In the three days following their return from Asgard, Hermione found that there were times when she almost forgot that Harry was dead. They weren't long moments, lasting no more than a handful of minutes each time, but they were frequent and each time they ended she was left heavy with the reminder of her loss. She didn't forget because she didn't care, rather she forgot because over the course of a year she had lost so much, seen so many people close to her pass, that the oppressive weight of grief had almost become familiar. She had become so accustomed to loss, there were moments when it registered only as a sharp, painful nagging at the back of her head, rather than the constant, agonizing reminder that Harry was gone and he was never coming back.
Out of all of them, Loki, of course, was the one to take Harry's death the hardest with Thor a close second, Jormungandr was handling it best only because he had only met Harry once and, while he had liked him immensely, he hadn't ever actually known him. Hermione, Neville, Blaise, and Ron were all dealing with Harry's death the best ways they knew how, after all they had been through this before, and yet something about losing Harry was wholly different from losing Draco. They had been at war at that time, the thought of casualties, of losing someone to Voldemort and his Death Eaters had always loomed over them, an ever present reminder of the realities of war. So when it happened, they had all been devastated, but it hadn't blindsided them. The chances of them all making it out of the war unscathed, especially considering how actively they were fighting in it, had been slim to none, they had all known that and they'd accepted it.
But they were meant to be at peace when the Horcrux struck, Voldemort was supposed to be dead. His sudden resurgence had completely blindsided them and left them reeling, unable to properly prepare themselves for the whirlwind of adventure and battles that would eventually lead to Harry's death. They were ill prepared to brace themselves for the loss, so when it hit, it hit hard.
They all had their different coping mechanisms, but when it boiled down to it, they all dealt with their grief in exactly the same way; by keeping busy. Neville surrounded himself with his plants, working at his greenhouse until it thrived. Hermione and Blaise spent a large amount of time reading, catching up on all that they'd missed out on due to skipping their seventh year. While Ron took it upon himself to watch over his friends and their guests, ensuring that they didn't neglect their mental and physical health in their grieving, proving himself to be every bit his mother's son.
He was distressed when he found that his mother henning had just about no effect on Loki, who simply kept himself locked away all day, but then Thor stepped in and, on the morning of their fourth day back on Midgard, managed to coerce his brother into leaving the solitude of his rooms to have breakfast with them.
There were eight of them crowded around the kitchen table, Sleipnir being the only one not present, and yet the room was unusually quiet. There were a few short conversations here and there, questions and answers were exchanged, but the kitchen's occupants were all too engrossed in their own thoughts to really put much effort behind maintaining the conversation.
The quiet, almost peaceful meal, however was interrupted by a sudden burst of light coming from somewhere outside and Sleipnir's snorts of surprise. The Bifrost had punched through Longbottom Manor's wards and dropped Lady Sif and her three male companions on the pathway leading up to the manor.
"My friends," Thor was frowning in confusion but he still moved to embrace each of the four warriors, "I am pleased to see you, but what brings you to Midgard?"
"We apologize for interrupting your period of mourning," Sif said solemnly, "but a potential problem has arisen on Asgard."
"Merlin, we've only been gone a few days," Blaise groaned.
Thor sighed. "Let's take this inside."
The large group moved to the main parlor while the house elves went to clear away the remnants of their meal. Loki looked as if he wished to slink away to his room while everyone was occupied, but Thor pointedly remained at his side, preventing him from doing so.
"What problem are we facing?"
Sif reached into her cloak and produced an all too familiar rectangular device that had nearly everyone present recoiling in anger and disgust.
"What do you have that thing for?" Ron hissed.
"The Allfather assigned us the task of finding somewhere to store it, somewhere far away from Asgard, we decided upon the Collector's museum."
Thor nodded approvingly. "Most would be hard pressed to steal anything from there."
"Yes, but when we gave it to him he refused it," Volstagg said. "This," he shook the containment device, "is not the Aether."
Loki went pale, whether it was rage or horror had yet to be determined. "What is it then?"
"Blood. The Collector touched it, he tasted it, we never had the Aether."
"Could we have made a mistake when extracting it?" Thor asked. "Haraldr was covered in blood, perhaps it absorbed the wrong thing. What did the Allfather have to say about this?"
Sif and Volstagg exchanged glances. "We may have foregone telling the Allfather and come straight to you," the redheaded warrior confessed.
"The Allfather was the one to give this to us, he confirmed without a shadow of a doubt that what was in the device was the Aether. The device has not left our possession since."
"You think he lied?"
"The Allfather and Queen Frigga have been…strange these past few days," Fandral said. "They seem unwell, but they rarely leave the main hall, they are there from sun rise to set giving out the strangest of orders."
"What sort of orders?" Thor asked, voice heavy with dread.
"They've been gathering any of the surviving guard and recruiting more from every realm."
"We've been deceived."
"We've just been told the Aether is not in our possession, and it likely never was. Meanwhile on Asgard, Odin and Frigga are behaving strangely and gathering troops when we've only just achieved peace. We've been deceived."
"By who?" Hermione asked. "What are you trying to say?"
Loki shook his head. "I don't yet know, but we need to return to Asgard immediately. I have to check, just to be sure."
"You want to speak with the Allfather?" Sif asked.
"No…no he is to be avoided until this has all been cleared up," Loki said.
"Where do you intend to go?"
Loki pinned Thor with an unfathomable stare. "Where do you think?"
They took the portal through Stonehenge to the Asgardian mountains and silently traversed the hour long journey to Loki's property. None of them seemed all that pleased to be back there so soon, but Loki made it a point not to allow his trepidation to put the slightest falter in his step as he crossed to Harry's grave. He took up the shovel he discarded several days ago and, after taking a deep, fortifying breath, buried it in the dirt. He knew he could have used his magic to move the dirt in only a few easy steps, but the monotonous actions of bury, lift, toss, repeat, helped brace him from what was about to be done.
Harry had been buried only three days ago, Loki had laid him to rest and said his goodbyes, that should have been the end of it, but of course that would have been too easy. All too soon, his shovel scraped against the durable, black cloth Harry had been enshrouded in. He used his magic to lift him from the grave and laid his body gently in the dirt.
"What do you think you'll find?" Thor whispered.
Loki shook his head. "I don't know. But I have to see."
