It was a cold winter morning. Snow wasn't unusual in that part of the land but it rarely came with the vehemence that it had that particular morning. An icy wind rattled the roof of the cottage and the fire in the fireplace jiggled in defiance. A boy, no more than nine years old, huddled in front of the fireplace on a rug, snuggled against a creature more beautiful than words can depict. The boy treated the unicorn as family.
"Why did they have to leave? Why couldn't they have lived longer?" asked the boy quietly. In response, the silver unicorn licked his cheek. "Promise me you'll never leave me, Dia," the boy begged miserably, his arms thrown around the unicorn's neck, clutching the creature tightly, as if fearing she would get up and leave him that very instant. "Never leave me! I'll never leave you either!"
The unicorn poked her horn on the boy's belly, making him yelp and jump up, before she crouched on the floor, with her head down, an indicator of her desiring him on her back.
Harry smiled weakly and climbed on the unicorn's back, and the creature trotted towards the door, unlocking it with her horn and pushing it open with her head. Instantly, a wall of icy cold breeze and specks of white snow slammed against the two, and Harry brushed the snow off from the unicorn's face, beginning to hum slowly. A soft melody left his lips that related the sorrow of his parting from the only parents he knew. Tom and Goldberry had spoken to him in length, explaining to him of the nature of their existence, and how it had to come to an end. They told him of his special purpose in the world and the need for him to remain strong, even as Harry watched them fade away into the very elements they came from.
He sang, recalling their last moments - a melody that narrated how the river's daughter returned to the waters whence she came form, while the water lilies from her garments floated in the water long after she had disappeared. He sang of Tom, the Master of the land, the firstborn, closed his eyes for his long awaited slumber and blew away as dust in the wind. And finally, he sung for himself, a little boy, alone with his faithful companion - a unicorn; and how they walked alone in the dark and snowy morning.
After the first moment, snow didn't touch them, nor did the cold enter their bones, for Harry's song kept it at bay - a warm protective glow that only the tenderness in his melody could bring. And so the boy and the unicorn traveled on and on, as the snow gave way and a pale sun emerged overhead, but Harry never stopped singing his loneliness.
And as they traveled on and on, Harry suddenly stopped singing. He found himself in a small patch of garden in a valley between small hills. Tom had told him to make for the elven realm but Harry didn't like it there. Goldberry had whispered that he should follow his heart. There was only one place out of Tom and Goldberry's land that Harry would want to visit, only one place that was like paradise to him.
He had wandered out of Tom's lands and ventured into the territory of man, but the garden that he entered in was worthy of Master Tom and Lady Goldberry themselves. He left Dia's back and slowly looked around. In several layers of circles, not perfectly shaped, but naturally formed, were winter flowers of many colors - white hellebores, ivy covered the ground where lush bushes would emerge in spring, sheltered by trees that hid the small paradise from outsiders. Other layers Harry could perceive, covered in white in honor of that season as he walked to the middle, traversing through the pleasant route between flowers.
He had been there once before, again on Dia's back, a year ago.
In the middle was a small pond, about the size of the living room in Tom's cottage, frozen in ice. He gathered his footing and walked around the pond in a circle, observing the beauty of the garden from all angles from within. The trees jutted inwards, some were evergreen, some were devoid of their adorning leaves, but all moved together to shelter the garden from outsiders. Harry sighed and touched Dia's horn as she settled peacefully on a bed of grass, sheltered from the snow by a particularly thick growth of trees and foliage.
He recalled of the previous time he had been there, when they had wandered away a bit too far from home. He recalled it well for he had thought the garden to be paradise. With a smile, Harry sat down, and resting his head on Dia's stomach, fell asleep, his troubles assuaged for the time being. He was in paradise.
Some time later, Harry stirred and pulled the thick cover closer to himself. Then his eyes opened suddenly and he stared with surprise at the cloak that covered him like a warm blanket. He got up and saw Dia was no longer next to him, and he started looking for her frantically, a strange fear emerging in his heart. But it was misplaced, for the sight that met his eyes brought a smile to his face. In the middle of the frozen pond, Dia was running around, playing with a small girl of about his age. He gathered the cloak that was draped around him in his arms and walked towards the girl, who froze on seeing him approach.
