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



32. The Rogue Lover

There was something so easy, almost natural, about lying to everyone when none of them had any idea that they were being lied to. It was when the suspicion came that the lying grew difficult, unnatural, and painful. But even with the pain, lying was still far easier than being lied to, and it wasn't until a person was on the receiving end of a lie that they understood the difference.

Al was sitting in the corner of the kitchen in the Black family home, crouched on the floor beside the fireplace and staring at the girl whose head was still flat on the table – the girl he wondered if he'd ever known at all. He wasn't sure when or how he had moved from the chair beside her to the other side of the room, but he did know why he had felt the need to further the distance between himself and Ilana. He was terrified of her, not because of what she'd kept from him, but because of what he'd kept from her, and all the reasons she had to be terrified of him. She was the last person he'd ever wanted to scare off.

He watched her from his spot on the floor for hours until those hours became all night. His thoughts vacillated between Arthur's death and Ilana's secret, because Al couldn't decide which thought was worse. He didn't understand how he had let any of it happen. He didn't know when he had become so oblivious to the lives of those whom he cared about, and what effect his decisions might have on them. He wanted to pinpoint the moment he had forgotten about essential things like safety just so that he could fill his own life with a little danger.

So, he just stayed there, rocking himself against the wall so that he wouldn't fall asleep from the stillness as he listened to Ilana's quiet breathing and was reminded that his grandfather could no longer make such a sound. Al watched the sun rise and shine through the east-facing window as the rays of percolated light hit the scar on Ilana's arm and wondered how she had hid it from him. He watched her stir as her eyelids fluttered open and her green met his for the hundredth time, but for the first time, he wondered where those green eyes had come from. He wondered who her family was and where she lived and what she was like as a child. The only thing he didn't once ask himself was just how much she knew about him, and how she had been able to ignore it the same way that he'd ignored his not knowing about her.

"You're back," Ilana said as her head slowly rose from the table but her eyes remained locked with Al's. It didn't take long for her to sense that things had changed between them. They hadn't seen each other in over a week, but she knew just as well as he did that their time apart wasn't the problem. Being separated usually made them feel even more connected once they reunited, like she was a tree and he was the wind getting caught in her branches. But right now, they didn't feel connected at all. Now, she was the slowly dying grass in a torrid field, and he was the rain that refused to fall.

Al remained expressionless as he waited for Ilana to understand what he had just discovered, and eventually she looked away from him to glance down at her bare arm. She stared at the scar in the same way that Al had before – like it was the first time she was seeing it, and like nothing had ever looked darker against her snowy skin.

"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Al before he spent another hour staring at her without getting any answers. It wasn't really the first thing he wanted to know, but it was the easiest question to start with, since it was the only one he already knew the answer to.

Ilana looked up from her arm and responded just the way he'd thought she would, shrugging her shoulders rather innocently and asking, "Why would you have needed to know?"

And this was where things grew complicated, because normally, Al wouldn't have needed to know. In a normal world, there wouldn't have been a problem in discovering that his girl came from a Muggle family, other than the part where she'd omitted the truth from him for the whole year that he'd known her. But they were no longer living in a normal world, and Al was no normal wizard. What he needed to know to continue the conversation was how much of that Ilana understood. Like everything, she knew about the kind of danger she was in, for the entire wizarding world was well versed in the subject of Astoria, the Forbidden Flock, and what its motives were. But did she know the role that Al was playing in all of it? After all, she was the one who'd provided the ingredients to brew the potion that had subsequently marked her very skin, and she was the one who'd finally come to him even after all of her speeches about their not being good for each other. Did she know then just how close she was getting to her own enemy?

But as Al thought about what he should say next, he heard rustling coming from inside the chimney beside him, so he stood up in fright and faced the open fireplace with curiosity as Ilana took her place beside him. When a soot-covered letter landed in the ashes, Al leaned down to pick it up, but Ilana swatted her hand over his and grabbed the letter herself, saying at him with warning, "It's for me."

She tried to turn away from him as she blew the black off the paper and then opened it with surprisingly steady hands, but she couldn't hide from Al anymore. He looked at every one of her motions differently now that he had a reason to read into her story. He saw those steady hands and thought that they must have come from the piano playing or the potion making, and he saw the bangles around her left wrist and wondered who had given them to her, and he saw the letter and remembered all the other letters that he'd seen her write before, but had never once asked her about.

"Who's it from?" he said, finally giving in to the thing he'd never realized that he wanted to know. He wasn't ashamed of his snooping, even when Ilana's eyes shifted frantically as she read and she put her thumb to her lips as if she was about to start biting her nails, a nervous habit that Al had never noticed before, but one that he recognized now, because it was one that he shared with her.

Once she finished reading, Ilana crumpled the letter and threw it into the ashes before pointing her wand toward the paper and lighting it on fire. Without answering him or saying anything at all, she turned around and walked out of the kitchen, marching through the hallway until she had her hand on the front doorknob and was ready to leave.

Luckily, Al had expected that too, since they were always walking away from each other, so he was at the door before she was. Blocking it with his back, he resisted the urge to grab Ilana by the neck and kiss her, which was growing alongside his frustration, and asked again, "Who is it from?" This time, he said the words with threat and fury, especially so when he added, "Who are they all from?"

Ilana, who was just as persistent as she always was, tried to push him away so that she could reach the door, but he clutched her wrist with more force than he'd meant to and didn't let go until she stared back at his pleading eyes and answered finally, "It's from my sister. They're all from my sister."

Al didn't have to ask her to repeat the words in order to believe them. He and Ilana were liars, because they lied to each other every day, but the ironic thing was that they lied through silence, because everything they actually said to one another was always the truth. And much like Al hadn't questioned the apparent existence of a brother that Ilana had failed to mention until recently, he didn't question the existence of a sister that she was mentioning now.

They were still looking at each other, their silence seeming even louder than Al's tense hold on Ilana's stinging arm, when Ilana said through clenched teeth, "I have to go."

"No," Al told her with a shake of his hand. She couldn't go yet, not when he still had so many questions for her. They weren't over. They couldn't be. She was all he had left. So, as he tried to come up with some excuse that would make her stay, he thought about what kind of chaos the Ministry was sure to be in at the moment and said, "It's not safe out there."

