Holly Longbottom and the Orders for a Lycan

This is a oneshot following my story, 'Blood of the Birds'. If you have not read the main story, please do so before reading this. It is concurrent with Chapter 34 - The Bride.

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1. Holly Longbottom and the Orders for a Lycan

Holly Alice Longbottom had a very clear understanding of death. She knew better than anyone that death was much simpler than the complications found in life. Her mother, Hannah, had died on Holly's ninth birthday – Christmas Day, 2015. But she wasn't sad about it; she never had been. Hannah Abbott Longbottom had lived a full and wonderful life before she'd grown sick, and Holly knew just as well as she knew the lines on her own skin that she would see her mother again one day. After all, as someone close to her liked to say, the things people loved had a way of coming back to them in the end. It was as simple as that.

Her father, however, had not taken things so well. He had been lucky not to have had to worry too much about his young daughter, but for years Holly had worried about him. Neville had become an Auror soon after the Second Wizarding War was won, so Holly had spent the majority of her childhood in London, growing up in a small flat and splitting her time between the Leaky Cauldron where Hannah worked and the Auror Department at the Ministry of Magic. She'd seen all sorts of witches and wizards that way, from the likes of Tom the hunchback and the crazies that used the Cauldron as a thruway to Diagon Alley, to her father's infamous coworkers. Harry Potter and Ron Weasley were two faces known to every witch and wizard in the country, and for the first eight years of Holly's life, they were her father's closest mates. But when Hannah died, everything changed for Neville.

He was catatonic for months. Upon quitting his job, Harry and Ron were told to stay away from Neville, along with their children who had played with Holly a few times before. Everything was a blur for nearly a year, reminding Holly of the time she'd visited her grandparents in St. Mungo's when she was just a child. Frank and Alice had looked on at her like she was standing miles away from them, when really she was close enough to hold their hands. That was what it was like with her father – she would send all her love to him from a distance, regardless of how close he really was.

Things finally started looking up when the Headmistress of Hogwarts, Minerva McGonagall, offered Neville the newly opened job as Professor of Herbology. Neville took another year to prepare himself for teaching, so he and Holly moved to the Scottish castle the same year she sat under the Sorting Hat and was put into Hufflepuff house. She loved school in every way, from her classes to her daily explorations of hidden corners and forbidden grounds. She liked learning about her father's passion and seeing him smile again, and she decided early on that he was all she really needed in her life. All the Weasley children were popular and complicated, and they barely remembered Holly from their childhood play. Rose, the daughter of Ron and Hermione Weasley who was a year above Holly, had always been kind to her, but the younger ones – a giant clan led by Lily Potter and Hugo, Rose's little brother – were simply exhausting. Holly much preferred to be alone than try so hard to please them.

The only person whom she had ever truly befriended had been Colin Creevey, named after his uncle who'd died long ago fighting by Neville's side. He was in the same year as Rose and the rest of her trio, but much like Holly, he was different. He hadn't arrived at Hogwarts until he was fifteen (though his younger brother, Nigel, was already in his third year), when he'd been taken under Rubeus Hagrid's wing as assistant gamekeeper. Holly had discovered his secret of being a Squib just as soon as she'd noticed that he never attended any classes inside the castle. Many of his peers saw him as a bit of a dud, or an "impurity to the magical world" when put nicely. But Holly had been called such numerous times herself, so she knew not to listen. Colin had decided to follow her advice.

The summer following Colin's arrival at Hogwarts, another person came into Holly's life. She was blonde and beautiful and just as blue as Neville still was. Her name was Luna Lovegood Scamander, and her ex-husband had been sent to Azkaban Prison for hunting nargles the same year Hannah had died. Like Neville, Luna had cut herself off from her old school friends and had become a sort of hermit back in Ottery St. Catchpole, only ever surfacing to assist the reestablished Order of the Phoenix in their latest advances or to attend the Hogwarts graduation of her twin sons, Lorcan and Lysander. It had been at one of those Order meetings that Neville and Luna's long-lost friendship had rekindled, and it had been at last spring's graduation that Neville had proposed.

Today, Christmas Eve of Holly's sixth year at Hogwarts, her father and Luna were to be wed. She couldn't remember having ever been as thrilled or excited as she was this morning, more than ready for the early birthday present of her father's happiness. And as for Luna, she was the woman Holly had always envisioned herself as in her own dreams: independent, confident, strong. Even the boys she would soon call her brothers were rather impressive. At only eighteen, Lysander had already earned a spot as Beater for the Montrose Magpies professional Quidditch team, alongside childhood best friend and gifted Seeker, James Potter. Lorcan was his father's son, having become a prodigy in the subject of magical creatures, and was now working closely with Hagrid to prepare his application for work at Charlie Weasley's Romanian dragon sanctuary. Naturally, Holly liked the latter twin best.

