The western sky was just darkening to violet and the last rays of the dying sun were barely visible when he finally set down his book and climbed the stairs to the attic. It had become almost a yearly ritual for him, this wallowing in memories each year on the eve of his birthday. This year was different, though. This year it was not a choice.
For Harry James Potter it was almost a compulsion. Tomorrow he would turn forty. It made his mind whirl to even think about it. After all, he had nearly died when only one year old, and come close again and again with alarming regularity throughout his teens and into his twenties. That he was even going to see his fortieth birthday seemed almost a lesson in persistence.
He tried very hard to not think about the fact that he would be celebrating his fortieth birthday by himself. Not alone physically; he knew that much. But alone nevertheless.
It wasn't death that had depleted the ranks of his friends and mentors, although death had played a part. Even so many years later Sirius' death still hurt the most, because it was blended with so much guilt. Mr. Wealey and Professor Snape likewise he blamed himself for, but to a lesser degree. It had taken a lot of time - and not a few smacks upside his head - for Harry to begin to realize that he couldn't be held responsible for every casualty in the war.
No, what had truly left him alone was his own stubborn pride and insistence on doing things by himself. Once the war was over and the prophecy fulfilled his constant go-it-alone attitude had driven a perceptible wedge between even his closest friends and himself. So much so that when Ron had asked his brother Charlie to be the best man at his wedding to Hermione it hadn't come as a big surprise. A bit of a painful shock, yes, but not really a surprise.
In the attic Harry pulled a stool closer and sat beside an old, battered steamer trunk on which the gilded initials H.J.P. were just barely visible. There was also a mark, burned into the lid like a brand, in the shape of a bolt of lightning. He smiled slightly, remembering the night that it had been put there. He should have known better than to trust Dean with a wand after a few shots of firewhiskey.
"Dean, I don't think this is a good idea."
"Potter, trust me. You need more to commemorate The Boy Who Lived then just your initials." Dean pulled out his wand, twirling it in his fingers as he studied Harry's school trunk.
"Dean. . . ."
"Let him get on with it, Harry," Ron said. "If you don't he'll pester you about it for the rest of his life."
The rest of Dean's life hadn't been very long. He had died less than three years after their Hogwarts graduation while on a special Order of the Phoenix mission in Italy. He had managed to destroy the documents he was carrying seconds before being struck by the Killing Curse.
Harry gave his head a firm shake to dispel the memories. He didn't want to dwell on the dead anymore. It served no useful purpose and had a disturbing tendency to bring all the guilty feelings back to the surface.
"You can't blame yourself for everything, Harry."
No!, Harry thought to himself. I can't think about her right now. He lifted the lid on the trunk and began to sort through the items found within.
At the very top sat a broom, but one unlike anything ever seen in a mop closet. It had a sleek and shiny mahogany handle, streamlined brush, and the remnants of silver embossing near the top of the handle. Harry ran his hand the length of the mahogany, grinning as he did. There were no bad memories associated with the broom, only memories of fun with friends and triumphs over rivals.
Underneath the broom was a pile of clothing, all the same style. They were all long, coat-length, with full sleeves and of a nondescript colour that was probably black when it was new. On the left breast of each article was a scarlet and gold crest, so rubbed and faded that only the component colours could be discerned. Harry lifted the stack of garments and set them aside, making a mental note to get rid of all but one set of the robes before the week was out.
Below the stack of robes were more old clothes, long ago grown too small, and a number of objects that would have seemed strange to the average person. A set of brass scales, old and tarnished. A small pot, like a cauldron, its handle broken and bottom almost rusted through. Empty glass phials, many of which had vestiges of mysterious substances still clinging to their insides.
Harry rummaged through the trunk until he found what it was he sought; an old photo album, its red leather cover grown dry and cracked. The letters J and L were embossed on its cover, along with a crest that featured a large letter H surrounded by an eagle, a badger, a lion and a serpent.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.