"It isn't?" asked Ilana as she raised her eyebrows. And though Al wasn't sure if it was the first time she had ever done so in front of him or if it was just the first time he'd had his eyes open enough to notice, he couldn't help but listen to her as her lips started trembling and her eyes filled with water. He completely let go of his hold over her when she added, "It can't be any less safe out there than it is right here."

Al didn't have time to refute her before the door was slamming in his face and she was on the other side of it. But when he realized what she might have meant behind her final words, he nearly went out the door himself to follow her, because clearly she knew more about him than she liked to let on. He had his own hand on the doorknob now and was about to turn it, however, when he realized that he couldn't leave.

Now that it was morning, Al was surely front-page news. Even if Harry had for whatever reason attempted to protect him like when he had hid Al's presence at the Weasley attack last Christmas, there was no way he'd be able to hide all the photos that had caught Al walking outside the Rookwood house only moments after Arthur's death. He'd be a wanted suspect by now, and so Grimmauld Place really had turned into his personal safe house.

Still, he couldn't very well let Ilana go without knowing if he'd ever see her again, so he tried to come up with an idea to get out of this place without being caught as he made his way back to the kitchen. And just as he was about to collapse onto the table, he heard the door opening and told himself to walk slowly down the hallway so as not to give away his relief to see Ilana return to him. As it turned out, he needn't have worried about such, since it wasn't Ilana who was standing in the entryway wanting to talk; it was James.

Al hadn't realized that it was raining outside until he saw the pellets of water dripping from James's messy brown hair, and now the drops from outside were all he could hear. Al hadn't let himself cry until he noticed the red marks around James's eyes, and now he had a steady stream of tears running down his own cheeks. Al hadn't allowed the thought of his family losing a member to penetrate his mind until he was faced with a member of his family who was still alive, and now all he could think about was how much more deserving of death Al was than any other Weasley or Potter.

Once James brushed some of the water out of his hair and took off his sopping coat, he stood still in the entryway and looked straight at Al for a short eternity. The brothers were trying to read the other's thoughts the same way Al had been reading Ilana's motions before, and though neither of them had ever been able to, they almost felt closer to accomplishing such now than they ever had before. They wouldn't have been able to explain it, to themselves or to anyone else, but somehow Al's transgressions had brought them closer together, like a storm carrying seeds of flowers to a barren field. After everybody else in Al's family had been driven away, James was the only person who stood a chance at getting through to him.

But that didn't change the fact that, like every other wizard in the world, James wanted answers. And because he was Al's brother, he actually deserved them, which was why he gave in and asked without any build-up or skipping around the subject, "Did you do it?"

For the same reasons that James had asked the question, Al answered in the only way he knew how. "No. No, I didn't do it. I only feel like I did."

James, who had his hands stashed in his jean pockets, nodded once in acceptance of Al's statement before walking past him and down the hallway until he came to the stair landing, where he sat down on the bottom step and waited for Al to join him there. Even though Al still desperately wanted to find Ilana, he followed his brother as if under the Imperius Curse, and he couldn't help but enjoy the temporary feeling of having absolutely no choice in the matter.

The two boys faced the house-elf heads on the wall as Al asked, "When did you get here?" He didn't literally mean Grimmauld Place, but rather England, since James had been shacking up with Lysander in Scotland for half of the summer. Lily had supposedly been there as well, at least over the past few days following the Quidditch European Cup.

"A few hours ago," answered James with just as little emotion as had been in his previous question. "I've been at the Burrow." It was quickly becoming clear to Al that James was done getting angry. He had been waiting for the blow-up, and though Al wasn't certain that this was it, he was sure that it would arise fairly soon, and James was keeping his promise. He was there.

Thinking of the Burrow where his grandparents had lived and realizing how much less of a home it would feel like without Arthur there, but still wanting to know that the rest of his family was okay, Al asked, "Everyone's there? Mum, Rose, Lily?"

"They're all there," confirmed James. "Lily had a bit of a breakdown when I told her after hearing word from Mum, which got me worried at first. But then I saw Ron and Hugo, and that's when I realized that Lily didn't have it bad at all."

Of course, Ron and Hugo would be taking the news worse than anyone else. Ron was the boy who'd been born to a mother still craving a daughter, but Arthur had always been proud of his youngest son. And Al could have guessed about Hugo, particularly after what had happened at the Bird's Nest yesterday, though he still wasn't sure when Hugo had grown so close to Arthur.

Still, hearing about all of their struggles wasn't exactly what Al had been hoping to get out of James, which was why he asked, "Are you trying to make me feel even guiltier? Because, believe me, I don't need to."

"Actually, I think you might," James said with his first sign of aggression as he finally turned away from the elves to face Al. "Let's be honest; it doesn't seem to have sunk in yet."

Al was looking back at him now, trying to counteract his theory through his wounded expression alone, though he knew even more so than James did that the theory was correct. Still, he didn't actually say anything to refute before James let his head fall some and added, "Anyway, that's not what I meant to get across. The guilt will come, but right now, I think what you should really be feeling is fear."

Albus immediately understood that it wasn't who was at the Burrow that was important; it was who wasn't there. To make sure he was on the right track, he asked simply, "Dad?"

"No," James said with raised eyebrows, just as surprised at Harry's indifference as Al was. "Dad's stuck at the Ministry with Mercy. Apparently, they have things that need to be sorted out at the moment. But Scorpius has gone mental; Rose said that he was the only one who went after you from Spinner's End, and he's been tracking you ever since. I suppose you're safe here, but once Dad's done with his work, I'm sure he'll lead Scorpius to the right place, and that's a team you don't want to mess with."

"I can handle them," Al argued defensively before he had time to think through his words. Truthfully, he was no much for his father, especially when Scorpius was added to the mix. But he had spent years convincing himself that he was in fact just as powerful as the Chosen One, because for whatever reason, he'd always felt like he needed that power just to feel like a true Potter.

"Oh, please!" James called his bluff. "You're just a kid. We all are. And as much as I've tried to disprove the fact, Dad isn't."

Al was rolling his eyes at this point, because he didn't want to hear any more praise for his father, particularly from James, who'd never gotten along especially well with Harry himself. But as James ignored Al's reaction and continued his speech, Al found himself listening for the same reasons he hadn't wanted to initially – because James was the only person in Al's life who knew exactly how it felt to be Harry Potter's son.

