Even Kreacher's steak-and-kidney pie tasted like ashes in Harry Potter's mouth as he attempted to choke his dinner down. The tea he sipped to clear his tight throat was bitter, corrupt. The house-elf did his best, he always did, especially on particularly significant days, but Harry was physically unable to enjoy the elf's offerings. No solace found in food. Not even Ginny Potter, his best source of comfort, could ease the sorrow that weighed heavily on his soul, dragging him into a depression that did not allow him to eat, to drink, to make love. Not today.
The three people in the dining room could not pretend, as they normally attempted to, that their broken hearts would heal someday. Ginny played with her food, pushing it around and around her plate without taking a bite. She stared aimlessly at it, her head bowed as though in prayer. Ron Weasley did not even attempt to create an illusion that he was eating. He slouched in his chair, his arms folded across his chest. Harry could see the muscles in his jaw working as he ground his teeth, and his nostrils flared every once in a while as though he was on the verge of tears.
"Shall I get the firewhisky?" Harry asked quietly. "I bought the best. For tonight."
"Might as well," Ron said tonelessly. Ginny only nodded, her eyes closed.
Harry stood. He could have used magic to Summon the bottle, but felt a restlessness. He crossed the room that, despite Kreacher's best efforts, was as dismal and gloomy as Grimmauld Place had been. His mind skittered away from that thought, though; despite the gloom of the Black residence, he'd had good times there as well. Remembering the good times made his stomach churn like acid even more than remembering the bad.
There were no photographs anywhere in the house, except in the album Hagrid had given Harry so many years before. There were no cheerful waves coming from dead people to deepen the sorrow. Harry had packed up the pictures himself – it had seemed too much for Ginny and Ron, to see their family smiling up at them.
"—Harry?" Ginny's voice cut through his thoughts. He turned toward her.
"You were just standing there…" He saw understanding in her brown eyes. He didn't know where or who he'd be without her. He'd most likely be dead. They'd been married for almost three years; they'd married only months after the Battle for Hogwarts, clinging to each other with only Ron at their side. Flitwick, the Headmaster of Hogwarts and one of the few survivors from the Battle, had officiated through tears.
"I know, I'm sorry."
He ended up Summoning the bottle anyway, and three shots later he almost felt numb.
"They'd hate what we're doing," Ron said unexpectedly. Harry had lost track of how much of the bottle he'd gone through, but he wasn't his best mate's minder. Ron only talked about them when he was drunk.
"I know," Ginny said. "But we do what we can."
"Hermione," his voice cracked, and he rubbed his chin. "She'd kick our arses."
"She would," Harry agreed. He'd give quite a lot to have his dead friend kick his arse.
"Fred and George would be – they would be t-terrible," Ginny tried to smile, but it came out a bit lopsided, and disappeared almost as soon as it arrived.
"Your mum and dad would have to give us stern talking-tos," Harry reached over and grabbed his shoulder with the hand that was not holding his firewhisky. "Your mum especially."
"Dad would be – he'd be in the kitchen, looking at the Muggle stuff while Mum yelled at us."
"Percy would be reading us the riot act, telling us we're not being good role-models, and that we were disgracing the name of Weasley."
"Meanwhile, he'd be scheduling interviews – after he got rid of all the bottles of firewhisky in the house," Ron finished when Ginny's voice faded. Her face was set, her jaw clenched tight, and she gripped Harry's hand fiercely.
"Fleur'd be so angry with us that she'd be screaming at us in French," Harry put in. The firewhisky burned his throat and made it easier to talk. "And Bill would curse us so badly that we'd be old and gray by the time it lifted."
"Charlie would set dragons on us," Ginny offered. "You know he would."
But they were all gone, all of them. A demolished hall stacked with bodies and washed with blood. Harry shook his head impatiently. They were sleeping in the ground, unaware of the lonely and bitter victory and the pain their deaths had caused. If Harry had known he was a Horcrux sooner, if he had given himself up before the slaughter…
"Stop it, Harry," Ginny and Ron said in unison. "We know what you're thinking," Ginny added. "It wasn't your fault."
"I-I-I just –"
"I know," Ginny said, voice gentle. "But lay the blame where blame is due. Voldemort killed them. Bellatrix killed them. Dolohov killed them. And you killed those who stole our family away."