Blaise turned away, unable to watch as the sheet was slowly pulled away. The beginning stages of decomposition had already begun to set in, his skin was turning a discolored green and his body was beginning to swell from the release of gases.
The others let out sounds of distress and horror, but Loki forced himself to continue looking, forced himself to look past what he'd seen the day Harry had died. "Give me the container."
Sif handed over the device and, after ridding it off its deceitful contents, held it over the corpse. Nothing happened, there was no surge of red as the Aether was absorbed into the device, only stillness.
"This body does not host the Aether."
"So it was switched sometime before it was handed over to us?"
"No," Loki said, eerily calm despite the intense gaze he had locked on his deceased son's face. "It's still in its original vessel."
"Haraldr was its vessel."
"Yes, I know." Loki looked up at Thor an intense rage burning in his eyes, though behind the frightening fire lurked something that looked almost like relief. "This is not Haraldr."
Hermione let out a shuddering gasp. "What? Is it…it's an illusion?"
"No, this is a real man who died from a real wound to his abdomen, a self-inflicted knife wound. I can see where my magic tried to heal him."
"Loki," Thor said urgently, "explain."
"His features have been altered, to look like Haraldr, but it was a hasty job and some features were done improperly. I didn't notice, I didn't care to look because I had already convinced myself that this was Haraldr."
"Then who is it?" Neville asked.
"That is the question, isn't it? Let's find out."
Loki ran his hand over the corpses face, slowly undoing the careful transfigurations that had altered his very bone structure. Piece by piece his rotting bones shifted and grew, his decaying skin stretched and tanned, the hair lengthened and grew lighter even as it fell out, until a whole new man lay before them.
"That's impossible," Thor whispered.
"You recognize him?" Loki asked.
"He was the last of the insurgents to be rounded up after you'd gone, he was injured, but alive. I noticed because he was…."
"He was one of the men Riddle pulled aside with him, but he was mysteriously absent when we reached him." A dark smile twisted Loki's lips. "They switched places. The Horcrux took on his appearance while he took on the Horcruxes, he sacrificed himself so that the Horcrux could get away unnoticed."
"So where is the Horcrux now?" Fandral asked.
Loki turned his gaze to where the tallest tower of Asgard's palace could only just be seen over the treetops. "Why he's here on Asgard, of course."
Harry's Horcrux possessed form frowned as the head Einherjar listed off the number of new guardsmen they had recruited in the course of three days. He was seated in a comfortable armchair he had conjured directly behind the Allfather's throne, out of sight of any who entered the hall, but still able to view his frequent guests through Odin's eye.
"It's not enough," he said and heard his words mirrored by Odin. "We need more."
"More?" the Einherjar stuttered. "Allfather, please do not take offense by my asking, but what is it we are meant to be preparing for?"
"I do take offense, do not question me. Every able bodied man is to report to the palace for evaluation. If they can walk, they can fight."
"What or who exactly are the meant to be fighting?"
The Horcrux felt his blood run cold at the familiar drawl as a terrifying duo appeared in the doorway. Loki was not meant to have even considered returning to Asgard for at least a fortnight, he had seen to that.
The Einherjar and the guards who had accompanied him immediately did as ordered and departed, leaving only Loki, Thor, Odin, Frigga, and the concealed Horcrux. Both princes looked haggard and weary, as if they hadn't been sleeping very well, but they still managed to muster somewhat genuine smiles for the king and queen.
"Mother," Thor greeted. "Father."
"My sons," Odin said, "is your period of mourning over so soon?"
"Not at all," Loki replied. "However, we found Midgard was not to our liking. Far too many memories."
"Are they not good memories though?" Odin queried. "I would imagine it would be easier to face memories that elicit a sense of happiness rather than the darker ones that lurk within these walls. Your son did, after all, die just outside of this hall."
The Horcrux frowned when Loki didn't even flinch at the barbed statement. "Yes, that is true. But my family resides here not on Midgard, I feel that they are all I need to get through these difficult times."
"What a lovely sentiment."
Loki's smile was positively shark-like. "Isn't it? But what's this we overheard about you gathering an army? Are we not, once again, at peace?"
"We are," Odin agreed. "But after the dark elves and the Aether and the Horcrux, I felt the need to expand our guard, in preparation for another such attack."
"How expedient," Thor said. "What can we do to help?"
"Nothing. Your only focus is healing from the great loss we have sustained. Do you intend to remain here, in the palace?"
"This is our home, there is no better place to be."
Loki raised a shrewd eyebrow. "Would you rather we not reside here?"
"I fear only for your health," Odin explained. "These halls have been tainted by bloodshed and death. How will you heal when the memory of your son's is so close? His blood has seeped between the marble, his last breath still lingers in the air."
"Where then would you have us go?"
"Anywhere but here. I could arrange a visit to Alfheim, the elves would welcome your presence and you would be given the chance to get away from the memories, good and bad."
"I've never known you to care so much," Loki noted.
"Harry's loss has put things in perspective for me, it seems."
Something unreadable flashed in Loki's eyes before he turned his gaze onto Frigga. "You've been strangely silent, Mother," he said "what do you have to say about the matter?"
There was a moment's hesitation, then Frigga said, "I think you should do it. You will not heal if you don't take some time away."
"So eager to see me gone. Is it just me you wish to send away to Alfheim or is Thor included in these grand plans?"
"I only presumed he would be going with you, after all, he was the one to say he would remain by your side during this time."
"And I will," Thor said, "no matter where he chooses to go."
"I could have you prepared to set out in less than an hour's time."
Loki didn't say anything for a moment, he simply surveyed Odin with a hooded gaze. "I can understand why you want us gone so badly."
Odin frowned in confusion. "I'm sorry?"
"You said so yourself, Odin and Frigga are admirable fighters but they could not stand up against you, not for long. With Thor and I gone, you would be able to take Asgard virtually unopposed."
"What madness are you speaking?"
"You're controlling them, aren't you?" Loki tilted his head contemplatively. "Just as you controlled the insurgent you dressed up to look like my son. But that means you're close. Where are you hiding, little Riddle?" There was a strange ripple through the room that left the Horcrux feeling strangely exposed. "There you are."
An invisible force entrapped the Horcruxes ankle and dragged him from behind the throne. His control over Frigga and Odin abruptly cut off and they dropped like stones.
