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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34. The Plot of a Liar (2/2)

Physical ailment sometimes killed a person, as did mental illness, so a combination of the two would surely kill them. At least, this was Al's theory, which he couldn't stop wondering about as he laid awake in his bed and let the bright rays of sunlight dry out his open eyes. He was wondering why, after over eight hours of a double-edged disease coursing through his veins and not even trying to fight back at it, he wasn't dead yet. Then he wondered if this pain would ever go away or if he would ever feel like himself again. He wondered if he even knew who that person was in the first place.

It was Teddy's voice that managed to pull Al out of his room for the first time all morning, since it must have been noon by now. Knowing that his parents, James, and Lily had no desire to see him, Al had been avoiding an awkward family encounter around the breakfast table. However, he hadn't been expecting his eldest brother to show up, especially since Teddy was a member of the court that would soon be deciding Al's sentence.

Panicking while also hoping to find out where Teddy and his colleagues stood on the latest murder mystery, Al was careful to walk out of his room quietly and then quickly assessed the current goings-on. All of the other bedroom doors were open upstairs and nobody was in any of them, so Al suspected that Ginny must have left for the Burrow already to be with her family and to continue planning Arthur's funeral, while James was most likely at Quidditch practice and wouldn't be home until this evening. Lily's whereabouts were more questionable, but then Al heard her husky voice cooing to a baby Remy from the living room downstairs. Glancing over the balcony that overlooked the ground floor, Al saw that Victoire and Dominique were there too, their blonde hair pinned up against the backs of their heads that were stationed quite close together, with a similarly blonde Remy straddling their laps and making faces at Lily, the one outlier who was sitting across from the other girls.

Deciding the coast was clear, Al hid himself at the top of the staircase and listened in to Teddy conversing with Harry in the entryway. Sure enough, they were discussing Al's behavior in disturbing detail, Harry thanking Teddy for coming to keep an eye on Al for the day while Harry went in to the office to invigilate Mercy's practical exam, and Teddy brushing off the favor and asking question after question about Al in search for clues that might help formulate the whole true story.

"Does he seem scared?" asked Teddy at one point.

"Not exactly," Harry replied. "It's more like he's given up, except that he still claims to be innocent."

"Do you believe him?" Al couldn't see Teddy since he himself didn't want to be seen, but he could tell from his brother's open curiosity that Teddy had a far more objective outlook on things than Harry did. He'd been trained to separate himself from his work, regardless of how personally victimized he rightfully felt when facing a Death Eater or a member of the Forbidden Flock.

Harry sighed before answering, "To be honest, I don't know. I don't know who he is anymore. Sometimes, I don't think I ever knew."

Al closed his eyes upon hearing his father's confession, letting the salty water wash over his stinging corneas but still not feeling any relief; they were already too burnt from this morning's sun.

"You're starting to sound a lot like Ron, you know," Teddy teased Harry in an attempt to lighten the somber mood. Ron had a tendency to over-dramatize situations, especially when they had to do with Rose or Hugo and their respective paths to becoming their own people. Harry didn't usually talk about his kids that way, because he expected them to grow into individuals rather than clones of himself. It was his kids who expected differently.

Harry laughed, but he still seemed disheartened as he told Teddy, "Yeah, well, you're starting to sound a lot like Remus."

Teddy didn't reply to the comparison between him and his late father, but Al knew without having to look that he was smiling. Teddy had always reminded people of Tonks, and even Al could see the resemblance from the memories of Astoria's he'd visited – Teddy had Tonks's spiky, Metamorphmagus hair, along with her need for justice. People often forgot that what Teddy also had was Remus's intelligence and loyalty.

Al could hear Harry patting Teddy's shoulder as the former said to the son he'd never intended to raise, but had raised nonetheless, "Anyway, thanks again, and be careful tonight."

Realizing that his father was about to leave and wanting to face him before he was gone, Al came out of hiding and took a few steps down the staircase to catch Harry and Teddy's attention before he asked, "What's tonight?"

Much to his dismay, Harry didn't look at Al or even respond to his question. Instead, he nodded to Teddy, threw him the Elder Wand from his pocket, and walked out the door. It was Teddy who actually addressed Al, his hair changing from black to a washed-out grey, and answered, "Tonight's the full moon." Then he lowered his head to his chest and turned the corner to meet Victoire and Remy in the kitchen.

Al followed him slowly, wasting as much time as possible on his way downstairs. He now understood why Victoire and Dominique had needed to accompany Teddy in his day of babysitting, since Remy's werewolf tendencies had been growing stronger with every passing month. Still, Al knew that neither of his female cousins would feel as sympathetic toward him as Teddy did. In fact, Al was even convinced that Teddy wasn't really all that sympathetic himself; he just had enough buried anger to hide his disappointment.

Luckily, Dominique didn't show much of any reaction upon seeing Al. She was just as upset about Arthur's death as the rest of the Weasley grandchildren, but it was difficult to tell, since she was always upset these days. Little did she know, she had Knox to blame for not just half of her heartbreak, but for all of it.

Since she knew what it felt like to be betrayed by a loved one, Dom didn't have a hard time being around Al for the rest of the day. For the most part, she kept to herself while also keeping a close eye on her one year-old niece – who was switching between crawling and walking and went from happy to agitated in two seconds time – especially since Victoire was visibly distracted throughout the long afternoon.