Even so, tomorrow also marked the anniversary of Hannah's death, which was something that Holly would be honoring alone for the very first time. She wanted Neville to be with Luna as they jetted off on their Scandinavian honeymoon, but in fact, Holly was already thinking of Hannah.

The sun had barely risen as Holly walked through the Forbidden Forest that grew around the edge of the Hogwarts border. She had already put on her ruby-colored bridesmaid dress, and she liked the way it curved around her gangly knees and floated atop the deep, powdery snow. Her arms felt like they had company beneath the long, silky sleeves, and her bare feet had long since gone numb to the cold. Now, Holly had stopped walking for a moment, her eyes closed and her ears open wide to the sounds of the forest.

There was a stream nearby, its water brushing beneath flat stones of ice and racing into the Black Lake. There were the heavy gallops echoed in snowy swishes of the centaur pack, the half-breeds running free through the trees for what they knew might be the last time; they could sense that the war was on its way. Finally, there was the pounding snore that sent a gust of rotten-smelling wind around Holly's messy brown hair.

Sensing the noise and smell but failing to recognize it instantly, Holly opened her eyes as if caught off guard. The next thing she heard was like the roar of a lion, but it was not just any lion. Holly, being one of a kind herself, had never asked her father to buy her the usual owls, cats, or toads that most young magical folk wanted as pets. She had wanted a lion, which was how she had come to adopt Rumbleroar, a talking beast who cheered at all the Gryffindor Quidditch games and prowled through the castle halls with the lonely Mrs. Norris at night. Rumbleroar tended to meow like the large cat he was, but the sound Holly was hearing now was deeper than a cry, and far more intimidating than a bark. This was a thundering howl backed by the secrets of fire. This sound, Holly decided, had come from a dragon.

Holly was spinning in every which direction, trying to catch another roar so that she might discover where the beast was hiding, when she came face to face with her favorite forest dwellers. The thestrals had been looking for her, just as she had been looking for them, so the thoughts of some foreign dragon were lost when the group of bony horses circled around her, staring intently at her blue eyes as if she was the sky and they were the black amidst the stars.

For the next hour, Holly fed rare steaks to the thestrals and petted their hauntingly cold skin while she thought of her mother. Whenever she forgot where she was for an instant, she'd even try to talk to Hannah, telling her about Neville getting remarried and about her untold crush on Colin, and about the war that everyone had been trying not to think about. But then she'd focus her eyes on what was in front of her and see the snow and wood and pine needles, and she'd realize that she shouldn't stay out too long. Before setting off for the castle, she made herself some shoes out of the pine, though, thinking that they'd make her and her dress look even more like the upcoming holiday.

After saying goodbye to the thestrals, Holly ran back to the castle and entered through a hidden door opening into one of the greenhouses, brushing her hand over the prickly plants she'd been named after as she skipped into her father's office. Neville sat in large wooden chair on the other side of an antique desk that was glued to the center of the floor. Holly could only see his hair, her hair, from her spot on the threshold; it seemed he was busy daydreaming as his eyes gazed toward the ruby-jeweled sword hanging on the wall above him.

"I wish I could have seen you wield it," Holly said as she walked around to meet him, taking a seat on his armrest.

He had his own arm around her back so quickly it might have been instinctual. "Oh, I would never wish such a thing on anyone," he told her without looking away from the glass casing. "It was a ghastly sight, the whole battle was."

"I bet it was wicked," Holly murmured as she and her father heard footsteps on the other side of the door. Neville swiveled his chair around to meet the eyes of Lucy Weasley, a seventh year Hufflepuff with deep brown hair and orbs powdered blue.

Since they were in the same house, Holly and Lucy had known each other for years, and this particular Weasley was a joy to be around. Sweet and perilously naïve, Lucy enjoyed planning and parties just as any proper girl would, and she was especially excited for tonight's event. She'd stayed at Hogwarts past term's end along with some of her peers to help set up for the ceremony and reception, both of which would be taking place on the emptied Quidditch pitch. Plus, tonight would mark the first time in months that Lucy would see her boyfriend of many years, who just so happened to be one of Neville's groomsmen.

"Scorpius warned me that Rose might be a little late; apparently, she's been having bad dreams lately," said Lucy as she took one of the two seats on the other side of the desk. She always went straight to business, only ever allowing herself to small talk when someone else started it. Rose was better about such things; she too was helping with the planning and would be attending tonight's festivities.

"I do hope she's well," said Neville, immediately concerned. Lucy was the best Herbology student he'd had for years, but Rose was in his house, and it was required of him to be fond of all the young Gryffindors.

Holly replied, "Even the worst of dreams can still be good; they show you all that your eyes won't let you see."