Even without opening it the album brought to mind more memories, many of them painful. Hagrid had given it to him as a gift at the end of his first year of school, and the pictures inside had sustained him through all the long summer days when he was stuck in Privet Drive with only his aunt, his uncle, and his cousin for company. Every year he had magically expanded the album to add more pictures, but the first pages were still the most important.
Hagrid was long dead, killed on the eve of their graduation from Hogwarts. His uncle had died two years later, defiantly denying the existence of magic until the end. The memory of how Vernon Dursley had thrown himself in front of a curse he didn't believe in to protect his wife, son, and nephew still made Harry's eyes sting with tears.
It had been the Entrail Expelling curse - a particularly painful way to die. Vernon had bled to death on the hard, cold stone of the Azkaban guard tower as his wife sobbed and frantically tried to put his insides back. His last words had come as a total surprise.
Magic doesn't exist, Harry, he had whispered, a weak fist clenched in Harry's shirt and a ghost of a sneer on his lips. But I want you to use whatever means you can to protect my wife and son, even your non-existent powers.
I will. I promise.
And he had kept that promise. Using Vernon's watch as a Portkey he had taken Petunia and Dudley to Hogwarts, the only safe place for them. With Professor Snape's help he had used his own blood to make a protection potion, effectively hiding his only two blood relatives from all detection. That protection was so strong that it could only be lifted one of two ways; by Harry himself, or through his death.
Six months later he had caught up with the Death Eater who had cast the murderous spell. That night was the first and only time in his career with magical law enforcement that Harry had chosen to kill instead of capture. He had snapped the man's wand in two, sending one half to his superiors in the Auror Division and the other half to his aunt with a five word note attached.
Vernon can rest in peace.
Shaking his head to clear it of those memories he opened the photo album, taking comfort in the familiar creak of it's leather cover. The first picture always made him smile, despite the pain. It was a wizard photograph of his mother and father, smiling and waving out at him. In his mother's arms was a pudgy, dark-haired baby with a wide, toothless grin. Harry smiled at his photographic self, delicately touching his mother's face in the picture.
He began to quickly flip through the pages, past more photos of his parents. He didn't even glance at their wedding picture; he didn't want to see Sirius' face. He only stopped turning the pages when he came to a picture of Ron and Hermione that made him laugh out loud.
The photo had been taken in the Gryffindor common room, and captured a completely unguarded moment between the two. Ron was holding an immensely thick book (which Harry recognized as Hermione's dictionary of ancient runes) over his head, keeping it just out of reach. Hermione was frantically jumping up and down, trying to get the book away from Ron, her face a bright shade of red from her exertions. She was no match for Ron's far superior height, however. In the corner of the picture Harry could just see himself, overcome by laughter in an armchair beside the fire.
He flipped to the next page. A picture of himself and Ron, in Quidditch uniforms, greeted him. They were both mugging for the camera and holding the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup. A bright gold C was embroidered on Harry's uniform. The picture had been taken in their sixth year; Harry's first as captain. As he stared at the picture Ron relinquished his hold on the cup, caught Harry around the legs and hefted him onto his shoulder.
Then came a picture of Hermione, asleep in the common room, her head pillowed on a stack of books. Neville in one of the greenhouses, struggling to control a Venemous Tentacula. The Creevy brothers, toasting the camera with butterbeers, celebrating Dennis making the Quidditch team as Harry's reserve Seeker. Dean and Seamus, evidently taken after an unsuccessful Transfiguration class (Seamus had watermelon vines growing from his ears). Luna, seated under a large oak tree on the grounds, her wand tucked behind one ear and wearing her necklace of butterbeer caps. Ernie MacMillan, caught in the act of polishing his Head Boy badge, grinning sheepishly at the camera as Anthony Goldstein and Terry Boot pulled faces behind him. Lavender and Parvati in the Divination classroom, a crystal ball on the table between them. So many memories. . . .
He turned to the last page in the album.
He jumped in surprise, slamming the photo album shut. He didn't respond to the call; Lily knew where he was and would seek him out.
