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January 1st, 1980: Cockamamie Night Club, Hoxton, London (midnight)

Spiced lavender smoke danced through the humid air settling over the parched, sweating patrons. The crowd cut fascinating figures, silhouettes of wide angular shoulders and riotous, cumulus curls, or plentiful curves in skintight leather, throwing bare naked shadows on the humming brick and pipes.

Cockamamie's, a new joint spun from a warehouse out of spider silk and booze, thumped and quivered on bleeding bass, enough to shake the floorboards, on this gorgeous Saturday night.

In a spacious booth by the kitchens, two bodies sat alone, crammed against the wall, whispering fervently. The younger, muscled form wrapped in iridescent sequins turned ocean green under the lamp light, soaked, brassy blonde tresses trailing down her exposed back. A heavy ringed hand, wide and soft with purple-lacquered nails, carded through the length to rest in the small of her back.

They giggled, in a world all their own. A server in fitted black wove across the dance floor, from the bar to the booth, sporting a seltzer with a lemon wedge, and a White Russian on a tray.

"Regular for the owner. Oh! Gina-mama! Great to see ya! How's the kids?"

Gracie peeled off of her date with a wet smack and laughed breathlessly at the bartender, lipstick smeared. She was an Expressionist take on debauchery, and a double platinum favorite at the bar. "Miss Mamie's Cock and Bevvie," as she had dubbed once many hazy nights ago, always greeted her with open arms.

"They're good, Ceecee, thanks. At home with their nan." She raised a plucked brow and gestured to her indiscriminately close company. Feeling palms ran down to her hips, smoothing her skirt over her thighs.

"I'm not meant to be thinkin' of 'em too much right now, though, ya realize?"

"Yeah, I see! Have ya fun, babs!" The statuesque woman left the drinks and danced away, grinning cheekily. She threw one last well wish their way before disappearing into the swell.

"Welcome back, Chuck! And Happy New Year!"

Tonight, the bar celebrated the return of its phantom proprietor. Chuck Pacifico materialized out of the sparkling dark, made-up and steely haired and seeking a loving embrace.

Almost immediately, he found his muse. He found soft Georgie, biting Gina, ribbing Grace—all one woman, striding by with chin aloft—and conceived of a bar from across which he could see her and start a new story.

"Now who's she? You're hiring your lovers to work my bar?," came a gentle chuckle. Gracie rearranged her hang in her halter top, and tossed him a roguish smile.

"Worry 'bout yerself, Chuck." She laughed at the hand sliding up her knee. "Yeah! Keep them hazel eyes on the prize!"

"Apologies," a warm mouth smiled into her cheek.

"Follow me upstairs, I'll forgive you."

Self-reportedly from nowhere and definitely from south of London, he bought and built his bar overnight. It opened one fall, ushering in the corner musicians, first, then the self-designers, the inspired and tired, breaking up the cold. No cover fee, and almost endlessly stocked, strange liquor pouring from bottomless bottles, with rooms for rent for a dollar or a song.

He made them a home, of sorts, for his type: the magic at heart. The underloved of Hoxton adored Chuck, and he adored them. Eventually looking became touching, then posing, composing, and with a flash, he was a photographer, starting with his darling heart.

Gracie's likeness took off, and took Chuck with it. So tonight was a rare one, a break from absence, a homecoming.

Gracie needed this. She had gotten so used to missing him that some days she didn't. But she wanted him, the sparkling, unfathomable bits, the escape from two kids and an ailing mum up by nowhere.

She touched him carefully, like the sun shining off the fog. He was just as effervescent, and tonight she feared burning the older man away with the power of her wanting. He could vanish into thin air. He'd done it as a trick, but it terrified her.

Chuck waved a hand, and the music changed. "Something He Can Feel" shimmied down from the speakers. Gracie dragged her hands up his tiger-striped, satin button-up. She didn't know why he loved it, like he'd never seen a plain polo in his life. But he sure was something in it.

"You're not drinking tonight, honey bee?," he whispered, amused, pulling fingers through the condensation on the seltzer glass."That's not like you."

His gaze skated over her—memorizing her, she hoped. She cradled his face on the heels of her hands and tilted his mouth onto hers. They kissed languidly, soaking in the music and the smoke. Gracie slinked out of booth, pulling her man behind.

"Let's get to the room," she urged. It'd been almost a year last time. This was a little over two months, but one never knew. He could fly out of London tomorrow, hand over the club, and never come back.

"Pop your special pills, and let's go!"

She wanted to get to it. Gracie wasn't a girl anymore, hadn't been when they'd met and time only pushed on. Her heels hurt her feet, and she'd be on them all day tomorrow. Her thighs chafed. Her dress was beautiful, and itchy, so she needed only to feel her own skin.

Her stomach flipped in anticipation.

They made it to his personal apartment—like a dragon's hoard of unfathomable things, odd baubles and trinkets. He kept a collection of sticks on wooden stands spread around the sitting room. "Artifacts of a past life," he described when asked, with wistful airs.

The air smelled resinous and warm.

He led the way into his bedroom, and Gracie followed, uncharacteristically meek. She sweat, heart hammering, unsure of why she suddenly felt coltish, ready to bolt.

The floor trembled and bucked underfoot. Her ankles felt weak, ready to snap. She grabbed his arm and kicked off her heels, covering a seasick stumble with a playful shove.

"I, uh—"

Her mouth filled with spit. She excused herself by running into the bathroom, and throwing her head into the sink. Gracie fumbled for the faucet just as her stomach heaved, spilling its contents to be washed down the drain. Every muscle cramped, folding her double.

She lost her seltzer and two ginger ales, and the milk and fried bologna she fixed for lunch. She expected the brush of rings and manicured nails, sweeping back her hair.

Take care of me!, she thought, like when the hangovers started hurting! Treat me nice!

She sighed in relief of many pains when her hair lifted, dripping, from her chin. Gracie looked up blearily to spit something scathing, for making her worry, but Chuck stood gaping in doorway. He was nowhere close enough to pull back her hair.

Gracie screamed, stumbled away, dove for the floor expecting to see the stranger hiding in the bath. But there was no one.

She scanned the mirror, still gagging, cursing, and caught a glimpse of—no. No, there wasn't a stranger with them. The mirror only showed Gracie, disheveled, and Chuck, withdrawing, pale and shaken.

Her hair with its orange ends and black roots floated and fanned around her. Gracie wobbled, shocked, and her ankles gave and her feet slipped on the wet tile, tossing her up in the air like a confetti as the synth of Irene Cara's "Fame" buzzed through the floorboards.

Her sequins glittered in the inexplicable crystal lights. She flashed green, then pink, arms wheeling, her halo of hair rippling, until she sunk slowly to the floor, a mermaid in a tide pool, wet and gasping.

"Babe...Charlie! What's happening!"