The mother was about as sick in the stomach as Al was in his heart. He tried not to take it personally when Victoire puked in the kitchen sink just after laying eyes on Al for the first time since James's graduation. Teddy assured Al that Victoire's stomach flu was just a part of her grieving process, but Al could tell as the purging continued for hours on end that his presence wasn't helping in the slightest.

In an effort to give Victoire some space, Al spent most of the day in his room or downstairs with Teddy, which was where he was seated now as the two talked about what Al might expect from Monday's trial.

"Shacklebolt will ask to hear your recounting of that day, and you don't want to leave anything out of your description," Teddy explained. "Even if something seems arbitrary or unrelated to Arthur, don't hesitate to tell us about it. Otherwise, we might find a way later to trap you in a position that you don't want to be in."

Al was only half-listening, since he hadn't asked for Teddy to provide him with any tips. Plus, he had spent most of the day leading up to Arthur's death with the Weasleys and the day after with Ilana, and he wasn't planning to bring any of them into this mess. So, Al just nodded as Teddy kept talking, refusing to answer him whenever he asked about Astoria or the Forbidden Flock.

He wasn't sure exactly why he couldn't tell Teddy the whole story. Maybe it was because he didn't want Dominique or Lily, who were busy attempting to cook dinner in the kitchen next door while Victoire played with Remy outside, to overhear. Maybe it was because he didn't want to get Teddy riled up about Knox and all of the adventures Al had had with Teddy's arch nemesis. Or maybe, just maybe, it was for the same reasons Al had joined the Flock in the first place: he didn't want to be weak enough for people to see his shame.

When Teddy grew tired of the silence, though, he changed the subject to something he knew Al wouldn't be able to resist talking about, stating simply, "Al, if you're innocent, then you have nothing to worry about. You just have to believe that people will believe you."

"He doesn't believe me," said Al, catching onto the bait that Teddy had set for him and walking right into a speech centered around Harry. Since Teddy didn't know that this wasn't the first time Al had lied to Harry about working for the Flock, he didn't defend Harry or protest Al's desire as Albus elaborated, "He always believes me, but not anymore. It took seventeen years and a suspected murder for him to finally realize that I'm not who he wanted me to be."

At that, Teddy was about to interrupt, but Al didn't give him the chance. "I've tried to tell him so many times," he pressed further. "I was sorted into Slytherin, I befriended a Malfoy, I quit the Quidditch team. Still, he acted like all that didn't mean anything. He never saw what I kept trying to show him: that I'm not him."

He knew that he was being dramatic. He knew that he was blowing Harry's expectations of him way out of proportion. He knew that Harry was doing his best, as he had always done. But none of that mattered to Al. What did matter was the unavoidable feeling that he had lost his father forever, before Harry had even had the chance to get to know the real him.

"He's your father, Al. He loves you," argued Teddy, not understanding exactly what Al was getting at since he had never felt so much pressure himself. He had always wanted to make his own parents proud, but he had never needed to try with Harry. Harry had only involved himself in Teddy's life as much as he'd wanted to, and it had still been far more than he'd ever involved himself in Al's.

"No," Al voiced as he thought about Teddy's own relationship with Harry and then recalled what James had said to Mercy last night. "No, he loves you. You're the Chosen Son, Teddy – you and Scorpius. But James and I are just props. We don't have a speck of righteousness in us, not like you two."

Teddy was laughing, and unlike Harry's laugh this morning, his was genuine. His voice was the same as he told Al, "I only have righteousness because I have reason. I only want to avenge my parents' deaths because they died. I have a debt to pay them, and debt is powerful, Al. One day, you'll understand that. One day, you'll owe somebody your life and you'll do anything to pay them back for it."

This time, it was Al's turn to laugh, for Knox had once told him that very same thing. He had listened then, and he was listening now, but both times he wasn't completely sure if he believed in the power of debt. After all, debt was just another form of guilt, but the only power Al truly believed in was addiction.

Teddy was about to ask what was so funny, but Al was saved from having to lie about Knox again when the sliding door opened to a sweaty James still in his Magpies uniform, holding up an overturned Victoire who tumbled inside looking as lost as Al and as pale as Scorpius. Teddy stood from his seat as soon as he saw her, rushing to her side and helping her regain her balance, but James was still panic-stricken as he looked between Victoire and the darkening yard behind him.

"So, I'm really hoping that Remy's somewhere inside right now," said James anxiously.

Nobody needed to tell him that he shouldn't be so hopeful when Victoire's eyes widened with extreme fear and she vomited water – the only substance left in her body at this point – all across the bright red rug. Teddy was rubbing her back with shaking hands as he called for Dominique and Lily, stretched his neck so that he could see the moon rising above the clouds from outside the window, and went quickly went into planning mode.

Victoire was sobbing at this point, and was trying to say Remy's name but couldn't seem to get her voice to work as Teddy turned to the others in the room and said steadily, "It's all right; we can handle this. Let's divide into pairs and take over different parts of the area." Then he turned to James and said, "You and Lily-"

"Will take the center patch of the woods," Lily answered for him. After her summer of night walking, she knew the forest behind Godric's Hollow better than anyone.

