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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37. Wolf Tales

September 29th

"What is he doing here?" asked Scorpius. He still had his hand on one of the griffin-shaped door knockers, and Al could feel the fury in his fist from all the way across the office. He also couldn't ignore the fact that Scorpius wasn't addressing him; if anything, he was pretending that Al wasn't even there.

Professor McGonagall walked slowly around her desk and through the empty circle of space until she was close enough to Scorpius to pull his hand off the door with her own, telling him in the meantime, "Albus is aiding me in a most difficult task. Do not worry; he has left his wand behind."

Scorpius seemed to require a more thorough explanation, since he turned his eyes away from Al to look up at his tall, gangly mentor with a volcano's worth of anger and a spark of betrayal. As soon as he looked away, Al found himself facing Rose, who was standing on the threshold with just as much silence as she'd shown when the doors had opened.

It was the first time Al had seen Rose since their grandfather's funeral, which he was never supposed to attend. He'd gone against Astoria's orders because he'd suspected that she didn't trust him around her family and he wanted to prove her wrong. Or at least, that was what he told Astoria after the fact, all without mentioning that he'd actually helped Rose find the hidden James by steering her toward the church closet. Really, though, he'd protected Rose because he secretly knew that she was who Astoria would be going after next.

Looking at his cousin now was like looking at a fully formed, beautiful, yet fragile snowflake that was destined to melt on a road much warmer than the frozen sky. She was currently in more danger than anyone else in the magical world, but did she even realize it? By the look she was giving Al now – smiling, hopeful, relieved – she had no idea. She had no idea that this evening, which just so happened to be the night of her seventeenth birthday, Astoria was busy planning her next attack just like she'd been doing all month.

All Rose knew was that Al had saved her. She didn't know why and she didn't know if he'd ever do so again, or if he'd ever even need to, but she knew that he had. That was why she whispered to him now, in the midst of her own confusion, "Thank you."

Al couldn't say anything in response. Instead, he turned his eyes toward the floor and waited for McGonagall and Scorpius to sort things out amongst themselves. They too had only been whispering, so Al hadn't been able to overhear their conversation, until Scorpius sighed heavily upon hearing McGonagall say, "Nobody needs to know that he's here, Scorpius. He's not going to hurt me. He's not going to hurt anyone on my watch."

Using McGonagall's claim as his cue, Al took a few steps toward the doorway and announced, "But there is somebody who might hurt another if I don't get going." Outside the office's west-facing window, the sun was beginning to set and the full moon was slowly revealing itself.

McGonagall understood what Al was insinuating, so she nodded and motioned her hand toward the staircase before saying, "Try not to be seen."

Al took one last glance at all the sleeping Headmasters in their portraits on the far-side wall before he told McGonagall jokingly, "I wouldn't dare," and then stepped over the threshold. He could hear Scorpius protesting from behind him, but there was nothing that boy could say to make Al turn back around. He had different priorities tonight.

Once downstairs and standing behind the gargoyle on the seventh floor of Hogwarts castle, Al was careful to check for a clear coast before walking down the hallway. It was about time for most students to be eating supper in the Great Hall, but that didn't mean that there wouldn't be a few stragglers going in and out of the Gryffindor common room. Plus, the Fat Lady and Peeves needed to be avoided at all costs; the last thing Al wanted was a school-wide uproar over his harmless presence.

He made it safely through the left corridor and to the entrance into the Room of Requirement, though he had to narrowly avoid a lone Roxanne by hiding behind the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy and his dancing trolls. She seemed to be looking for Lily on her way back from supper, and Al had to wait a while for her to end her search and return to her dormitory. As soon as she was gone, Al shimmied out from behind the tapestry and took a few paces in front of the opposite wall to open the doors into the Room of Requirement.

Rose and Scorpius had told him about the hidden room during their fifth year at school, but he'd never had any real reason to use it until recently. This year, he had found himself unable to return to Hogwarts as a student, but he couldn't stay home either. So when he ran into his little sister the morning of the funeral – exactly twenty-seven days ago, on September the second – as she was waking up in the middle of the woods from her first full night as werewolf, he knew without question that Lily was where he needed to be. After all, he was the only one who might be able to help her resist her own instincts.

It had taken a fair amount of research and snooping for Lily to pry the necessary information out of Ginny to figure out some way to get Al inside the castle. Both Ginny and Harry had wanted to help Lily through her transformations themselves, offering to visit Hogwarts every month and watch over her in the Shrieking Shack just as Harry's father had once done for Remus Lupin, but Lily never wanted their aid. As a compromise, she promised to work with McGonagall – something Al had since started doing for her – and to use a secret passageway through the Room of Requirement to get herself into the far side of the Forbidden Forest.

Meanwhile, Al had moved into the room that he was now standing inside, which had taken the shape of a small home complete with a kitchen and dining area by the entrance and a bed and curtain-closed bathroom on the other side, the former sitting beneath the most important facet of the room and the one thing Albus truly needed from it: a life-size hanging portrait that was really no portrait at all.

"Where have you been?" came a voice out of nowhere, Lily suddenly jumping off her seat on the bed so that she could hit her brother straight in the chest while yelling in her signature growl that had recently been intensified by her wolf-blooded behavior. "I have ten minutes at most!"

"Yeah, and that's plenty of time to get out of here," Al replied with his hands in the air. "I came as soon as I was done with McGonagall, which admittedly took longer than I had anticipated."

"What do you need to be doing with her, anyway?" asked Lily as if she'd already forgotten the promise she'd made to her parents only a few weeks ago.

Al answered even though Lily didn't need him to, explaining, "I stay with you through your transformations so that she doesn't have to give up any of her own time, and in return she informs me of your and others' safety within the castle." He wasn't looking at Lily as he grabbed the Elder Wand from a safe he'd made and packed his old rucksack full of potions ingredients and bandaging supplies.

"So, I suppose that means she told you about the dementors that broke through this morning?" asked Lily while Al was zipping his bag closed, causing him to look her straight in the eye as she stood in front of the bed with her lips pursed and her arms crossed. Her clothes were all black and stretchy and her hair was tied up in a Dutch braid that started at her left eyebrow and ended in a pinned flower just above her neck. Al was too focused on the one strand of hair that had ruined her perfect 'do to reply, and soon Lily's patience had disappeared and she was asking, "Al, who sent them here?"

Al and Lily had been walking a rather thin line on the subject of Al's loyalty. She of course knew that he was still working with the Forbidden Flock, and she was even helping to protect him from getting caught, but that didn't mean that she supported what he was doing. It all went back to what she'd expressed to him the night he was convicted for Arthur's murder: Lily would rather know the truth, however despicable, than continue to be lied to.

After reminding himself of this, Al responded, "They came from Azkaban, Lil. Who do you think sent them here?" The truth was that Al had had nothing to do with the dementors' arrival, though they'd been stationed at the school borders for weeks now. The only member who could have had any control over them from his prison cell next-door to Vincent Goyle's was Knox.