Chuck backpedaled, eyes red and welling, looking less a magic man and more the scared little boy. Hands covering his open mouth, breath hitching, jolting back when she shouted.

"Are you fucking kidding me?! What is this shit?!"

"I can't do kids, Georgie." That voice, faded and petal soft as always. "I s-said, not again. I can't again…"

"Oh, grow up, Chuck! Leave then, like bloody always! I ain't beggin'!"

"I can find someone. We can just—you don't have to keep it, Grace, please."

"Fuck off, prick! BASTARD!"

She lay on the ground, silent, minutes after the crack when she knew he'd gone. She refused to shed a tear, but they escaped headless of her scorn, so she stayed there, shivering on the tile. Gracie let herself be sorry for all the time it took to be found.

Until Ceecee came looking for her, she stewed in frigid misery.

She couldn't do another kid, either. Chuck was special, but he wasn't that special. He was still a person, someone who soured and scared off, someone here enough to make a kid, and there enough to ditch it.

Would he at least send money? He gave her some earnings from the photo shoots. Would that feed them all? She barely made due with that.

Gracie was scared, too. Where was her dramatic exit?

"Ugh, Baby New Year," she groaned, creeping cold fingers over her belly. Through the plastic, she felt bright tingling and her overwarm skin. "What're you, huh? Why're you here?"


August 23rd, 2002: Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, London

Harry walked down Grimmauld Place, seeing familiar sights. He strolled contemplatively, taking his time, only to gag one house over and shake his tired head.

If Harry could kick himself out, he would. He'd left his front door open. He could see well into Number Twelve, through to the stairs and the back hallway. In his frazzled state, he had left the former Black home exposed to the street.

He debated taking the front path at a run, rushing to close it. Instead, he opted to leave well enough alone, and in fact, walked slower up to his gate. The house was secure enough. No one passing by even knew it existed. If Harry didn't rush, he might even stroll past it himself, and keep on down the street.

Harry was suddenly sick of hurrying indoors. Maybe he could make a day of being out. He scratched his nose, swaying to manage the weight of the book under his arm.

He dreaded the idea of going seen. Still, he loitered at the end of his walk, eying the gates, the Victorian facades and the curtained windows.

Honestly, he didn't have to go in yet. Even in his slippers and robe, he lived in a city, and could probably go about in his house clothes without issue. If he was polite enough, he'd be left alone. He'd gone all of his childhood in tatty clothes and hardly got pulled up for it.

It'd been a while since his last stint as a runaway. He was due for a jaunt.

I'll change clothes first, he decided, opening the latch. I'll drop this thing off and, and then I'll check in on Ginny, maybe. And then I'll…I'll do what I want!

Something clicked while emerging from the labyrinthine Ministry. As Ron lead him through cobwebbed lifts and tunnels, Harry realized: nobody cared! No one that mattered to him cared about him helping Snape.

Ron about knew what he'd done, and after some awkward silence, treated him exactly the same. Remus had time to acclimate. Given her nonresponse earlier, Harry guessed that Ginny pieced it together that morning at least—and the witch hadn't seemed surprised.

Maybe he was just that transparent under a spotlight. Some time in the last four years, Harry's nameless fears were unfounded. They let him have his reasons. They trusted he hadn't changed.

The young wizard came in, charming the door shut and towing out of his slippers. He padded in his socks to the parlor and took pause, finding Ginny's open chest still present and unaffected. The witch had yet to return.

Distracted and thinking little of it, Harry jogged upstairs, changed into jeans and a hoodie, then returned to the front hall. He copied the map again, and put the folded map in his pocket. The whole while he stared into the middle distance, pondering.

Save Hermione and the other Weasleys, McGonagall surely, and maybe Neville out of some courtesy, Harry was in the clear. Alright, well, obviously not quite. But he wasn't irredeemable. People, his people, were allowed to know.

Some moss-covered shackle fell away with Ron's ribbing. They threw out headlines for the evening Prophet the whole way up, getting more outrageous as they went. They laughed at how he'd finally crackled, laughed till their ribs hurt. Harry's face had hit the spraying rain, hot and tight from grinning. His persistent self-doubt was obvious now as it lost some hold.

Absentmindedly, the young man searched a hall closet for his broom. Thinking on his lost Firebolt, one of Harry's first and only gifts to himself had been a Cloud Cleaver 650, the predecessor of the WX.

He'd have made off with a Cleansweep if he had to, only wanting to fly. However, he'd been talked into getting the then newest model in the shop. He could afford, and while never having bought his own broom before, he splurged.

He had polished it, managed the bristles, loved that broom. But in crowded London, he barely flew it. He had by then turned down Quidditch scouts and bowed out of Aurory. He wasn't Ginny or Ron. He didn't need it.

Eventually Harry found the broom flashy, too much more for a simple homebody. One day he sat on his bed with the broom in his hand, hearing his aunt's griping.

"What would a useless runt like you need with that?! Think you're something, do you? Put it away! You're embarrassing yourself!"

Harry had shoved the Cleaver in the hall closet, unable to stomach selling it or giving it away. When Ginny called him rusty, she wasn't wrong. As of that day, Harry hadn't flown since Christmas, 2001.

"She couldn't have gotten far," he mumbled, chewing on his bottom lip.

Harry spelled the dust from the handle, and shook the dried up spiders from the broom head. He winced at the state of it. It really was a great broom to leave so shut up.

"Sorry, friend," he apologized. He then carefully laid the Cleaver on the wood floor. Harry shook out his nerves and extended his ungloved hand over it.

"Up!"

It smacked into his palm with a resolute quickness. Harry huffed, pained and exhilarated. He switched the broom to his other hand and looked on it approvingly as he stretched his battered palm.

"Fantastic!," he praised. It balanced perfectly in midair while Harry swung a leg over it.

Harry seated himself, assuming the flyer's forward lean geared for speed. With a wordless charm, the door slammed open, revealing the street.

Harry kicked off into an unfailing, omnipresent current, one that carried every ounce of him, down to the littlest hair. He sped down the walk, whispering a Summoning charm as he went. His Invisibility Cloak rose like a lethifold from a basket of folded linen, toppling flannel sheets to chase after him.

His trainers rambled over the pavement. The rain plastered down his fringe. Harry pulled up at the swinging gate, diving into his waiting cloak. He melted into the cityscape, aimed upwards to hurtle toward the silver medallion sun.


Beeeee-eeep!

"Move...day! Get…!"

Hooooooonk!

Harry floated high above the city limit, chilled by the damp and windswept. Below him sprawled the northwest edge of London.

A grid of dull brown designs where cars marched through like colorful ants, decorating the city. Taxis squeezed in the vanishing gaps between buses, one colliding and clogging the slow lane. Honking cars lined up for a mile back, and he could hear the occasional clip of peeved motorists.

Folding over to pillow his chin on his forearm, he flew lazy loops over traffic. Every loop he finished sailed him a little further over the green suburbs.

