Harry Potter opened the missive with hands that trembled. He wasn't at all sure that he wanted to know what was within, and the pain at losing the owner of the careful script that the letter was addressed in was still fresh and raw. The owl had shown up while Harry had been eating breakfast, prepared and served by a remarkably obedient and quiet Kreacher, and Harry had nearly tossed the letter out upon seeing the gracefully addressed envelope. He knew that handwriting; the owner had marked his homework and exams for a year.
Within the envelope was a letter, several pages long, written on creamy vellum, and Harry spent a few minutes trying to summon up the courage to read it. Finally, he started at the top:
If you are reading this, then I have indeed died, and in doing so have abandoned you once again. For that, I am so very sorry. Although I suspect my passing was not gentle, please take some comfort in the fact that I am with your parents and Sirius once again, as I have missed them so very much. For myself, I am comforted by the knowledge that you have survived, as you are so good at doing, and will live a long, and hopefully happy, life. There is so very much that I have wanted to say to you, but could not find the courage to do so to your face - at least, not while you are conscious. I'll come back to that later, I promise.
I have much to thank you for, Dora and Teddy not least of them. Don't give me that look, I'll explain: while I love Dora and Teddy with all my heart, it was you who taught me how to love, who taught me what it was to love someone completely and unconditionally. Without loving you, I never would have been capable of loving Dora, and without loving Dora, I would not have Teddy.
Your penchant for finding and causing chaos and panic started very, very early. It all started one late July evening, for we had an Order meeting and your mother, who was due at any moment, insisted on attending against our best judgment. Her argument was that if Alice Longbottom, who had delivered young Neville very early that morning, could attend, then so could she. And as she had cultivated a healthy fear of her early in her pregnancy within us, we eventually acquiesced.
A possible mistake, as it turned out, for Lily went into labour right in the middle of our meeting. It is fortunate that we were meeting at Hogwarts that night, and that Madam Pomfrey was in residence, for James was able to assist Lily down to the hospital wing while Dumbledore adjourned the meeting and the rest of their close friends rushed down to be nearby. Alice and James went in to assist Poppy, while Frank Longbottom, Sirius, Peter, and I paced outside, taking turns holding Neville.
Fortunately, wizarding births are much shorter than Muggle, for James rushed outside within an hour, with the biggest, dopiest smile I have ever seen on his face (and that counts the days that she agreed to marry him, their wedding day, and the day Lily told him you were coming). At the moment he flung the doors open, we heard you wail loudly, I guess the sound startled you, and suddenly all the uncharmed glass in the infirmary shattered. It was at that moment that we knew you were destined for great things. It also started your preference for shattering glass when you got upset.
After Madam Pomfrey cleaned you up and checked you over, James got his turn to hold you, and then Sirius, and then Sirius passed you to me, and as I got you settled comfortably in my arms you looked me right in the eyes, and at that very moment I fell in love. I loved James, Lily, Sirius, and yes, even Peter, but until then I had never felt total, all encompassing, completely unconditional love. I swore in that moment that I would stop at nothing to protect you, even if it meant I had to die to save you, even if it was from yourself.
As a werewolf, I had accepted that I wouldn't be able to have children, and that the children of my closest friends would be as close as I could get. It was something I freely admitted, and even took comfort in, but in that moment, my wolf claimed you as much ours as you were theirs. You were the child of my heart, if not body, and for 15 months I doted on your every waking moment.
I must say, you even took to the Maraudering spirit rather well, too. By the time you were about 8 or 9 months old, you were starting to identify people by name. After some very careful coaching on Lily's part (which I found out later), you called me "Moony", and James "Prongs". We all expected you to call Sirius "Padfoot", as that was the pattern you had thus established. Imagine our surprise and consternation when you then declared Sirius was "Daddy!". I think poor Padfoot was more surprised than James, and only years of practice kept me from laughing out loud. As James chased Sirius out of the room, Lily finally broke down and confessed what she'd done, wiping tears of laughter from her cheeks, all the while you banged your blocks and looked rather pleased with yourself.