Neville smiled proudly at the sound of his daughter's words, Lucy nodding cordially but paying her no real mind. That was all right with Holly, though; she was rather used to being ignored.

"Anyway," Lucy sat up in an attempt to change the subject. Looking to her professor, she added, "Today is about you, of course."

At that, they dove into their plans, Lucy showing them schematic maps of the table settings and dance floor partitions as she listed the names off her army of cousins and family friends who'd been instructed to have everything looking perfect by midday. She was still rambling such nonsense when Rose finally arrived, standing frozen in the doorway as she admired the sword just as Neville had done.

Neville said something about how long he'd been keeping it in his office as Rose took her seat, still riveted by the steel like any true Gryffindor would be. Lucy, on the other hand, was no Gryffindor, which was clear when she steered the conversation back to its core once again, saying, "So, everything's going really well. We're meeting the rest of the kids on the Quidditch pitch in an hour for the final set-up, but the weather worked out perfectly. There's fresh snow on the ground and more to come later this evening."

Sighing at the thought of the snow between her toes like it had been this morning, Holly commented, "Brilliant! It'll make us all look like we're floating."

Ignoring her once more, Lucy turned to Rose as she asked about their Aunt Ginny, who was Luna's Maid of Honor. Holly chose not to listen to such talk, since she still felt slightly bitter about Luna's decided hierarchy.

She only started listening again when Rose looked to Holly's father and asked, "Professor Longbottom, are you nervous?"

It was true that his hands had been slightly shaky, but Holly was used to them. Neville was always shaking. If anything, his hand that was now on Holly's knee was steadier than it had ever been. Such was made more evident when Neville told the girls, "Me, nervous? Nah. Actually, I feel quite a lot like I did when I first picked up that sword, or when I fought with your parents in the Department of Mysteries, or even in our first year, when I tried to stop them from saving the world. I feel fairly certain of myself."

That was what Holly liked to hear. She had loved her mother with all her heart, but her loyalty would always be to Neville, whom she had raised and who was finally strong enough to raise her. He deserved to be happy, and Holly had never seen anyone give him more happiness than Luna. Hannah would love her husband from afar for all eternity, of that Holly was certain. But life was more complicated than death, especially when it came to love. Everything was forever when it came to death, but in life, love was as fleeting as the winter's snow.

And so too, it seemed, were the Weasleys. Both Lucy and Rose left to start the set up only moments after Neville's speech, and it was only then that he noticed Holly's dress. "You look lovely," he said as he stared at the girl who was about to turn seventeen, the girl who'd gone from a baby to a woman as he'd blinded himself from the years in between. "That reminds me – I must get dressed!"

Holly burst into laughter as she jumped off the chair, yelling back at her father on her way out of the room, "I'll see you at the altar, Dad! Keep that head of yours straight in the meantime. We wouldn't want any wrackspurts messing with your confidence."

"Nothing could mess with my confidence anymore," he said, making Holly's smile even wider. She was already in the greenhouse when he said so quietly that she could barely hear, "And I hope you said hello to your mother for me – you know, on your walk this morning."

Holly turned her head ninety degrees and tilted her eyes back to the holly plant as she said, "I did." Then she left, knowing that if she met her father's gaze completely, they'd both start crying, and the Longbottoms never cried… not anymore.

Since Holly had been ready for hours and Lucy hadn't asked her to help set up with everyone else, she found herself with a fair amount of time to kill before the ceremony. This realization was what made her think of all the years she'd spent exploring the castle while living at Hogwarts full time, and she decided to revisit one of her favorite rooms in the whole of the school.

She had discovered the Room of Requirement in her very first year, when she'd needed to store some Devil's Snare and had walked past the seventh floor hallway only to find a door open to the largest hall she'd ever seen, bursting with towers of miscellaneous books that had been burned in some fire, cabinets that refused to open but squeaked at anyone who came near, and Cornish pixies that liked to show themselves when they were least expected. Of course, the room could turn itself into anything one wanted it to, but Holly had always liked that first room best. In there, her true Hufflepuff spirit shone through, because she never ran out of things to find.

Today, she took her time walking up the seven staircases that turned into nine when they decided to move in the opposite direction she wanted them to. Holly enjoyed the journey, though, because the people in the hall's portraits had always been much kinder to her than the majority of her peers.

After stopping to chat with Anne Boleyn near the second floor landing, Norvel Twonk on the fifth, and saying hello to Scorpius Malfoy who claimed he was on his way to the Owlery, Holly finally stepped onto the castle's top floor and turned into its right corridor. But after taking the usual three paces in front of the wall where the room was hidden, she was surprised to see that no door appeared. Of course, the room could only take one form at a time, meaning that if it stood closed, then it must have been housing a different student in a different room than the one Holly had envisioned. The only problem with this theory was that Holly had told very few people about the room, and all of them (Rose and Scorpius included) were meant to be helping Lucy today.