"Maybe I missed her?," he wondered aloud, starting on figure eights.

Harry was so caught up in the thrill of flying, he zipped well out of the city center before remembering Ginny and the owl. Still stunned by his run-in with reporters, and reeling mid-epiphany, he forgave himself just the once and went about finding her.

There was some issue predicting the flight path of a bird. He ended up backtracking along the straightest route from Number Twelve to Cokeworth. He stopped once, thinking he saw a flash of red, but found nothing. Instead, he wasted twenty minutes rooting around rooftops in Hampstead, and frustrated, flew back to Grimmauld Place, only to find Ginny's luggage gone.

His letter sat on their bed, unopened beside a handful of crushed feathers.

Harry assumed she'd returned, saw him gone, and rushed off to Cardiff to make orientation. Knowing she took the Knight Bus, the wizard gave up on catching the violent purple death trap. He decided to cope with his disappointment with another lap around the city.

It was mid-morning now. The grey weather passed overhead while Harry fiddled with the folded square of parchment in his hand. For the first time in days, a proper boldness took root in his spirit. Having been slapped down thrice over—adopted, Snape adjacent, and fooled—he preened in the bit of control he'd taken of his time.

He stepped back into a bit of old willfulness, touched by some spirit of adventure. Why not take a long flight? Go wherever? See where the day took him?

He had no one waiting on him at home. Harry had nothing but time until the weekend, and a map of sorts, and could Apparate home if necessary. So why not?

Harry wiped his runny nose and brandished his wand.

"Point Me!" The wizard aimed north, sniffling, and gripped the Cleaver's handle. With a gleeful shout, he took off like a shot.

Wind whistled in the young man's ears and he fast became a blur on the horizon, ignorant of the injured Chaser tailing but lagging behind.


"Where's Harry?!"

Ron choked as he was literally pulled him from his conversation, yanked down by the collar to meet his sister's eye. He gaped at a harassed, messy-headed Ginny, crammed in her fancy training suit, with a broom slung across her back.

"Aren't you supposed to be in Wales?"

The witch shook him, pale as a ghost. "Harry! Where?!"

"Ginny Weasley! Has Harry Potter finally—!"

"Miss Weasley, is Mister Potter—!"

The witch's wand hand was armed and at the ready, menacing the reporters crammed into the office doorway, screaming questions. Cameras exploded, not in flashes but in actual flames, melted film and clicking parts flying everywhere. The mob scurried back from the hissing, popping metal, some reporters stomping on others who dove in to save their precious film.

Aurors stepped in to quell the chaos. More than one sobbing photographer was coaxed from the floor.

"Gin, you can't just—!"

"I was attacked," Ginny cut in, eyes so wide they were almost too big for her head. Ron grabbed her tightly by the arm and looked around, catching a trainee's eye.

"Tell Proudfoot this is another tip," Ron barked at him, and then led his sister away. He spoke to her in an undertone, murmuring, "Are you serious?," before noticing her funny strut. He realized queasily that his little sister was limping.

"Who did this?! Did you see his face?"

"Yeah, but I didn't recognize them. T-two men, one tall and rangy, one kind of stout, both mid-thirties maybe, holding masks. I didn't, they surprised me, I-I didn't see them at first—!"

"Wait, I've gotta," he pulled them toward a new briefing room. Ginny wrenched her arm free and shouted:

"No time! It was two men, okay, and they were following a, a letter Harry sent! I went because Malfoy said someone was out for them, and I thought it was rubbish, but. I don't know how they saw me, but. I think I winged one, he screamed and.

"Harry was supposed to...Did he come here, is he here?! I flew by the house, and it's empty. Ron, somebody's out for him! You must've missed two, okay, there's still D—!"

"Shh! The nnn!" He covered her mouth, pointing at the reporters. He then looked over his sister again, feeling sick. She reeked of ozone and leaned to one side, panting. She'd clearly just escaped a duel.

"Look, stay here while I get you a Healer. Harry was here earlier, yeah, but he already le—Ginny, wait!"

It was too late. The witch forged back into frenzy, the reporters fearing for their things enough to give her a wide berth. By the time Ron fought through the crowd, shouting people back, and stumbled into the corridor, she'd vanished.


August 23rd, 2002: Spinner's End, Cokeworth (noon)

The Muggles worked Severus near to death. Zinnia peppered him with questions while she helped him clean her space. Having a night of lecturing her mother, he saw her roots as every curt reply inspired another tangent.

They ended up trading barbs until the werewolf discovered her gut of digesting boxers, and ran for the loo. He played handyman.

Severus repaired the splintered staircase, conjured more windows with various views, banished the ruined luggage, mended clothes and furniture, on top of Apparating to and fro to delivery books and clothing, and assure Grace her eldest would be fine.

He failed to convince the little girl of her hold on the door. Likely terrified of being scolded, the brat hid whenever he entered the room. He told Grace that morning that her child's terror was a problem. He'd seen wild magic so often, it bored him to recount, but anomalously it had tied to his own—fear, unfortunately—with extreme potency.

Thus began the yelling. It started low and escalated until Severus, sapped, quit caring and dragged himself to bed.

"Laney, for Christ's sake, come here! It'll only take a second!"

"NO." Severus awoke, ragged.

The wizard nursed his throbbing head. The very little reprieve he found in the attic was enough for a shallow sleep. Yet there he lay, conscious, despite his best efforts. Abandoning the spirit of the cockroach, he wished quite earnestly for death.

Grace and her impudent brat had bickered all bloody morning. Now they were set to bicker well into the afternoon.

This? This is where?, he bemoaned. He felt blindly for a limp pillow and threw that over his head as well. Their shrill voices still pierced—through two floor, the walls, the pillows, and his accursed skull. Gods, the child's lungs were unconquerable! When she screamed,"NO," it could shatter glass.

That lilting runt? This is where she takes after this nightmarish family?

He worked his hands from his blanket and slid them over his face. Severus pressed down on his airways through the fabric, groaning with suicidal relish. Maybe he would luck out, against all evidence he was capable, and suffocate.

Bzzz! A text message. Severus grabbed the blasted Muggle contraption, Grace's mobile phone, and chucked it across the room. He savored the clatter of hard plastic hitting the wall. He prayed it broke. He needed it as far away from him as possible.

Grace had made him the basement liason while she managed her youngest. He agreed so as to more quickly escape.

Severus be damned, the devil-sent thing was indestructible. It nattered on the floor. Text message after text message swarmed into it.

Bzz-zzt! Bzzz! Bzzz!

He ripped off the pillows and screamed. No words, only a maddened, agonized howl. It was the howl of a man three days gone without food, little sleep, and on the razor's edge of toxic shock from magical exhaustion.

He couldn't even curse the phone or silence his room, as just touching his wand left him light-headed. Even the dark hurt to sit in, he was so rubbed raw. And yet all he'd suffered for hours was—

"I HATE YOU!"