"Only once," Harry said bitterly.
Ron blew out a deep breath, took another shot, and squeezed his eyes closed. "I'm going to miss them. Always and always."
"Always and always," Harry and Ginny echoed. Always and always was a phrase that had initially begun with Harry's proposal to Ginny. It had not been romantic. One solid month of funerals, and the love he'd felt for her was the only thing keeping him sane.
"Ginny," he whispered as they lay with arms wrapped around each other. They'd just woken up. Mornings had been difficult then – in that first moment of wakefulness it was easy to forget that victory looked an awful lot like defeat.
"Harry," she murmured against his chest.
"I can't live without you," he said simply. "I wouldn't survive."
"Me either," she sighed.
"I'm going to love you," he said. "Always and always. Will you marry me?" It had been the best he could do. They'd reunited after a year of fruitless searches for the Horcruxes, and an open attack on the Burrow. Harry had realized, standing in the rubble, horrified, that despite his best efforts, Ginny and her family would always be targets. He hadn't wanted to lose her without her knowing, everyday, that despite time and distance, she was the best part of him. They'd been hopeful. After another year of Ginny in hiding with her family, and frequent visits, Harry had decided that as soon as he'd taken care of Voldemort, he would put a ring on her finger and never let her go. He'd had daydreams of how he'd ask her. Possibly in the Gryffindor common room, or on a Quidditch pitch. He'd do something romantic – he'd ask Hermione to help him.
But it was not to be.
It had become a catch phrase, and they'd both said it in the vows they had made to each other on a lonely hill covered in heather. It had struck a chord in Ron, though they hadn't been aware of it for months.
It was Christmas day, and grief had raged inside while a storm raged outside. A day that should have been happy. But when each person had lost everyone else they had ever loved, that was impossible. They'd found solace in wine.
"I'm going to miss them," Ron said. "Always and always." He was not so drunk that he was completely unaware that he had usurped words that were special to Harry and Ginny, and his face fell into apologetic lines. "I'm sorry, I –"
"No," Harry said firmly. He shared a glance with Ginny. "It fits."
And it did. Always and always meant him and Ginny. But it also meant him and Ron, and the past they shared. It meant Ron and Ginny, the only survivors of a large family, more fragile than any of them had ever dreamed. It meant the wounds that would always, always be there, and it meant the love they would always, always feel for those they'd lost.
They sat in silence for a good hour, and Harry was sure that he was not alone in his thoughts. Ginny had scooted her chair closer to Harry; their shoulders brushed. He wanted to hold her, bury himself inside her until he lost himself, but it was the anniversary of everything they had lost, and Harry didn't think he could make love to her if he tried.
"I wish we had Hermione's Time-Turner," Ron said absently, his voice hoarse. "I wish we could go back, I wouldn't have been incapacitated by that effing curse. I could've protected them, maybe…"
"This is a Time-Turner, Harry," Hermione's voice echoed from the past, and Harry was struck by a thought so wild and insane that he knew he was even drunker than he'd thought. He tried to stop it, tried to pretend it hadn't occurred to him, but the ludicrous idea gripped him tightly. He opened his mouth, but no words emerged.
"Harry?" He could hear the alarm in Ginny's voice. He must look wild; he felt wild. He had the urge to laugh.
"What if we could?" He asked. "What if we could?"
"Could what?" Ron gaped at him. Not surprising, that, Harry could not remember feeling so driven. Not since they'd lost everything but each other on the field of battle.
"What if we could go back in time?"
"Harry…" Ginny sighed. "It isn't possible. It isn't. Time-Turners can only go back a few hours, you know that. You're drunk, we should go to bed."
"No," Harry said forcefully. "We should think about this, we have to!"
"You're mental, mate," Ron said flatly. "Mental. You shouldn't even be thinking about this, it isn't healthy."
Harry's laughter sounded eerie even to his own ears. "The way we live isn't healthy, Ron. It's been three years, and we haven't done a damn thing since it happened. We're old and we're only twenty-four. We're barely breathing, the three of us. If you two weren't here, I probably would've committed suicide ages ago."
Tears stood out in Ginny's eyes. "But Harry… it's impossible, what you're thinking."
"How do you know?" Harry asked belligerently. "Maybe people have done it, they just never talked about it."