"Riddle," Loki smiled at him, but the intense hatred in his eyes made the expression anything but friendly. "What a clever ruse you pulled, you almost had us tricked. Almost. Now, I believe you have something of mine."
"What, this?" the Horcrux laughed cruelly as he clambered to his feet and poked at Harry's body. "I'm afraid I'll have to dispose of this old thing soon enough and find myself a new one. It's already begun to degrade, not to mention it gets a bit crowded up here at times." He tapped at his temple.
"You need not worry, I'm more than happy to take care of that for you."
"Are we going to fight? Again?"
"Oh no," Loki said. "It won't come down to that, I'm afraid. You and I both know you have no chance at besting me, even with the Aether, but I don't feel inclined to hurt my son. Not again."
"I certainly hope you don't expect me to just surrender." A red mist began curling from the Horcrux's skin as he called upon the Aether. "That's not exactly my style."
"That would be too easy, wouldn't it?"
As if some unheard cue had been spoken, Neville, Blaise, Ron, and Hermione appeared from beneath their disillusionment charms and cast four simultaneous immobilizing curses, the Aether rose up to absorb the magic, but it was unable to completely break down the curses and so found itself moving noticeably slower than usual. Thor's hammer swung in great sweeping arcs, the stench of ozone weighted the air as he sent bolt after bolt of lightning into the mass of writing red. All the while, Loki stalked calmly through the chaos, stepping carelessly over the shards of shattered Aether until he stood level with the abomination that wore his son's face.
"I know it's hard," he whispered, looking past the Horcrux's gaze and into something deeper, "he's strong, but he can't fight us all at once, not even with the Aether. We're going to need your help on this one, Haraldr."
"He can't here you." A snarl of frustration attempted to twist the Horcruxes features, but then it stopped, freezing mid-twist before dropping away suddenly.
"Can't he?" Loki goaded. "You can hear me, can't you, Little Trickster? Take what's yours. Do not allow him another moment of control."
Riddle hissed in pain and irritation as blood began to leak from the lightning bolt that crowned his head. "No."
"Yes," Loki encouraged.
The Aether had been reduced to a few feeble tentacles, still thrashing wildly about even as the rest of its essence remained broken across the floor, unable to reform under the barrage of lightning and deadly curses. Hermione was the first to lower her wand, she reached for the device clipped onto her belt and with a sharp twist the containment device opened. The shards of the Aether became entrapped in the devices gravity, lured into its center as if it were a particularly powerful hoover. The Horcrux howled and fell to his knees as what remained was painfully reeled from his core until nothing remained.
"I said it didn't I?" Loki crouched before the nearly defeated Horcrux. "This is how it will always end. You will not win. Now, give me back my son."
Slowly, bit by bit, the red was washed away until a clear, bright green was all that remained.
"Haraldr?" Loki whispered hopefully.
A slow, cocky smile that had the older man gasping in relief spread across his son's face. "Don't worry, Dad," he said. "I've got the bastard now."
There was one more moment where they simply stared at each other exhilarated and relieved beyond words, then Harry fell unconscious.
Harry had wrested control of his body, but Voldemort was still there, lurking in the back of his minded, weakened but not yet willing to give up. In order for this to be over, the Horcrux had to be completely eradicated, so he fell back into his mind and set off hunting.
The shields he had spent years constructing were in ruins, the Horcrux, with the help of Aether, had torn through them as if they were wet paper. The mind those shields were meant to be protecting wasn't much better, not after weeks of Voldemort's malevolent presence forcing its silence, but it was his mind and he knew that, in time, it could be fixed.
"But that's only if you survive the night and you won't."
Voldemort was in the darker recesses of his mind where memories of the Dursleys hatred and the sound of Draco's labored breathing before it had stopped altogether lurked.
"You know I can't let you have this body," Harry told the younger, somewhat handsome version of Voldemort. "It's mine."
"Well, I didn't expect you to give it up without a fight, but you're weak, you won't last long."
"I've made it this far despite your ceaseless attempts to wipe me from existence," Harry pointed out. "I can make it a little farther."
"Well, there's no more point in exchanging words then." A sickly, dark gray energy leaked from Voldemort's pores, in response, an energy of green and gold rose from Harry. "Let us fight." And then he attacked.
Lady Eir didn't even blink when Loki carried Harry's unconscious form into the healing halls, she had long since resigned herself to the fact that death did not apply to these two.
"What is ailing him?"
"He has one too many souls in his body," Loki said, already moving to lay his son on the dais to the soul forge. Jormungandr, Hermione, Neville, Blaise, and Ron trooped in behind him, while Thor and Fenris carried Odin and Frigga, who were only barely conscious, to two cots.
Lady Eir seemed torn between who she should go to, Haraldr was no doubt worse off, but this was her king and queen, she couldn't ignore their presence. Fortunately, Odin made the choice for her. "Heal my grandson, we only need rest."
The healer nodded and moved to power up the soul forge. The two souls immediately became visible, one was whole and healthy, if not a bit dimmer than it was supposed to be, while the other was a scarred, mangled mess with a disgusting presence and jagged edges. The souls were entwined with each other and writhed around unsettlingly in Harry's body.
"What are they doing?" Loki asked.
"They're fighting," Lady Eir said. "The loser will be snuffed from existence and the victor will have complete control over the body."
"Is there anything we can do to help?"
The healer shook her head. "There is nothing we can do, we must let them fight."
This was, without a doubt, the strangest fight Harry had ever been in. Neither he nor Riddle actually exchanged blows, they were incorporeal figures so that would heed very little results, but rather the two energies, their souls, tore at each other, systematically devouring the other. Harry was fairly certain that, at this point, he was losing. Riddle's soul had grown to be nearly twice the size of his and was steadily tearing away more; as it did, Riddle became more and more corporeal, whereas the exact opposite was happening with him. The thought of losing infuriated him, this was his mind, his body, he would not give it up to this abomination.
"What do you think will happen if you win?" he panted as his soul only just avoided having another sizeable chunk torn from it. "The moment my father realizes my soul is no longer within this body, he'll kill you."
"He does not have the courage to do so," Riddle mocked. "You were not awake when I had fooled him into believing I'd killed the both of us, you did not see how he cried and begged you not to leave him, how hard he tried to save you. You didn't see the despair that set in when he realized that he had failed."