But I digress; with that awful Halloween, my world came to a sudden, crashing halt and collapsed around me. I lost my entire family in less than 24 hours. James, Lily, you, Sirius, and Peter, all taken away from me. I sank into a deep depression that lasted for several weeks. At that point I had nothing left to live for and might have killed myself if I hadn't been so ill from that next full moon, the first in several years without any company.
It wasn't until the first week of December, when I went out to replenish my supply of alcohol, that I woke up and realized that Christmas was coming. I scrambled to put together a present for you and sent it off. The owl returned the next day looking the worse for wear, and I realized that it had probably run into some owl wards to protect you and the Dursleys from wizarding post.
I figured that was no matter, and looked up your aunt's address in the muggle telephone book. As James and Sirius were unavoidably detained by an exam on Petunia's wedding day, the two of them insisted that Lily take me along as her escort, so I well remembered her husband's name. I repackaged your present and mailed it, only for it to return unopened a few days later. At that point, I decided to just hand deliver it, but the neighbourhood had been so well warded that no magical person, and definitely no werewolf, could get within a 5-block radius of your aunt's house. I couldn't even get to Arabella's house to ask her to deliver your present for me. I realize now that this was probably a good thing, as your aunt and uncle would surely have taken it away from you had they known about it. But I wasn't quite as good at introspection then as I am now.
I returned home that morning, completely dejected, to find an owl from Dumbledore asking me up to the castle at my earliest convenience, where he explained that part of his agreement with Petunia had entailed absolutely no deliberate contact with anyone magical. I suspect that he was afraid that I would kidnap you if I got close enough to. He was probably right.
I broke, Harry, in that very moment. I had absolutely nothing left. I had lost my brothers and sister, and now my child, my cub had been taken from me too. My entire family, gone in an instant, and me left all alone to pick up the pieces of my life, and try to move on.
But I couldn't do it, Harry. For the first time in almost 10 years I was completely and totally alone in the world. To stay where I would be constantly reminded every minute of every hour of every day of what I had lost would have driven me mad. So I did the only thing I could think of; I left, Harry. I boarded my house up, placed my belongings in long-term storage, packed what I needed, and I left England.
It's the most selfish thing I've ever done, and probably the one thing I'm least proud of, Harry, and I despise myself every day for being so weak as to abandon you when you needed me most. And I'm so very sorry for that, too. I spent 10 years wandering Europe, fashioning myself as a magical nuisance exterminator/problem solver, and returned in time for your first year at Hogwarts.
I was at King's Cross on September 1st, hoping for just a glimpse of you. Merlin, the shock I received the first time I got a good look at your face! It was like traveling 20 years in the past. I wanted to approach you right then, but then we wouldn't have had much time to talk, and how would you have taken a strange man coming up to you out of nowhere, suddenly wanting to talk? I know children in the Muggle world are taught to be wary of such people, and the last thing I wanted was to frighten you, so I stayed away.
I got a flat near Hogsmeade, trying to stay close, never realizing that you wouldn't be going to Hogsmeade for another 2 years. I sat in the stands for your every Quidditch match, and I sat by your bedside every night after your encounter with Voldemort at the end of the year. I confessed all to you while you slept.
I drafted so many letters that year, and didn't send one. How do you tell someone you abandoned why you did so? How do you confess to being such a coward that you couldn't face the thought of life without someone (or several someones) and so deserted the one person you had left in the world? I couldn't do it, Harry. I wanted so badly for you to think well of me when we finally met that there was no way I could confess my perfidy. By the time I finally had summoned up the courage to tell you, it was too late. I had spent several months teaching you and getting to know you, and there was no way I wanted to disillusion you. I knew that if I told you about knowing your parents, I would have to tell you my role in the aftermath of their deaths, and so I kept quiet. It was selfish, and self-absorbed, and you have no idea how much I regret it. I'm sorry.