Too curious to walk away without an answer, Holly decided to take a seat on the wooden floor in front of the Barnabas the Barmy tapestry as she waited. After all, someone would have to come in or out of the room eventually. Whoever was already inside, however, didn't seem eager to exit. Holly waited a full half hour before she heard any movement, and even that came from the wrong side of the hall.

The life-sized, full-figured woman known as the Fat Lady was the subject of a portrait that happened to be the secret entrance into the Gryffindor common room, which was located near the seventh floor landing. Holly could just spot the frame opening from her seat on the floor as a group of Gryffindors spilled out of it. They were headed by Fred, Hugo, and Roxanne Weasley, with Nigel Creevey in the middle of the pack. Taking up the rear was none other than Lily Potter, who would normally never allow herself to walk behind anyone, let alone the kids who made up her personal posse.

Come to think of it, though, Lily had been acting a bit off lately. Ever since she'd returned to the castle for her fifth year, the ginger-haired firecracker, who had all her mother's features with the exception of Harry Potter's smile, had been quiet and almost dismissive toward those she'd once victimized. There were rumors about things that might have happened to her this summer floating all around the school, but Holly had never listened to any of them, so she had no idea what they were.

Now, Lily was cowering behind her cousins as they headed down the stairs, gesturing with her hands for them to get a move on when the short, sweet Nigel turned around to make sure they hadn't lost her. Once they were all gone, Lily started walking in Holly's direction. Panicking, Holly shifted her weight against the wall and stood up, pretending to admire the tapestry as Lily came close enough to notice her.

"What are you doing here, Longbottom?" asked Lily incredulously, her arms crossed and lips pursed.

Turning around to walk past her as she shrugged her shoulders, Holly answered, "Oh, nothing. Big day, today." She could feel Lily's eyes on her as she walked down the rest of the hall, but she didn't care. She had gotten the information she'd wanted just as soon as Lily had walked in front of the Room of Requirement's entrance.

Next stop on Holly's mental to-do list was the Quidditch pitch. It was still hours before the ceremony was to start, but she hoped that Luna might have arrived by now to get ready. Tonight, her future step-mother would be flocked with guests and tomorrow she'd be heading off with her groom, so this might be Holly's last opportunity to speak alone with her for quite some time.

She found the bride about to walk into the locker room that Lucy had turned into a prepping station, carefully pulling Luna away while Lucy was busy talking to Professor Flitwick beside the giant Christmas tree that sat in the middle of the transformed pitch. Once a field of lively green with a few dashes of white from the snow, it was now a wooden dance floor beneath a white tarp painted in a pattern of snowflakes and bordered with a string of pearl-sized lights.

"Holly! You look like a long radish in that dress!" exclaimed Luna as the two began to walk around the floor, admiring the red-carpeted aisle way that sat between rows upon rows of white chairs that had yet to fill.

"Thank you," said Holly sincerely, knowing that the root was just the look Ginny had been going for when she'd picked out the matching bridesmaid dresses – that and simply the Christmas spirit, since while Holly's was red, Ginny's would be the color of forest green.

"I'm very excited for today," continued Luna, bringing Holly's thoughts back to the conversation at hand. She spoke dreamily, as if everything in the world was light and beautiful and nothing could ever hurt her. "My last wedding was lovely, but nobody came to see it."

"Why not?" asked Holly. Luna didn't seem at all bitter about her lack of attendees, but Holly knew that she had friends who would have wanted to be there for support.

"Nobody could have gotten there if they'd tried. It happened at the top of a mountain peak in Bulgaria, surrounded by dragons."

"Dragons?" Holly had almost forgotten the noise she'd heard that morning while walking through the woods, but now that Luna had brought up the animal, it was all she could think about.

"Magnificent creatures," Luna went on as she stared at the tarp's ceiling and made shadows in the lights with her hands. "Feared yet revered by all who cross their paths, and so many different kinds, too! Most people seem to like the Welsh Greens and the Ridgebacks, but I've always held a soft spot for the Hebridean Blacks. Not too big, those, but they still demand the largest territories. You know, the wild ones don't live far from Azkaban Prison? It makes you wonder why they even need the dementors as guards when they've got the dragons so close."

By this point, Holly had stopped listening. She was distracted by her thoughts of the forest dwellers, not to mention the sight of Colin Creevey talking with Hagrid and Lorcan a few feet away, no doubt about dragons. Deciding to excuse herself from Luna because she couldn't stay focused any longer, Holly said something about giving Luna time to get ready and then she was off, passing a gorgeously blue Rose and a white-suited Scorpius on her way to Colin.