"He may not understand any of us half the time, but you know him, Al. You know that he always does what he thinks is right, and sometimes his decisions pan through, and sometimes they don't. But that's just the thing – he has this hero complex because of the prophecy that he was born into, so he can't accept it when he makes a mistake, and I don't think you've ever been able to either. You expect him to be perfect because that's what he expects of himself, and whenever he does something wrong, you punish him by making an even bigger mess of yourself and seeing if he can clean it up. And I think it's time for you to decide whether or not you're going to let him."

Al didn't say anything even after James finished speaking. He just sat there, silently considering the suggestion. He thought about all the things he'd done behind Harry's back just to prove that he could be his own person, and how many mistakes he'd made through his wrong decisions. James was right that Al had been testing their father, and that the more Harry believed in him, the more Al pulled away, and the less he believed in himself. But at least Harry still knew who he was, because Al was beginning to feel like he had no idea who he was even supposed to be. In fact, the only time he ever felt content with himself was when he was with Ilana.

Ilana. She was the person he needed to see. Al needed to talk to her again before he faced what was waiting for him outside, because he needed to explain himself, and he needed to make sure that he'd still have her regardless of what happened to him in the near future. She was the last speck of truth in a web of lies, and he needed to know that she'd still be there when things became even more tangled than they already were.

So, he was right back to where he'd been before James had shown up, wracking his brain for some way to go looking for Ilana without being caught by anyone out on the streets. Only now, Al didn't give up on finding an idea so quickly, since the solution was staring right at him from underneath James's baggy sweater.

Cutting to the chase just like James had when he'd arrived, Al asked his brother, "D'you think I could borrow the Invisibility Cloak?"

Along with the Marauders' Map, James was ridiculously possessive of Harry's old cloak, and he didn't loan it out to just anyone. Usually, Al was not on the list of trusted borrowers, but he had a feeling that James would be sympathetic at a time like this, and as it turned out, he was.

"Fine," said James, lifting his sweater ever so slightly so that he could pull the cloak out and hand it to Al. "But just so you know, I wouldn't recommend going after her. She didn't look like she wanted to be found."

Al hadn't registered that James must have seen Ilana as she was heading down the steps from the house, but his observation didn't change Al's plan in the slightest. He was just as adamant to find Ilana as he'd ever been when he stood from the step, led James back to the door, and paraphrased the words that James had recently said to him with, "You were right. It's gotten bloody hard bloody fast, and you have no idea how literally I mean that. Right now, I need to find out if we love each other enough to keep fighting for what we have."

With one last sigh of disapproval, James gave in and threw the cloak over Al's head as he told him, "Just be careful out there. I swear it doesn't feel like the same world it was yesterday."

Al could only imagine just how different things were outside, but before long, he didn't have to imagine it. Even under the Invisibility Cloak, he had to be discreet so as not to give away his presence through the oddly shaped hole in the rain, but the back alleys were open enough to give Al the perfect view of the world. And as he and James went their separate ways, Al found himself wandering through a darkened London that almost seemed as if it had lost its sense of purpose.

Perhaps the rain was fogging his vision slightly, but Al was fairly certain that he saw Muggles staring through their apartment windows and looking up at the sky as if awaiting an imminent monster attack. The streets were covered in mud, with the sewers too filled with dirty rainwater to collect any more through the open pipes. Worst of all, newspapers from both the Muggle and magical worlds were floating atop the water like driftwood along a river, and sure enough, it was Al's photo on all of their front pages.

Al tried to ignore his guilt-stricken face staring back at him as he searched frantically for a real estate office. He only needed to find one of the windows he had passed by countless times before – the ones with the photos of houses that were for sale in Muggle suburbs. Ilana hadn't ever told him where she lived, and now of course, he understood that she must not come from a wizarding village like he did. The only problem was that he didn't know of many Muggle areas, so he hoped that the pictures might somehow trigger a memory inside him that linked back to Ilana.

He was coming up on the Leaky Cauldron – the pub that served as the secret entrance into Diagon Alley – when he finally found one of the windows he'd been looking for. He stopped for a minute to peruse the various pictures and descriptions of Muggle houses and neighborhoods, finding homes for sale in Notting Hill, Waterloo, and eventually Surrey, where his eyes stopped moving as they locked onto a light brown house with dark shingles on Wisteria Walk in a town called Little Whinging.

Al had an aunt, uncle, and younger cousin in Little Whinging, since Harry had in fact grown up there. Even more curiously, though, Knox had killed a few Muggles there last fall (under Astoria's orders, of course), and Ilana had been distracted and concerned the whole week following, as if she had suspected that those Muggles may have come from her family. Al hadn't thought anything of it before, since they hadn't even been together at the time, but now he was positive that Little Whinging was in fact where she lived.

Getting ready to Apparate by gripping the cloak around his chest, Al turned around slowly to make sure no one was around to hear the pop, but stopped in his tracks when he saw an eagle perched atop the hanging sign of the post office that sat across the street. It was a rare sight to see a live eagle anywhere in England, let alone the city center of London, but Al was sure that this was the type of bird he was looking at now.

Her body was about three times the size of the average pigeon, with a wingspan that stretched far further, and was mainly white with only a few feathers speckled gold. She had yellow eyes like a snake and short toes that could just barely curl around a post the size of a flagpole, but none of that gave her identity away. What finally did was the obnoxious squawking that made all of her golden feathers stand on edge in the exact same way her human hair would when she was out of her Animagus form.

Once Al had deciphered that the bird was in fact Vega, the Forbidden Flock's head war strategist, she flew off as her eagle self until she was sitting in the outer windowsill of the Leaky Cauldron and was tapping her gray beak against the glass. Understanding what she was trying to tell him, and assuming that her supernormal eyes must have used the rain well to find him under the cloak, Al opened the door of the pub and walked inside.

There weren't many people indoors, though Al did recognize two teenagers seated at a long table in the middle of the main room. He tried to stealthily pass by a haggard-looking Colin Creevey as the boy looked around at the slamming door and then pushed up on his table to try to catch sight of the muddy footprints that were slowly covering the wooden floor and taking the shape of a non-existent pair of boots.

Al stopped walking in hopes that it would make Colin's suspicion wear off when the latter boy pointed to the footsteps and asked the girl sitting across from him, "Do you see those? Where are they coming from?"