Lily understood right away, so she didn't ask any more questions. Instead, she followed Al as he stood up on the bed, swung the portrait open to reveal the entrance to a tunnel that his father had once used but that wasn't even on the Marauder's Map, and hopped inside. The walk through the narrow passageway was long and dark, and they only had one wand to light their way, since Lily had left hers under her bed to make sure she didn't lose it while transformed.

They didn't say much to each other while walking through the tunnel, though Al could hear Lily's breaths escalating in both pitch and rhythm. She was nervous, which was understandable, but Al didn't dare point it out by asking if there was anything he could do to help. He decided to just wait it out and let her speak first, which eventually she did by asking, "You still haven't brewed any more Wolfsbane?"

Wolfsbane Potion wasn't a cure for lycanthropy, but it tended to help with control. In fact, it was rumored to give the werewolf complete awareness for the entirety of his or her night under the moon, so long as it was brewed and drunk correctly. Al had bought a pot of some once and had kept it in his bedroom in Godric's Hollow, but apparently James had given it all to Lily for her last transformation. It hadn't worked.

"No, I haven't," answered Al. "I still need to get my hands on the main ingredient, and that herb is not the easiest thing to come by."

"But do you have any idea where you might find it?" asked Lily, her anxiety reaching a whole new level of squeakiness in her voice.

"Yes, actually, I do. I know exactly where to find it." But it just so happened to be the last place Al wanted to visit.

Lily's eyes shifted back and forth as she waited for Al to explain why he couldn't get the herb if he already knew where it was, but she never got her answer before Al changed the subject.

They were reaching the end of the tunnel when he ordered, "Tell me again how much you remember from last month." Part of the training process Al was helping Lily through was to learn how to recall events that occurred during the full moons. If she could remember them, then maybe she could learn to control them too.

"Like I said before, not much," Lily replied as Al held the second swinging portrait open for her. She jumped down and onto an unevenly varnished wooden table in the middle of the Hog's Head bar while adding, "I remember the sight of the moon and then I remember the pain from transforming, and I remember waking up and seeing you there, looking down at me."

In other words, all she recalled were the moments she was in human form, which didn't help them move forward. Trying to get something else out of her, Al waved a thank you to the portrait's subject – a girl named Ariana Dumbledore – as he walked out onto the main road of Hogsmeade and asked Lily, "But what about that scar on your leg? Do you remember how you got it?"

Lily sighed in exasperation. She was already tired of Al's questions, even though she knew he was only trying to help. They were at the edge of the Forbidden Forest that stretched all across the Hogwarts grounds and around the tiny town when she said, "Only that it came from some sort of animal... an animal I seemed to really want to eat."

They both stopped walking at that, Lily looking at Al with nothing but worry in her eyes. Al knew what she was thinking: what if this 'animal' had actually been human, and what if she ran into a human tonight? Because Al didn't have any way of refuting either of these possibilities without lying to his sister, something he'd promised himself not to do, he merely put a hand on Lily's shoulder and said after a moment of silent consolation, "We should probably run."

Above them, the moon had taken its full shape and was seconds away from reaching its highest point in the star-spotted sky. Al and Lily had only just made it across the forest borderline, and soon their legs were flying atop the dirt that was littered with twigs and branches, Al just trying to keep up as Lily began to transform mid-step. Her feet and legs turned first, her shoes flying off to uncover giant paws beneath long, skeletal legs patched with fur smelling of wet dog. Then came her abdomen and her arms, and soon she was on four legs and was out-running Albus like he was the tortoise and she was the hare. By the time she was fully transfigured, Al could hear the distant howls but couldn't see the wolf anymore. This was most probably a good thing, since the farther away from her he was, the safer he'd be. Still, he needed to keep an eye out for her somehow.

Thinking fast, Al circled back and grabbed Lily's leftover shoes before heading for the forest's mid-line just north of the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch. He walked the whole way there regardless of his urgency, his hands tightly gripping at the stitches that had taken over the sides of his stomach. Luckily, he was able to be distracted by his own pain because he didn't actually need to pay much attention to where he was going; the branded tattoo on his chest would lead him there.

He found Zephorien, the Hebridean Black dragon who must have been fifty times Al's size, jumping atop the forest floor and opening his fiery mouth wide to let in a swarm of bats that were flying through the night. As soon as Al made his presence known, Zephyr turned away from his meal and approached his master with a deep bow.

"Ugh, you smell terrible," Al grimaced at the scent of his pet's breath.

Zephyr straightened his neck quickly and pretended to slouch in defeat, making Al reach out his hand for comfort before the dragon coughed right onto the top of Al's head.

Stumbling backward, Al admitted, "All right, all right, you win!" After laughing off the joke, he turned serious once more as he stepped forward and put his hand on one of Zephyr's scaly wings while the other held Lily's shoe to the dragon's nose and said, "I need your help tonight, Oreo. Keep an eye out for her, you hear?"

Zephorien took a deep breath of Lily's scent, then nodded to Albus and flung his wing over his master's head as he ran into the forest at full speed, eventually leaping off the ground and scouting for Al's werewolf sister.

Once Zephyr was gone, Al walked around for a bit until he found the group of dementors that had broken the Hogwarts property line earlier that same day, but that had since retreated to guard the Forbidden Flock headquarters. They hovered around Al skeptically, not knowing if it was worth going after a boy who already refused to focus on anything but his worst memories, but he warded them off anyway.

"Expecto Patronum!" he pointed his wand at the cloaked figures, producing a charm headed by a dark hawk that was so strong it spun all of the dementors out of the vicinity by an entire mile. Al had always been good at that particular spell, though he could never understand why. Perhaps it was because of the fact that he spent so much time thinking about the worst times in his life, making the few moments he thought of the good memories that much more powerful and that much more real.

With the dementors gone, Al had free access to the tree they'd been surrounding before. It was an old, giant oak tree with a trunk as thick as a small home and branches that bulged into the clouds before sinking back to the floor. Against its greying bark was an almost imperceptible outline of a tongue-shaped door, beside which was a mold that only fit to a select few wands. One of those wands was Al's.

The door swung open as soon as Al placed his wand into the mold, and soon he was led deep into what had been named the Forbidden Cave, Astoria's latest home. Really, though, the place was no cave at all. It was much like the tunnel Al had been using to get into Hogwarts: claustrophobic, wet, and dusty with microscopic invertebrates. There were just a few rooms inside, enough to house Astoria and maybe two or three other Flock members at a time. Today, those two members were Ryder Rookwood and her latest tease.

Ryder was currently half-lying on a magically-made sofa in the corner of the small room that was closed off from Astoria's lair. She was so busy snogging a boy who couldn't be much older than Al, and who looked remarkably similar to Knox but for his awkwardly long neck and the streaks of white in his black hair, that she didn't even notice Al was there. When he announced his presence by clearing his throat, Ryder pushed the boy off of her and smiled proudly at Albus.