"It didn't last very long though, did it? Within days he realized you had tried to fool him and he came and wiped the floor with you in a matter of minutes."
"Perhaps," the Riddle agreed. "But this time, I will not have fooled him, you will truly be dead and this body will be mine."
"No," Harry grunted when he threw his soul forward and successfully tore away a portion of Riddle's. "No, I don't think so."
"I will not leave him to wallow in his grief for long though, I'll do the both of us a favor and put him out of his misery. Along with that brainless uncle of yours, but I think I'll keep Odin and Frigga, they made such lovely puppets."
Harry struck again, but this time his fury heightened his punch and ripped nearly a quarter of Riddle's soul away. "You villains have yet to realize that threatening our families is a very bad idea," he said as he dodged another of Riddle's attacks, "it incites that righteous rage that makes us heroes very difficult to beat."
The Horcruxes next attack managed to tear away a piece of his soul, but he immediately countered and ripped an even larger piece from Riddle.
"Finally aiming to kill, I see," the Horcrux panted.
"I've always been aiming to kill," was Harry's swift rejoinder. "You just have a bad habit of coming back. So let's make an oath, right here, right now, yeah? Because I'm getting sick of this seemingly endless fight. This time, when I kill you, do me a favor and stay dead."
"That would require you to actually kill me."
"Well, that can be arranged."
They exchanged a few more blows, though neither was able to get a sizeable advantage in that time, but Harry was beginning to grow weary. He hadn't had much mental activity these past few weeks as he'd been in a forced dormancy for a majority of that time. The constant back and forth was exhausting him at an alarming rate, and, if the growing smirk on his face was anything to go by, Riddle knew it. He would have to strike hard within the next few minutes or he would most certainly be losing this fight.
He took a moment longer to observe Riddle's movies, cataloguing every weakness and opening in his attack, then he struck. He threw the might of his entire soul at Riddle, but this time, instead of ripping away a chunk and retreating a safe distance while he absorbed his new acquisition, he blanketed Riddle's mangled soul and threw every ounce of energy he had at smothering it.
The Horcrux let out at a startled cry and attempted to shake him off, but Harry was already digging his hooks in. He punched through Riddle's outer defenses and latched onto his core, devouring everything in his site.
Riddle fought back, now tearing chunks from Harry's soul at random and for a moment it became unclear who was doing the most damage, only that they were completely decimating each other. But then Harry dug in his heels and doubled his effort, Voldemort began to scream but he kept ripping and tearing and undoing his soul because his very existence relied upon his victory.
And then, just like that, it was over. Nothing remained of the Horcrux, Tom Riddle, or Lord Voldemort but a bad taste in the back of Harry's mouth.
"This time," he said between heaving gasps of breath, "you'll stay dead."
"It's through," Lady Eir said, studying the image created by the soul forge with wide eyes. "Only one soul resides in this body now."
"Harry's?" Hermione asked barely daring to hope.
"Yes, Prince Haraldr's. The other's soul no longer exists."
"Oh, thank Merlin," Blaise breathed. "So he'll be all right?"
"His soul is no longer in danger of being destroyed," Lady Eir said hesitantly. "But trouble has not yet completely passed."
"There is something else we need to worry about?" Loki frowned.
"The damage done to his mind and his soul was extensive, and his body suffers from the strain of hosting two active souls," Lady Eir explained. "He will not wake until he is well outside and especially within."
"How long could that take?"
"There is no way to be certain, wounds such as these, injuries of the mind, and whether or not they will be healed depends solely on him. He will need to be strong in order to survive."
"He is," Loki said confidently.
Lady Eir bestowed him with a sympathetic smile. "But what's more," she continued, "he has to want to survive. Some do not find the pain of this kind of healing to be worth it."
"He's endured worse pains," Neville said. "He's strong, he will survive."
Ron nodded. "You don't know Harry like we do, he's not the sort to just give up, especially not after he's gone through so much trouble to get Voldemort out of his head once and for all."
Lady Eir's smile grew softer and infinitely more genuine in the face of the two teen's stout belief of their friend. "In that case," she said kindly, "there's much you'll need to do in order to ensure he's at his best when he does finally wake."
"Name it and it'll be done."
After Lady Eir healed every physically ailment she was made aware of on Harry's person, Loki carried him to their shared rooms and gently settled him onto his bed before settling into the main room with his brother, son's, and their young companions. No one spoke, content to revel silently in the day's events, but then Odin and Frigga, who were both exhausted and shaken up, but walking under their own power, paid them a visit to explain how the Horcrux had managed to take them by surprise.
"It was after the ceremony for the dead," Odin said, "I was speaking with the prisoners of that days battle, ascertaining who had betrayed Asgard and who was only with the Horcrux out of fear for their family's safety, as I'd told Thor I'd be doing. It was late when the last of the prisoners arrived," Odin looked to Thor, "it was the redhead that had been found several corridors away from the fight. I'd only just begun questioning him when the Aether struck out and killed the guards meant to be standing watch."
"We tried to fight," Frigga said, "but the day had been long and we did not have the energy to withstand his magic and the Aether for long. When we lost, he took control over our bodies, and for the next three days he used us as puppets to begin his plans."
"Did he say what he planned to do?"
"Conquer the realms using Asgard's armies," Odin said. "He was recruiting any well enough to fight, I believe he intended to strike Vanaheim first where he would gather even more fighters."
"That creature was mad," Jormungandr said, shaking his head incredulously.
"He was the worst of creatures," Blaise agreed. "Near the end, I don't think he could even be considered human."
"But he's dead now," Loki said. "This time for good."
"If he dares try to make another comeback, I won't even wait around for Harry," Hermione scowled. "I'll kill him myself."
"You and everyone else in this room, dear one," Loki snorted.
Frigga and Odin retired to bed not much later, it was still early but it would take several days for them to be fully recovered from their ordeal. They were quickly replaced, however, by Sif, Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun.
"Well done, you've got your boy back," Volstagg grinned, clapping Loki on the shoulder.
"Not completely, it won't truly feel like it until he's awake and causing all sorts of trouble."
"He doesn't need to be awake to cause trouble," Neville laughed.
Loki smiled as his gaze flickered to the partially closed door that only just blocked his sleeping son from view. "He doesn't, does he?"
"Will he be conscious anytime soon?"