Upon whispering in the ear of her favorite new brother and smiling at Hagrid, Holly easily freed Colin. He was already dressed in his father's old suit, which meant that he had plenty of time to spend with Holly, and she could use his help. Of course, the skinny boy with dopey ears and big brown eyes didn't understand what was going on as Holly dragged him off the pitch and into the bordering forest.

"Holly, w-what are you doing?" he asked when she finally let go of his arm. "Shouldn't you be with your f-father right now?"

"He's fine; he doesn't need me," Holly shrugged away the thought. "But I need you."

"For what?"

"Tracking." Colin had worked under Hagrid's watchful eyes long enough to know the ways of the forest better than anyone else at the school, and more importantly, Holly trusted him. They weren't exactly a couple; they'd never actually been on a date, but for some reason Holly was convinced that they were at least more than just friends.

When Colin stopped walking and waited for an explanation, Holly sighed and provided him with one. "I know that things have been dangerous everywhere for over a year now, what with the Forbidden Flock on the rise and all. But I've never cared for giant armies and trained soldiers; what I do care about is that my father has a safe wedding and a happy marriage. I care about karma, and Luna is his." Then she told Colin about what she'd heard that morning and how Lily had acted regarding the Room of Requirement. Something was going on today, and Holly was determined to stop the secret from coming out, even if that meant discovering it so that she could hide it herself.

"And you think it's a d-dragon?" asked Colin. He'd had a stutter for as long as Holly had known him, but it usually faded away after spending five or ten minutes with her.

"I dunno'," she said. "Maybe. That was what it sounded like."

"But what would a dragon have to do with Lily and the Room of Requirement?"

"I don't know the answer to that either." Before he could say another word, she turned around and continued on her way, walking to the spot where the thestrals had found her just as fresh snow began to fall from the darkening sky. From there, Colin helped her look for some kind of footprint, and together they decided to track the thestral prints in the opposite direction from which they were headed. Whatever Holly had heard, it hadn't been something a thestral would be very fond of.

Once they were steadily following the trail of white hoof-prints, Holly let herself calm down and listened to the sound of Colin's heavy breathing. Physically, he had grown much more than she had over the past two years, but he was still gangly and walked in awkward, swaying movements. She had a feeling that he'd never been very sure-footed, which she had to admit that she liked about him. Nobody in the world had any idea what their future held, so why bother pretending they did?

And there was something else Holly liked about Colin. In fact, there were many things, but the one she was thinking of now was the way he looked at her. To everyone else, she stuck out like a sore thumb, but not to him. It had been just as hard for her to win over Colin Creevey's attention as it would be for the most similar souls to seek each other out amongst a crowd.

That was what made her say to him just after she'd lit her wand to give them some light, "Thanks, by the way."

He didn't ask her why, but he did turn around from his spot in front of her and raised his bushy eyebrows in furrowed zigzags. Usually, she hated seeing that expression on people, because it meant that they thought she was crazy, but not him. Colin knew that she was just as sane as he was, and his raised eyebrows were merely question marks to finish Holly's series of never-ending questions.

"Thank you for being the first person I've seen today who hasn't told me how beautiful I look," she said, and she wasn't being sarcastic. Holly always meant what she said, and Colin knew that about her. He also knew why she'd said it: because beauty was the last thing Holly had ever wished to be admired for.

They walked in silence for another ten minutes, until Colin stopped suddenly and Holly nearly ran into him. (When she caught herself, she thought seriously about pretending she hadn't.) He knelt down into the deepening snow and she stretched her neck to look over him, but all she found was a tree standing a foot in front of Colin, its trunk strong and wide as it reached the forest floor. Holly's eyes were tracing the wood to the ground when she saw what Colin was so fascinated by.

She had to walk around him to get a better view of the body, and luckily the smell wasn't too rotten thanks to the frozen area it sat in. Still, the thing was most definitely a corpse, and a rugged, revolting one at that. Holly could only assume that the body had once belonged to a man, but now it was torn to pieces, with chunks of flesh opened all around his bare arms and beneath his leather jacket that had been torn into shreds. His hair was the only part of him left untouched, with jet black streaks of it spiking up as if recently gelled.

"We should close his eyes," said Holly, kneeling beside the squirming Colin but remaining much calmer than he was. He had seen a dead body before, she knew – that of Argus Filch during the first fall he'd spent at Hogwarts – but no amount of experience could ever train someone not to care.

Colin looked to Holly as she looked into the dead man's golden eyes that twinkled in the light of a large, rounded moon. She reached out her hand to touch the face and brushed her fingers over those dark eyelashes until the gold was gone, saying, "That way, he could be sleeping."

For another five minutes, they just sat there with a man neither of them recognized, trying to pay their respects. But all the while, Holly couldn't help but wonder what had killed him. Could it have possibly been the dragon she'd heard before?

She was surprised to hear that Colin seemed to be wondering the same thing, reading her mind and answering, "No. These cuts are too small to come from a creature that large. They look like bite marks, to be sure, but from something smaller."