"Oh, I can only hope they're the marks of my mother's spirit!" said Holly Longbottom rather excitedly. Al had momentarily forgotten that Hannah Abbott, Holly's deceased mother, had once been the landlady of the Leaky Cauldron, so it made sense that Holly would come here fairly often during the summer, especially if she wanted to show her crush where she'd grown up.

Holly's remark seemed to distract Colin enough for Al to finally move on without being mentioned again, though he listened in on their conversation for a while longer as Colin laughed and said to Holly, "I hope so, too. But speaking of spirits, have you heard from any of the Weasleys lately? Nigel's been worried sick; he says Hugo locked himself up in a bathroom at his grandmother's house and won't come out for anyone." He spoke with perfect authority to the girl, which Al couldn't help but notice, since he was used to Colin stuttering whenever he talked to anyone at Hogwarts.

"I haven't heard a peep, though I didn't expect to. He was a fantastic teacher, too – Professor Weasley," replied Holly, with far more normalcy than she usually displayed. But of course, she had real experience with death, so it was one of the few matters of life that she took seriously. "Is he there now? Nigel, I mean."

"Yeah, he's there," Colin confirmed. "He saw Hugo yesterday to make sure he was all right after hearing about Mr. Weasley's disappearance, and he stayed with them after they all got word of the murder."

Holly sighed sympathetically upon hearing this. She wasn't close with Hugo, since they had always been far too different to ever get along well, but she still didn't appreciate hearing about anyone going through such pain. Thinking such, she mumbled suddenly, "We should send them one of Luna's Dirigible plums. It will help them accept things."

"Maybe," said Colin, though Al could tell by his stilled brown eyes that he was thinking of something else entirely. Still lost in thought, he kept his eyes on the table as he changed the subject with, "But you know, Nigel told me the strangest thing in his letter this morning. He said that he didn't want to leave Hugo so soon, and that he needed me to give Harry Potter a statement about Al's apparent involvement with the murder."

Holly was listening closely as Colin elaborated, "He said he thinks that the wand Al was using at the time might have been one that he made."

Al had been leaning on the end of the table this entire time, but hearing about Nigel's statement nearly made him topple into a chair and cause a giant stir. Luckily, he caught himself before he made any loud noises as he overheard Holly ask Colin, "So, are you going to tell Harry?"

"I think I have to," answered Colin. "I mean, I don't want our family implicated in this all over again, but according to Nigel, the Ministry should be able to use Mr. Weasley's body to track the spell back to the wand that produced it, just like you can take a wand and see the last spell it performed."

Al was out the back door before they said anything more, because he didn't want to hear any of it. He didn't want to know any of it. At this point, it didn't matter what he did, because between the photos from last night and Nigel's statement from this morning, the Ministry wouldn't even need to question Al before naming him the true murderer of Arthur Weasley. After all, the Killing Curse had in fact come from Nigel's wand, even if Al hadn't been the one to procure it.

He was almost too concentrated on his own fear to notice the tiny, yet almost fluorescent blue jay stooped on a pile of Quibbler magazines on the other side of the brick wall that separated Diagon Alley from the Muggle world. There weren't enough people around here to notice the odd opening of the portal without anyone actually coming through it, and so the Animagus version of Ryder Rookwood made her presence known by flying toward Al and flapping her wings against the rain right in front of his face.

After backing up some, Ryder flew furiously down the street, passing the Apothecary and Owl Emporium so quickly that Al had to run after her just to keep up, but eventually she floated down onto a lamp post across from Gringotts Wizarding Bank and jerked her head toward the blackened street known as Knockturn Alley.

Al tried to swallow his hesitance as he made his way down the narrow walkway that Ryder had instructed him to follow. He'd never been down this way before, not once on his many trips to Diagon Alley over the years, and he was rather thankful for not breaking the promise to his parents to stay away until now, since it wasn't exactly the type of place in which Al thought he'd enjoy spending his time.

There were only a couple of witches and wizards around, all dressed in their own versions of dark robes with black hoods, pledging their abhorrent loyalty to the Flock by trying to dress in Astoria's uniform, but it was the run-down buildings with creaking doors that made Al's head spin. He was looking in every possible direction as he tried to catch sight of a rook, thinking that he was being led to Knox, and hoping in fact that he might get a chance to talk to Rookie, if only to gloat the fact that his plan to help Al had clearly failed miserably.

But Al never found a rook, and he never found Knox in human form either. Instead, he saw what was surely the last bird in the line when he came across the snow petrel sitting tranquilly atop the silver doorknob of a shop called Borgin and Burke's. Al hadn't known what Wynn's Animagus form was before, but there was no mistaking the white color of the bird now staring back at him; it was as light as the fluffiest cloud, and the exact same shade of Wynn's human skin.

As Al approached the door, Wynn flew off, allowing Al to head inside on his own. He didn't let himself take in the sight of the frightening room he was standing in before making sure all the curtains were closed so that nobody could see inside, and then he took off his cloak swiftly and stuffed it under his shirt. By the time he turned around, more of his attention was focused on the woman standing before him than the evil masks and rusty instruments he was surrounded by.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" mused Astoria thoughtfully as she traced her fingers over a shriveled hand that seemed to emit light into the shop with a single touch.

"Yes," Al said sarcastically. "It's quite stunning, really."

"Don't be so petulant, Albus." Astoria was walking toward him at this point, twirling a brand new wand in her hand as she faced Al to say, "You did exactly as I asked of you. And for that, you have regained my trust. So, tell me, what could you possibly have to sulk about?"

Al knew what she was doing. She was trying to get him to admit that he missed his grandfather, that he had never wanted to kill him, and maybe even that he hadn't been the one to kill him after all. Because naturally, Astoria had never believed that Al would go through with her task for him, and so he had to be careful not to say anything that might discredit all the evidence that pointed toward him. Instead, he decided to use that evidence to deepen Astoria's newfound trust.

Admitting that he was in a terrible mood, Al spat at her, "Oh, I don't know, maybe the fact that the entire Order of the Phoenix is out looking for me, and that I could end up in Azkaban in a matter of hours for a crime that I committed under your command!"

"Relax," Astoria said with a chuckle. Al was even tenser than usual, but Astoria seemed surprisingly calm. Al knew that she'd felt little value in his company as of late, but he still thought that she might be slightly unnerved by the idea of losing him so soon. Surely, she had bigger plans for him; otherwise, she would never have offered him a second chance.