"What, we're going to build a super-powerful Time-Turner?" Ron asked. "Go back in time and save everyone while remaining hidden? What could we possibly change?"
"Everything," Harry said. "Everything. We've got to try, damn it!"
"Harry, we have all these memories of living without them," Ginny said. "Three years worth of memories. If we really did go back in time, we'd already know it. They'd be alive."
"Not unless we changed Fate," Harry said. "We'd have different memories. We'd be at the Burrow right now, celebrating our victory, not wallowing in the price we paid to have it."
Ron and Ginny exchanged looks.
"Listen," Harry said, growing frustrated. "Ron, wouldn't you want your wife back? Ginny, wouldn't you want to live in a world where your family still breathed?"
"That's cruel," Ginny said softly, but Harry could tell that she was thinking about it.
"I'm sorry," he said, though he wasn't. He felt almost alive again; he felt the way he did when he made love to Ginny or flew around the countryside with Ron. He felt like he had a purpose. It may not be possible, but he could at least try.
"I think Hermione might've mentioned something once," Ron said tentatively, his eyes growing distant. "It was the morning after you guys rescued Sirius. She talked about how Time-Turners were the most reliable way to travel through time."
"And if a Time-Turner is the most reliable, then there've got to be unreliable ones," Harry said. "We can look into that tomorrow, after we talk to Dumbledore's portrait."
"We're going to Hogwarts?" Ginny asked. Harry knew what she was thinking. They hadn't gone back since the morning after the battle; the rubble had not been cleared away, and the bodies had still been in the Great Hall.
"Yes," Harry said.
"Dumbledore would know if there was anything we could do," Ron said.
Harry felt strange, to say the least. For three years, misery had been eating away at him, at all of them. It was odd to have a purpose again. "I think… I really do think there's a way."
His madness had affected Ron and Ginny, he noticed. It took a moment for him to recognize the look on their faces. They looked hopeful for the first time in years.
Dawn came early the next day, and Harry's sleep had been deep; he had not had a single nightmare. When he awoke, he tossed back one of the bottles of Auntie Jigg's Hangover Remedy that Kreacher had placed on the bedside table sometime during the night, and leapt from the bad. By the time he washed, Ginny was awake and looking the same way he felt: stunned and purposeful. Why had they not thought of this before? They could've already changed everything!
Ron met them in the sitting room not ten minutes later, his hair still dripping from his own shower. He was not moving like an Inferius anymore, and he almost looked like the old Ron, the Ron that Harry'd gone to Hogwarts with, before the death of his wife, parents, and brothers had turned him into a hollow shell.
Harry grinned. Ron looked gobsmacked.
"We're really doing this, then?" Ron asked. "We're going to try?"
"We are," Ginny said firmly. "We are."
They left the house together, and Harry was once again surprised by how good it felt to leave it for a reason other than the few necessities that Kreacher could not acquire for them. They'd become recluses, Harry thought wryly.
They moved forward with purpose, past the wards, and Disapparated together with a loud crack.
Hogsmeade was how he remembered it from his fourth year, without Dementors and fear. People walked openly along the twisted and narrow streets, and Harry only felt a small twinge of resentment at these people who lived and laughed in a world without Voldemort. They had not paid the price the way Harry, Ron, and Ginny had. But they would change that, Harry thought fiercely. Ginny gripped his hand so hard that Harry felt his knuckles pop. When he looked at her, he saw her blazing look, for once not dimmed by sorrow. They would do this.
The path to Hogwarts was as long as ever, but it seemed to take only minutes. No one had recognized them, thank Merlin; he supposed that people had stopped hoping to see them, they'd been hidden away for so long.
The gates loomed ahead of them, strong and stoic. Harry remembered when they were twisted and broken after the assault of Voldemort's giants.
The three whirled around and saw Hagrid, his mouth open wide with disbelief. He was just as tall as ever, and even wider than when Harry'd last seen him more than two years previously.
"Ron? Ginny?" Hagrid was too stunned to move.
"Hi, Hagrid," Harry said. Ron and Ginny echoed him.
"Wha… What're yeh three doin' here?"
"We've come to see the Headmaster," Harry explained. "Can you get us in the gates?"