Loki shrugged. "Lady Eir says there is no true way to tell, it could be a few days or…."
"Or a few months," Thor said. "But Haraldr has always been one to defy the odds."
"Not to mention he's never been one to just lay around," Ron added. "Give it a few days and he'll be up and telling us off for not waking him sooner."
Harry wasn't awake in a few days, a week passed and he didn't even stir, but Lady Eir assured Loki that there was no need to worry, his mental wounds wouldn't heal overnight, it would be awhile before there were any visible signs of progress.
"He just needs some incentive to wake up, that's all," Loki said thoughtfully after they'd returned from the healing halls.
"What sort of incentive do you have in mind?" Jormungandr asked.
"Our home, the one place that remained untouched throughout all of this, I want it to be ready when he wakes."
"What needs to be done?" Thor inquired.
"The main construction has already been completed, the little things are all that are left. The windows, the doors, things to make it into a real home."
"That shouldn't take long," Neville said, "a week at most with all of us helping."
"All of us?" Loki asked with a quirk of his eyebrow.
Blaise shrugged. "I've never built anything before, especially not a house," he said, "but I'll do anything you need to help."
Loki hummed softly. "Would the four of you mind remaining here for a short time?" he requested. "I'd like to take a look at the house, to get a better idea of how much will need to be done, but I don't want to leave him alone, just in case."
"We won't move," Neville promised. "If he wakes up, we'll be here."
Loki nodded his thanks, then he, Thor, Jormungandr, and Fenris set off to survey the soon to be completed home. As Loki had said, the house itself was already built, the walls and roof had already been put down and rooms had already been established.
"The doors and corridors were made large enough to allow you access to every room," Loki explained to Sleipnir as they walked through the home. "Your quarters are here to the back and made with you specifically in mind."
Sleipnir's quarters were enormous, easily twice the size of stables he'd spent so much of his life in; the floor was a smooth but unpolished wood while two of the walls were made up of glass, one of which opened directly into the forest.
"Your room is next door," Loki said to Fenris, "and it's much the same. I wanted the both of you to have direct access to the forest if you ever felt the desire to go for a run. The rest of the bedrooms are on the second floor, while the third floor holds the library."
"It is a fine home," Thor said. "I'll see to it it is done before Haraldr's awakening. And I intend to start by removing that corpse from your grounds."
As Thor wandered off to do exactly that, Loki led his son's through every room on the main floor. "There are no servant's quarters, so I'm afraid we'll have to do all of the cleaning and cooking ourselves."
"You truly wish for us to live here?" Jormungandr asked uncertainly. "All of us? Like…a family?"
"Well, yes," Loki said hesitantly. "I know we don't really know each other, we've been separated for nearly five hundred years, but would you be opposed to the idea of perhaps being a part of this family? Or is it too late?"
There was a moment of silence as his son's seriously considered the notion. "No, I don't think it is," Fenris finally said, "When I was on that island I knew only three things, how to hunt, how to sleep, and how to hate. How to hate you and Odin and Asgard for the injustices done to me, but this…family has shown me more. It's shown me kindness, trust, love. I would not at all be opposed to being a part of it."
Loki blinked rapidly and bestowed Fenris with an unsteady smile.
"I on the other hand, didn't hate," Jormungandr said. "I've said before that I knew you were not to blame for our separation, I didn't hate you or blame you for any of it, but I was still terribly lonely. I could go wherever I wanted on Midgard, but I always knew that I didn't belong, and, no matter where I went, after a while, they knew it too. So I eventually gave up, I clung to my solitude like a safety blanket and I was content. But then you found me, I met Haraldr and I saw the way you looked at him and I wanted it. I wanted you to look at me with that same overwhelming love and pride. We were barely even strangers, but I wanted you to be my father and I still do."
"Then I am," Loki said firmly. "You are my son and nothing and no one will ever change that."
Sleipnir stomped a hoof, gaining their attention, and gave a short series of snorts and brays.
Loki nodded. "Yes, well of course I am, but that's merely a matter of semantics."
"What did he say?" Jormungandr asked curiously.
"Ah, well, technically I'm not Sleipnir's father, but that's a story for another day."
With Fenris and Thor's above average strength, Loki, Ron, Hermione, Neville, and Blaise's magic, and Jormungandr and Sleipnir's admirable tenacity, it didn't take but a week for the home that was not yet a home to officially become a home. The windows and doors were done, the rooms furnished, the library stocked, and the pantries filled. Even the grounds had been completed; Thor, Fenris, and Ron happily put down a cobbled path that led into the forest, while Neville and Jormungandr arranged a fine garden to ring the entirety of the house.
"It's perfect," Hermione beamed. "Harry will love everything about it."
"I love everything about it," Ron said. "I might have to ditch Midgard and come live here."
"Yes, well you're always welcome to do so," Loki smiled. "Though your mother may have some words for both you and I."
"She'd have to find me first."
"And she would," Blaise said. "I'd give you up in a heartbeat if it meant saving the rest of our skins."
"I believe the word you're looking for is Slytherin," Neville teased.
"Let's head back to the palace to collect Haraldr," Loki said. "All of this building has elicited a fair few memories best left forgotten, Sleipnir's father was into construction if you don't recall."
Thor tossed his head back and groaned dramatically. "Oh, Loki. Really?"
The trickster god laughed at his brother's expense. "What? I thought it was funny."
"Yes, well you would be the only one."
Thor griped about Loki's poor sense of humor all the way to the palace and back up to Loki and Harry's rooms where Frigga was keeping watch over the unconscious teen. "What has he done now?" she asked as she shut her book and moved to embrace her sons.
"Trust me," Thor said, "you're better off not knowing."
"I'll take your word for it. How is the house looking?"
"Done," Loki sighed happily. "We've come to collect Haraldr and move our things."
Frigga frowned. "Oh…already?" she said. "I could have sworn there was at least another week before it was done."
Loki gave her hand a consoling pat and granted her a gentle smile. "No, the whole reason we've been working so tirelessly is so that it could be done this week, not next," he explained patiently. "Don't fret though, it's only an hour's ride to us, you're welcome to visit whenever you wish."
"Sooner even." Loki pecked her on the cheek, then ducked into his bedroom to collect the pack he had filled with his possessions earlier that morning before moving onto Harry's room to pick up his bag as well.
"Father won't be seeing us off?" Thor asked.