"I see you've rebound," said Al casually to Ryder while gesturing at the boy who was still trying to get at her neck. The morning Ryder had given him a clue about reading between the lines of Knox's final letter, Al had run from Grimmauld Place with nowhere to go, so of course he'd ended up at the recently abandoned Rookwood house. Much to his surprise, Ryder had been hiding out there as well, and their mutual loneliness upon losing Knox had led to more than one night of regretful indiscretion between the two of them.

Chuckling to herself, Ryder fired back, "I see you haven't." They'd broken off their escapades once Al had found Lily the night he'd broken in to Godric's Hollow and had subsequently found Lily alone in the woods, but really, nothing had ever started... at least, nothing that had ever mattered.

That was what made Al say in response, "Actually, I already did. You were my rebound." Not needing to wait around to know how she'd react, Al walked right by the raging Ryder and into Astoria's room, slamming the door shut on his way out.

This next room had been remodeled to look much like the office Astoria had used while hiding out at the Rookwood house: walls covered in maps, the most prominent one showing the extensive Hogwarts grounds around a highly inaccurate blueprint of the castle, a large circular table in the center of the room with papers sprawled across its surface, and the head chair opposite the door seated by a woman with long, raven hair. The only difference was that this room didn't have a single window inside, and instead of hovering over maps and records alongside Knox, Astoria was pulling the cuticles off her nails and letting them fall onto an old, crumpled picture of a young Charlie and Tonks with their arms around each other in front of the Great Hall.

"Albus." Astoria always addressed him before he even had time to say her name aloud, though like today, she hardly ever actually looked up at him. "I see that you have met Calder."

"Who?" asked Al as he took a seat across from the witch.

"Calder Anhinga," replied Astoria, finally meeting Al's gaze as she hid the photo underneath a map of the Ministry of Magic. "Ryder's new friend."

"Oh, him," Al grunted. He already didn't like the boy, but was suddenly curious to know why Astoria felt that he was important enough to mention, making him ask, "Why, what's his deal?"

"He happens to be my ticket into the Ministry. Before being easily seduced by our beloved Rookwood girl, he was working as an intern for Kingsley Shacklebolt himself. As of today, he has begun work on securing a freezing charm on the whole of the Ministry, able to be activated at my convenience."

Freezing charms were quite literal in that they could temporarily paralyze their victims, usually only for a couple of hours. In other words, they were large-scale versions of Body Freezing Spells, but less intense than full-blown petrifying. Astoria having one ready and waiting on the Ministry would allow her to keep all officials in the building away from a battle, if and when one were to occur. All Al could say in response was, "Impressive."

"Now, I just have one more task to complete before we'll be ready," continued Astoria. The Forbidden Flock itself was the size of Great Britain by now, Astoria having recruited any wizard with a blood prejudice alongside Al's dragon, Knox's dementors, and the few giants Hagrid hadn't corralled into the Order of the Phoenix. The 'one task' Astoria had yet to complete, however, didn't entail the enlarging of her army. All it entailed was Rose.

When Al didn't say anything for a while, Astoria seemed to sense his lack of interest in the subject and moved to something more pressing. "I assume you have come to proceed to the next phase of your training," she suggested.

"So long as you'll have me," Al replied. Astoria had been personally training Al in the Dark Arts since he'd promised his loyalty to her back in early August. He had decided against using his precious time to become an Animagus, mostly because he was still terrible at Transfiguration, but in its place he'd gotten to practice the Unforgivable Curses and try out all of the mysterious spells he'd found in his potions book over the years. He wasn't entirely sure what the 'next phase' of his training would entail, but he wasn't about to back down now.

"Well, that depends," said Astoria, surprising Al with her hesitance. She'd promised to train him; the ultimatum had already come and gone. "You see, in order to move along, you need to rid of all your weaknesses."

Al had no idea what she was inferring until she stood from her chair, walked toward him and sneered, "Including the two that are sitting in your back pocket."

Al practically flew over his chair as his hand shot to the pieces of paper that had been a part of his outfit for a grand total of fifty-seven days – the same number of days it had been since Al had last seen Ilana Higgs. One of the papers was stained with the goodbye poem she'd written him; the other was an unsent letter that he was in the middle of writing her. Whenever he thought of something poignant to say, he'd write it down on that letter, so it was really just a series of unconnected, fragmented thoughts, but in a way, those thoughts were all he had.

"I don't know what you're-" Al tried to deny the papers' existence, but Astoria interrupted him.

"Don't play with me, Albus. I don't need Knox here to be able to see right through you." She was standing only half a foot away from his chair now, staring down at him from above with a smile full of browning teeth and hips that bounced atop her heels. "Two months ago, I had to drag you away from your whore house, and now you come to me willingly nearly every day, yet you are still reserved and resistant. I'm afraid it's time for you to let go."

Al didn't want to hear any more of her nonsense, so he soon found himself running out of the Forbidden Cave without looking back. He ran all the way to Hogsmeade, where he waited on a bench at the end of the street for Zephorien to return Lily to him, and he took out Ilana's poem, read it over for the thousandth time, and then grabbed his own letter and quill. In jagged cursive that was barely legible, he wrote in the remaining blank space, I'm not sure which is worse: the fact that you are my greatest weakness, or the fact that I'll never know if I'm yours. Then he re-folded the paper and slipped it back into his pocket, right where it belonged.

Al had never planned to be one of these people – the people who pine over loved ones for years to come – but he'd also never planned on falling in love. Maybe his fragmented thoughts were the same as those rare memories of happiness he used to produce the Patronus Charm. Maybe writing them down was the only way he could remember all the nights in which he had let go of his control.

October 27th

Ilana's house was made of the same light brown bricks, had the same single green hedge beside its first floor window, and sat in front of the same empty driveway as all of the ones right next to it. One of those neighbors was the Dursley house, which Al had visited on occasion when he'd been younger. Today, though, he was visiting Privet Drive, Little Whinging for the Higgs house, or more precisely, for its backyard.

With a deep breath, Al told his feet to move and was soon climbing over the fence and walking into the yard that he'd come to for the first time at the beginning of the month. The wolfsbane bush was right where he'd found it the last time: just outside the dining room, in the middle of a giant herb garden in all different shades of green, and as far away as possible from the sleeping golden retriever whose name Al had never known.

Unfortunately, the dog must have heard Al's plucking at the bush, for soon he or she was rushing up to Al and trying to jump on his back. Swiftly stuffing the ingredient into his rucksack, Al gave the dog a few friendly pats and then ran off, this time opening the gate and getting far enough onto the main road to be able to Disapparate. He didn't do so right away, however, since he was easily distracted by the sight of an open window on the second floor.

He couldn't exactly see what was inside the room, nor could he have known if it belonged to Ilana, but something told him that it was her bedroom. Something else inside him said that he should climb up the wall of the house and jump through her window right this second, even though Ilana clearly wasn't home. The only thing that stopped him from doing just that was when he pulled one of the papers from his back pocket and wrote, It's taking all the power I have not to go running after you. I swear that every time I don't, I almost do. Then he turned on the spot and landed in the depths of the Forbidden Forest.