Severus threw off his covers. He bolted out of bed viper quick, so much so he staggered dizzily, blood rushing.

"GO AWAY!"

He looked around and, grunting, jammed his aching feet into salvaged steel-capped work boots. He'd found them merely drooled on in the basement, and exhausted, lugged them around for an hour without realizing, until he'd brought them upstairs.

It irritated Severus who, simply sick of plucking splinters deom his feet, had shoved his father's boots on only to find them a decent fit.

He changed his mind. Forget lived-in and admirable. He hated this house. Every morning in this revived Spinner's End unmade him. Spurred on by this new sting in a parade of indignities, the wizard swung open the attic door and poured down the stairs.

"Sasquatch!" He pounded on the door to the second bedroom. Threads of furious hard rock skittered from under it. Of course. His resident behemoth couldn't hear him through headphones.

Severus stomped into the room, knocking papers off the desk as he blew by. So consumed by the boots and the migraine and the yelling, Severus didn't see the coil of python he stepped over to berate the cross-legged man on the floor. Absurdly, Fred cradled the constrictor's head on his palm, while he sketched in a legal pad.

Severus, now seeing the beast, carried forward by momentum, had no choice but to push on, trampling notebooks and a walkman, refusing to give quarter. He danced around yards of serpent in a cold sweat. He kicked over a forgotten mug as he stomped about, spraying the other man in tepid tea.

"Yo, what the fuck!"

Severus caught his rhythm and stomped his foot like a child, swooping down and ripping the headphones off his fool half-brother's head.

"You don't hear this madness!?," he bellowed. The python between his boots flexed, a spitting hiss turning insides to fetid jelly. "Gah, God! Fix this! They're yelling down the house!"

Fred also looked to be fraying. His bloodshot eyes bore into Severus, pupils each the size of pennies. His huge shoulders sagged in defeat, great hairy head hanging down over his papers.

"You don't think I've tried? Laney don't respond to yellin'," he sighed, nearly sobbing. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his thumbs into his temples. "Ugh, they're doin' my fuckin' head in! I haven't slept, y'know? Can't even eat, 'cause they're blocking the kitchen!"

"Don't yell at me!" Hollered Grace from a level below.

"LEAVE ME ALONE!"

Severus marched back out of the bedroom, not even sure of his next move but needing to do something. His expression must have been fierce, as Fred shouted after him, swore, and followed suit. The younger man caught up in one long stride, another irksome detail that drove Severus harder down to the first floor.

"Whoa, alright, listen!" The yeti walked with his hands out, like the wizard was too hot to touch. "Just let them have it out!"

"No."

Severus wavered, dizzy, and then pressed furiously on. As he went, he exuded filth. Licks of dark magic oozed over the narrow hall, and mildewed the wallpaper as he walked. The paper shred and peeled, exposing bare wood and glue.

"Uh, okay! Fair! Just don't magic them or anythin'. Mum's all twisted by whatever you said last night, and Laney's just—!"

"I don't care. I've had enough," he declared, bursting into the sitting room. He whipped around on his heel and beelined for the kitchen. With great thumping leaps, Fred chased him.

"Aw, c'mon, she's just a little kid!" He blocked the hallway with his bulky frame, frowning down at Severus, who glowered viciously. "You should know, with kids I mean, you just, uh."

"Children don't behave until taught the fear of God and retribution. It is a talent I enjoy immensely."

"Jesus…where you one of those teachers? They let you whip students or something?" His big arms came up, forcing the heated wizard back.

Over his shoulder, the girl lost her penchant for words and resorted to terrified shrieking. Her mother shouted over it. Severus' lip curled back over his teeth. He could see the sound now, bright colors distorting his vision, bleeding down the drab, box-lined walls.

"Whipping?," he hissed, savoring the silence of memory. A dungeon, cool and foreboding, to lay and lose his body in. To think that peace... "Yes, for a time. Move!"

"Absolutely not. You touch 'em and I snap your fuckin' neck."

This growled up from the man's belly, like the urge to protect sprung forth bloodlust like hunger. Not unlike Zinnia, as just the madwoman, he sensed once he started, Fred might beat him to death.

Severus couldn't afford to curse the Muggle, or even Stun him, expecting he'd take something powerful to succumb. The ex-spy felt so ground down and small, and against his very nature, Severus sobbed and covered his eyes.

"Please, gods, let him," he begged. "Make it end."

He quailed at being threatened by that face again. Horrible palpitations started in the wizard's chest, portending an attack of viscera, cardiac arrest or a stroke, like what killed his father. He would die where he stood if the screaming didn't stop.

Let Tobias' visage strike him down. A snapped neck would be quick.

Pathetic, sneered a voice that even in his own head, fell below the shrieking.

Sleep. He only needed sleep. And he wasn't some fledgling witch, a sapling child with wild magic and emotion so deeply entwined that he could wish away the hurt. He was trained out of that, exhausted, leaking rot, hiding behind his hands like a sniveling boy.

"...Wow." Fred breathed this in astonishment. A rough mit dropped on Severus' shoulder, unbalancing him. "Oh, sorry. Sorry...don't...it's, man, whatever. Don't have to cry about it."

The wizard sighed shakily and wiped the sweat from his brow. He collected himself some before looking up, squinting in the dreary hall.

"I'm not crying, idiot."

"Yeah, no, sure! You got it. Very manly, you are."

Severus rolled his eyes. Then, seeing a shifting shadow, he looked over and met his reflection in the glass of his mother's portrait. He saw Fred's arm, bridging the space between them, like a scene of man consoling a wretch.

Disgusted, but not resenting the help standing, he looked past both of them to see the kitchen. It was then he felt the quiet.

In the glass he saw the girl with her hand over her eyes, just as he had them, facing toward the back door. The bit of sunlight filtering in from the half-windows glanced off the tile. This made the shape of her mother knelt before her all the clearer.

Grace looked up to her daughter, hands twisted together in a strange plea. The woman reached out and pinched the hem of her daughter's dress, in lieu of holding her hand.

"Please, try," she pushed.

"Mum, Laney's—uh, Rev, you good?"

Everyone stood quiet, while both he and the little girl unbent, and he met her eye in glass. He couldn't see the details of her face, absorbed by the portrait's black, except her eyes, which shone large and terrified.

Unsure what gripped him if not loathing, Severus skimmed her thoughts, and heard the ringing. It was the keening of the wards from last night, amplified by repeated recollection.

Sharp and unrelenting, it made him feel faint. Perhaps this was the Legilimency. Regardless the sound couldn't be bore. Every time the girl thought on the kitchen, it grew louder. Severus' migraine spiked and he withdrew.

"Ah!" He startled. A tendril of the girl's mind trailed his, seeking his visions of cool, dark caverns.

It landed light as a moth on an imagined rock and his hobbled mind, too slow to cast it out, watched it flutter and vanish in the boundary between thoughts. A degree of the terrible ringing faded. An almost tangible wind followed, with a roar of beating wings echoing in the dungeon halls, preceding an inundation of thoughts.