Hagrid pulled them open with one hand, and then rushed them, pulling all three into a bone-crushing hug. Harry patted him on the back. When he finally pulled away, he saw tears streaming into his wild beard.
"I didn' think I'd ever see yer again!"
Harry couldn't think of anything to say. Ron and Ginny were silent beside him. Hagrid did not seem to take offense at this, and chattered all the way up to the school. Grawp apparently had found a lady friend, and the centaurs had welcomed three new foals into the herd. Seamus Finnegan had apparently taken a post at the school, and was now the Professor for Defence Against the Dark Arts, despite his missing arm.
They rounded the greenhouses, and found themselves staring up at a sight they had never expected to see again. The grief welled up inside Harry as he stared at the repaired castle. The Astronomy Tower had been rebuilt, and Hogwarts looked as stately as ever. There were no blood-stains on the steps. It was as if it had never happened. But it had. Bill and Fleur had fallen just over there; Harry could still hear her screams as she stood over Bill's body, taking down three Death Eaters before Dolohov had killed her.
His mouth twisted grimly, and Ginny squeezed his hand.
The Entrance Hall was even worse. In his mind, Harry could still see Hermione burning and hear her anguished cries, could see George falling and breaking his entire body, could see Arthur Weasley hit in the back with Avada Kedavra while he'd been trying to avenge Bill's death. Charlie had been mangled by Fenrir Greyback just over there, near the stairs. And that was where an acromantula had torn Percy apart.
Ginny's eyes were wide with horror. She hadn't seen most of her family die; she'd been battling Death Eaters with Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil; but she'd seen the bodies where they lay. Harry had thought she was dead, had thought the Cutting Curse had killed Ron. And fifty feet and three years away from where he stood right now, he'd stood in front of Voldemort and had not defended himself, had watched death speed toward him in the form of a green light because he'd wanted to die. It had killed the Horcrux instead, and Harry had returned to finish off Voldemort, not knowing that Ron and Ginny had survived too.
He took a deep breath. Ron had his eyes squeezed tightly shut, his mouth moving, saying something Harry could not hear. Ginny shook like a leaf beside him.
"Yeh lot…" Hagrid sighed. "I know why yeh didn' wan' to come back."
Harry nodded stiffly. "We still need to see Flitwick."
They left Hagrid and their memories behind and moved up the stairs with purpose. It was early yet, no students were out and about; they were still sleeping in their dormitories.
The gargoyle that guarded the home of the Headmaster was the same. Harry realized that he had no idea what the password was, and could not even begin to guess it.
Ron kicked it with his foot. "Open up!"
"No," the gargoyle said firmly. "You don't know the password."
Harry was just about to send a message via Patronus when he heard footsteps quickly coming toward them.
"Merlin's balls!" Seamus Finnegan skidded to a halt ten feet away from them. He threw out his arm and braced himself against the wall. "I didn't think you three were even still alive!"
"Hi, Seamus," Ginny said quietly. Ron and Harry nodded at him in greeting. "Do you know Flitwick's password? We've got to speak with him."
"Uh," Seamus visibly tried to collect himself. It was odd seeing him with only one arm; at least it hadn't been his wand arm that had gotten severed off. "It's caliadoc."
The gargoyle sprung aside and the moving stairs appeared behind it. "What's caliadoc?" Harry whispered. Ginny shrugged.
"We'll see you, Seamus," Ron said. "We'll catch up – later."
"Er, yeah." They left him still standing there with his mouth gaping open. "Yeah, see you around."
Harry knocked firmly three times. It took several moments for Flitwick to open the door, and they were greeted with the same expression of shock they'd seen on Hagrid's and Seamus's faces.
"Well," Flitwick drew himself up to his full height, about three feet. "Well."
"Headmaster," Harry said respectfully. "We were wondering if we could converse with Dumbledore's portrait."
"I… yes, of course," Flitwick led them in. It was similar to, yet very different from how it had been during Dumbledore's time. The small, delicate instruments (the ones that had survived Harry's wrath, anyway) were gone, and had been replaced by stacks of books. The portraits were the same. The occupant of the biggest one that hung right behind the large desk stared at Harry with widened eyes.
"Harry," the portrait of Albus Dumbledore said. "And Mrs. Potter, and Mr. Weasley."
"Dumbledore," the three murmured.