Holly was looking up at that round moon, wondering if it was full, when Colin whispered, "Like a werewolf."

The noise had sounded like a howl. She didn't think that werewolves usually remained transformed so late into the morning, but Holly supposed that it was possible. She also didn't know how long this body had been here, because the cold made everything more complicated. What she was mostly worried about was the connection between this death, this hypothesized werewolf, and Lily Potter. After all, a werewolf had to be a person as well as a dog, and Lily was the only one Holly had any sort of evidence against. She wasn't sure what Lily could possibly need the Room of Requirement for, even if she was a werewolf, but she was still acting differently, and the transition could at least explain that much.

"You don't think-" Holly was about to ask Colin about Lily when he interrupted her, his index finger pointing toward a faint marking in the trunk of the tree.

Pointing her lit wand toward the area so that they could get a better look, Holly laid her eyes on the carving that was etched just atop the dead man's head and read, 1. Wolf. 2. Deaths. 2. Night. 4. Life.

"Wolf, deaths, night, and life," Holly repeated aloud, but Colin wasn't listening.

"One, two, two, four," he whispered, more concerned with the numbers of the carving. Both of them seemed to believe that it was meant as some sort of message, but what the message was saying, neither of them knew.

Since they quickly had the carving memorized, they decided to head back to the pitch so that Holly wouldn't be late to join the wedding party. On the way, they took turns attempting to solve the puzzle of the message they'd seen, Colin now fully invested in Holly's mission to find the truth.

"So, we were right about the werewolf," he said just as they were exiting the forest. "And there's definitely been one death already; that was easy enough to see."

"But two night and four life seem like they must be figurative," suggested Holly. "You know, referring to something, like the second death perhaps, happening tonight, in return for sparing somebody's life."

"Most likely the wolf's," finished Colin. "But 'tonight' could refer to any night, depending on when the message was written."

"True," conceded Holly in dismay. But ever since Colin had said the numbers without the words, they had continued to flow through her head, so it wasn't more than a minute before she stopped dead in her tracks and opened her mouth wide in shock.

Colin was a few steps ahead of her by the time he turned around and asked what was wrong.

"One, two, two, four," Holly said for the third time, her eyes locked on the snow. Slowly, she moved her gaze upward, but not to look at Colin. She wanted to see the outline of the Quidditch pitch, its distant lights blending in with the stars in the sky as she said, "Twelve, twenty-four. It's not just a message… it's a date."

And that was when Colin understood. All he had to do was say, "Christmas Eve," for Holly to set off running for the pitch. When she got there, all the guests had already taken their seats for the ceremony, a huge clan of Weasleys on Neville's side right behind her great-grandmother, Augusta Longbottom, who was just as feisty today as she'd supposedly been sixty years ago.

Colin came up from behind her with his back keeled over to catch his breath, but upon seeing the guests in their chairs, he gave Holly a light shove on the shoulders to get her moving. When she looked to him with concern, he shrugged and headed for a chair in the back row; it would be pointless to try to warn somebody about the message now. Nobody would listen to a Squib like him except for his younger brother, but the Weasleys surrounding Nigel would surely make a scene and the last thing Holly wanted to do was ruin her father's wedding. Plus, right next to the Weasleys was the entire Potter clan (with the exception of Ginny, who must have been with Luna), including Lily.

Not allowing herself to jump to conclusions, Holly ran to the reserved locker room and found Lorcan just in time to take a bouquet of flowers in one hand and his arm in the other, walking right back in the direction she'd came from. Her favorite twin was wearing a well-tailored black suit with a white shirt and a skinny red tie that perfectly matched Holly's dress, and for a minute, being on his strong, handsome arm was all she needed to forget what she'd just discovered in the woods.

At least, that was until Lorcan muttered at her, "Where were you just now? You nearly missed the procession."

Trying to divert Lorcan's attention but at the same time wanting to clue him in slightly, Holly replied, "Do you have a favorite magical creature, brother?"

"Of course," he answered. "The dragon. What about you?"

He still didn't understand what was going on with her, but they didn't have time left to talk anyway. They were stepping onto the red carpet and Neville was staring at his daughter walking down the aisle from his spot on the platform when Holly said, "Anything but the werewolf."

Moments later, Holly had taken her place below the platform on Luna's side, watching closely and smiling as Lorcan shook Neville's hand and wished him the best of luck. Then a green Lysander was walking toward them with Ginny in tow, and after them came the bride and her father. Xenophilius was crying as he led a gorgeously white Luna down the aisle, her dress merely a holding device for a chest full of keys that were pinned to its bodice like ornaments hanging from a tree.