Her confidence seemed to ease Teddy somewhat, since he nodded at her and James to get going before he even had the chance to formulate the rest of his plan. Once the first pair had left, Teddy addressed Dominique and paired her with Al, not even questioning his action when he threw Al the Elder Wand. For the first time in days, nobody was looking at Al like he was a murderer; they were looking at him like he was part of the family.

Al and Dom waited for a minute to make sure that Victoire was okay, but Remy's disappearance caused her mother to suddenly wake up from her digestive failures as she grabbed hold of Teddy's arm and pulled him out the door, not willing to stay behind while everyone else looked for her daughter. When they made it outside, Teddy broke Harry's barrier before he and Victoire instinctively took to the streets while Al and Dominique decided to explore the outer woods.

Having his wand back made Al feel like himself again. He didn't need to perform any magic with it to know how much more secure he was to hold the Elder Wand in his hand, because now he could make his own decisions, and now his choices did matter. He could disarm Dominique and run away in seconds if he wanted to, but he knew as he rushed into the woods that his family was whom he needed to be with right now. More importantly, and for the first time in a long time, they needed him.

Of course, Dominique didn't share the same feeling of safety. She may have been four years older than Al, but that didn't mean that she was any stronger than him, and they both knew that she wasn't anywhere near as powerful, especially with their different wands. Dom seemed to sense an imperceptible danger in Al, also, since she kept a safe distance from him as they entered the woods from the east side of town and started to work around the forest perimeter.

For the first ten minutes or so, they jogged heavily in hopes that they might outrun Remy, but their pace didn't last. Once they slowed down and caught their breaths, Al began to notice Dominique's frequent shutters at just about every noise that was made through their travels. It was barely dark thanks to the moon's impressive light, so neither of them had their wand lit, but Dom was spooked nonetheless.

"It's okay," Al tried to tell her after she twitched her face around like a bird for the tenth time since they'd left the house. "You don't have to be afraid of me."

Dominique stopped momentarily so that she could look at the still walking Al with straight eyes and steady lips as she crossed her arms against her chest and said, "I'm not afraid of you."

Ever since Teddy and Victoire's wedding three years ago – which also happened to be around the time she and Knox supposedly split up – Dominique hadn't been much of a talker. Before that turning point in her life, Dom had been plenty chatty, always vying for attention as Bill and Fleur's middle child. Similar to how Al felt in comparison to James and Lily, Dominique was less obviously beautiful than Victoire (but beautiful nonetheless, with a round face full of freckles, turquoise eyes, and wavy locks of dirty blonde hair) and was never as successful at school as her younger brother, Louis. She spent most of her childhood searching for something to be good at, and Al was just beginning to understand that what she'd been good at was loving Knox, which was why she now felt like she had nothing left to give, and thus nothing left to talk about.

"Then what?" Al asked as he took a few steps toward her, knowing now that she wouldn't mind his closeness.

Dom turned to him fleetingly as they continued walking and said with a hint of trepidation, "I'm not exactly a fan of werewolves."

That was understandable. Werewolves were not like magical Animagi; being a werewolf was a curse, not a choice. Werewolves had no control over themselves once they transformed, which in itself was controlled by the cycle of the moon. They could kill without even realizing it until they woke up the next day as a human and wore the scars across their flesh that chronicled their rough night. Most people looked down on them, and rightfully so. They were diseased and dangerous. They were uncontrollable.

Still, Al didn't think that Remy could do any harm just yet. She was barely walking and, according to Teddy and Victoire, her transformations had only been slightly furry so far. But Dominique knew better, for she'd been living with the Lupins all year and thus had helped raise Remy. Considering this, Al realized what she might have reason to be afraid of, and why Harry might have wished Teddy luck that morning – something Teddy and Victoire wouldn't have wanted to warn Al or Lily about so as not to frighten them.

To see if he was on the right track, Al asked, "She's teething, isn't she?"

Dominique responded with a smirk as she said, "It doesn't matter how sharp they are; a single bite could transform any one of us."

Wondering why he hadn't thought this through before and subsequently why Dominique had, Al commented, "You sound like quite the expert."

"I'm not," she laughed. "Knox was."

It was the first time Al had heard her say Knox's name. He had only talked to her about Knox once before, but she had been careful to remain cryptic in her responses. Now, it was almost as if she wanted to talk about him, like she had been longing to talk about him for longer than anyone realized. She'd just been waiting for someone who would be willing to listen before shutting down the boy who broke her heart and automatically taking her side.

So, Al listened, out of loyalty to his cousin as well as concern and curiosity for his friend. He listened to every word that came out of Dominique's mouth as she said, "He used to run away from his house all the time when he was just a kid, still trying to figure out what it meant to be a Seer. He liked it in the woods – he could see through all the trees and find the animals rather easily, or he could at least sense when they were coming near. He didn't know it at the time, but finding them was his own way of training himself and his capabilities. Of course, this meant that on full moons, he had a tendency to run into wolves.

"He was five years old the first time he was attacked, and somehow he knew to stay away from the teeth, but he couldn't resist the claws. He would have died if Astoria hadn't saved him."