When Al finally let his back curve over and stopped hunching his shoulders, Astoria put a hand on his arm and explained, "I understand why you might be concerned, though I can't very well support your decision to stand in the middle of the road for all the world to see after committing such a crime."

Of course, he was to blame. Al should have grown used to such by now, but he was pleasantly surprised when Astoria's tone went from condescending to reassuring as she said, "But if you must know, you have nothing to worry about with the Order, or the whole of the Ministry, for that matter."

"What do you mean?" Al asked. Had she not been outside enough over the past twelve hours to catch even a single glance of the Daily Prophet headlines? "I'm already wanted formurder!"

"No, Albus. You're wanted for questioning." Astoria corrected him. "You might want to read your own articles next time. But if I must always do your research for you, I suppose I should inform you that those photographs that are being spread around offer absolutely no proof that you are guilty, especially when taken into context. After all, you have no previous ties to the Forbidden Flock or the man responsible for kidnapping Weasley in the first place, thanks to your father's impressive cover-up."

It was true that Harry had hid all evidence of Al's presence at the Weasley attack, but that didn't mean that he couldn't release such information now, considering he himself had been a witness. But Astoria read right through Al's thoughts, answering his question before he could ask. "He won't reveal the best of you, Al. It would ruin his own reputation, and you know he can't have that."

Still, Al wasn't completely convinced. Thinking of Nigel's upcoming statement, he asked with concern, "But what if they link the body back to my wand? Then, with that and the photos, they'll already have two giant pieces of evidence to use against me; are you telling me that that isn't enough?"

"Yes, that is exactly what I'm telling you. They'll still need a link, or even a witness, to give you a full sentence, which will only happen if they ever actually find you. I must admit, you're doing a far better job hiding yourself than I would have predicted."

Al didn't thank her for the compliment. His thoughts were too focused on the idea of never being found, which terrified him in every sense of the word, even more so when Astoria added, "And so long as you stay close to me, you can continue hiding. You won't have to reveal yourself until you're more powerful than all of your adversaries combined."

"Are you offering to train me?" Al was caught off guard by the suggestion, since although Astoria had looked out for him before, she'd never truly taken him under her wing the way she had with Knox, and even the other priority Flock members. After all, she'd been the one to provide support through their first transformations into their Animagus forms, and she'd been the one to teach them all how to fly. The only thing she'd ever taught Al was how to fall.

"I'm offering to protect you," Astoria made herself clear. "You might think of the training as a sort of bonus."

Al considered the offer. He didn't want to at first, but what choice did he have? James had been right; he could either let Harry clean up his mess, which would no doubt involve having to testify at the Department of Mysteries and quite possibly use Knox as collateral damage to save himself, or he could stay with Astoria and forget about ever seeing his family again. He was at yet another crossroad, and he didn't like either of the two directions he was being offered, mostly because he still didn't know where Ilana stood in all of it. And yet again, Al didn't feel as though either choice was his own, except when it came to Ilana. When it came to her, he felt all of the wrong that he'd done, because he'd done it, and it didn't have to do with anyone else. He'd given her that scar and he'd put her in this perilous position, and he only hoped that with her help, he could get her out of it. And maybe, just maybe, she could get him out of his.

He wasn't sure how long he'd stayed silent until Astoria spoke up once more. "Are you ready, then?" she asked, assuming that he couldn't refuse her offer.

"Not yet. I have to do something first," said Al, not wanting to make her think that he was refusing her while at the same time buying himself some more lee-way. Realizing that he'd need to know where she would be now that the Rookwood house had been discovered, though, he quickly asked, "Where might I find you once I'm finished?"

"Here is fine," she answered cordially, her eyes scanning Al for some sign of deception. When she didn't find any, she shrugged her paranoia aside and said, "I bought the store a few years back from Wynn's uncle."

Al wasn't the least bit surprised that Astoria owned the shop they were currently standing in; she owned a lot more where that came from. He didn't have any reason to stay and chat further, either, so within seconds, he was back under James's cloak and was on his way outside.

He was about to Apparate to Little Whinging as planned when Al decided to make a pit-stop at Grimmauld Place, just to see if Ilana had decided to return. Soon, he was back inside the gray house and was pleased to see that Ilana was waiting for him there, though his relief wore off relatively quickly when she stood from her seat on the floor of the hallway and turned to face him with eyes as bright as the Killing Curse.

"You're back," said Al timidly just as she had said to him that morning, only now their roles had been reversed. She was furious and she was terrified, and he was just waiting for her to tell her what he'd done wrong.

Her expression held only anger, but Ilana somehow managed to control it as she addressed Al rather calmly by rubbing her eyes and saying, "I just came from the Ministry."

That caught Al's attention like nothing had all day, for the same reasons the sole sight of her Mud-blood scar had scared him so much when he'd first laid eyes on it. Ilana was the only person who hadn't been involved in anything having to do with the Flock or the Order; she didn't belong to a side, because she only ever belonged to herself, and Al wanted things to stay that way. In fact, he even wanted to join her there, so long as she'd have him. But now, it sounded as if it might be too late, because she claimed that she'd just been to the Ministry of Magic, and to Al, that was the same thing as saying she'd chosen a side.

Things only grew less clear to Al when Ilana's fury took over and she tried to take deep breaths in between her next request. "Please, Potter, enlighten me on why I just picked up myfather from being interrogated by your father for being a possible member of the Forbidden Flock! Because before now, I was fine with having no answers, but dragging my family into this – into whatever nonsense is going on with you right now? That's a line I cannot let you cross."

Her face was inches from his as her impure blood flooded her forehead, but Al held his hands up in surrender as he said honestly, "Higgs, I have no idea what you're talking ab-" but paused, letting his eyes linger to the floor, when he realized that he might have an idea of what was going on after all.

Blinking profusely as he attempted to sort through everything that was running through his head, Al recalled something his father had said yesterday about Mercy having found a Felix Higgs that matched Charlie's description in Little Whinging. Then Al thought about where his fake name had come from, remembering when Ilana had told him about her brother, and when she'd also mentioned that her father had the same name. Finally, he considered the disguise he'd used in Romania, and the hair he'd collected from that Muggle postman in London, and suddenly all of the pieces fit.

Ilana was waiting nervously for an explanation by the time Al finally collected his thoughts and asked with closed eyes and a deep sigh, "Does your father happen to work in a post office?"