Holly had a difficult time paying attention to the ceremony, though she tried her hardest to listen to the elf-sized minister proclaim her father's new matrimony. She made herself smile when Neville and Luna said their short vows that promised forever. She made herself laugh when Ginny couldn't seem to find the rings (she'd been entrusted with keeping them safe from the twins' mischievous hands) and they magically appeared in Lysander's suit pocket. She even begged her eyes to cry as Neville leaned in to kiss the woman who appeared to be made of snow, and when the tears seemed to fall freely from her eyes, she realized that she had never needed to beg for them.

The ceremony led straight into the reception, which began with toasts given from each member of the wedding party. All the chairs had been moved to the sides of the giant dance floor, centered around tables that had just been cleared after serving three courses of a root-themed dinner. Even with all that she had in her head, Holly was riveted by Luna's speech that related Neville to a Crumple-Horned Snorkack, and turned teary-eyed once more when her father spoke of being the luckiest man in the world because his life had been filled with three great loves: Hannah, Holly, and Luna.

After Ginny shared some of the memories she had of her days at school with the bride and groom, it was Holly's turn to address her father's guests. She had always been comfortable speaking in public, but she did find herself slightly nervous as she thought back on the tree trunk message. That was until she reminded herself just how simple death was, and that regardless of whoever the victim was meant to be, she'd want their final day to be a good one.

Standing up to prepare, Holly's eyes scanned through the crowd: starting with the professor table that was headed by McGonagall, onto the Weasleys with Rose and her family, the Potters, the miscellaneous Hogwarts students like Lucy and Colin, and finally to the table she had just stood from. Neville was somehow looking at both his daughter and his wife, as if his eyes had the uncanny ability to go their separate ways, and Holly found herself blinded by them.

"So, everybody here already knows that, before now, my father was a widower," she started, not noticing the guests' hardened expressions because she refused to look at anyone but the person she loved most. "And I suppose that today, upon re-marrying, that title's been stripped from him, almost as if it was never there in the first place. Here he is, with a new wife and new sons, and his old life has officially ended."

People were looking around with worried expressions before Holly changed course completely, surprising them with her maturity and poise. "But, of course, that's the exact opposite of what my father's really doing tonight," she said. "Because, even though he's marrying a woman who isn't my mother, he's marrying someone who's alive. For years, my dad has lived in a perpetual state of grief, missing my mum and wishing that he could be with her again. Now, he's finally woken up. He's finally found another light to turn on, and here he is, more alive than I've ever seen him before. And that's what makes me certain that this isn't the end; this is the beginning. This is when things stop being simple and start growing complicated, but it's also the only time when progress can be made, and I'm so exponentially glad that my father has chosen to take his first steps toward a woman he and I both love."

The clapping made Holly blush, but she was happy to have made her father smile. They were still silently thanking each other when Holly sat down and her standing presence was replaced by the twins, who gave quite the theatrical speech. It all started as a competition, both of them exceedingly frustrated over the fact that Neville hadn't actually named a Best Man, but then it grew into an exemplar of what being a man really meant, comparing Neville to the father Lysander had sent to prison when he was just ten years old, and leading into Lorcan proposing to Lucy right before the dancing started.

She said yes, of course, and Holly's shouts of congratulations were the loudest on the floor. The happy couple were still kissing when Neville and Luna stood up to dance, and soon other couples were joining them from every direction, including Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, Rose and Scorpius, and Hugo and Nigel. With so many of the guests busy dancing, Holly knew that now offered the perfect opportunity to try to seek out Lily.

That opportunity was quickly squandered, however, when Colin showed up at Holly's emptying table and offered her his hand. Thinking that he'd understand, she shook her head and told him, "I can't dance. I need to find Lily and tell her-"

"Tell her what?" asked Colin. "E-even if she's the one the m-message was meant for, you d-don't know who left that message and you don't know who the message refers to. The one thing you d-do know is that Lily is the last person who'd ever listen to you."

He had a point. Holly knew that she needed to do something about what she'd discovered, but she didn't yet know what that something would be. Until she did, dancing with Colin couldn't exactly hurt in the matter. So, she took his hand and followed him onto the floor, where he twirled her around for nearly an hour during which she thought of nothing but him. She thought of the day they had met, during a Care of Magical Creatures lesson when Hagrid had introduced Colin without mentioning his lack of magical capabilities. That made her think of all the times that she'd wished to be a Squib as a child. It was an odd thing to wish for, she knew, but she dreaded the idea of reminding her father of Hannah, and at the same time, she had always wanted something to struggle over. She had wanted something to identify herself with, so that she could have some excuse for being so different from everybody else.

They were in the middle of a slow song when Colin stopped and turned his head toward the tarp ceiling. Upon noticing, Holly followed his gaze to find a bushel of hanging greens with small white berries that must have been infested with nargles. "Mistletoe," stated Colin as he looked back down at the girl in his arms.

