddenly looked quite beautiful, he realized that she was actually blushing, her smile practically infectious as she gazed up at Al and asked him dreamily, "Why?"

He didn't look at anyone else before answering, "I made a last minute decision to change the world, and it starts with killing you."

"Thank you," she whispered beneath the surrounding cheers and claps. Then her icy eyes shut closed forever and Al dropped her to the ground so that Neville could take back his sword, Teddy could light the body on fire, and Knox could fly the ashes into the horizon. The whole time, Al just stood there, not because he felt guilty but because he felt sure. He finally understood that Astoria had wanted to die, and that she would be remembered for her death for generations to come. It was in that moment that Albus realized he didn't want to be remembered for how he died. He wanted to be remembered for how he chose to live.

Nothing was the same after it was over. The vast majority of the Order of the Phoenix Apparated home as soon as they could, and of course Astoria's death meant that the spell placed on the Ministry of Magic was broken and allowed for Shacklebolt and company to arrive just in time for the castle clean-up. The professors helped with this daunting task, though no one assumed that Hogwarts would be reopened for quite some time and while Professor Flitwick was made interim Headmaster, he clearly wasn't keen on keeping the position for long. The only others who stayed on the grounds were those who'd lost loved ones in battle or who could somehow help restore the severely wounded, who had no way of being transported to a hospital.

Fred, Roxanne, and their father had stayed to support the Jordan family after Lila had been wounded by a rabid grindylow. Roxanne was jealous that Lila had gotten so close to the water, and Al laughed when he walked past because he secretly loved how little concern his cousin had for anything other than mermaids. Fred, on the other hand, was worried sick for his girlfriend, but eventually Lila woke up from a short coma and was able to be taken home.

It was Ilana whose potions had restored Lila. The combination of Muggle medicines and magical phoenix tears had made most of Ilana's concoctions unbeatable, and she only lost a few patients who had already been too far gone. Al spent a great deal of his time watching her move from one victim to the next, ignoring all her own wounds and questions and confusions so that she could tend to those in need. A few times, she saw him staring at her, but she never approached him, and though it killed him, he never approached her either. Yes, he loved her, but he had bigger things to do, and so did she.

Unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do for Lorcan. His death was irreversible, no matter how much Lucy begged for him to come back, refusing to leave his side even when Audrey and Molly went home for some rest. Percy opted to stay with his youngest daughter, and by then Luna and Neville had found Lorcan as well. Lysander and his father had disappeared somewhere, and Al was fairly certain as he looked at Luna all curled up on the grass in her wedding dress that she would never have been able to get through this without Neville rubbing her back, brushing away her tears, and holding her hand. There was no discussion from any of them about burying Lorcan anytime soon. Lucy wasn't the only one who refused to look away.

Lying beside Lorcan, James was, for once in his existence, far less popular. Harry and Ginny had spent a few hours crying over him and saying their goodbyes, but stone cold Lily had eventually told them that she'd killed Ryder Rookwood and that the blue jay's body was most likely still sprawled along the shore of the Black Lake. Understanding that Lily needed to take care of this, Harry and Ginny decided to escort and help her in this weighted task. Since Teddy and Dominique had been stationed close to James at the time, Knox hadn't been too far either and had therefore overheard Lily's confession about his sister. He'd since stalked off to sulk in one of the locker rooms, which was where Al was headed now.

He had just opened the door when he halted upon hearing voices coming from inside the room. At first, he thought Knox may just be talking to himself, but then he heard Dominique and realized that she'd gone after him before Al had. Deciding that this was a conversation he definitely needed to hear, Al closed the door carefully behind him and peeked his head around the corner so that he could see Knox sitting on a bench, Dominique standing in front of him with her back turned to Al.

"I'm sorry about Ryder," she was saying, though it didn't sound to Al like she meant it.

"Don't be," said Knox, and his half-smirk let Al know that he absolutely meant it.

Dominique had her arms crossed, almost as if she felt like she needed to protect herself against the man she'd once loved, and maybe a part of her was still scared even as she admitted, "Teddy told me everything. He told me that Astoria blackmailed you into owing her after she saved your life that time. He told me what you did for him, letting him see his parents and finally finding their true killer at the same time. He told me that he thought you were still in love with me."

Knox had been nodding absentmindedly through most of Dom's explanation, but he looked up and into those turquoise eyes of hers upon hearing her last sentence. He was more vulnerable than Al had ever seen him as he asked her, "Do you love me?"

"I'm trying not to," Dom replied with as much honesty as she could. Knox's intentions had been good all along, but that didn't change the fact that he'd killed Dominique's own grandfather, along with dozens of Muggles across the continent.