The ringing crescendoed.

"Stop!," Severus snapped. He broke contact, squeezing his eyes shut.

Behind his eyelids, the dungeons faded to slippery black. He only heard his staggered heartbeat, and swayed. The hand on his shoulder was the only thing keeping him upright. He kept his eyes shuttered as he spoke.

"She, the girl," he swallowed. His throat clicked, cotton-dry. "She needs training. She's out of control."

"It's never been a problem before," Fred defended above him. "She calms down quick most times, and she—she's a good kid."

"Is it that thing?," Grace asked him, her voice suddenly closer. "How she gets into people's heads? I thought it was the books, but...the screaming."

Grace sounded pained. It seems every adult hurt from the girl's penetrating cries. Of course a voice shouldn't be that clear up through the attic. She'd screamed directly into their heads, for hours, voice never tiring as she dealt her psychic damage.

The wizard nodded. "The wards are one thing, but she's a, erm."

"Hey, alright, take it easy."

Arms encircled his waist, and some negotiating of limbs happened as he was coaxed into walking. He was rearranged to hang from a shorter body, as light feet rushed past him and out the front door.

"Ah, dammit, duck."

He picked up splashing and the shush of rain before feeling the tug of sleep. Unconsciousness rolled over him. Ironically, he fought sleep, curious about the state of the girl.

"I...o after her. We'll be back. You okay, Mum?"

"Obviously not, you big goon. Go, go watch her 'fore some creep snatches her up. Go on, I got him. He weighs nothin'."

Severus was walked and then suddenly tipped over. He swung out a hand to brace for a fall, thinking he'd lost his footing. It hit the couch, and he was spilled onto the cushions, boots and all.

"You're done in, hey. Oi, Severus? Can you h...me?"

"Nn. Careful," he sighed. "Careful, she's, dunno how with Muggles. Girl is practiced. She's strong."

"Yeah, my babies are talented. Hard-headed as all shit, but y'know. Only Zeddie was bad at school. The other two were angels. Was...was he? Do you know if—?"

"Wha...?" Severus didn't know if he missed Grace's reply, as he gratefully plummeted into sleep.


"Don't do this."

Severus frowned, unsure if he was dreaming. He felt awake, felt the sore weight of his limbs. He smelled his old sweat on the unwashed sofa. But he couldn't figure who was crying.

"Mother?"

The grown wizard huffed and pushed into fuller wakefulness. He sighed deeply and opened his crusted eyes to shelves of bleary, leather bound books. Yes, he was in his sitting room like he thought. He coughed and struggled upright.

In response, the sofa dipped, and he felt wet, shaking breath on his shoulder. A head of silver-shot curls butted his chest.

"Not another one, Lena, for the love of God. Don't take my baby girl, too."

"Grace," he realized, bemused.

"Shit." The Muggle woman pulled away, hurriedly cleaning her face. "What, Severus, what?"

Severus noted the changed light in the living room. It was still the afternoon, which explained his leaden bones. He settled back into the throw pillows, forgoing a strict posture for rest.

"You, what," he rejoindered. "The hell are you crying for, like someone has up and died. I know I was not nearly so fortunate, assuming you'd sob so pitifully for my corpse."

"You talk just like ya mum."

"With sense?"

Grace scoffed and her too-warm weight left the couch. She was like a furnace. Severus kicked off the sheet thrown over him, and settled back into the cushions. This was becoming his healing position: entrenched in the sofa, fully clothed.

Wait, he shot up and checked his feet. As he'd feared, he'd been tampered with. Someone had placed his boots by the door and his wand on a stack of magazines on the coffee table.

"Have you eaten? It's usually fend for yourself for tea, but with you and Zed, I cooked soup. Chicken and rice."

Severus meant to decline, more concerned about the sanctity of his person, when his overzealous stomach gurgled. The sound carried to the kitchen. He scowled, betrayed.

"Well," answered Grace with a blunt sniff. "You can serve yourself."

His stomach persisted, growling.

Minutes later, he shuffled into the kitchen, holding his cramping abdomen. He paused in the doorway as he peeped the plain wood, open basement door. Showering sounds rose with whiffs of old clothes, broth, and soap. Rap music bounced over top.

Grace poured herself coffee from the maker. She splashed in creamer and gestured to to a covered pot.

"The wards," Severus prompted.

"They did a thing." She wiggled her fingers at it, then wiped her hand on her pants. "Door popped open about an hour ago. Not long after Laney left."

"Hmph. I imagine she's yet to return."

"Freddy's with her. She'll be fine. Eat."

She turned around with a mug and slice of buttered bread. He raised a brow as she dunked it into her light coffee, and scarfed it down. Taking her lead, he grabbed a clean bowl from the dish rack and dipped into the soup.

They shared silence while he ate. After three days of fasting, Severus couldn't hold much down, so his tea was quick. He finished half the rich and salted meal, and then leaned back, uncomfortably full.

"Finished?" He didn't answer. He sensed a sentence building across the table, and watched Grace gather her thoughts. She held his gaze, serious as stone. Then she put down her mug—"Happy New Year!" it read in stars.

"We need to talk." From a pantry shelf by the table, she picked up an envelope. She handed it to him, at which point he recognized it as Potter's letter.

Severus cautiously considered the front—yes, once again it was most assuredly Potter's scrawl. He glanced up at Grace, tapping her name with his knuckle.

"Why would this person write you?," he asked. Below them the shower shut off. He tensed, sure they would soon be interrupted. Instead, he heard the toilet flush, then the running of the bath.

"She won't bother us," Grace said tiredly. "She's crapping Christmas ornaments."

There came a timely groan and another flushing of the toilet. He spared a prayer for the septic tank, unable to ignore who'd likely have to fix that, too. Annoyed, he opened the letter, only to find the envelope empty.

"Where is the letter?"

"How do you know him? 'Harry Potter,' why did you have his letter?"

Simply hearing the insolent whelp's name, Severus saw black spots. Worried for his health, he packed away his complaints—and packed, and packed some more. Some didn't fit, so he drew on Occlumency to expand his mental suitcase.

"He—nope." The question, it was the question, it was too damn complicated. It didn't sound it at first, but it was. He chuckled darkly, not to be bested.

"Potter—no. One second."

Severus cleared his mind and packed some more, shoving down his thoughts, holding his tongue with both hands and both feet. He inhaled, held it, and exhaled, inviting as much ambient sufferance as he could.

And when he still had complaints left, he pared them down to their barest minimum, and spoke them aloud.

"Harry Potter—was a—student. Of mine. I also, erm. I knew his parents."

The breath left Grace so suddenly, it was like she'd been punched. "You knew them? Him and, you knew his family?"

"Lily Potter was from Cokeworth," he shared, approaching more even ground. It wasn't smooth, this new subject, but at least it felt safe.