"He's been called away to Vanaheim to celebrate the marriage of the daughter one of his Jahrls. Lady Owlen."
"Oh yes, I remember her. She seemed quite taken with Haraldr at his welcoming feast, she moved on quickly."
"That she did. But your father asked for your permission to pay you a visit in your new home within a few day's time. So long as he sends a notice beforehand."
"He is welcome as well," Loki said, exiting the bedroom with Harry cradled in his arms. Fenris immediately moved forward and took his brother from him; he looked positively tiny in those enormous arms.
"Now, we have to be off if we hope to make it back before dark, but I expect Hugin or Munin will show up soon enough with the definite time you wish to visit."
"Expect them at your window sometime within the next few hours." Frigga embraced Thor and Loki one more time and even touched a gentle hand to Fenris and Jormungandr's shoulders before seeing them out.
When they were out in the open air, Fenris shifted into his wolven form and allowed Loki to secure Harry onto his back, he, Thor, and Jormungandr then mounted their respective rides and began the journey back to the home that was now a home where Sleipnir and Harry's four friends awaited them.
In their absence, the teens had occupied themselves by putting together something of a celebratory meal. Neither, Blaise nor Hermione were very good at doing anything outside of the basic preparation, but Ron and Neville were fairly adept in the kitchen.
"As is Sleipnir," Ron commended when they'd all settled down at the casual dining table in the kitchen, "for someone with eight legs and no hands, he's terrifyingly good at mashing parsnips."
"This is a meal well done," Thor said as he happily went back for a second serving. "It rivals those made by the palace's cooks."
"How could you even tell?" Loki asked. "You just about inhaled that first plate, I'm not entirely sure I saw you chew even once."
After dinner was wrapped up and dessert was destroyed, the group of nine slowly disbanded. A majority of them split off to their separate rooms, while Neville and Blaise headed up to the library to find some book Blaise insisted he just had to read and Loki made his way to Harry's rooms.
The teen was still deeply unconscious, as he'd been for two weeks now, but Loki still settled down beside him to carry on the one-sided conversation they held every night.
"We're here," he whispered, "our home is finished and it's beautiful. And I'm not only saying that because I had an enormous part in seeing it done, but because our family and your friends are here, filling the halls, using the kitchens, making it feel like an actual home. The only thing we need now is for you to get your lazy behind out of bed."
There was a long, pointed silence in which Loki waited for Harry to give some sign that he had heard him, but, as always, there was nothing.
"The others are beginning to worry," he sighed. "Not all of them, just a few and I won't name any names, but I can see it in the way they look at you, with sadness, resignation. That spark of hope that once lit their eyes is getting dimmer and dimmer with each day that passes. They're beginning to doubt you'll ever wake up, and I think, more than that, they're worried that even if you do, you won't be the same. The damage done to your mind after all was extensive.
"I told them though that you would be fine, you would wake up and you would be fine. So I need you to wake up and prove me right, after all you know how much I value being right."
Loki ran a hand through his hair and leaned back in his seat. "But if you're not ready for that, that's all right too. Just….just don't die on me, not again. Not when I can't do anything to help. I lost you once already, it was only for a few days but it was the worst thing I'd ever experienced. Nothing seemed to matter anymore, it was all dark and hopeless and-and I forbid you from ever doing that to me again. Do you hear me, Haraldr? I forbid you from dying. I barely survived it the first time around, I know I won't this time. So that's all I have to ask of you, don't die and wake up soon. That's all I ask. Please, little trickster."
"Did I not tell you that I didn't wish to see your impudent little face here for quite some time, you fool? One Midgardian year is not quite some time."
"Oh Hela," Harry rolled over onto his back and smiled up at his angry older sister, "you're truly as beautiful as the last time we met, if not more, you don't look a day over two hundred."
"Get up and get dressed, little fool," the woman snapped, though a smile twitched at the corner of her lips. "I will not be so easily flattered."
After completely wiping the remainder of Voldemort's soul from existence, Harry had fallen into a hazy sort of unconsciousness (if it was even possible to be unconscious in one's own mind), when he woke, he was, once again, in the transitional realm between life and death completely naked with his ancient sister frowning down at him.
"Am I dead, like for real this time?" he asked as he shrugged on the same gray robes he'd been given to wear the last time he was here.
"Just as it was last time, you are only here to visit," Hela said. "You will return to the living when this is through."
"What did I do to deserve such a privilege this time around? Won't you get in trouble or something if I cheat death again?"
"The balance will not be upset because you are not cheating death," Hela said with a roll of her eyes. "You are not dead, but you are on the cusp of it. The lines are blurred just enough that I could reach out to speak with you."
Harry tilted his head curiously. "What did you want to speak with me about?"
"I wanted to apologize for my incorrect assumption that the curse had rid you completely of that soul fragment, if I had not been so hasty in declaring it, if I had only looked a little closer, much of this could have been avoided."
"I don't blame you," Harry said immediately. "None of us knew it was still there, Riddle made sure of that."
"Yes, well I still wish to…compensate you for your troubles."
A confused smile quirked Harry's lips. "Compensate me? Like you want to give me a gift?" His smile quickly grew bigger. "Wait, is this like the Tale of the Three Brothers? Are you going to gift me with something to help me cheat death?"
"No, you fool," Hela sighed, fondly exasperated. "I will not give you anything to help you cheat death, it's the exact opposite as a matter of fact."
Harry frowned, right back to confusion. "The exact opposite?"
"As I said before, in the mortal world you are on the cusp of death, at this moment, the only thing keeping you alive is your own will."
"Okay?" Harry prompted.
"More often than not, I come in contact with souls who tortured themselves needlessly by hanging onto life for as long as they could because they fear what is on the other side. I wish to erase that fear for you."
"You're going to erase my fears so that I can hurry up and die quicker?" Harry summarized. "But…I thought you liked me."
"I'm not trying to hurry along your death," Hela said patiently. "I only want to make your choice, whatever it may be, just that much easier."
Without waiting for his response, Hela reached out and poked him in the center of his chest. The monotonous gray landscape of the transitional realm melted away and was replaced by an enormous dining hall much like the one on Asgard, all around him men and women of all shapes and sizes were dining on a majestic feast as they drank and spoke and laughed. The roof was a vast thing, thatched with golden shields that glittered in the early evening sun, just outside of the wide open double doors, Harry could see a massive golden tree from which a snow white stag feasted.