"Should I…?" Flitwick made vague motions toward the door. Harry felt a pang of guilt at forcing the diminutive man to leave his own office.
"If you don't mind…"
The door shut, and they were left alone.
Suddenly, Harry could not think of the words to say. He felt uncomfortable, and Dumbledore's piercing gaze and the mutterings of the other portraits did not make it any better.
Ginny nudged him, and Harry realized that he'd been staring for longer than he'd expected.
"The price was too high," Harry said heavily. He felt tears sting his eyes. Dumbledore had to know if it was possible. He had to.
"Oh, Harry…" The portrait leaned back in his chair.
"Is there any way… Do you know…" Harry took a deep breath. "We want to change it."
Dumbledore was silent for a long time.
"We know a Time-Turner wouldn't work," Ron said gruffly. Ginny had started to shake again.
"We want to go back to the battle," Harry said firmly.
"Why?" Dumbledore asked. He'd folded his hands together and pierced each of them with his gaze.
Harry's mouth fell open. Wasn't it obvious? "We want to save them, Dumbledore. We're not… we can't… We have to try! Is there –"
But Dumbledore interrupted him. "You misunderstand. Why go back to the battle? You could do very little. You might save one or two, but there would still be heavy losses."
"Is there a way or not?" Ron asked loudly. Harry felt like kicking him; they needed Dumbledore on their side!
"Yes," said Dumbledore.
Harry turned away and ran his hands through his hair. Ginny gave a wordless cry, and clapped her hand over her mouth. Ron was breathing heavily, as if he had just run a few kilometers.
"There is a way," Dumbledore continued. "There are several, actually, but only one that is advisable at this juncture. It isn't instant, of course; you will need to make several preparations, including a very complex potion, and complicated spell. You are lucky there are three of you. One man alone would find it nigh impossible."
"We'll do it," Harry said instantly. "Right now."
"Ah, but there is no 'right now' when it comes to this," Dumbledore told them. "You will need to prepare. The potion itself takes three years."
"Not to mention there are certain decisions you must make regarding it. How far back you need to travel, for instance. That must be decided before you even begin to make the potion, for the amount of ingredients you will need will vary slightly."
"But… We want to go back three years," Harry said. "To the battle."
"I would not advise that," Dumbledore said. "This is not at all like a Time-Turner; there will not be two of each of you running around. You will find yourself as pressed and challenged as you were that night. The only thing that will be different is that your memories of this timeline will remain. You will know when and where things you wish to stop happening will happen, but there is no guarantee that you will be able to."
"Are… you think we shouldn't do this?" Ginny asked tentatively. "Because we've already made up our minds."
"I very much think that you should do this, Mrs. Potter," Dumbledore's eyes twinkled like mad. "But if you're doing this, you should do it right. In for a knut, in for a galleon, I'd say."
"What the bloody hell does that mean?" Ron asked rudely.
"Hold on," Harry's mind worked frantically. "I think… Do you mean that we should go back further?"
"Excellent, Harry," Dumbledore looked as pleased as though he'd gotten good marks on a difficult essay. "If you go back far enough, you could stop the final battle from happening at all."
Harry thought back. They could go back to any point in the years that Harry, Ron, and Hermione had been searching for Horcruxes. He knew exactly where they were, it would've made it so much faster and easier to hunt them down and destroy them. Voldemort would have less time to amass his army, and the odds against those who chose to stand with Harry would not be so bleak. He could even be sure to save Remus and Tonks and Teddy from being murdered in their own home. But… what if he could go back to before Dumbledore had died? He could stop him from putting on the ring; Snape would not have needed to kill him, and Harry could have the brilliant wizard at his side. Or he could go back even further… Sirius. The battle in the Department of Mysteries could have been avoided, Harry knew full well that it would be a trap, he wouldn't even go. And if he went back to his fourth year, he could ensure that Voldemort did not rise at the time, and Cedric could survive.
Ron and Ginny were watching him cautiously, and Harry realized that he was beaming.
"I think we ought to go back to our first year," he told them. "We can take care of the Horcruxes, we can stop a lot of bad things from happening, and we can have years and years of preparing before Voldemort is resurrected. Dumbledore," he turned to the portrait. "Do you think I'll still have a Horcrux inside me if I go back?"