With the help of the Elder Wand, Al shot a few red sparks into the sky as a signal that would help Lily find him. As he waited for her to show up, he wondered to himself why both times he'd broken into Ilana's stash of home-grown wolfsbane herbs, she and her family had been out. He didn't let himself stay on the subject for very long, but he hoped that Ilana had followed her dream of going to Muggle university just like her sister had done.

Lily showed up in a matter of minutes, giving both of them plenty of time to prepare before the sun sank beneath the horizon. Still, Al was quick to hand over this month's final dosage of the Wolfsbane potion he'd brewed for Lily; a few sips needed to be taken every day leading up to the full moon. Then she threw him the journal he'd asked her to keep, full of recordings from her last transformation.

Last month had gone surprisingly well, considering neither of them had truly known how to prepare for the night. Lily had woken up in the Room of Requirement after Al had carried her there from Hogsmeade, and he'd been able to erase all of the small scratches and bruises she'd earned while in wolf form. Her journal was filled with visions of bats and sounds of scurrying mice, most of which she'd recalled at random times through her dreams.

"This is great, Lil," said Al once he finished reading, holding onto the journal for her. "And to think: last month, we didn't even have the potion yet."

Lily didn't appear to be as enthused as Al, however. She had taken a seat on a fallen tree branch next to her brother, and while she'd normally by jittery with nervousness around this time of the night, now she was simply still. Noticing this, Al couldn't help but ask, "What's going on in that head of yours, Night-Walker?"

Her eyes burning holes in the ground, Lily sighed and answered, "I'm tired. I'm tired of trying to remember every detail of a night I'd rather forget. I'm tired of people whispering about me behind my back. I'm tired of everyone looking at me like I'm about to break." She turned to look at Al when she finished with, "Because honestly, Al, I think you might be the only one who doesn't."

Laughing slightly out of the corner of his mouth, Al asked, "Since when does Lily Potter let people talk about her behind her back? When has she ever even been close to breaking?"

When Lily didn't respond, Al added, "And anyway, I'm not going anywhere."

For whatever reason, that particular statement was the only thing that did make Lily respond. As soon as she heard Al voice his promise, she was on her feet and was pacing in front of him, apparently having regained her usual anxiety as she rambled, "Blimey, Al! Do you have any idea why I asked you to meet me out here tonight instead of in the Room of Requirement where we always meet? Why I asked specifically that you not go to McGonagall's office at all this week?"

It was true that Lily had asked Al all of this recently, though he hadn't thought much of her request. Lily had struggled with her own self-esteem her entire life, regardless of how confident she liked to behave, so Al had assumed that she just hadn't wanted him discussing her school life with her Headmistress anymore.

"It's because Scorpius told Dad," Lily answered the question for him. Al was paying close attention as she explained, "Scorpius told him that he'd seen you at the castle, and now he has Aurors stationed all around the entrance to McGonagall's office."

"And what does McGonagall have to say about this?" asked Al. He wasn't all that surprised that Scorpius had tattled to Harry; the two of them had always been close. Plus, Scorpius wasn't like Rose; he didn't believe that any of Al's motives were pure anymore, nor did he want to.

Lily shrugged. "I dunno'. She's tried to talk to me a few times, but I've never really been in the mood." Truthfully, that meant that Lily didn't want anyone else in the vicinity to overhear her discussing her other half out loud. "But, I mean, it's McGonagall – she may be bloody harsh sometimes, but she always does what she thinks is right. She knows that this has nothing to do with Astoria. Not everything in this world does."

Though Al would never have admitted it aloud, it was relieving to hear someone say such a thing about Astoria. Sometimes, Al forgot that he lived for anything, or anyone, else.

"The point," Lily cut off his thoughts, "Is that you need to be careful. Or, you know, maybe if you just came home..." her voice wandered off as she kicked at the frosty dirt.

Al didn't let himself even consider the notion before saying, "Lily, you know I can't do that. McGonagall may be okay with letting me into the castle without my wand, but Mum is never going to forgive me for playing a part in Granddad's death. And anyway, Astoria is the only person who's ever pushed me at something. She's the only one who's ever even been curious to see what I am capable of, and I have to know if her belief in me is really worth anything. I have to know how strong I am."

Lily was nodding as she took it all in, but Al could tell from her squinting brown eyes – their mother's eyes – that she didn't fully believe him. Soon, her eyes were facing his – their father's eyes – and Lily was asking, "But what if that strength ends up killing somebody? Or worse, somebody you care about? What happens then?"

She was asking him the same question she'd been asking herself ever since she'd been bitten by Remy. All a person would have to do to provoke a werewolf would be to step into its path, which meant that accidentally killing a person was a perfectly legitimate worry for Lily to have. Purposefully killing a person was just as legitimate a worry for Al, too, especially since Astoria's hit-man was locked up in Azkaban.

But the truth was that Al didn't know what would happen if he was asked to kill someone. Would he find a way out of it the way he'd tried to with Arthur? Would he just not go through with it, sacrificing himself in the place of his victim? Or would he close his eyes and say the two words that Astoria had made him practice hundreds of times before?

He was about to say that he didn't know what would happen when Lily's pants started to morph into fur. Both she and Al had lost track of time through their conversation, but now the moon was bright, and within seconds, Al was standing in front of the fallen trunk and was staring at a four-legged creature with reddish coloring and wads of drool running down her open mouth.

Al was about to run from the beast that looked nothing like his sister when the wolf closed her mouth, backed up a few steps, curled into a ball on the ground, and fell asleep. She stayed that way the rest of the night, Al listening to her heavy snoring from only a few meters away. Apparently, Lily was in complete control, and if not, at least she was exhausted.

November 24th

The next moon wasn't so kind to Lily. She had had more energy this night than she had on the last, and though her human confidence had lasted all month long, her wolf side had caught a scent of something soon after transforming and had tossed such confidence aside to head after it. Al had followed her himself, tracking her paw prints all through the forest until they disappeared into the depths of the North Sea. That was where he was now, having just looked up from the water to see a vaguely familiar town stretched out across its bank.

Montrose, Scotland stared back at Al in a spectacle of lights. Its houses and bridges reflected against the water with certainty, but it was the giant steeple that intensified the view. Behind the church were rolling hills exactly like those Al had walked in on, and the sound of crashing waves absconded any terrible thoughts in Al's head. Lily had found her way into a town, but at least Al knew whose scent she was now following. After all, there was no better prey than that of one's own blood.

Al had never actually been to the apartment that James had started renting with Lysander this past summer, so it took him a while to find the building that matched all the pictures he'd seen. The flat was located downtown on Murray Street and sat above a Muggle music shop. Al hadn't seen any sign of Lily on his way to the place, nor did he sense her presence now, but he figured that he'd have to go inside and wait for her to show.