"Valhalla? Yes, full of a bunch of bloody Gryffindors, isn't it. But it's not so bad once you get used to it."
Harry's heart stuttered in his chest and he found himself suddenly unable to breathe, he spun around and found himself staring into familiar silver eyes set beneath a shock of blonde hair. "Draco?"
A small smile lit his best friends face. "Hey, Potter. Care to tell me what you're-oh." He staggered back several steps when he, without any sort of warning, found himself with an armful of sobbing teen. "Oh, come on, Harry. You're getting snot all over my nice robes."
Despite his words, Draco gripped Harry's shoulder with one hand, while the other tangled itself into his hair, pulling him closer.
"I missed you," Harry whispered.
"Yeah, I missed you to," Draco said where he'd buried his face into the side of his friend's neck.
"It's not the same, without you. No one's there to call me a prat and point out when I'm doing something stupid."
"Now you know that's a lie, Hermione is always happy to point out when you're being stupid."
"Yeah, well she doesn't have the same flair for it as you do…did."
Draco reluctantly pulled away just far enough to be able to look into Harry's face, he didn't even bother trying to wipe away the tears that clung to his lashes. "Don't get me wrong, I'm so happy to see you. But why are you here? What happened?"
"It's not permanent," Harry sniffed. "I'm only close to dead at the moment, Hela brought me here to make it easier to choose whether or not I wanted to stay dead or fight to live. It's her version of an apology."
"What is she apologizing for?"
"Voldemort had another Horcrux. I didn't tell anyone until the final battle was over, but he'd accidentally made another Horcrux that night he first tried to kill me and it latched itself onto my soul. In order to destroy it I had to die, so I let Voldemort hit me with a killing curse. It only killed me for a minute, not even that in the real world, but during the short time that I was dead, I met Hela who told me the Horcrux was gone for good."
"Let me guess," Draco sighed. "It really wasn't."
"No, it was only sleeping. A few weeks ago it finally woke and it took control of my body, it wreaked some havoc for a bit, but I was able to fight it off and destroy it, for good this time. But the damage that was done to my body was bad enough that even Hela says I might die."
"That sounds like an abridged version of events."
"Oh, terribly abridged," Harry confirmed. "But I don't know how much time we have and I don't want to spend it telling you how much trouble I've been getting up to since you…passed."
Draco's brow crinkled. "How much trouble have you been getting into?"
"Oh tons, but I'll tell you all about it when I'm dead. Right now, I want to hear about you. Are you….are you happy here?"
"As happy as one can be when surrounded by a bunch of noisy Gryffindors," Draco said, though his smile belied the actual truth of the statement. "A few of the others are here, Loony's on some nature walk, she tends to do that a lot, Creevey is here, but all he's done since he's arrived was try to hit on that french muggle, you know the one who dressed up as a boy and got burnt at the stake by the people she fought for?"
"Lucky bastard," Harry smiled. "Have you seen my mother? My stepfather? Sirius?"
Draco shook his head. "I'm sure they're here, but this place is massive, I've only seen one or two familiar faces and most of them died around the same time I did."
Harry looked upon the sea of warriors wistfully. "I wish I could find them, talk to them."
"You'll have plenty of time for that later," Draco consoled. "When you pass, you'll have an eternity to look for them."
Harry bit his lip and glanced at his friend tentatively. "Yeah….but I'm here now."
Draco's eyes narrowed. "But not permanently. You said so yourself."
"It could be, I don't have to go back."
"You're….you're kidding right?" Draco scowled when Harry didn't immediately respond. "No, Harry, you can't stay here."
Harry tried to mask his hurt and immediately knew he'd done an absolutely miserable job at it. "You don't want me to stay?"
"Of course I do," Draco said exasperatedly. "But I wouldn't be so selfish as to ask that of you. The others are waiting for you back home, your father. You can't do that to them."
"They would mourn," Harry conceded, "but they have each other, they'll heal. And my dad…well I think it would be better if I didn't return."
Draco shook his head in incredulous confusion. "Why would you say that?"
"I'm mortal. He told me a few months back, I'm going to age and die in a century, maybe two if I'm lucky. I've accepted it, but Dad hasn't, he's willing to do anything to make sure I don't die. I know he'll fail eventually though, we've all seen that there is no way to extend a mortal's lifespan without doing some wicked things, but then what? He'll be forced to sit back and watch as I slowly grow old, eventually older than him, as I wither away and became disease ridden until, one day, I'm gone. That would be a slow, agonizing torture for him. I can't force him to sit back and watch as that happens.
"But this way, I can pass peacefully while he's prepared for it, he'll have my uncle and my brothers for support and, eventually, he'll heal, he'll be able to move on and live his life. He won't be able to do that with my imminent death hanging over him like a curse for the next century."
"Is that it?" Draco asked, silver eyes studying Harry's face shrewdly. "Is that the only reason you don't want to go back?"
Harry was able to hold up against his best friend's all too knowing gaze for only a handful of seconds before giving in. "No," he admitted. "That's not the only reason."
"Let's hear it then."
Harry closed his eyes as shame washed over him. "I'm tired," he murmured. "I'm tired of fighting." His breath caught in his throat as an unexpected sob tried to force its way free. "These past few years…it's just been one fight after the other, another battle, another tragedy, another bad guy that needs to be taken down. And if I decide to go back, now I have to battle myself, my own body just to survive, and I am so tired of fighting."
"Hey," Draco whispered, swiping a tear from Harry's cheek with the pad of his thumb. "Stop all that crying you mook. Look at me. I don't want you to give up, but…if this is really what you want, if you don't think you have it in you to fight a moment longer, then I understand and so will they. But before you decide, let me say this. This place is beautiful yes, it's free of death and war and pain, we can head out right now to find your mother, James, Sirius, and everyone else we lost in the war, but there are some pretty great things waiting for you back home too."
There was a rustle of displaced air from behind them and then Hela was there. "Little fool, your times up. Have you made your decision?"
Harry looked desperately to Draco, who radiated calm and understanding, the blonde smiled at him, then nodded encouragingly.
"Yeah," he whispered around a shuddering sigh. "Yeah, I think I have."