He had already decided that to get information, he would have to give it. "She was a Muggleborn witch like your daughter. Also very strong magically. She and I were...childhood friends."

There. Nearly painless. Something about having his innermost heart touted to the public made the details easier to give.

He refocused in Grace, who stared at him, age lines prominent. She was struggling. He understood the look, having seen it once before, but not why it had returned. This wasn't telling the woman her daughter was cursed. He only shared a few details about a student and a boyhood companion.

"You keep sayin' 'was'," she whispered. "Is this Lily girl, er. She dead?"

"Yes. Regretfully."

Grace looked away, out the window, then back at him. He saw Zinnia in her, and then figured he had it backwards. Odd, he thought, how apparently children resemble their parents. He'd seen it in teaching all his classmates' offspring and still it took him aback.

He was glad never to have them himself. Severus had enough people sharing his features. He preferred to exist as an entity unto himself.

"I was distracted," he excused himself, seeing Grace awaiting another reply. "What did you say?"

"I said does he live with his father then?"

Severus shuddered, unable to help it. "I'd kill both Potters and then myself if the boy ever had. That brat, that absolute nuisance is insufferable enough as he is." He hissed. "Raised by James Potter. I'd have quit teaching and sold candles on the beach. The memory of James Potter fouling this earth whilst I held breath robs me of knowing true peace."

Grace stared openly at his tirade. "Is he dead too?" James?"

"They both died on the same night. They were murdered."

"And Harry?," she asked, face tight. The older woman gripped her mug in shaking hands. Severus was still riled up by mention of his late nemesis.

Harry Potter raised by his pillock father, the man thought bitterly. With Black as a dogfather?

He gave himself chills.

"The boy survived, obviously. Is quite known for it, as a matter of fact. It was a great feat of magic to survive the spell as he did. In my world, he's rather woefully famous."

"I've never heard of him," Grace protested. She stared at the envelope in his hand, looking betrayed. "I've never heard any of these names, except—Lily, you said she was your friend. Not the pretty redhead, the Evans chit with the, with the precious smile?"

Lost, his brain supplied. Severus allowed it, but powered on.

"Yes. Her."

"Then who raised him? He can't be in Cokeworth, can he? The Evans' kicked it decades ago."

"He was placed with his aunt on Lily's side."

"Not that cunty blonde kid, with the horse face!?"

Severus coughed, delighted. "The very same. Petunia, well, Dursley now. Where he wasn't terribly spoiled, I've been forced to accept, but again couldn't have been too terribly abused. Not with his cocksure attitude."

"I mean, that's not true. Look at yourself."

"I don't see your meaning. I am as meek as a field mouse," he deadpanned. Growing hungry again, he took a spoonful of sodden rice. "Any more questions?"

"Yeah, tons. His parents were killed by a spell. So another wizard killed them. Or was it a witch?"

"A wizard," he confirmed, feeling he may have been understating. However, Voldemort was just that in the end: a wizard. A terrible one, one of an age, surely the icon of an idea of evil, but made mortal after all.

"A very Dark wizard," he elaborated. "Well, to be accurate, I am also technically a Dark wizard. He was leagues more so."

"So you're called a Dark wizard in your world?"

"You don't seem bothered by the implications."

"Again, knew your mother. Ya seem to forget whenever suits you. Eileen said you got mixed in with a nasty sort around when—um. In the late 70s, 1980-ish. Is that why you're in hidin'? You wanted for murder or summit sick?"

"Quite equivocally Dark, yes, and my name has long since been cleared. I have, murdered a man. But he was a friend."

"Ain't it worse, then, if he was a friend?" She got up for more coffee, this time easing the basement door closer shut. She didn't latch it, seeming wary of the lock. She only gave them a measure more privacy.

"Again, you don't seem fazed by the fact that I've killed. What exactly is wrong with you?"

"We're from the same town, Severus. I knew Toby, too. It's not like he never killed nobody outta lack of enthusiasm. So why're you wanted then?"

"I thought you wanted to know about Potter."

"You'll tell me that, too."

She slurped her coffee leaning on the counter. He didn't for a second miss her off hand planted by the knife block. He found her nonchalance impressive. She truly seemed more stressed by Potter's home life than his blood-stained past.

"The 'nasty crowd' my mother mentioned were followers of this evil wizard. I aligned myself with them for some time during and after school. It's important you know that Lily and I had fallen out by this time, and she had matched up with James Potter.

"We fought until she came under fire. She had her son, who became a subject of pro—foolishness. I spied for her side and protected the boy when she passed."

"So this was that war? You were a spy?"

"There were two. And yes, both times. That's how, hm. I'm sure you noticed the scars."

"They tried to kill you?"

"Funnily enough, not for spying. Totally unrelated, the lunatics. Now, however, the issue is the spying. I am a world renowned traitor."

He ate another bite of soup, not minding that he was still full. "This is good. I should mention: the man I murdered was the one I spied for, a pillar of the Light. I would compare it to killing the Pope."

"Would you!?"

"Truly, I am not a beloved man. If not for Potter, I would be executed."

"Sounds like more than just a 'student,' you berk."

He snorted. "You're right. The boy learned one or two useful spells in all his schooling and maybe one of them from me. Classes provided a break for troublemaking and opportunities to disappoint, nothing more."

She didn't follow up immediately. She spent a minute swirling her drink, staring off into nothing. "Is he a decent person, maybe?"

"Aha! An arrogant, self-righteous fool with a pitiful temper. A disrespectful sneak thief, a glory hound, and a cheat. A hothead. A terror. Blast, I meant to be calm, but well, in with both feet: Harry Potter is a contemptible shit. I owe him a bit of my life, though, so I suppose I shouldn't harp.

"Now, why did that brat write you a letter? What does it say? Why did you collapse into tears? How do you know Harry bloody Potter?!"

"Hm." Grace spoke faintly. "...You thirsty?"

He glared at her. "Parched." His mouth was washed in salt.

As she clinked about by the coffeemaker and poured Severus a cup, the Potions master wondered why he felt light-headed again. He looked down at his bowl, sampling the broth again and detecting an odd spice. It tasted pleasant, but unfamiliar, which he didn't trust.

He accepted the steaming drink black. "Potter."

Grace's words reverberated in her New Years mug, "He's probably my son."

He had to pass through her words a few times before they stuck.

"Pardon?"

He heard chattering. The wizard stood and saw the older woman's cup rattle against the countertop.

"July 1980, right? S'about his birthday? I got pregnant by Laney's dad and, erm." She swallowed audibly. She grunted, slamming down her mug, and grabbed her own shaking hands.

"Thank you for tellin' me all that. I. He wrote me sayin' he wanted to meet and get caught up, and. I mean, if you hate him, we'll probably get on, is my hunch."