"Astoria saved him?" asked Al. He hadn't wanted to interrupt, but hearing such a name made it so that he couldn't help himself. Just thinking about her caused his persistent chest pain to intensify, and the screams that had echoed through his head last night almost seemed real now.

"She was a good friend of Knox's mum," said Dominique. "And though I didn't realize this until word came in the news last Christmas of her Animagus form, it couldn't have been hard for her to find him or the wolf that night. Hawks have incredibly tuned senses."

Thinking about Astoria saving Knox's life when he was just a boy, Al mumbled under his breath, "He's in her debt."

Dom didn't hear what Al had said, though, so she just kept on talking. "Knox spent all his years at Hogwarts trying to make his nightmares of that night go away, and he seemed to be under the impression that in order to do so, he needed to face his fear. He became what Trelawney said was the best Seer in a century, developing his own unique abilities so that he was better suited for discovering secrets of the present than those of the future, and I think that was why he was always so drawn to me as well. He could see the wolf in me, even the little bit that I had inherited from my father. He could see everything in me."

Al knew how that felt. He knew what it was like to see into a person's soul and understand them far more thoroughly than he had ever understood himself. Yet again, his chest swelled at the memory of Ilana.

"Once he left Hogwarts, he wanted to test his talents around the world," Dominique continued. "He found his place at the Ministry in the Department of International Magical Cooperation and then there was Astoria. She became his mentor, and soon she became his everything. I should have seen it then, but I was never very good at seeing past the surface – not like him. And anyway, he owed her his life, and that's a tough bond to compete with."

As Dominique paused for a moment, Al had to stop walking to recuperate his fading body. He was glad to finally understand what exactly had torn Knox and Dom apart, not to mention the reasoning behind Knox's unflagging loyalty to the Flock. Still, he couldn't focus on Knox in that moment. All he could focus on was the feeling of deterioration that was overcoming him with every step he took and the persistent screaming that was making his head throb.

"Just give me a second," Al said to Dom as she looked to him with concern.

He didn't expect her to understand what was happening to him, especially since he didn't exactly understand it himself, which was why it came as quite the shock when the loudest scream yet infiltrated his eardrums and she asked immediately afterward, "What was that?"

"You heard that?" asked Al from below Dominique, his back bent over and his hands plastered to his knees.

Dom was nodding as she looked all around the area with helpless worry. "It sounded like crying – like a cry of pain."

Al was still confused as to how she had heard what he'd thought only he could, but he didn't have time to wrap his head around the idea until Dominique had set her sights on a black bird flying overhead and was yelling for Al to follow it with her.

It took Al all the strength he could find to run after Dominique and the bird that only she could see, especially since his pain grew worse and worse as they came closer to the source of the crying. They ran through at least a mile's worth of upturned roots and thick, prickly bushes, Dominique not willing to stop and Al too oblivious to try. The only thing that managed to gain any of whatever attention he had left was when he heard one last deafening yelp that had to have been coming from directly in front of him.

Dominique had halted by now, but wasn't giving anything away as Al slowly looked up from the ground to see a gigantic red eye thick with crackling veins staring at him with complete and utter powerlessness. It was Zephorien, Al's dragon and newly adopted other half, and Al understood instantly that the creature had been holding on to half of Al's pain all day and night. He was dying from it, and the only thing that could save him was Al's decision to take on the pain for himself, to face it fully and head-on.

From a few steps away in the field of wilting irises where they were all standing, Dominique was trying and failing to hold her breath from the fear she felt upon seeing a Hebridean Black right before her eyes. But Al couldn't think about her until he took care of his pet. He wasn't exactly sure how he would be able to do so, but he did have an idea that he was fairly certain might help.

Clutching his wand tightly, Al walked around Zephyr's nose until he was facing the dragon straightforwardly and said, "It's okay, Oreo. I'm ready."

The fire was weak but still burning as it pushed across Al's barrier of wind, but he could tell that the second binding was working. The pattern of Zephorien's scales widened against his chest, burning through patches of his shirt, and soon the dragon was back to his normal, powerful self as he withdrew from his master and strode down to the pond to quench his thirst.

Al couldn't scrape up the energy to explain what had just happened to Dominique, even though she was asking about it repeatedly. He was too overwhelmed with the range of emotions he had just taken back for himself – things that he had been ignoring without even realizing it, courtesy of Ilana and Rose and Harry, but mostly courtesy of himself. He could feel all the things he had ignored when his grandfather had been killed right in front of him, when Ilana had left him for good, and when Rose and Harry had refused to believe his innocence even when they had no reason to. He could feel everything again.

Dominique was still trying to gain Al's attention, her hands on his cheeks and her eyes searching for his, when the bird she'd seen before landed in the very center of the field and transfigured into the human-size Knox Rookwood. He was dressed in the same tattered clothes he'd been in last Al saw of him, the morning before Arthur's death, and even from afar Al could smell on him the same stench of rotting meat that had had filled Zephyr's breath.

A part of Al wanted to race over to Knox and punch him one more time for going behind his back, but something stopped him from making any sudden movements at all as he watched Knox and Dominique lay eyes on each other for the first time in nearly three years. It didn't take long for the ex-lovers to synchronize their slow breathing and rapid heartbeats, though neither spoke to the other. Al knew just as well as they did that in this moment, words would never be enough.