The last time Al had spoken to James was just before he'd thrown shattered glass at his brother's shoulder, destroyed their mutual getaway house, and proceeded to run from the sight without looking back. The last time he'd seen James hadn't been much better – it was when he'd intercepted the older Potter on his way to Arthur's funeral so that Astoria could take James's place beneath her Polyjuice Potion disguise. Naturally, Al was nervous to face James after all that.

But then again, James had always been the only one who had refused to give up on Al, making sure that he was there for him no matter how far Al ran. That was what Al reminded himself as he ascended the staircase and arrived at James's front door, which he was sure was the right one when he saw a poster of Persephone Eider, a half-Veela Seeker for the Holyhead Harpies Quidditch team, plastered against the wood.

James opened the door after only two knocks, but he shut it just as quickly. Caught off guard by the sudden banishment, Al placed his ear against the door and overheard what he guessed were two or three muffled voices conversing inside. He didn't know what any of them were saying, but he could only assume that either James was lying about who was at the door, or he was forewarning Lysander and company about the presence of his most dangerous family member.

Because surrendering his wand seemed to have worked with McGonagall and because he needed to talk to James to see if he'd heard any howls tonight, Al decided to take out the Elder Wand and roll it under James's door. As soon as he did, he was let inside.

It would be quite the understatement to call the flat small. If the average home was an ocean, James's apartment was a puddle, and a muddy one at that. The doorway led straight into a cramped kitchen, complete with a single countertop littered with open boxes of half-eaten pizzas and a tile floor taken up mainly by a recycling bin overflowing with empty bottles of butterbeer. On the other side of the counter was the living area, consisting of two chairs and a stained sofa less than a foot away from the coffee table made of broken broomsticks. The table was covered with copies of what Al could only assume was the Marauder's Map beneath tiny figurines in groups of white and black.

"Military strategy," said James when he saw Al staring at the table. His maps looked a whole lot like Astoria's – both potential game plans for their respective armies. James had never seemed interested in helping Scorpius lead the Order of the Phoenix before, but now it looked as though he'd taken up the hobby full-time, which was confirmed when he added, "It turns out it's a lot like Quidditch, which of course means that I'm bloody brilliant at it."

Al actually managed to stifle a laugh at James's joke, though the air was still awkward around the two of them. Al was also wondering where Lysander was, a question that was answered when the tall blond came stumbling out of his closed bedroom with his twin, Lorcan, not far behind. They were each wearing a well-tailored suit that differed only in color, Lorcan's a deep red and Lysander's a pine tree green, and they were in the middle of a rather ludicrous spat.

"Lor, I'm not wearing this!" Lysander was yelling behind him. "And you're not opening that box again – not for anybody."

"Oh, come off it. I know we're young, but-" argued Lorcan, stopping just as he ran straight into Lysander, who'd halted in his tracks upon laying eyes on his visitor.

After a short minute of staring, Lysander turned to James, who was leaning on the kitchen countertop, and asked monotonously, "You let him in?"

"Yeah," James said, looking at Al to add, "He's my brother."

These words must have been magical (and if not, at least of Al's wand twirling in James's hand was), since upon hearing them, Lysander and Lorcan returned to their squabbling, walking into the kitchen as James led Al over to the sofa and took a seat, Al dropping into the chair across from him.

"So, no more small talk," said James as he grabbed a pile of old Quibbler magazines and laid them atop his maps so that Al couldn't peek at the strategy he was planning. "I don't need to know what you're doing out there, Al, but I do need to know what you're doing here."

"I'm looking for Lily," Al answered succinctly and honestly. He went on to explain that he'd been helping Lily through her monthly transformations and that he'd followed her here tonight. James listened closely until Al was finished, then told his brother that he hadn't heard or seen anything out of the ordinary, and it was already well past midnight.

Al was about to get up to leave, seeing as James hadn't been all that helpful, when the latter said, "Why don't you stay? None of us are headed to bed just yet, and you're right: she'll probably be able to sniff me out. I think it's best if we just wait for her here."

Nodding, Al sat back down, and soon all four of the boys were crowded around the living room, drinking butterbeer and firewhiskey and trying to see how much of it they could spill on Lorcan and Lysander's ridiculous groomsmen suits. The few hours that Al spent in James's flat were uncannily normal, and though he didn't understand how he could feel this way, he was comfortable with it. He felt comfortable joking around with people his own age, laughing about his nights with Ryder as James reminisced over the time he'd slept with Cassidy Finnigan, and even listening to Lorcan gush about his long-time relationship with Lucy. Of course, there was always that underlying topic that none of them would mention, but the Scamanders understood that Al's loyalty wasn't their problem. They had each dealt with their own criminal father, Rolf Scamander, in different ways, so they understood that James might deal with Al differently than they would.

The sun was rising and the boys were drifting in and out of sleep by the time any of them heard scratching at the door. Lysander was sitting at the edge of the sofa closest to the flat's entrance, so he heard the noise first and ended up being the one to find a freshly human Lily lying on the welcome mat at the top of the stairs.

She was unconscious as Lysander scooped her up into his arms and carried her into the living room, James hopping off the couch to make room for her to lie down. James was also the one to take on the leadership role, catching a single glimpse at Lily and proceeding to order Lorcan to run into town and look for medical supplies. Magic wasn't going to be enough tonight.

Al threw his rucksack at James to let his brother look for any supplies he already had, but he had yet to actually see the extent of his sister's injuries. Once James busied himself with the backpack, Al pushed the coffee table out of the way and took a seat on the floor beside Lysander, both of them facing the horizontal, fifteen year-old girl who looked like she'd been beaten for ten hours straight.

"Bloody hell," whispered Al as he took in the sight of the nails literally hanging from Lily's fingers, the torn sleeves that barely hid the red scars reaching all the way up her arms, and the fist-sized black eye that had embedded itself all the way from her broken nose to her fractured hairline. At least that hair didn't look so terrifying, since the blood wasn't differentiable against the natural red.

Since Al didn't have access to his wand, it was up to Lysander to try to heal some of Lily's wounds, which he actually did rather well. First, he whispered, "Episkey!" at her nose and Al watched it pop back into place as Lily groaned in her sleep, then he produced some water and gently pat it against her stained skin, then he worked to subdue the scratches and bruises. They were still visible even after Lysander had done all he could think to do, but they looked ten times less gruesome than they had before.

James threw back the bandages for Al to wrap around Lily's arms, and eventually Lorcan returned with some Muggle ointment that was supposed to help with her eye. "What d'you reckon happened to her out there?" he asked as he rummaged through the kitchen and started making some soup for the patient.

Al assumed that he was the one being asked, since he had had the most experience with Lily's werewolf side, but it was Lysander who answered, "Townspeople happened. Dumpster trucks happened. Boats happened. Welcome to the Muggle world. I'd suggest someone get out and Confund any witnesses before there are articles about a rabid dog in tomorrow's paper."

"I'm on it," offered James, who threw the Elder Wand back at Al and was out the door in seconds.