"Dad! Uncle Dudley is here!" The shout came from the foot of the ladder to the attic.
Harry swallowed hard. "All right!" he called back, wincing at the scratchiness of his voice. "I'll be down in a minute." Still clasping the album he descended the ladder, finding his cousin standing at its base with a wide smile. He glared at Dudley.
"What are you so happy about?" Harry asked.
"Life in general, cuz." He gave Harry a resounding pat on the back as they walked
towards the second floor study. "Just life in general."
Harry shut the door of the study with a resounding click, smiling to himself as Dudley helped himself to a glass of whiskey and settled into a chair with a deep sigh. It still amazed him that he could actually call his cousin a friend now, after all the years of bullying and being termed a "freak". His daughter turning out to be a witch herself had wrought a remarkable change in Dudley.
"How are Audrey and Merry?" Harry asked, pouring himself a brandy.
"Fine. Great. Did I tell you Merry plans to try out for Quidditch this year?" Dudley asked, taking a sip of his whiskey
"Lily keeps talking about it too," Harry responded. "If they both make their teams they'll have to play against each other."
"They'll survive," Dudley said with a grin. "Being put in different houses at school hasn't hurt their friendship yet."
"No," Harry mused, thinking. Lily Potter had followed generations of her family straight into Gryffindor. Harry had thought that perhaps the blood of her long dead aunt would lead to the same, but the Sorting Hat had chosen Hufflepuff for Meredith Dursley. The girls remained close friends, though, and were an example of the strength of unity.
"Listen, Harry." Dudley spoke suddenly, interrupting his reverie. "You know why I'm here."
Harry grinned. "My annual pretend-its-a-surprise-birthday-party?"
Dudley laughed. "That would be the one. Mum and Molly have been at it for almost a month, determined that this time you actually are surprised."
Harry held up a hand. "OK, OK. I get the point. I'll practice my stunned and amazed face."
"Good." Dudley drained his whiskey. "You know I hate to drink and run, but I need to get home. Merry is cooking everything for dinner tonight, and I promised I wouldn't miss it."
Harry stood with his cousin and walked him to the door, one hand resting lightly on his shoulder. He was shocked when Dudley gave him a brief hug before opening the door. He looked back at his cousin.
"You've got more grey hair," Dudley said with a grin.
Harry resisted the temptation to stick his tongue out. "I'm sure you do too, its just better hidden in all that blond."
Dudley laughed. "See you tomorrow night!"
Harry watched as his cousin descended the stairs. He heard his daughter call a farewell before he shut himself in the study again. The photo album was still in his hand. He turned again to the very last page.
It was the only Muggle photo in the entire album, taken by Hermione with her regular camera. It had been snapped in the back garden at the Burrow, a few days before Harry's twenty-sixth birthday. A few days before he had left his friends and family to confront Voldemort for what would be the last time.
He stood behind her, arms wrapped around her body, hands folded lightly across her very pregnant belly. Their smiles were wide. Her hair glimmered like flame in the sun that filtered through the leaves, and the freckles that dotted her face and shoulders glowed.
Harry felt tears begin to sting his eyes. He hadn't returned to the Burrow until almost two months later, battered and broken, but with Voldemort vanquished once and for all. He had arrived to find a house in mourning. The risk of exposure was too great, Molly had said, so they couldn't bring in a magical midwife. She had lived for only a week after giving birth, raving and delirious with fever.
I'm so sorry, Harry, Molly had said before placing his infant daughter in his arms and leaving him alone with his emotions. The tears had flowed freely as he hugged Lily's tiny body to his chest, burying his face in the dusting of red hair that crowned her head.
Harry blinked his eyes and returned to the present, shaking his head to clear it of memories. The tiny baby he had clung to then was nearly fourteen years old now. He was about to turn forty. Time marches on.
He pulled the picture out of the album and turned it over. The ink on the back was slowly fading, but he could still read the words.
Every long lost dream led me to where you are
Others who broke my heart they were like northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you
Yours forever & a day,GWP