"…Then the elves turned towards the Forest, and Bilbo started on his long road home. He had many hardships and adventures before he got back. The Wild was still the Wild, and there were many other things in it in those days besides goblins; but he was well guided and well guarded-the wizard was with him…"
Loki inhaled deeply as he turned the page, scenting the odor of well-loved books. After two weeks without any changes on Harry's part, he found himself running out of things to talk about with his unconscious son, more often than not, their one-sided conversations devolved to him begging Harry not to die and feeling a deep sort of desolation when he received no response. So, deciding that that wasn't helping either of them, Loki took on the habit of reading to his son. He'd tried a few of the books from the library, but they were drab old things detailing the history of the nine realms, so he'd gone to Harry's friends for recommendations and walked away with a copy of the novel, The Hobbit. Blaise had been the one to give it to him, but the book had once belonged to Draco and had been well loved by the blonde youth, if the many dog ears and wrinkled pages were anything to go by.
Loki read the book to Harry for an hour or so every evening before retiring to his own rooms, but he wasn't ashamed to admit that he had quickly become engrossed in the tale.
He continued to read the book for another page or so, only occasionally pausing to comment on something, but then he reached a familiar passage.
"There behind lay Mirkwood, blue in the distance, and darkly green at the nearer edge even in the spring. There far away was the Lonely Mountain on the edge of eyesight. On its highest peak snow yet unmelted was gleaming pale.
"'So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!" said Bilbo, and he turned his back on his adventure.'"
Loki paused before rereading the passage, this time only to himself. "So that's where you got the quote from," he said. "I must say, it's much more cheerful in the book. Though I suppose nothing would look cheerful written on a headstone." Loki looked up, naively expecting some sort of response even after weeks of silence. But as he looked, he realized that something was off, something was wrong.
Harry's chest had fallen still.
Harry was not breathing.
Loki set the book aside with painstaking care and pressed two fingers against his son's throat, directly over his pulse point, his heart was still beating but it was sluggish and slow.
"What did I tell you?" he whispered, voice trembling with the force of his emotions. "You are forbidden to die."
He leaned over Harry, inhaled deeply, then forced the exhalation into his son's useless lungs. Twice he did this before folding his hands over Haraldr's chest and pressing down onto the organ that refused to beat.
"I've been far too lenient with you," he snarled. "Enough is enough, open your eyes."
He gave Harry another two of his breaths then began count out his chest compressions.
"You will not die, not after everything we've done to keep you alive."
Two breaths. Ten, twenty, thirty compressions.
Two breaths. Ten, twenty, thirty compressions.
"Wake up, Haraldr."
Two breaths. Ten…twenty…thirty…stop.
"Wake up, damn you!"
With a cry of rage, Loki's fist slammed into the center of Harry's chest and he jerked. A strangled gasp burst from Harry's lips then he began sucking in greedy gulps of air as a weak hand reached up to rub at his chest.
"Merlin," he croaked, "did you punch me?"
Loki collapsed back into his seat, unable to speak past the gasping sobs that shook his entire body.
Harry reached out, searching for his father's hand. "You're crying."
"I thought you were dead," Loki whispered. "I thought you weren't coming back."
"He's dead, this time I'm sure of it."
There was silence as Harry carefully took stock of every finger, toe, and limb attached to his body. "I hurt everywhere," he concluded, voice still hoarse from such a long period of disuse, "but I'm alive and I'm me so I can't find any reason to complain."
"Too right," Loki laughed even as he cried. He reached out tentatively, all too aware of how fragile his son was as his hand curled behind his head and eased him into a sitting position. Harry didn't yet have the strength to remain upright but Loki was there, as he'd always been and always would be, to settle him into the vice that lurked in the guise of an embrace. "What kept you?"
"I fought Voldemort, I had to make sure not a scrap of him remained anywhere in my head, I slept for a bit after that, and then…and then I saw Draco. He wasn't alive but he was there and he was healthy and I think he was happy."
A smile so bright and familiar that it made Loki's stomach ache spread across Harry's face. "It was so beautiful, peaceful, for a moment I didn't want to leave. And I could have stayed, Hela wouldn't have forced me back, but I knew you were still here and you had to be waiting and…I couldn't."
"I would have been lost if you hadn't come back, I don't think that's something I could ever recover from, but if staying would have made you happy then I would not have resented you for it." Nothing had ever been so hard for Loki to utter, and yet he meant every word that he spoke, because nothing was more important to him than his son's happiness. He would not hesitate to weather the weeks and months of misery he had endured if only it meant that Harry was happy.
"No, I came back because I wanted to." Harry ignored the weakness his body wanted to claim and clung to Loki, his hands knotted uncompromisingly in his tunic, as if he expected Death himself to appear and try to wrest him from his father's grasp. "I came back because my family is here. I came back because I didn't want to be away from you a second longer than I'd already been."
Loki buried his face in Harry's hair overcome by such gratefulness he could hardly breathe. "I love you," he whispered. "I love you so much, and I am so proud of the man you've become. Thank you for being here, for making my life so much more fantastic and agonizing and beautiful."
Harry had no words, but in that moment there was no more need for them. They held each other and simply allowed themselves to be.
A year ago, Loki had begged the Norns to save his son, to change his fate. And they had told him, "What is done cannot be undone." At that time, he had interpreted it as a curse, a damnation, he had not been able to see that, in truth, it was the exact opposite, they had been reassuring him in the only way they knew how.
All will be well.
And for the first time in a long, long time, Loki believed it.
A/N: So I believe thanks are in order, to everyone who's stuck it out with me this long. It's been two years, two freaking years, thirty-three chapters and over three hundred thousand words but finally it's finished. I didn't think for a moment that Triumph would grow to be this massive or this well received and I can honestly say that it would not have wound up this way if it weren't for all you lovely people. I truly appreciate every follow, favorite, and review this story has received. But please don't let this be the last I hear from you all (as this certainly won't be the last you hear from me), in honor of Triumph's completion, I've published a brand new story titled Prometheus Bound. It's also a Harry Potter/Avengers crossover, but it's wildly different from anything I've attempted before; it's got time travel, and HYDRA, and my own spin on the Deathly Hallows lore. So go on and take a look, there's no need to be rid of me just because Triumph's through.
With my shameless self-promotion out of the way, I bid you all goodbye (through this medium anyway) and grant you one more heartfelt thank you. Adieu.