Meanwhile, Lysander and Al stayed put, the former petting some of Lily's hair back and whispering that everything was going to be fine. Al was mesmerized by how well Lysander was dealing with both the pressure-filled situation and his caretaking role. James may have recently turned into a strategist, but Lysander was a soldier.

Leaning back upon hearing Lysander's reassurance, Al thought about everything Lily had already been through with her peers at school and said solemnly, "She's not going to be happy about this. Whatever she did out there, it hurt. It always seems to hurt."

Lysander was shaking his head before he responded, "It only hurts if it matters."

As soon as they'd brought up the subject of pain, Al could feel his chest beginning to throb. The screaming came soon afterward, followed by the jolting migraine that was impossible to ignore. Al had only ever felt this way once before, so he was fairly certain that he knew where the pain was coming from, and therefore he also knew how to stop it.

"I have to go," he announced while standing from the floor, being careful not to clutch his wand too tightly. He didn't want to cause any sort of stir; he just needed to get out of there.

Lysander didn't understand what was happening to him, but he still promised to follow Al's request when asked to make sure that Lily was back at Hogwarts by late morning. Then Al squeezed his sister's limp hand, said a sincere thank you to the twins, left a note for James explaining his disappearance, and locked the door on his way out. Once on the street, he Apparated back to the Forbidden Forest, landing right next to the source of all the pain and collapsing in its company.

"Finally!" sneered Astoria from behind Al. "It took you long enough."

In front of him was Zephorien, breathing heavily and keeling over just like Al was as Astoria tortured him. She couldn't very well send owls or Patronus messages anymore, and she knew just how connected Al was to his dragon. This was apparently the only way she could gain Al's attention so quickly.

But Al wasn't taking it very well. Momentarily pushing the pain away, he wrapped his hand around his side and shot a silent disarming spell at Astoria. She defended herself from it, but it still worked to make her stop using the Cruciatus Curse on Zephyr. Then he pet Zephyr's nose and told him that everything would be okay the same way Lysander had with Lily, turned around completely and stood up straight to face Astoria head-on.

The literal pain may have been gone by now, but Al was still fuming as he pointed his finger at the scared dragon and screamed, "He is not your personal experiment! I'm the one who made it possible for us to use him in the first place!"

"Well," Astoria started with innocently drawn eyebrows and an upside-down smile, "I needed some way to get you here. It was an emergency."

"Like hell it was," Al seethed, taking a few steps to the side so that Zephyr could throw a little fire his enemy's way.

Astoria blocked this attack as well, but Al wasn't the least bit scared of trying again. The only thing that stopped him from such was when Astoria actually provided an explanation. "Calder has secured our plans at the Ministry, and I need to make sure that my best ally is prepared in time for battle. I can't predict when Scorpius may call one to the castle."

Al hadn't been going through much of Astoria's training ever since heir debacle at the end of September. Lily had been giving him plenty to do, not to mention the fact that he wasn't willing to recycle Ilana's letters. Still, that wasn't an excuse for Astoria to use Zephyr as bait to lure Albus to her cave. He tried to tell her this when he said, "I am loyal to you, Astoria. I shouldn't have to prove it anymore."

"Then tell me where you just came here from. Tell me where you've been spending all your time the past four fortnights. Tell me who is so much more important than your own training."

Al was rolling his eyes as he listened to her, and when he didn't answer right away, Astoria pointed her wand at Zephorien once more. That made the fury return to Albus in full swing, provoking him to jump in front of Astoria's wand and ask, "You want to know where I've been the past two months? Hell, you want to know where I've been the past four months, ever since Arthur Weasley dropped dead at my feet?"

When he was sure that he had Astoria's attention, he said, "August fourth, full moon – the day my little sister was bitten by a werewolf. September first, full moon – the day I found her outside Godric's Hollow while I was breaking in to pluck off some of James's hair. September twenty-ninth, full moon – the day you threatened to stop training me unless I got rid of my weaknesses. October twenty-seventh, full moon – the day I used my so-called weakness to give my sister strength. And that brings us to last night, November the twenty-fourth. FullMoon.

"Now, I'm going to leave before I let you tear me apart the way my sister now does with the local bat population," Al finished as he began to walk away. Before he ran out of sight, however, he addressed the now smiling Astoria one last time with a threat of his own. "And if you ever try to torture my dragon again, I'll see how Lily reacts to a nice big golden hawk!"

The run back to Hogsmeade was refreshing. Al was easily tired out when arguing with Astoria, often even when working closely with her, and though he didn't need to wait for Lily thanks to Lysander's promise, he found himself halting at the forest border before heading back through Ariana's tunnel. The sight that caught his eye was a shadowy silhouette of two people standing on the shores of the frozen Black Lake.

At first, he didn't know who the early-birds were, but the longer he stared, the surer Al became of the flashes of white and red reflected against the ice. By the time he heard the echoing sniffles bounce off the surface and when the snow started to fall in big, gently floating flakes alongside the blond boy's tears, Al knew that it was Rose and Scorpius. He also knew why they were there and what Scorpius was crying about. This morning marked the one-year anniversary of Narcissa Malfoy's death.

Al knew that he should be feeling empathetic for Scorpius and the grandmother he'd lost, but all he could feel as he stared down at the huddled figures – so close to each other that their individual bodies were barely discernible – was his own pain that still fluttered lightly against his heart. With hands shaking from the cold, he pulled the paper from his pocket and wrote messily, I know why it hurts so much, Higgs. It hurts because it matters. We matter.

December 22nd

Hogwarts always felt twice as large as it normally did when the holidays arrived. Every year, the majority of the students headed home on the Hogwarts Express the week before Christmas, and only those who had no home to return to would stay at school. Al had only done so once himself, during his first year when Scorpius's father had told him he shouldn't board the train. Harry had offered to let Scorpius join the Potters for Christmas, but Scorpius hadn't wanted to impose.

That year, Al and Scorpius had explored more of the castle than they would have ever dared to at a normal time. Together, they discovered the house-elves in the kitchen across from the Hufflepuff common room, the Prefects' bathroom that had opened willingly thanks to Al's snatching of Victoire's Head Girl badge, and the underground tunnel leading from the Whomping Willow to the Shrieking Shack. They were tiny ants a giant world and they wanted to see it all.

This year was different. This year, more students than usual were staying at the castle, since those who had been invited to the Longbottom wedding were helping Neville and some of the other professors to set it up. That included all of Al's cousins (Rose, Hugo, Lucy, Fred, and Roxanne) along with Lily, Scorpius, Colin and Nigel Creevey, and Neville's daughter, Holly. With such close watch being kept by her family and friends, Lily had to be extra careful to meet Al every day, and similarly he had to be careful to watch out for any of Scorpius's recruits.

But on the day of the full moon, Al was getting antsy. He hadn't seen Astoria since their confrontation last month, so he didn't know what she was planning anymore. He only knew that she was ready for the end, and that couldn't be good. Meanwhile, Lily was healing more slowly than she would have liked, but she refused to talk to Al about the rumors that were surely spreading regarding her appearance. Instead, she'd just bring him food, sip her potion, and sulk.