He opened his eyes to see Ilana squinting at him with even more confusion than she'd shown before, combined with something that was far worse – blame. And Al could feel that blame searing into his chest as she said, "Yes. Why?"

Al licked his lips in preparation for the conversation that was about to take place, trying to warn Ilana by suggesting, "You might want to sit down for this." She knew things already – bits and pieces of information that she had chosen to ignore so that she could be with him without feeling betrayed – but he was about to tell her everything… he was about to ruin it.

Much to Al's surprise, however, Ilana didn't head to the kitchen where they could confer in a business-like fashion, or even slouch onto the floor where she'd be close enough to hit him if things got out of hand. Instead, she stayed right where she was, her expression turning gentle once more as she put a hand on Al's cheek and traced a finger around one of his eyes in a wide circle. Just as he was beginning to feel that unavoidable fire that always seemed to burn between them, wondering to himself how they could possibly be so drawn to each other when they were about to be torn apart, she replaced her hand with her lips, kissing the shadowy bags beneath his eyes like they were handfuls of powdery snow that she could blow into the wind before whispering in his ear, "Just tell me. Just tell me the truth."

He started at the end of his story, explaining how he had used the Polyjuice Potion to impersonate her father, Felix Higgs, without realizing at the time who he was actually impersonating, nor that he happened to be using the correct name for the postman. He told Ilana why his photo was in the papers, and that he had been asked to kill his own grandfather, but that he hadn't gone through with it in the end, regardless of what the Order might think. He told her that he'd been working with Astoria officially since January, but that he didn't have the same beliefs that she did regarding Muggle-borns. He told her that he'd done everything for reasons that he couldn't even explain to himself anymore, and that it had all spiralled out of control. He told her that he'd done all that Astoria had ever asked of him because he was afraid that she'd kill him if he didn't, and that one of those tasks had been brewing the potion that had given Ilana the scar now permanently etched into her arm. He told her everything. He told her the truth.

In return, she listened. She didn't interrupt a single time through his story, nor did she react in any over-dramatic way. She just looked at him and listened, accepting the fact that he'd been working with Astoria like she'd surely suspected of him, as well as the origins of her scar having started with him. She didn't look away until he finished, just after providing her with the details of Astoria's marking ceremony, when Ilana curled over her arm so that she could see the scar for herself.

Watching her and the way she looked at the red lines that meant so much more than the word they formed, Al said slowly, "Maybe, if I had known, things could have been different." He wanted to say that he wouldn't have gone through with the marking had he known then about Ilana's blood status, but he wasn't entirely sure that that was the truth. He had branded eleven year-old kids and sixteen year-old classmates with that same scar, and he hadn't thought much about the consequences at the time. Would things have really been any different if he'd known that Ilana was one of those kids, that she was one of those classmates?

He wasn't able to consider the idea or formulate an answer for himself before Ilana finally spoke up again, saying with light laughter in the back of her throat, "You think things would have been different?" She was back to looking at Al, and he actually shrugged in response as she shook her head and added, "Potter, you aren't the only one here with secrets. I was hiding my blood status long before you came into my life, and I had no intention to reveal it when you did."

Thinking about this, Al remembered just how lonely Ilana had always seemed at school, hunched over her cauldrons while she brewed potions through the lunch hour. She had never had any real friends, at least not until Rose and Al had acknowledged her presence over a year ago, when she had gained Scorpius as a part-time friend and when Al had later become a full-time lover. Nobody had had any idea that she was a Muggle-born, either, and students at the school hadn't ever bothered to question it since she was in the notoriously pure-blood Slytherin house.

Perhaps that was why she'd kept her status a secret? Because Ilana didn't think that the other Slytherin students would accept her if she'd told them? But that didn't sound right to Al; that didn't sound like the independent spirit that he knew Ilana to be, and it also didn't explain how she had hidden the scar once it had branded her. Hoping to get a real answer rather than the ridiculous ones he kept coming up with, Al asked, "But why? Why had you always hid it? And how did you hide it, especially with the scar? I mean, let's face it, it's not as if I've never seen your arm before."

Much to Al's dismay, Ilana didn't stifle so much as a small chuckle at his expense. Instead, she just took a deep breath and replied, "I stole your bezoar – the one you had in your suitcase."

Al remembered finding the empty bezoar box just after the ceremony, and he laughed to hear that it had been Ilana who'd taken it, but the stone's disappearance didn't explain why the scar had recently reappeared on her skin, clear as day. The first time they'd been together, Al hadn't noticed any trace of it, and now he'd be able to see it from miles away.

"It didn't work at first," Ilana went on. "It took a long time to make the scar fade, almost like a rash that was slowly healing from the outside in. And that's why I kept trying to push you away – because I didn't want you to see it, and because I had a feeling that you'd had something to do with it. But then it started working, and I just couldn't stay away from you anymore. I thought it would work forever, because everything has an antidote, but I guess I was wrong. The bezoar was only a temporary cast, and I've tried dozens of other potions to make it go away, but none of them have had any effect at all."

Al nodded upon hearing the explanation. He understood why she'd needed to keep it from him, and it was smart of her to do so, since it had also kept him from giving her name to Astoria. But what he couldn't wrap his head around was why she'd tried so hard all these years to hide it from everybody else. Muggle-borns had only been in any danger since Astoria had announced her power fairly recently. Before that, witches and wizards hadn't been afraid to tell others about their Muggle families, and Ilana clearly loved hers, so what was the problem?

Ilana was still standing serenely in the hallway, still contemplating all of the things that they had both said and not fully comprehending what it meant, when Al asked her, "But why'dyou hide it all this time? What aren't you telling me, Higgs?" He'd told her everything, so she owed it to him to reciprocate.

Looking at her, he could feel the bomb inside of her about to explode. She had been so quiet and so patient for so long, with her stolen glances and precious smiles, but now she was bursting with noise and agitation, with more shifting eyes and trembling lips. In an effort to draw her back in, Al took a page from her book by placing a hand on her cheek and whispering softly, "Just tell me. Just tell me the truth."

Her slap came in a giant swing of anger, and that was when it started. That was when every bit of frustration in Ilana began to boil toward the surface; that was when she started to burst. And the explosion came with a rush of words that were stronger and surer than any she had ever said, "I NEVER WANTED THIS! I never wanted any of this!"