Knox was the first to step forward, and when he did, Dominique couldn't help but reciprocate. Soon, they were growing ever closer to each other, and Al was just watching the reunion from his spot on the edge of the field, not knowing if he should try to intervene or make himself invisible. When he saw Knox reach a hand into his pocket once he was only a foot away from Dominique, however, Al decided not to ruin this for his friend.

Al was expecting Knox to take out the red sea glass heart that he'd shown Al on the way to Romania, so he was shocked when instead, Knox revealed his hand to be clasped around Nigel's wand. Somehow, though, Dominique had seen this coming even when Al hadn't, pointing her own wand at Knox's chest before his had the chance to be pointed at hers, and flicking it lightly while voicing the incantation, "Expelliarmus!"

Her free hand was gripping Nigel's wand instantaneously, and Knox was left staring at her with what Al initially thought was contempt and fear, but what he later realized was acceptance. Knox was just waiting, as Al was now, for Dominique to put the pieces together, for detailed drawings of Nigel's wand had been posted on the front page of the Daily Prophet as well as the walls of every wizarding village for the past two days. Surely, she would recognize it.

She did just that when she finally found the courage to look away from Knox and inspect the wand she was now holding more thoroughly and looked back up to say, "It was you."

When Knox didn't argue, Dominique laughed sadly and said, "Of course it was you." Then she used her own wand to send three red sparks into the sky as a signal to Teddy and Victoire, ordered Al to help her tie up Knox, and started to work on sending Teddy a message with the Patronus charm. Al followed her command and started walking toward them, trying not to think about what was going to happen next to the guilty Knox, but stopped in his tracks when Dominique had finished stating her message and watched a silvery orca whale fly into the night. At first, Al wasn't sure why he was shocked to see this specific animal come from Dom's wand, but then he realized that he had expected to see a rook. When he looked at Knox's sunken eyes, it was all too clear that Rookie had expected the same.

Dominique was staring down at the two very different wands in her hands while Al waited for Knox to say something. When he did, Dom looked up at him with teary eyes to hear him proclaim, "I should have loved you."

"When?" she asked in a whisper.

"When you loved me back."

They maintained eye contact – turquoise and black fading into the grey of the moon – for a long minute before Dominique told Al once more to tie Knox up and then turned around and walked away, off to sit by the edge of the field as far from Knox and the dragon (whom she seemed to have forgotten was there) as possible.

Once she was out of earshot, Al faced Knox and waited for him to voice a plan. When Knox remained silent, and even locked his hands behind his back as if awaiting for Al to tie his wrists together, Al realized that this was the plan. After all, Knox could have transfigured ages ago, still could in fact, and could run away without anyone knowing he'd been here but Dominique. But this wasn't about seeing her again or about saving himself. This was about saving Al.

The only reason Al went along with Knox's refusal to fight back was because, at the end of the day, Knox really was the guilty one. Still, it took all of Al's might to stand behind Knox's back, point his wand at Knox's wrists, and force shackles upon them. As he did so, he couldn't help but ask Knox, just in case he could convince him of doing otherwise, "What are you doing?"

"Relax, Black Hawk," said Knox calmly. "She did just what I knew she would."

As Al turned around to face him once more, he asked again, "But what are you doing?"

"This is how you save a life, Al... by breaking your own heart."

Albus stood staring at the man whom his life had seemed to be modeled after until Teddy and Victoire came running through the clearing. By this time, Al had wordlessly urged Zephorien to make himself scarce, so it was only Knox who caught Teddy's attention. He didn't even bother hiding his joy to finally capture Knox as he walked up to Rookwood with bright blond hair, took harsh hold of his shoulder, and whispered slimily in his ear, "You have no idea how long I've waited for this."

Al followed Teddy as he led Knox back to where Victoire was huddled over Dominique, trying desperately to console her younger sister. Dom stood up when she saw Teddy there, handing him the wand that would be their main piece of evidence and standing next to her brother in-law to show that she was ready to accompany him to the Ministry.

Victoire, on the other hand, stayed by Al's side and looked at her husband with eyes that could tell an entire monologue, but that only Teddy could hear. "It's okay," he said to her after reading her thoughts. "James and Lily have gotten her by now; I can feel it. You should go back to the house with Al."

Victoire smiled and squeezed Teddy's hand once more before letting go and allowing him to take Dominique's. Before the two of them and Knox Disapparated, though, Al asked Teddy worriedly, "Wait, what's going to happen to him?"

"With this," Teddy nodded to the wand he'd secured in his belt buckle, "Along with all the other murder scenes at which he's been witnessed, he'll be sentenced to Azkaban for life."

Dominique and Al both grimaced at the thought, but Knox didn't show any reaction whatsoever. Instead, he looked straight at Al as his face gradually faded away, leaving Al with one last crooked smile and signature Rookwood wink.

Once they were gone, Victoire wasted no time in getting back to Godric's Hollow. She didn't seem to be willing to Apparate there with her current level of nausea, which Al was fine with. He just tried to keep her company the whole way back, walking steadily but not rushing and reassuring her time and time again that she wasn't alone and that everything was going to be fine.