Severus still wrestled with what she said. Harry Potter wasn't adopted. Lily gave birth in 1980. Potter was Potter Senior's bleeding twin! Lily's sacrifice and the blood protection wouldn't have worked otherwise.

But then, why would Potter write to a random Muggle from North Nothing? He addressed her by name when Severus, inextricably linked, only just learned it.

And Severus thought of yesterday morning, seeing the girl and swearing he saw the feckless eyesore. He looked over Grace, lingering around her curls, thinking, possibly…

No! It couldn't be! Lily had to have given birth. One of her dreams was to be a mother. To suggest she would fake a pregnancy during wartime. And no matter what, Potter had her eyes. That—that could not be ignored, not by Severus.

"Explain," Severus urged.

He couldn't outright accuse her of lying if he wanted to know more. Besides, the letter was a fact too solid to call her delusional.

If any no-name witch asserted she gave birth to Harry Potter, he'd lambast her as an attention-seeking leech. He would hate her, for Lily's sake. He would want her ruined.

But Grace's clock ticked on time. She was real, and dead sharp, as much as her presence could irritate him. He and her, like he and Zinnia, were of a common mind.

So, warming his hands on the coffee, he called on Patience, an estranged fellow. And listened.


Harry messed up. He'd figured he could try one more search for Ginny, once he sped out a ways. He hated the idea of her having to leave before their second proper goodbye. He felt too wrongfooted to cope with months of lost time.

However, as he oriented himself using the map, Harry unconsciously pushed further and further north. He eventually missed the hang west to Wales and didn't register until well over Black Country that he flew off-course. The copied map, being a still, didn't update his location.

Relying on his wand as a compass, he ended up by and far in the sticks.

At which point, he made a solid decision to turn back, and write Ginny a postcard. Mind made up, he scolded himself as he passed expeditiously over the city of Manchester.

This is a bad idea. This is a hugely bad idea.

It's not like there are really Death Eaters, his traitor mind argued. Ron said it was only Malfoy pranking his mother. It's not like this could hurt anyone for real. You're just looking.

Back to London, Potter. C'mon, twirl yourself around, Point Me, the whole dance. Hop to it.

I have to commit, he reasoned. Harry spent his last minutes of flight worrying the dry skin from his lips. I'm hidden under the cloak. I'll only look. I just want a peek.

He kept thinking he might see his mother, in his adoptive mother's hometown. The lure was too great. But the dangers...

Snape's gonna murder me. No traitor brain could argue the veracity of that. There would at least be an attempt. Harry would surely be maimed if caught, eviscerated or blown to bits.

You're quick! Just dodge!, was the only comfort his ego could provide. Unsurprisingly, he wasn't soothed.

He landed on a footpath in sparse woods by a clearing. Twigs snapped underfoot, giving him away as he fumbled through the brush. Harry cursed the prickly burrs for clinging to his cloak. They rendered its invisibility moot, since anyone with eyes could see a load of seeds dangling from nothing.

The young man forwent the cloak with a Disillusionment charm, like how he'd addressed the Cleaver while in flight. The cold egg feeling posed over his scalp and body, making him the trees. He renewed the spell to repel rain and continued through the brush.

Only upon entering the clearing did he realize two things. Firstly, the clearing turned out was a park, and at that one he had seen in a memory. It felt strange to step into a real place for the first time and recognize it.

The swing set had been upgraded since the sixties, and still look over ten years old. Its painted metal squealed, shedding flakes. This accompanied the second realization: the park had visitors.

Harry squinted through the rain at the hulking figure in the distance, dressed in black. He wore a hooded sweatshirt and jeans like Harry did, under a faded black leather jacket. Strings of wet hair stuck to his coat and covered his face. From afar, Harry could only see brown skin and black hair, with a beard dripping onto his chest.

"Watch out!," cautioned the man with a deep, clapping voice. As he said it, a child in a yellow raincoat swung over his head and let go.

It's a magic test, Harry thought of the swingset.

Like Snape's memory of his mother as a girl, the child launched off of the swing and balanced on a supernatural breeze. It rocked her down to land on the tiptoes of her aqua polka dot galoshes.

Her bright hood felt back to show pink barrettes in dark, unruly hair. She was a study in colors. A sprinkling of wildflowers bloomed where she stood.

Harry reeled at finding a tiny witch, by complete coincidence, growing so far from magical world he knew. He was in a bush, in the rain, in an old mill town and yet, here one was. Magic sprung eternal. This persistent force shared by complete unknowns, it humbled him.

He tried to imagine if he'd seen this growing up in Privet Drive, what it would've meant to him. He figured, the world.

Suddenly, watching the girl swing again, take off, and land, Harry felt homesick. He missed his own simple first days of magic, not the survival run in Surrey, but Diagon Alley, his first classes at Hogwarts, his first flying class. Simple, wonderful moments.

She looks maybe nine or ten, he thought, surprised by the control she seemed to have on broomless flight. She only glided, really, but he was impressed nonetheless.

Harry was overcome with second-hand excitement. Soon, she would receive her Hogwarts letter, if she hadn't already. Ridiculously, he wished he could see that moment. He wanted to walk out and tell her what to look forward to.

The giant man clapped, like his voice, sharp and loud:

"Good job, duck!" The child had her back to Harry, so she couldn't hear her reply. But this meant when—presumably her father—knelt down to fix her hood, pushing hair from his eyes, Harry finally saw the whole of his face.

"Sn—!" Harry clamped a hand over his mouth and ducked low.

The bushes rustled loudly and he balled up, shushing himself. Courage leaving him, he tried to shake the burrs from the cloak, also agitating the bushes more, which only made him shake harder. Invisible, he needed to be invisible!

The burrs stuck the cloak to itself. He shook the useless ball of seed pods.

"Oh, come on!," Harry hissed, panicking.

He had no warning when a massive body crashed through his cover. The smaller man held perfectly still, while the titan eerily evoking Snape cursed and surveyed the trees. He kicked great booted feet at the bushes, narrowly missing Harry's shins.

His coal black glare passed once, twice, three times over where Harry withered into the dirt.

"Who's out here!?"

Harry locked up, too afraid to move. Up close, the man's voice rattled his bones, shaking birds from the trees and scaring the critters from the undergrowth.

"Like spyin' on little girls, huh!?" The wizard held his breath. Alright, it wasn't his toughest spot, surely. If he could just get away—

"Nasty creeps," the giant rumbled, who enraged at being watched and missing the culprit, lashed out at the nearest bush with a shout.

His glancing blow smashed a branch by Harry's camouflaged head. The wizard suppressed a cry as he was showered in wet leaves and splinters. The man left while Harry gaped at the split and hanging branch, as thick around as Harry's wrist. One swipe had shattered it.

Leave, leave, leave, leave! Harry's better sense made him reach for his broom. It wasn't safe in Cokeworth, if it was crawling with super-sized, he-man Snape clones. He had to go!

This place is a bloody nightmare!