Normally, Al would have been wincing from the pain of her slap by now, but his body seemed to have gone numb to the pain so that his mind could take in what he was hearing as Ilana elaborated in an only slightly more neutral tone, "I never wanted to be a witch. I never have, and I never will. I went to Hogwarts because my parents convinced me that I shouldn't pass up that kind of an opportunity, but I was homesick from the moment I stepped foot on Platform Nine and Three Quarters. I didn't want to tell anybody where I came from because I always planned on going right back, and when McGonagall pulled me aside after my Sorting Ceremony and told me that I was the first Muggle-born to ever be sorted into Slytherin, I knew that I had made the right decision. I fell in love with Potions because it reminded me of Chemistry, which had been my favorite subject at school, and I didn't make any new friends because I didn't want to replace my old ones, and because I had Lizzie to write letters to every day. I didn't tell anyone about my Muggle parents, or my Mugglesister, or my Muggle brother, and I didn't tell them about the Muggle me."

Al had never met anyone who didn't want to be magical, and so he had never considered that that might have been the reason for Ilana's secrecy. Somehow, though, knowing her secret made her even more fascinating to him, and so he continued to listen with his ears wide open.

"After a few years at Hogwarts, people were used to my silence, so they didn't expect much else from me. I'd lost most of my old friends from grade school, but I was still determined to graduate Hogwarts and come right back home, go to university like my sister, and become a scientist, or maybe pick up the piano again, which I hadn't played since I was ten. Everything was going well, and I had a future that I could see right in front of me, and then you happened."

They were staring at each other like they had each ruined the other's life, and in a way, they had. That blame that Al had seen in Ilana earlier was back now, and it was stronger than ever. It was emitting from her body like arrows thrown downhill from an army with the high-point advantage, her nostrils flaring and her eyes glaring. She was finally taking in everything he'd told her only moments ago, because it wasn't until now that she could see clearly the consequences it would have on the rest of her life, and all the things that she was giving up just to be with him.

"I met you," she repeated. "You did all of the wrong things, and you made all of the wrong choices, but you said all the right words. You walked in the wrong direction, and you traveled to the wrong places, but you always came back to the right home. You had your head screwed on the wrong way, and you carried that weight on your shoulders with the wrong amount of pressure, but you held me with the right amount of strength. And because of all of that, I convinced myself that you were also one of my right decisions. But now – now, I think you might have been the wrong decision all along."

She was starting toward the door as Al reached out his hand to stop her and said, "Higgs, come on, you know that's not true! We are right for each other!"

Whipping back around, Ilana widened her eyes and countered, "Right for each other? Potter, you're the son of the Chosen One and I'm an aspiring chemist. You are just waiting for tragedy to strike so that you can have some excuse for feeling so angry all the time, and I'm your tragedy. Your Astoria's puppy, and I'm a Mud-blood."

As soon as she said the word aloud, an incessant shrieking filled the air of the house, floating all the way down from the end of the hall, where the portrait of Walburga Black was still plastered to the wall under a Permanent Sticking Charm. The canvas that had been maintaining her privacy through Al and Ilana's normally quiet days and nights in Grimmauld Place had been blown off the frame with their newfound yelling and the mention of Mrs. Black's favorite word, and now she was screaming things like, "FREAKS! Scum of the earth! Absolute FILTH to see another Mud-blood in my home!"

Al and Ilana could do nothing but to try to ignore the insults, and they just looked at each other – Al with eyes as dry as an African desert and Ilana's just starting to water – as they waited for Mrs. Black to pipe down. When she finally did, they had both lost the energy to argue anymore, and Ilana had plenty of reason to leave. Al was starting to believe she would do just that when she had her hand on the doorknob and turned to him one last time to say solemnly, "Make your move, Potter; I dare you. I dare you to move."

She was telling him to finally make the right decision even after spending so long making the wrong one, but he didn't want to make that decision without her. So, just as the door opened and she was about to cross over the threshold, he yelled back at her so that she could hear his voice above the still pouring rain, "This is all your fault, you know! It's your fault for making me love you! So, I dare you to stay, Higgs. I dare you to stay here and be with me, even if it is the wrong decision. I dare you to love me back."

He hadn't planned to tell her any of that, nor had he ever wanted to say those words to her back rather than her face. But it was all worth it when, after the longest minute of Al's life, Ilana turned around, dropped the coat that was in her hands, walked toward him, took his jaw in her palm, and kissed him in the exact same way that he had kissed her the first time their lips had touched.

Upon feeling her warmth surround him once more, Al pushed her up against the wall as he devoured her neck and tugged on her wafer-thin shirt. Her black hair blew into his face as she shot her arms up so that he could lift the shirt over them and throw it onto the floor, but just as she was about to lower her arms back down to work on his clothes, he grabbed each of her wrists and pulled them slowly toward him until they were low enough against the wall for him to reach. Moving away from her chest ever so slightly so that his own chest was turned into her side, Al leaned toward the emblazoned scar on her arm and left a trail of kisses all along its length. Ilana moaned at the touch, but Al knew that it wasn't because his tongue was causing her scar any pain; it was because she finally felt like she'd found its antidote.

Al woke up in the middle of the night, lying on a rug in the center of the living room floor. He was smiling to himself before his eyes had even opened, thinking that he had never felt so happy in his life. His elation felt wrong in a way, since he knew that he didn't deserve it, but he couldn't make it disappear as he turned on his side and took in the sight of Ilana sitting peacefully at her piano.

She had a thin blanket wrapped around her shoulders, but Al made sure to pull it down ever so slightly as he stood up and sat beside her, just enough to make room for him to kiss the patch of freshly exposed skin. But he was surprised to find that after he kissed her, she didn't attempt to kiss him back, and as he looked up at her tired face, he realized that something wasn't right. She didn't look nearly as happy as he was as she stared down at her steady fingers that were covering the keys that – if she only pressed down a little harder – would make a wretchedly minor chord.

He didn't ask her what was wrong, because he didn't want to disturb her pensive state. But of course, she could sense his concern, and was soon saying thoughtfully, "My parents fell in love over letters. My dad collected stamps as a little kid, and he got a job as a postman the day he turned sixteen. That same year, this woman started coming into his shop almost every week, begging him to buy and sell her self-designed stamps. He was the only one in the office who would take them, claiming that the most magnificent art could always be found on the smallest surfaces, just like the flowers and the birds that she painted on those stamps. They were married at the end of the year, and they never changed their vocations, nor their feelings for each other."