Still, she didn't seem so sure as she confessed, "I turned around for a second, and she was gone. Then James showed up and practically carried me inside, and for a moment, I forgot about her. I forgot about my own daughter. I forgot what she was capable of."

"Yeah. You forgot," said Al as he stared into Victoire's straight, shiny hair. His thoughts went directly to Harry as he added, "But then you remembered. That's all that matters." Victoire had gone mental once she'd realized that Remy was missing, because she was determined to rescue her. She would never have given up, but Al knew that Harry already had.

Victoire was barely listening to Al, so he wasn't sure if his words were even remotely helpful. But they didn't need to be, since soon he and Victoire could see the village lights between the trees and were jogging to the back door of the Potter house. Victoire was about to pull the handle and open the door when Al looked inside the window screen and saw the living room that was lit with a single lamp illuminating the sight of James and Lily huddled over baby Remy, her normally blue eyes still stuck in a shade of muddy yellow and her bare arms covered in dog fur with piles of thorns and bristles stuck between the hairs. Then Al thought of the tiny teeth that could surprise anyone in that room right now, looked to Victoire and her pure, beautiful skin, and said, "I think you should wait out here. I have a pot of Wolfsbane upstairs in my room, and it'll help her re-transform."

Victoire was more than hesitant to follow Al's advice, but he decided to set the plan in motion anyway, using a defensive charm to create an invisible wall between Victoire and the door so that she couldn't come any farther, than slid himself inside and turned around as calmly as possible so as to address his siblings without unnerving the sensitive Remy.

Unfortunately, his plan was squandered as soon as James and Lily even noticed that he was there, since at that moment the front door opened and a proudly arrogant Mercy came strolling inside with good news that she needed to flaunt in front of her boyfriend.

"I'm sure you'll be utterly shocked to know that I passed the exam with flying colors!" shouted Mercy without even saying hello first, speaking to just about anyone who would listen but directing her attention to James as soon as she found him. "Your father's at the office completing the paperwork as we speak."

"Congratulations," James said with annoyance as he glanced back and forth between Mercy and Lily, who was now sitting on the couch and trying to soothe a crying Remy by bouncing the baby on her lap.

Al tried to tell Lily to be careful, but she didn't hear him when his voice was overpowered by Mercy's fury as she retorted to James, "You are unbelievable! I've just proven to you what you refused to believe, yet you still don't believe it!"

James was irrefutably frustrated now, since he'd had much too long a day to be willing to deal with Mercy's problems. This much became clear when he marched right up to her and said, "You know what, no, I don't believe you! I don't believe that you love me nearly as much as I love you, because otherwise you wouldn't have needed to prove this to me at all, because you wouldn't have needed to use my father as a way of getting me back. All you would have had to do was tell me you wanted to be with me for me, and then I would have believed you."

Al and Lily had gone completely still as they waited for the break-up to end, though Remy was still crying profusely from Lily's arms. It wasn't until Mercy stormed off, James followed her to get in one last kiss, and she reciprocated wholeheartedly before once again slamming the door in his face just to make some sort of statement, that Al and Lily found reason to move. Because the second that the door closed and sent vibrations across the entryway, into the kitchen, and straight across the couch, Remy's defenses took control and her tiny teeth made a single tiny bite.

The sudden gasp of pain from Lily was enough for Al to yell out to James, who was still standing in the entryway and was unaware of what was happening deeper inside the house, "James, go upstairs to my room and find the jar on the second shelf of my bookcase! It should have a paw on it!"

When James yelled back in questioning, Al merely shouted, "NOW!" And then he heard James's feet banging up the stairs without another word.

Meanwhile, Al had his eyes glued to Lily, who had dropped a now completely human Remy back on the couch and was looking down at her hands with crazed eyes and drooling lips. Her ratty nails were quickly becoming razor-sharp claws and her long, ginger hair was shrinking into something akin to a lion's mane. Then her spine was curving upwards and tearing her shirt in two, her legs were growing out of her pants and over the wooden floor, and her golden skin was replaced with loose, puppy dog flesh. Throughout the entire transformation, she was howling with pain, and Al wished more than anything in the world that he could share that pain with her the way he had with Zephorien, but he knew that it would be impossible. Lily was a true night walker now.

With Lily's final, deeply assured howl at the moon that was glowing through the window, Al told himself that he needed to do whatever he could to protect both her and Remy, who was sitting precariously close to the full-sized animal Lily had just become. Determined, Al rushed over to the wolf that was now staring at him with nothing but hunger in her eyes, and tried to reach through all the flesh and blood and bone and into Lily's heart by saying, "LOOK AT ME! Look at me, Lily! I'm right here – your brother is right here. Come back to me, Lil. Just resist this urge and come back to me."

Al remembered what it felt like to be placed under the Imperius Curse during all those classes he'd had with Shunpike in his fifth year at Hogwarts. He remembered the pressure that his back had felt to keel over, but he also remembered resisting it. He remembered that all he'd needed to resist it had been the encouraging thoughts of Rose sitting right in front of him. All he'd needed was someone who believed in him.

But Lily was too far gone. She couldn't hear Al at all as she thrashed at him like he was about to become her next meal, and it was highly probably that that was exactly what was going to happen. Al could hear James on his way downstairs, but he also suspected that it would be too dangerous to try to get Lily to sip the potion and he didn't want to let James take the risk, so he decided to take one for the team and used himself as bait to get Lily out of the house.