"Absolutely," he said. "The only things that will change are your memories. The prophecy will still exist, although I'd be curious to see if it changes at all. It is possible…"
Harry looked alarmed, but Dumbledore rushed to reassure him. "It will not change the essence of the prophecy, I don't think. But I would not be surprised if the wording changed."
"What is this method, Dumbledore?" Ginny asked.
"The potion is called the Tears of Merlin – he was the one who created it and, I believe, the only one to use it. The spell is called the Web, or the Bent Reality. It takes both to do it, they're very clearly entwined with each other," Dumbledore paused. "I would suggest that you plan extremely carefully what you intend to do. Write it all down. Go through it step by step before you even begin. You'll be allowed some room, but your goals must be clear."
"Er, why?" Ron asked.
"The key ingredients of the potion are your memories," Dumbledore said quietly. "You'll need to add as much of them as you can, everything you can offer. I would recommend speaking to others about their memories of the war, and add those in as well. All the knowledge you have will give you greater ammunition for your eleven-year-old selves."
"So the potion involves our memories?" Harry asked. "Is it like a Pensieve?"
"Yes," Dumbledore beamed at him. "Exactly. But once those memories are in the potion, you can't access them, which is why you need to plan very, very carefully. I will, of course, be of all the help I can. The last memory you will offer will be making the potion. The only thing you won't be able to take with you is the incantation for the spell."
"And where can we find information on this?" Ron asked, and then added hopefully, "Do you have it memorized?"
"No, but you'll find it in the Restricted Section in a slim book called Memories Unbound. It has an entire chapter."
"Well," Harry said finally. "It looks like we've got quite a lot of work to do."
"If anyone can do it properly, it'll be you three," Dumbledore said. "I only have one thing to ask of you. Please tell me. I know," he paused. "I know it made you angry that I kept things from you, Harry. And I do apologize –"
"Of course we're going to tell you," Harry grinned at him. "I'm not about to alienate one of my best allies."
"We'd better get to work," Ron said. "Three years starts now."
In the end, it took them four years of careful, plodding preparations. Despite their impatience, they knew they had to get this right. They had a lot to lose.
The black-haired man sat beside a red-haired woman whom he barely remembered, but for whom he felt an aching tenderness though he did not know why. Theoretically he knew that he and the woman and the red-haired man were working on something desperate. Something that kept them going even though they had no idea what. Sometimes they joked about it. He had the feeling that they used to joke a lot more.
Yesterday, the strange potion had crystallized. Three shards of what looked like translucent, glowing glass remained in the cauldron. The black-haired man wanted to touch it, even though he knew that that was the last thing he should do. It would ruin everything. But what, he asked himself, was everything? He knew that he would find the answers in the cauldron, but every time he thought of touching it, his heart constricted in his chest. The red-haired man asked him every day if he knew why they couldn't touch it, but the black-haired man couldn't remember.
"We have to say the spell," the beautiful red-haired woman said. "It's ready."
"How do you know?" The black-haired man asked fearfully. "What if it isn't?"
"It says here in our notes," she replied. "I wrote this: 'when the potion crystallizes, it is time to use the spell. DO NOT TOUCH IT.'"
"All right," the red-haired man said. "We'll say the spell. I remember the spell, at least. Just not anything else."
"Isn't that what was supposed to happen?" the black-haired man asked. It frustrated him that he could not remember this man's name. He felt that he ought to know it, but his entire head felt like a gaping hole.
"Yes, we've written it all over here," the red-haired man said. "I wonder why we kept writing notes to ourselves."
"I don't know if we'll ever know."
"We should say it," The black-haired man said firmly. "Right now, before we forget anything else."
They clasped hands. The red-haired woman began a long incantation that sounded like a song. The two men joined in. They kept it up, even as the lights went out and the room darkened. The only light came from the cauldron.
The black-haired man watches as the shards of glass rose in the air and stuck to something that looked like a spider web made of tiny lights. It hurt his eyes, so he blinked. The room steadily darkened, and the woman's palm was sweating. The other man was shaking.
He heard a cry that lifted the hairs off his neck. He'd never heard anything like it. It seemed to last for a life-time, and then everything went completely dark. A strange thought echoed through his mind: for always and always. Still gripping the others' hands, he tumbled forward into nothing.