For these two reasons, Al decided that it was time to pay another visit to McGonagall's office. He set out for the other side of the hall in the early evening, guessing at what time everyone would be at supper and hoping that no one would see the Room of Requirement's door open. They didn't, and he even made it all the way to the revolving staircase without running into a soul. (Harry must have released his Aurors by now.)

Unfortunately, the emptiness continued all the way into the Headmistress's office, since Al didn't end up finding her anywhere either. He was met only with her usual office, though slightly cleaner than usual. The desk that was normally cluttered had been removed of its files, while the animal cages against the walls no longer emitted the smell of dung through their bars. Al even spent a few minutes looking around at all the nooks and crannies to see if McGonagall was taking a nap in tabby cat form, but he still didn't see her.

Having accepted defeat, Al was about to leave when he heard one of the old Headmaster's portraits speak to him from a slightly left direction above McGonagall's desk. "Don't be acoward, Potter," said a slurred voice that was soft and contained, but somehow also commanding and authoritative.

One of Al's three namesakes met his eyes with deep pits of black to match the greasy, shoulder-length hair atop his head. Severus Snape was the only Headmaster who appeared to be awake, though Al could have sworn that he was the one who tended to sleep the most. But anyhow, that wasn't what was on Al's mind upon meeting the true potions master. All he could think about was something his father had told him about Snape over six years ago: that he had been the bravest man Harry had ever known.

Speechless, Al stood still as he listened to Snape say, "This path that you're on – my path – will not lead you anywhere worthwhile. Darkness is never worth it, but love – love alwaysis."

As if hypnotized, Al looked away from Snape and the silvery portrait in which he was hanging so that he could walk back to the desk in the center of the room, take out his wand, and use it to carve the words, Protect Rose, into the wood.

Then he made his way back to the double doors, but stopped before his hand was on the knocker. Without fully facing him, Al asked Snape from afar, "Sir, how did you know who I was?" He was sure that Snape had been asleep during all of his previous meetings with McGonagall, and Al had stopped wearing his signature Potter glasses almost a year ago.

"You have your father's eyes."

At that, Al hurried to take out his letter to Ilana before Lily arrived in the Room of Requirement. Today, he wrote her, A very brave man just told me that darkness isn't worth it, but that love always is. So, here's my question: what if love is the darkest thing in my life – the most painful, the most confusing, the most rewarding in the end – is it worth it then?

He left as soon as his hand finished tracing the last question mark, the doors to his hidden room shutting closed only moments before Lily walked inside. Gulping back a glass full of pumpkin juice, he turned to Lily and prepared himself for more of her quiet brooding. But to follow the pattern that this day had undergone so far, Al was surprised to see that Lily wasn't feeling so quiet after all.

She stormed across the room like a hurricane demolishing everything in its path, all the way onto Al's bed and up into the tunnel, leaving the portrait door hanging wide open in her wake. Al had to run just to keep up with her, accidentally leaving behind the last dosage of Wolfsbane Potion in his rucksack by the door.

Al must have asked Lily what was wrong a hundred times before she finally said to him on the way out of Hogsmeade, "I thought that things would get better once everybody else left, but of course all the other fifth years had to give a nice going away present, complete with fake admittance tickets to St. Mungo's and a spiked collar. You know, Hugo and Roxanne can try to ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist, but they have no idea how impossible it is to hide a secret that's written all over my face!"

"Lil," Al shot a hand at her arm to try to stop her, since she'd been walking in swift paces this entire time. She just shrugged him off, though, having gotten used to doing anything to avoid showing her face to every sort of company. The black eye was easily the worst injury she'd sustained, and though she covered it well with her makeup, there was no mask for insecurity.

"Look, I don't want to talk about it anymore," she said with a sigh. "I needed to get that out, and I knew that you wouldn't coddle me the way Roxy did, but I don't actually want to have a discussion, okay?"

"Okay," agreed Al. He kept his promise; they didn't say anything more to each other until Lily transformed in a clearing deep in the black woods, by which time Al had remembered the forgotten potion and Lily had yet to calm her frustration. This proved to be a fatal combination, evidence of which presented itself when Al's cheek was met with one of the wolf's healed claws.

Lily attacked Al shortly after she turned, and when the sound of his voice didn't infiltrate her brainwashed mind, he knew that tonight, something was wrong. He had to blast her away with his wand upon tasting the blood spilling into his mouth, and then he ran to find Zephorien. Al had moved the dragon a couple miles east of the Forbidden Cave in order to protect him from Astoria, but he still had no trouble finding him. Once there, Zephyr read Al's mind and knelt down so that Al could climb onto his horned back. Suddenly, they were flying atop the forest, going as fast as Al commanded, and they found the golden hawk in the air just as soon as Lily set her sights on a grounded bird.

Al didn't have a great view of the forest floor, but he could hear Lily's growls echoing the frog-like croaking of a water turkey, otherwise known as an anhinga. The bird was running awkwardly to the Black Lake beach on the other side of Hogwarts castle, but Calder was much slower than his werewolf predator. By the time he made it to familiar ground, Lily was in a pouncing position only a few feet away.

In perfect unison, Zephorien and Astoria flew downward to hover just above the scene, Zephyr flying around in circles as Al considered stepping in to save Ryder's tease, and Astoria taking watch on a nearby tree branch. Al didn't understand why Astoria wasn't rushing to protect Calder, but he didn't have time to dwell on the fact when his attention was focused on Lily. His sister, the werewolf, was going after this gangly bird with as much hunger as the human Lily had ever displayed before. She wanted Calder more than she'd wanted power over the fifth years, more than she wanted her own secret to keep, and even more than she wanted Scorpius.

That kind of hunger needed to be quenched. Lily had no choice but to give in to it, leaping across the snowy beach and thrusting her claws into Calder's feathers, causing him to cry out in pain and unwillingly transform back into his human shape. Al was hoping that seeing him in such form might make Lily reconsider her attack, but it did no such thing. If anything, the human seemed tastier to her than the bird had.

Calder tried to shoot a few spells at Lily, some of which worked for a moment, but none for long enough. She bit the spot behind his giraffe-like neck in between his exposed shoulder blades, and at that point he was in too much agony to defend himself. Zephyr lifted his wings as if to glide down and save the boy, but Al decided not to let him. He didn't want to risk his dragon or Lily's safety for a man he barely knew. And anyway, if Astoria had wanted to protect Calder, she would have swooped in a long time ago.

It didn't take long for Calder to die, but it took an eternity for Lily to kill him. Al could see the juxtaposing thoughts in her mind as she tore into his flesh and then retreated to the ice, only to come right back after licking the blood off her fur. By the time she was finished with him, Calder was nothing more than a pile of broken bones and ripped-up flesh. Werewolves didn't eat people; they destroyed them.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the night, however, came after Calder was gone, when Lily decided to bury him. She spent hours digging through dirt and stuffing what remained of her prey into a deep burrow, the whole time completely oblivious to the three pairs of eyes that were watching her from above. When she was finally finished with the funeral, she whistled one last howl – this one sad, lonely, and terrified – before the moon disappeared and the red-haired girl returned.