His lips were quite close to hers when she jumped away, out from underneath the plant and safe from Colin's touch. When he seemed both disheartened and concerned, she looked back at him and explained, "I've never been kissed, Colin. Tomorrow, I'll be seventeen years old, and for a very long time, I've wished for it to happen, just so that I could know how it felt. But now, standing here with you, I don't want it, at least not like this. I want it to mean something."

"But what if it did mean something?" Colin asked, as if the mistletoe hadn't been the only reason he'd wanted some snogging.

Holly thought about such, but she was distracted by the thought of wanting this helpless life that might end in a matter of hours to mean something. She was thinking that when she answered, "Maybe it will one day, but we both have to last that long first." Then she walked away from the boy of her dreams, hoping that she might save somebody else's.

Knowing that Colin had been right about Lily in what he'd said before, Holly decided that she'd need to find some other way to keep her only suspect away from her family and friends. So when she spotted Lily sitting at a corner table with Scorpius and then noticed Lysander looking at the girl from a few feet away, Holly walked up to her step-brother and asked him as sweetly as possible to please get James for her; she wanted to speak with the eldest Potter son and Lysander had been James's best friend since the two had started playing Quidditch against each other in their very first year at Hogwarts.

James showed up a few minutes later, Lysander having had to pull him away from a conversation he'd been having with Rose, the cousin he'd been closest to his entire life. The tall, brown-haired boy who looked very little like the rest of his family seemed confused as to why Holly was summoning him, but she didn't have much time to provide him with an explanation. Plus, James had never exactly been quick with the uptake.

"I need you to distract your sister for the rest of the night," she told James confidently, her back straight and stance important. He was about to ask why when she answered for him, "My reasons don't matter so long as they're valid, and I can promise you that they are. I'm sure you know more about Lily's secrets than I do, so I trust you know how dangerous she can be." She was saying what she thought might make her sound somewhat knowledgeable at this point, but miraculously, it worked.

Clearly, Holly was on to something, because James grew immediately concerned when he heard the word 'dangerous.' That was also when he stopped listening to Holly, turned his head to look for his sister, and voiced, "I'll occupy her for as long as I can."

Holly smiled widely as he left to take Lily away from Scorpius. She felt much more comfortable for the rest of the night, never wondering what Lily might be up to and having no one else to mettle with, which proved to be the perfect remedy as she joined Neville on the floor for a traditional father/daughter dance.

Surrounded by other men and girls, Holly buried her face in Neville's chest and tried to hold on to him as long as she possibly could. Reading her thoughts just as Colin had done before, Neville asked after the first song was finished but they were still dancing, "Are you sure you're going to be okay tomorrow?"

Holly turned her face up to meet his when he added, "I feel bad enough as it is leaving you on your birthday, but I know what else Christmas means to you… to both of us."

Holly's first instinct was to ask Neville to stay, since that way they could spend the day visiting Hannah's grave together and laying all sorts of foreign plants and flowers around it like they did every year. But she wasn't a child anymore. Come to think of it, she never truly had been. For as long as she could remember and perhaps even still today, Holly was fascinated by fantastical beings that her contemporaries deemed childish to believe in, but those fantasies were her ways of dissipating her lifetime supply of maturity.

"I'll be fine," she told him after giving her answer some thought. "I can take care of myself, remember?"

Neville laughed at that, his cheeks puffing up and matching his crooked teeth to make him look far younger than he really was. He didn't answer the question that had been rhetorical, though he did something else to his daughter, and it turned out to be exactly what she'd always needed to hear.

"Thank you," he told her sincerely.

"For the speech?" asked Holly.

"No. For growing up even when I wasn't there to show you how."

For the next hour, Neville and Holly continued to dance together, unaware of how late it had become or of the people who surrounded them. They were too engrossed in each other's presence to notice Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione running frantically around the dance floor as they tried to plan a search party to look for James and Lily, who'd been missing for half the reception. They didn't notice what was left of the Gryff Group – Hugo, Nigel, and Roxanne – team up with cousin Fred to steal half of the wedding gifts from their place underneath the Christmas tree. And, for a while anyway, they didn't notice the screams that came from a far-off corner of the pitch where a stout, black figure was running away from the tent and into the shadows.

But when the screaming persisted, Neville and Holly finally broke apart and made their way over to the site of the screams. Once there, Holly drew in a breath from shock and found herself grasping for her father's hand as she looked down at the womanly figure whose sunken skin bore a haunting resemblance to her mother.

Holly had a very clear understanding of death. She knew better than anyone that death was far simpler than the complications found in life, but as she looked down on the third corpse she had ever seen – a corpse that was weak and frail and paled no resemblance to its once alive body – and at the tears of the ones around her, she finally realized that the complications were what made life far stronger than its powerless counterpart.

 
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