Al had been listening closely to the story of Ilana's parents, but he still wasn't sure what it had to do with him and Ilana, so he asked as respectfully as he could, "Higgs, what-"

But Ilana ignored the question and continued before he could finish, "They had this sign – this thing in common that they both loved – that helped bring them together. And when I met you, I suppose I thought that maybe our mutual love for potions was our sign, and that if I just found a way to work around the magic and the blood, then maybe we could be brought together. But I was wrong, because it was the blood all along. The blood was our sign, and it was never meant to bring us together. It was always meant to tear us apart."

Al didn't know where any of this was coming from, or what had suddenly changed Ilana's mind. Maybe he hadn't in fact convinced her to stay at all, but had just prolonged her imminent leaving. Still, he couldn't let her go now, and as he searched the floor for some sign just like she seemed to be doing, he caught sight of James's cloak underneath the open doorway, where Al had pulled it out from his shirt as he carried Ilana out of the hallway.

Having finally found his own road to take, Al said to Ilana pleadingly, "Run away with me. I have my brother's Invisibility Cloak, so I can get out of here without being seen. We can go anywhere, everywhere, and we don't have to be separated by our different worlds; we can make our own world."

Ilana laughed at that, almost like Al's suggestion was something a child might think up, and was shaking her head while responding, "You know, Potter, you may be the most flawed person I've ever met."

"You say that like it's a good thing," said Al, laughing on his own this time.

"It is," Ilana turned to him. "Your flaws, Potter, are the most flawless things about you. You just haven't been willing to accept them yet."

As she looked away, he looked back at her, studying her saddening expression as she finished with, "You're the only thing in this world that I've ever felt connected to. I've never had a reason to stay here, until you came along. And I would stay with you, Potter. I would leave my other world and go wherever you led me, but that just can't be right. It can't be right for me to want to abandon my family to be with you.

"You asked me once before if it was possible to leave your past behind and start fresh, and I told you not to let go of your roots. I think it's time for me to follow my own advice. It's time to choose a side. Potter, you will always be what I want, but that doesn't mean that you're what I need."

Everything they'd ever said to each other was out in the open now, because she'd just said it all again. Their entire relationship – their whole history – had just been laid out in front of them, and they both knew that they had needed to repeat their beginning so that they could come to an end. So, as they leaned in to kiss each other and as that kiss escalated into something more the way it always did with them, they both tried to take in every moment that passed, because they knew that by the time one of them woke up, the other would already be gone.

And they were right. This time, Al woke with a permanent frown on his face, for he knew that no matter how much he searched for her, Ilana wasn't there, and he wouldn't find her. By now, it was late morning, and though Al tried to stay on the floor for as long as he possibly could, the emptiness of the spot next to him eventually made him too lonely to lie still, so he picked himself up and walked down the hallway like a ghost that had lost all reason to live, but that was stuck in this world anyway.

He didn't understand how he'd known to look at that exact moment, but somehow Al had felt the need to walk right up to the front door and spy through its peephole. It took him a second to refocus his eyes so that he could see all the way into the depths of the swampy park that sat across the street, where two silhouetted figures were making their way toward the house beneath a stunning sun.

Their outlines alone were enough for Al to recognize the men as Harry and Scorpius, the same two people James had warned would be coming for him. He didn't know if they had found a link like Astoria had said they'd needed to, or if they were just coming to find Al because they couldn't manage to stay away any longer, but Al tried not to think about either reason as he turned around, leaned against the door, and slid his back down it until he was sitting on the floor.

Just as he hit the wood with a thump, he noticed a perfectly folded paper fly out from under him and land beside his bare feet. Picking up the paper gingerly, he turned it over and recognized it as one of Ilana's letters, but this time, he knew that it was meant for him. Opening it, he read slowly so that he could take in every word of her hand-written poem:

Why is blood so thick?

So pure and dark and bright.

Why is it that you

Are undeniably light?

Can I ever shake this feeling?

This one that you control.

Can I ever uncover

The part of me you stole?

Is this just a trick?

Making me love you more.

Is this really guilt

That I feel when at your door?

How do I ease the pain?

The pain of what I'll lose.

How do I say goodbye

If you are what I choose?

Does it make me sick?

To replace them with you.

Does it make me wrong

Since my blood isn't true?

But is this all a game?

One we dared to play.

But will it ever end

Before one of us is betrayed?

Why is blood so thick?

So pure and dark and bright.

Why is that we

Are undeniably right?

Al was crying by the time he finished reading, thinking about how it was his fault after all. He'd blamed Ilana when he'd been scared that she'd blame him, but it was had been his own fault all along. He had given her the wrong decision to make, and he had left Knox to his grandfather after making the wrong decision all on his own. But now, all that was over, and so his decisions didn't matter anymore. All he could do was accept whatever came to him and run with it, because fighting against such clearly hadn't been working for him.

So, as Al sat on the floor in the entryway of Grimmauld Place, he looked down the hallway until his eyes caught on James's Invisibility Cloak. He knew that he could take it right now, throw it over it his head, and break out through the back window. Al could run away on his own, or he could even run back to Astoria, but right now, the walk down the hallway looked longer than a winter's night, sicker than the most twisted game, and darker than the thickest blood. The cloak seemed impossible to reach, but the door was right behind him. The handle was sitting unturned just above his head. Harry and Scorpius were waiting for him just a few feet outside.

As if in a trance, Al grabbed the doorknob and used it to pull himself up until he was standing firmly on his own two feet. Then he turned the handle, opened the door, and walked straight toward the two people who could steer him away from the life he could have had. And as Harry took his shoulder and tried to say something in his ear, Al ignored the words and refused to say any of his own, because he knew that whatever he said would turn into a lie, and he didn't want to lie anymore. Doing so had grown difficult, unnatural, and painful, and it was no longer easier than being lied to. It was only now, after Al had realized that the best liars were the ones who lied to themselves, that he understood that there was absolutely no difference between the perpetrator and the victim. They might have lived in two different worlds and pretended to play two different sides, but in the end, they were one in the same, because they both knew how to lie and they had both been lied to. Worst of all, they had both been loved once, but that love hadn't been strong enough to save them.

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