Knowing all this just as well as she did, Knox shook his head and said, "I can't promise that you'll be safe with me, but I can promise that your love will be." He was standing up then, clasping her arms and uncrossing them before he placed them on his bare chest. Her hands spread out as far as they could reach, even her fingertips wanting to touch the skin that had for so long been missing from hers. She was about to lean forward to be even closer to him when he added, "Just like I can promise that I'm going to marry you."

Pulling away slightly because this idea scared her even more than he did, Dom asked, "When?"

"Whenever you'll say yes," he replied as he pulled something from the back pocket of his baggy pants and placed it in her hand. Al couldn't see what it was, but he could practically feel the hair on Dominique's arms stand up and her heart skip a beat, and so he knew that it was the piece of sea glass from Shell Cottage that Knox had shown him last summer, only now it was fashioned as a ring.

Dominique was still staring at the ring as Knox kissed her forehead and walked away. He was halfway to the door that Al had opened once more when Dom called after him, "Try me next Christmas!"

This smirk was completely full, and Al got a fairly good view of it when Knox found him standing right outside the locker room and laughed at his snooping. Then he messed up his hair playfully and said, "Good job today, Back Hawk. Take care of her while I'm gone, will you?"

"Of course," Al promised before Knox transformed into a rook and flew away. Al knew better than anyone that Knox knew how to vanish, but he also knew that Rookie would be back exactly a year from now because he always paid his debts. Teddy would make sure his criminal record was cleared after what he'd done for the young Lupin, but Knox didn't want to be free until he could be free with Dominique.

Al walked back onto the pitch before Dom exited the locker room and had reason to scold him, and after being attacked by a slobbering Saber and giving Hagrid a grateful hug, he made his way back to the death side of the field, where his favorite group of Weasleys had huddled around Dennis and Natalie Creevey. Colin and Nigel were holding hands and sitting between their parents, with Hugo and Ron on Nigel's side and Hermione on Colin's. Rose and Scorpius had sat with them after returning the Sorting Hat to Neville, but they were standing closer to Arnia now and Al knew that they were waiting for him to pay a visit to James.

Sure enough, the couple looked away from Arnia when Al came near, and before they could say anything Al was holding up his hands as if to surrender and broke the silence himself. "I-I need to tell you something, and I know it won't be enough to make up for all the terrible things that I've done, but I hope it can make some sort of difference. See, I've been thinking a lot lately about the last conversation the three of us really had, when I'd been accused of killing Arthur and was sitting outside my dad's office at the Ministry of Magic. Rose, you asked me that day if I remembered when we used to tell each other everything. Well, I do remember, Rose. I remember the everything now, because I've finally stopped feeling like nothing. The only reason I ever stopped telling you two everything was because I couldn't bear to tell myself, and I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry for the nothing."

They didn't hug him, but he didn't want them to. Their nods and smiles were enough, because Rose was fragile and Scorpius was proud and Al still had a lot of work to do to earn their forgiveness. So, when they simultaneously said, "Thank you," he was more than pleased.

Together, the trio began walking over to James and the air quickly lightened around them. It wasn't easy to joke in the midst of grief, but neither of these three had ever been afraid of a challenge, and so as Al took Rose's left shoulder, Scorpius took her right and said, "You know, I think that sword must have been a fake. It felt quite light when I picked it up."

"It better not have been a fake!" exclaimed Al.

"It wasn't, I can assure you," Rose piped in. "I took the Sorting Hat from Professor Longbottom's office myself on the way out of the castle."

"Speaking of which," Al spoke again, "What happened in there? I notice you're no longer holding the Elder Wand, Scorp."

"It's a long story," Scorpius started. He then gave Al the short version, explaining that he had broken into the castle but not saying how, and that Astoria had apparently killed him when he'd tried to rescue Rose. Then he'd been able to come back to life thanks to his uniting of the three Deathly Hallows, but he'd suffered the repercussion of losing his magic. That was what had given Rose the brilliant idea to use the Sword of Gryffindor to kill Astoria: because Scorpius couldn't kill her with a wand.

Al was shocked by nearly every word that came out of Scorpius's mouth, but the magic loss stuck with him the most. He had always sought to gain power without even considering that every bit of it could be taken away from him. And then there was Scorpius, who had provided years' worth of competition for Al and who no longer had any way of competing. Scorpius had given up his talent just as James had when his shoulder had been injured, and it was all somehow because of Al. Al had made Scorpius into the Master of Death and he had crippled James's shoulder, just as he had made Rose forfeit her tolerance when he'd refused to let her save him, just as he had torn Ilana away from her family, just as he had made Harry think that he'd been a horrible father when really Al had been a horrible son. They had all given up so much for him, and what had he given up in return? His sanity? His loyalty? His brother? None of that seemed like enough to fill the debt that he now felt. He may not have owed Astoria anything, but he did owe his family. He owed them more than he would ever be able to pay.