For whatever reason, that was when Astoria decided to interrupt. Just as Lily was becoming her normal self again, Astoria dove from her place in the trees, transfigured into her own human body, grabbed onto Lily's forearm, and Disapparated.

Panicking because he didn't know where they'd gone, Al rode Zephorien to the Forbidden Cave and ran inside with abject haste. His instincts had been correct to look for Lily there, since of course Astoria had intended for him to follow them. She always had a plan. But for the first time in a long while, Al hadn't known the plan in time to thwart it.

"Welcome, Albus," said Astoria as she walked out of her office and into the main room, lit only by a single lamp floating above Lily's head. Lily was on the floor, panting heavily as she tried to catch her breath and wrap her mind around everything that had just happened.

Al ran to Lily's side, kneeling on the ground and rubbing her back in an attempt to show some comfort as he listened to Astoria continue, "Your sister and I were just about to discuss our agreement."

Lily was looking at Al helplessly as she tried not to look at Astoria. Al decided to do that for her, asking his leader, "What agreement?"

Laughing, because of course to her it was the most obvious answer in the universe, Astoria replied, "Your dog just killed one of my men. I do believe that she is in my debt."

Debt was something that Al was horribly familiar with. Knox had told him all about the way Astoria gained most of her followers: by indebting them to her for the rest of their lives. Al himself had later become indebted to Knox, so he had learned first-hand what it felt like to belong to someone else. He wasn't about to let his little sister be placed under the same curse.

Standing up so that he was nearly as tall as Astoria, Al spat at her, "But you planned this! You didn't need Calder anymore, not after he'd already secured the Ministry for you. Youwanted this to happen!"

"So what if I did?" asked Astoria. Al hadn't expected her to confess so quickly, so he knew that the counter-argument had yet to come. "Dead is dead, Albus, and the common rules apply: an eye for an eye."

Al didn't quite know where Astoria was going with her latest ultimatum until Lily lifted her head from the ground and asked desperately, "You want me to kill someone? Someone in the Order?"

"Precisely," answered Astoria with a pleased smile. "Details on who and when will be provided at my convenience, and if you decide not to comply, feel free to blame your brother for your death."

Al was fuming. He couldn't let this happen. How had he already let this happen? Clenching his jaw until his teeth were grinding against each other like improperly matched gears, he told Astoria with forceful conviction, "She is NOT murdering Rose Weasley!"

It was the first time either Astoria or Lily were hearing of Al's knowledge about Rose's impending death, and as Lily lost her will to understand, Astoria gaped with wonder. "Well, you must think you have it all figured out, don't you?" she asked. "You can read me like a book."

Circling him and Lily in steady steps, Astoria leeched their mutual power for herself as she said, "If you must know, I have no intention of ordering Miss Potter to kill her own cousin. You see, the Weasley girl is mine, and I want her alive. The victim I speak of is a different kind – the kind that is going to get in my way if I don't rid of them first."

"Fine." Astoria was back to facing Al now, but he wanted her to see that two could play at this game. "Then let me do it."

"Al, no!" Lily pled from below, having regained her voice upon needing it. "This is my mess!"

"No, Lily, it's mine!" yelled Al, still looking at Astoria. "She's only using you because she thinks I'm too weak to do this myself. But she has no idea just how strong I am." To go along with his statement, Al curled the fingers on his right hand around the bubbly grip of the Elder Wand and let it play its course. He let the wind flood into the cave from the cold night outside and encircle the trio with gusto and clout. He let the snow pound against Astoria's ears like the sounds of black piano keys. He let the lamp floating in the room burst into a thousand fireflies that sparked and burned upon landing on Astoria's skin. Then he let it all disappear just like he'd done with the love of his life, who was anything but a weakness.

In the aftermath, Astoria brushed off the snow and used her wand to mend her burns before she said with barely any of her normal intensity, "It doesn't matter how strong you are; you have lost your ability to break through the Hogwarts barrier, but your sister still can. That is what I need her for." She glanced down at Lily one last time before turning around to retire to her office, saying on her way out, "You may both leave now."

The walk home was cold. Al couldn't describe it any other way; it was simply cold, in every sense of the word. Lily seemed to feel it, too, and soon the siblings found themselves sitting on a bench at the edge of the main road in Hogsmeade, watching the sunrise just like Al had back in September.

Al was the first to speak, looking straight ahead as he appreciated the fact that they Potters weren't all that prone to tears as he told Lily, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry for dragging you into all of this. I never meant to cause you harm, but I will find a way out of it. I can promise you that."

"Don't," Lily replied. Al was about to argue when she creased her forehead in thought and reminisced, "I remember. I remember every moment, whether I was in control or not. Your potion, your journal, your training – it all worked, because I remember. I remember how he looked at me as soon as he became human again. I remember the exact color of brown that his eyes were – deep in the center but soft around the edges. I remember him telling me his name – Calder Anhinga – like he thought it might break through. And I remember the taste of his blood on my lips. I remember liking it."

She took a deep breath then, finding the courage within herself to look at Al as she told him, "See, this isn't your fault. did this, whether Astoria set that bird up in my path or not. I was there to see how scared, how helpless, how broken he was, but that fear didn't make me feel strong. It only made me weaker. Al, why is it that those who are weak are far more feared than those who are strong?"

It was a question Al had been unable to formulate over the past three months, though he'd been longing to answer it for just as long a time. After all, Astoria had threatened him before, when she'd thought that he'd been weak, but as soon as he showed her his strength, she had no longer had anything to say. She wasn't scared of him anymore, but for some reason, he felt more scared than ever.

"Because only the weak have reason to fear themselves. And the only way you learn not to fear yourself is if you can give your heart away to someone else. That way, only they can break it."

After taking in his theory, Lily stood up and told Al that she was going back to the castle, though he wanted to stay outside a while longer. The last thing she said to him before leaving was, "What if I can't do it? What if my own fear consumes me this time?" She would most likely not be in werewolf form when Astoria called on her to pay her debt, which meant that Lily would be fully conscious of her own behavior, as well as her own guilt.

"You won't have to do it." Astoria may have believed that Al didn't know a way onto the Hogwarts grounds, but of course he did. "I'll be there."

Lily didn't argue with him this time. She knew there was no point.

Alone amongst the morning frost, Al thought about what he wanted to tell Ilana after everything that had taken place tonight. He thought it through in his head for more than ten minutes, finally settling on something and reaching his arm around to grab the paper. But it wasn't in his pocket. It wasn't anywhere. The last time he'd taken it out, he'd been in McGonagall's office, and he could have dropped it or somebody could have stolen it at any point since then. It was gone, and with it went the words that he'd been waiting four months to send:

To answer my own question, yes, it's worth it. Love is worth everything. It must be, because here I am thinking about you, and I finally realized that I don't wish you'd never left. I wish I'd never let you.

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