Then everything with Sirius happened, and you didn't need me any further. I was all right... Okay, fine, I wasn't all right with that, but I contented myself with staying in contact with you by proxy through Sirius' letters the next year. I wanted to be there with you and for you during the Tournament, but Sirius was adjusting to freedom so badly that he needed me more. Voldemort and the Dursleys may have stolen your childhood, Harry, but the Ministry and Azkaban stole Sirius' maturity. Azkaban put him in a bit of stasis where growing up was concerned. He really was a little bit insane by the time he escaped, the Dementors made sure of that. He, too, didn't want you to think badly of him, so he did his very best to hide the worst of it from you. But we were so very thankful that Molly, Arthur, and Bill could be there with you when we couldn't.
Molly had it partly right when she told Sirius that he saw you as another James. You saw it yourself that last night in the Department of Mysteries. Never doubt that he loved you, Harry. He made the same vow I did when you were born, as did James, and they have both fulfilled it.
By the time your Sixth year rolled around, my habit of watching from afar was so deeply ingrained that I couldn't bring myself to break it, even as I watched you struggle with your grief. You were so unhappy during Dumbledore's funeral, and I wanted so badly to take you in my arms and hide you away from the world, to keep you from being hurt any more, that I froze yet again.
And that brings us to today. I want you to know that I am sorry for what I said to you when you refused to let me go with you, and I forgave you everything I forced you to say to me the instant after you said it. I am only deeply regretful that I forced you into such an unpalatable situation. And you were very right. If I had left Dora, there is no guarantee that she would have taken me back once I came to my senses; even if I had I would have felt obligated to stay with you, and then we all would have been miserable.
So it truly is thanks to you that I have Dora and Teddy. And that brings me to another thing; if I know my Dora at all (and I like to think I do), during the final confrontation with Voldemort, she will be right on the front lines, despite promising me that she will stay safe with Teddy. And when that happens, I have few illusions about what will happen. I do hope that it will be me sitting beside you, explaining this letter to you; I pray that Tonks will be with you as you read this, but I have a bad feeling that it will not be. You are not to blame, Harry. Tonks loves you almost as much as I do, and just as much as the Weasleys do, and she would not want you to blame yourself either. We both went into this war with eyes wide open, and I made sure she understood that my very first loyalty is to you; she agrees.
And so, I have one last request to make of you. I know that I have no right to ask anything of you, but I ask that you indulge me one last time:
Please, Harry, look out for Teddy. Be the father I, and James, and even Sirius, did not have the chance to be. Be his dad in every way that matters. Teach him how to fly a broom, how to shave, how to be a good man. If my son turns out half as well as you, I will be the proudest father in the world. And if, one day, Teddy decides to call you "Daddy", know that you, and he, will not be besmirching anybody's memory. Remember, any man can be a father, but it takes a true man to be a dad. You are that man, Harry. And if you ever doubt it, all you need to do is look into his eyes, and see the absolute trust and faith he has in you to do the right thing for him. It worked for James, it worked for Sirius, and it definitely worked for me (times two, even!).
I have enclosed a letter for Teddy to read when you think the time is right.
I do love you, Harry; I always have. I am only sorry that I was too afraid to tell you this to your face, for I would have proclaimed so, and loudly too, at every opportunity, and every day I had with you.
I do not expect you to join us in the afterlife for a great many years, at which time I will take great pleasure in telling you how much I love you every day for everyone to hear. Until then, however, I will have to be content with this: You are the child of my heart, and I could not love you any more if you truly were of my body and blood.
This truly is the first day of the rest of your life. You're free, Harry. Work, travel, learn; whatever you want to do, you can. Just as long as you take the time to live, Harry, the rest will come to you.
Be happy, Harry.
P.S. I know that no owl could ever replace Hedwig, but now it seems that Archimedes is in need of a new home. And I believe you currently do not possess such an animal...
Harry laid the letter aside, crossed his arms on the table, and buried his face in them. And for the first time since he was very, very small, Harry Potter wept.