He ran out the back door, breaking through the wall he'd put up for Victoire and running across the yard with Lily directly behind him. Victoire had seen everything that had happened through the window, so she was smart enough to hide around the corner until Lily had passed her and then slipped inside to reunite with Remy. As she did so, Al ran right back into the forest and, once he gained enough ground to allow him some time to stop before Lily obliterated him into pink mist, Apparated to the first place that came to his mind.

That was how Al ended up in Knockturn Alley, standing in front of the walkway to Borgin and Burke's, the dark artifacts shop that Astoria had turned into her latest headquarters. Like Rose had said yesterday, he had a decision to make, and regardless of all that had happened since she'd given him her ultimatum, it was time for Al to choose. But before he did, he needed to talk with the person all his decisions had stemmed from in the first place.

He was pleased to find that Astoria was alone in the shop, trying not to think about the idea of Ryder, Vega, or Wynn spying from their hiding spots in the wings. If he couldn't see them, he liked to think that they weren't there. And today, Al really didn't want to see any of his Flock colleagues, not after the one of them he'd ever cared about had been taken away forever.

Thinking back on Knox and what he'd done for Al, the latter walked right up to Astoria, who was stationed comfortably behind the old check-out counter as she inspected what looked to Al like a black-stoned ring, or at least the replica of one. But he didn't care much about whatever Astoria was busy doing, so he slammed both his palms against the counter to gain her undivided attention and said, "Tell me everything."

Astoria put down the ring and looked at Al with pouting lips and sad eyes as she replied, "Oh, not even a thank you? I'm deeply offended."

"Save the sarcasm," Al told her. "I came here for an explanation, nothing more."

"Yes, Albus, I realize that," spat Astoria. "But the explanation is far simpler than what you're expecting. I needed to make sure that you weren't arrested for a crime you committed for my sake, and Knox suggested to use the evidence he stole from you to protect your fate."

"Yeah, by sacrificing himself." Al had been given a glimpse of Knox's extreme sense of loyalty when he'd convinced Al to go back for Astoria as they were escaping the dragon sanctuary in Romania, but he'd never expected Knox to do the same for him. In fact, he'd never expected anyone to.

As if she could read his exact thoughts, Astoria said with as empathetic a tone as she could muster, "You really don't know how it feels to be looked after, do you?"

Al looked to her with squinting eyes and waited for her to say what she clearly wanted to. He was waiting for her to tell her another secret, for it was this kind of revelation that always made the truth come out of her.

"You know, I was there the day you were born – the same day your father wasn't," Astoria continued, shocking Al with her admission. She started pacing around the counter as she went on with, "Scorpius proved to be a difficult birth, and I was hospitalized all summer to recover from it. I remember sitting in that maternity ward and watching your mother roll in, and the whole time I was itching to get a look at the famous Harry Potter. But then he didn't show. The next day, I saw Ginny walking through the hallway outside my room with you in her arms, and you were already a ticking time-bomb.

"She couldn't handle you, not with that ridiculous older brother of yours running around her heels at all hours of the day. So, you'd just cry and cry, having no discipline – no border or control or even a fuse for your crazed circuit. You were blowing out windows before you were even discharged, so naturally the nurses never did manage to put the Trace on you. And by the time Harry came, you were uncontrollable, and you were the last thing he wanted to deal with."

Al was holding back tears as Astoria inched so close to him that he could feel the warmth of her breath on his cheeks. "I understand why this is confusing and difficult for you, but don't you see? You are meant to become more powerful than even the Chosen One, and all you have to do is make one last choice."

Without letting himself think because thinking always made things worse, Al looked into Astoria's arctic eyes and promised her, "I choose the people who believe in me. I choose you. I choose Knox. I have to; I owe you both my life. I'm in your debt."

Astoria took a single step backward as slowly as her body would allow her to move while she said, "I'm glad to see that we're on the same page." And as she disappeared into the darkness of the back end of the shop, the last words she said were, "I'll see you at the funeral."

Only moments later, Al was standing outside the shop, back on the streets of Knockturn Alley and watching the sun rise over the roof of the distant Leaky Cauldron. He hadn't realized just how long he and Dominique had been roaming through the woods, so now he was stuck in a deep train of thought, wondering when it had become morning and trying to think of where he was meant to go from here.

"I suppose I should apologize for not cleaning up your mess myself," said a voice from deep within the shadows, and Al turned toward its source to find Ryder Rookwood – just as dark and dangerous as her twin brother ever was – walking up to him in slithering steps, having been trained well by Astoria and her sinister movements. "After all, I am the Flock's designated secret keeper."

Ryder's official role was one of the reasons Al never saw much of her; Knox had been a hit-man, so Astoria had wanted him by her side at all times, but Ryder worked wherever no one would see her.

"But it was rather difficult to keep your secret when you kept trying to give it away," she continued. Al should have expected her to be angry with him, since he was the reason Knox was gone. That was why he didn't argue with her – because he was on her side. Instead, he waited and listened while she said, "Now, my brother's in Azkaban, but you're still here, and you still have no idea what you've gotten yourself into."