Too lost in thought, Al wasn't able to come up with an eloquent response for Scorpius, giving Scorpius time to really wrap his head around the truth as he said, "It's odd, I never thought Rose and I would make it out of that castle alive, so I didn't really think that I'd need to accept the truth, let alone say it aloud. But there it is: I've lost my magic."

The simple statement, combined with the relevance to how Al was feeling about James, caused Al to say without thinking about it, "I wish I could give you mine."

No one had time to respond before they came to James's broken body, where Al and Scorpius knelt low to the ground so that Rose could see him fully, her hand reaching instinctively for the bowtie Scorpius had wrapped around James's wrist. After giving her some time to be with James in silence, Scorpius shuffled his feet some and suggested, "Maybe we should move him."

Al knew that Scorpius was referring to Godric's Hollow, where a plot next to the men he'd been named after was waiting for James in the graveyard. He appreciated the thought, too, but something about it just seemed... off.

"No," said Rose as she stood up slowly, taking Scorpius's hand on her way up. She must have sensed the mistake as well. "No, this is exactly where he'd want to be."

Tears fell from Al's eyes before he realized just how right Rose was. There was nowhere better for James to be buried than in the dirt of his home Quidditch pitch. But as Al envisioned himself burying his brother, he couldn't stop crying, because just as Scorpius had felt about his own secret, Al didn't ever want to admit to his.

"We'll stay with you," offered Rose as she tugged on Al's shirt from beside him.

He shook his head and she knew immediately that he needed to be alone right now. Without saying goodbye, she and Scorpius turned to leave, Scorpius patting Al on the back on his way out and saying, "You know where to find us," even though he and Al both knew that Al wouldn't go looking for them.

Once they were gone, Al made himself a shovel and started digging, and for a while he felt okay about it. In fact, he felt better and better as more people left the pitch for good, the Weasleys taking the Creeveys' bodies with them and the Scamanders taking Lorcan's and Lucy's (because, at least to Al, a body was about all she was now). He could handle the quiet and the loneliness, because he didn't really have a secret when no one but James was around. He'd never been able to keep much from his brother, even when he kept absolutely everything from their parents.

When those parents finally returned with Lily and Teddy in tow, Harry almost looked proud of his son and Ginny made Al drop the shovel as she pulled him into her arms. She wasn't crying anymore, but she was saying things that made Al feel just as uncomfortable as he would if she were. "It's so good to have you back, Al," she cooed at him. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost you both."

He couldn't take it anymore. Shrugging his mother off and looking for those green eyes again, Al said to Harry and let the rest of his family listen in, "STOP! Don't you get it? did this! And not just indirectly, but actually, literally, honestly. It was my stupid spell that hit him and cut him and killed him. I may not have been aiming for him, but it doesn't change the fact that murdered my own brother."

Ginny's hug suddenly became a slap, and like so many he'd earned before, Al knew he deserved it. He deserved far more punishment than that, but he knew that Ginny wouldn't be able to enforce any more. And as he looked at the now disappointed Harry and the sister he hadn't been able to tell this too before, Al dropped his head and tried to convince himself that the worst was over. Still, that didn't mean that the Potters could be a whole, happy family again, just like Rose and Scorpius hadn't suddenly become his best friends again. He couldn't go back to Godric's Hollow with them, and he knew that they weren't about to leave him behind to finish burying James himself, so Al felt that he had no choice but to leave them instead.

He ran as fast as he could in his exhausted state, headed directly for the Forbidden Forest where five hungry dragons were waiting for him. Zephyr was the only being Al wanted to be around right now, because his pet was the only one who seemed to love him unconditionally, and Al needed that. He would need that for a while. So, as Al hopped onto Zephorien's back and leaped into midday December sky, he knew that this escape wasn't like the one he'd made at the end of the summer. This time, something was different, and it wasn't the four extra dragons trailing close behind them, or the loss of a brother, or Astoria's death. It was him.

Note: So, the Battle of the Blood has been won! YAY! Please leave a review, because I'm dying to know what you thought about Al's journey in this chapter, Lorcan's death, Astoria's death, and some of the aftermath. The last three chapters will focus heavily on the main characters' decisions and changes following everything they've gone through, which I'm very excited to explore. And don't worry, they will still be surprising, just perhaps not as intense as these past six have been. Spoilers will be back on my profile page and you are welcome to ask for some; I will update as soon as possible.

In the meantime, I am writing the final oneshot, which will parallel this chapter for Lysander and will reveal a lot more information about Rolf's return and Lily's rescue that will not be included in the main story. This is the oneshot I have been most excited about since starting the story, so I'd really appreciate it if you guys gave it a go.

Thanks again ~ Lauren

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