However, cursing his curiosity, Harry stole a last peek at the park. The girl now faced the woods, picking at her fingers. In the circle of her hood, he saw her worried features and stalled.

Sh...she looks like me! The little girl resembled Harry as a child, an almost carbon copy. He'd had weeks in first year to stare at himself in the Mirror of Erised and knew his childish twin reflected on this girl's face.

Almond shaped eyes, button nose, round face; a pair of child-sized glasses, circular, and teal, with a strap keeping them in place.

What is going on in this town...Harry leaned in, flabbergasted. Had he flown into an alternate universe? Was Cokeworth a town of ad lib doppelgängers?

Had he flown in an alternate universe, he wondered more seriously. He had been to the afterlife once, so most things were possible. If he'd wandered through some portal without realizing—

"Freddy!"

His heart hurt before he registered the context. He breathed through the habitual stirring of grief. "Freddy" was the man's name, apparently. Harry expected something more like Atlas or Bonecrusher, but Freddy was fine. Common.

Harry sighed, and then remembered himself and belted up. He couldn't chance another close call with "Freddy," lest the man catch him and break him like a twig.

For real this time, off we go. Again, he had no warning.

Harry had backed away, watching his feet to avoid any telling debris. He was having a hell of a time, what with his feet being invisible, and so didn't see the hand until a second too late.

"Argh! No!," Harry cried, as he was grabbed by the neck. His Cleaver dropped into the bush as his feet left the ground. He flailed, slapping at the vice squeezing his throat. He kicked, but his shoes bounced off of hip, torso, forearm, sliding along wet leather and hoodie, unable to gain purchase.

"Please!" He coughed, gasping for air. "Down!"

"What the fuck…?" The giant proved more fearsome up close, particularly when strangling him. The likeness to Snape was uncanny, down to the black, pitiless stare. This man at least seemed disturbed, likely due to hefting an invisible person caught lurking in the woods.

"Fred!" The girl ran toward them out of the park. The man warned her off:

"Run! He's magic! Run home!"

"Wa—nn!" Harry pleaded with luck that he hadn't dropped his wand. Finding fortune had a heart, he pulled it from his back pocket.

A sizzling red Stunner shot out, grazing his attacker's ear. He'd missed his head, but startled the man into dropping him. Harry's back hit the sloppy mud. He rolled onto his stomach, winded.

"Wha—!" "Freddy" staggered back, clutching his stung ear. Harry tried to crawl into the underbrush. But the man recovered lightning quick, and was on him again. He found Harry by his thrashing and dragged him by his ankles to the clearing.

"No, please! Please, don't!" Harry shot another Stunner and this time it hit its target. But the man only wavered and, with a roar, swung the wizard by his legs, throwing him onto the field. "Gah!"

"I won't hurt anyone!," Harry screamed, a hand thrown out to beg mercy, "I swear! I'm not here for you! Please let me go!"

Something of his terrified shriek, or the power of the Stunner, sunk in. The giant lumbered over him until he stood tall and stark black against the white-grey sky. He swayed drunkenly in the now pouring rain, "Are you—you a fucking kid?"

"Y-yeah, yes!" Harry ended the Disillusionment, materializing on the sodden green. He didn't say he was twenty-two, knowing he looked eighteen. "I'm not a creep! I'm, I was leaving!"

"Freddy," dumbfounded by either the spell or Harry's age, stumbled back. The man fell to one knee, panting. "You gotta be jokin' me. Almost fuckin' killed you, you dumb prick!"

"No, no, don't, sorry," the younger man rasped, touching his bruised throat. "Ah, Merlin, you're strong."

"What d'you hit me with?"

"Sorry, sorry. It'll wear off." The other man groaned and splayed out in the grass. The two men stayed there, getting soaked to the skin. Each teetered of the ledge above unconsciousness.

"He knows us!"

Harry pried his eyes open and looked down his chest. A slip of sunny yellow darted from the trees, holding something. Aqua boots pattered up to him. The girl came so close as to splash him with puddle water.

"Oi!," he spluttered. "Ew!" Some got in his mouth.

The giant slurred angrily beside him, "I told you to run home!"

"I did!," she swore, offended. "I said you were fighting a wizard, and they asked where."

She spun and pointed eagerly to the woods. In her other hand, she held a square of parchment. The rain soaked it enough for the lines of Harry's map to bleed through.

"That's mine," he protested, reaching to grab it. The girl pulled away and looked down at him. He blinked back.

"It has our names on it," she chirped. Harry stared up at her, sure he misheard. Then, unsmiling, she imparted with ominous gravity, "The reverend says he knows you, too."

A cold chill creeped down his spine. Harry heard a rustle, and scrambled onto his knees, to watch the forest path.

"Gimme a sec, duck, and we'll tell 'em I'm fine." The giant tried to sit up. Duck shook her hooded head.

"They're already here."

"Fox!"

Harry jumped at the ragged shout. He glimpsed a shadow passing between two trees, disappearing again in a flash.

He shivered, goosebumps pebbling his skin. Looming grey composed the shape of a woman, long and thin. Midnight dark hair engulfed her head, from which burned two, yellowed eyes like sulfurous pits set over a scowl. This woman radiated instant, demonic hate, as though Harry had trespassed in her quarter of hell.

In one hand, she held Harry's Cleaver. In the other, she gripped a brown-stained, aluminum bat.

"Hold on!," Harry called out, knowing pain, even in jeans and a sweatshirt.

The woman ripped one leg from the bush, then the next, and what followed was another pair, bare under a green nightgown. A steel kitchen knife rested on one thigh, eight inches of stone sharpened blade shining in the dark.

"Oh, everybody came," Freddy remarked with an audible droop.

Harry looked to him, beseeching, hoping for an ally. To his dismay, the man had finally given into Harry's Stunner and passed out in the grass. Duck gasped and kneeled by his side, trying to shake him awake. Of course now, the little girl began to cry, leaving Harry crouched on all-fours, stricken with guilty horror.

The women from the woods surged forward, parting before the most intimidating figure in the pack. He didn't have a weapon, from what Harry could tell. He first saw the sweeping, black umbrella under which this man appeared.

Inky hair slithered down the man's stained, brown trench, evoking snakes in how it fell back from a scar-knotted neck. His coat parted over torn, filthy clothes: muddy, black wool pants and a once-white shirt, now clearly encrusted with days old blood.

As the man stepped into the park, the umbrella lifting to reveal his snaggle-toothed snarl, Harry remembered the last time he laid eyes on him. Frozen in the dilapidated Shrieking Shack, glassy-eyed and already coated in dust.

This was a harrowing reunion, as if the man hadn't actually lived four years; as if a grave robber had dug him up just yesterday and he'd come, smeared in graveyard soil, a spirit lashed forcefully to bones.

"POTTER," thundered Snape. The sky cracked, booming.

"Err, afternoon, sir! It's been, uh. It's been ages!"