At that, Al's interest was piqued, for he had most definitely not expected Ryder to disapprove of his choice to pledge his utmost loyalty to the Forbidden Flock. But he soon realized that she wasn't disapproving of him so much as she was advising him, on how to take Knox's place without ultimately suffering his same fate.

Al didn't need to ask who she was talking about when Ryder told him finally, "There's a reason she needs you and not my brother. There's a reason she mentioned Arthur's funeral. Every word that comes out of her mouth hides a secret. Every sentence she writes hides the truth. So, you had better start learning how to read it." Then she transfigured into a fierce little blue jay and flew off into the light.

It took a while for Al to connect the idea of Astoria having a secret language to the questions he had posed for Knox in their corresponding letters from late last night. At first, all he thought of Ryder's warnings was that he had clearly missed something in his recent conversation with Astoria. But when he didn't remember her mentioning anything too mysterious except for the part about Arthur's funeral, which he had admittedly overlooked at the time, he wondered if maybe Ryder wasn't talking about Astoria.

After all, Knox was her twin brother, so she knew his mannerisms perhaps better than anyone. She knew about the heart he kept in his pocket, and about the nicknames he used only for the people he secretly liked, and about the winks he'd give as goodbyes only when everything was falling into place. And it was when Al remembered the wink Knox had left him with that he came to the conclusion that Knox would never have left him hanging upon asking about Astoria's secret plans, not with how far they'd come together, how much Knox owed Al, and what he was about to do for him. There must have been something hidden between the lines of that heavily practiced handwriting.

With a new goal in his sights, Al set off for Grimmauld Place, Apparating straight to the park across the street from number twelve and running inside before he could risk anyone seeing him. Surely, he was no longer being accused of murdering Arthur since Knox had essentially turned himself in, but everyone still knew that Al had been working with the Forbidden Flock, even if they didn't know to what extent. He didn't want to deal with any more judgment today.

Once inside his old safe house, Al ran through the darkened hallway without bothering to light his wand; he knew every contour of this creaky floor like the back of his hand. Soon, he had made it to the dining room and was walking to the side opposite the kitchen area where the enormous fireplace formed the base of the east-facing wall. Then he began rummaging through the combination of ashes, soot, and litter that sat in its pit until he found the crumpled letter he'd ordered Witherwings to leave here.

Al's hands were shaking nervously as he opened the letter and read with hasty prudence:

You know I can't tell you that. You know what she'd do. You know what she stands for… Revenge. Obstinacy. Secrets. Exaltation. She's a killer. We all are.

This had been Knox's response to Al's question of who was next on Astoria's list of victims. Much like the first time he read it, though, Al didn't see anything odd about Knox's words, but scanned the page again while thinking of what Ryder had told him about every sentence having a hidden meaning. That was when his eyes narrowed in on the four fragments in the middle of the true sentences: Revenge. Obstinacy. Secrets. Exaltation. And with a third viewing, all Al could see were the four letters that spelled the person Astoria was planning to kill at Arthur's funeral: R.O.S.E... Rose.

Albus stopped breathing. He stopped moving. He stopped thinking. All he could do was feel, and all he felt was power. Soon, that power was taking control, and fire was burning from the pit in which he'd just found Rose's name. The floorboards he knew so well were cracking beneath his feet. The windows hiding the sunrise were shattering their glass and blowing it in every possible direction. The Elder Wand was not in Al's hand, but was rather stashed away in his pocket, but it didn't matter. He didn't need it. He was powerful enough all on his own. In fact, he was more than powerful. He was uncontrollable.

The house continued to fall apart around Al – its outer walls exploding and its inner frame tumbling to the ground – as he stood up and walked out the hallway with as much awareness to what was going on as Lily had had when she'd been transforming before his eyes. It was for that reason that Al didn't even notice when James ran through the door to find Al and started shaking him while yelling, "AL! AL, LOOK AT ME! Look at me, Al! You're okay; everyone's okay. Lily's okay; we found her and she's sleeping it off at home. Please, Al, come home! You can come home now."

Al remained oblivious to James's presence, continuing to push past him on his way outside, until shards of stained glass from the window on the staircase near Walburga Black's shrieking portrait flew down in a gust of wind and pierced a set of rugged holes straight into James's left shoulder. James's reactionary grimace combined with the smell of coppery-tinted blood seemed to do the trick in waking Al from his hypnotic trance, but it didn't alter his mindset.

Al only pushed his brother harder as he ignored James's injury and yelled directly into his eyes, "STOP protecting me! People who protect me... they end up dead." Then the door fell open just in time for him to walk outside and start running, not knowing which direction he was heading and not caring. All he cared about was the pain he'd taken back from Zephorien that had now turned into power. All he could hear was the ticking time-bomb inside his head, pumping wildly at the same pace as his flying feet as they pounded through the mud. All he could feel was his throbbing forehead, and he was quickly growing addicted to the blood rush.

Addiction was a powerful thing, especially when the addictive substance was power itself. But what it gave rise to was perhaps even more powerful: guilt. Guilt was like a time-bomb, escalating with every passing second until, eventually, it exploded. Now, Al's bomb of guilt was exploding, and there was no telling how much damage it could do, but one thing had become undeniably clear: nobody, not even James, was going to be there to pick up the pieces.

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