Harry's smile faltered on recalling how distressed the girl had been the previous time he was there. That was when Dia prodded the girl with her horn and pushed her towards him. "Hello, I am Harry, and that's Dia, my best friend. I think of her as my sister. What's your name?" The girl didn't respond, instead she made a choking noise and pointed at her throat. Harry understood and nodded sadly. "Oh." When the girl was about to turn and leave, he called out anxiously, "Is this your garden?"
The girl turned around eagerly and nodded vigorously, a hint of pride visible in her eyes.
"It is paradise. Please do not leave because of me. I am sorry to intrude again." The girl appeared uncertain, but she turned from Harry to the unicorn and back to Harry with a big smile on her face. She reached forward and grabbed Harry's hands and started running. Laughing, Harry allowed her to drag him to the pond and they chased each other, the three of them playing underneath the winter sun - two unable to speak but all three in perfect understanding with each other and nature.
"Are we friends?" Harry asked eagerly after they stopped after getting exhausted from the running around. The girl looked at him hopefully with wide eyes. "I'd love to be your friend, but I don't know your name," Harry added apologetically. But seeing the dejected look in the girl's face, he added brightly, "So I'll give you a name for myself." The girl looked at him hopefully. Harry frowned thoughtfully. "Your hair is as bright as the golden sunflowers of Imladris. I'll call you Elanor after it!"
The girl smiled brightly and nodded her head vigorously, indicating her approval. Then she gave a light laugh and got up, running away from Harry, who followed after her. And the children began playing again.
At some point, Harry saw the girl shiver from the cold and stopped running. Opening his mouth, he started singing, not with words, but a perfect harmony with nature, a melody that rejoiced his sudden discovery of the garden and the girl within. As he hummed, there was a slight warmth around them. But as he sang, something else also happened.
The girl, Astoria Greengrass, renamed Elanor, was sitting in the ground by his feet, and she gasped in disbelief and amazement. In front of her eyes, bits of the garden that had retreated for the winter, came back to life. Orange and white lilies, blue irises, green leaves, jutting their head over the white snow, making the garden even more beautiful with each new spark of life.
The girl grabbed Harry's hand and sighed dreamily. She understood his song despite the lack of words for such was her life, and for his part, Harry never stopped singing. Instead, he removed one of the handful of waterlilies he had kept with himself as reminder of Goldberry and covered it within his palm. He resumed singing in a strong medley of emotions - his grief at parting from Goldberry and Tom, his joy at finding a new friend, his wonder at the beauty of the garden, his love for Dia - he poured them all into that single flower.
When he opened his palm, Harry himself was shocked. He had acted out of instinct, not knowing what he was doing but what he saw in his hand amazed him. Instead of a flower lay a small jewel, not a stone, but of ice, holding the dancing flames of fire inside, covered in green misty earth. The white petal rested within. It shone like a star and then dimmed. Harry smiled, he knew it wouldn't melt. Something stronger than temperature preserved it. He handed it to his new friend, saying, "For you, Elanor."
At that moment, while two innocent children were blossoming in the bright light and warmth of their newfound friendship, a woman suddenly dropped a plate of food that she was holding and ran out of the kitchen and to her bedroom. Frantically, she started throwing aside the contents of her drawer, searching for a specific item. Finally, she brought out a mirror and called out in distress, "James! James Potter!"
The mirror buzzed and the confused face of James Potter appeared. "Lily? Honey, what's wrong?"
Lily Potter clutched the mirror with her fingers, her nails biting into the glass and stated simply, "He's alive!" On seeing a blank look on her husband's face, she repressed the urge to shriek and repeated slowly, "He is alive! I know it! Our son, Harry… he is alive!"
With widening eyes, James said, "Lily, wait for me. Stay where you are, okay? I'll be there in a few seconds."
Lily nodded and dropped the mirror in her bed. She ran out to the living room and saw James emerge from the fireplace. "He is alive!" she repeated. "I felt him again. I felt his love, his grief…"
"Lily," began James slowly, taking his wife's hands. "Slowly, from the beginning."
Lily looked at James with confusion and blinked a few times. Then she said, "It happened again. I could feel it so clearly. My son… our son… he is alive. Please say that you believe me, James."
"I do," said James firmly. "Sometimes, I feel something too, but I don't know… it's been so many years… but I do believe you."
"And I could feel his need, James!" said Lily urgently. "He needs me! My son needs me! We have to find him!"
"We tried for many years, Lily," said James. "The Ministry is not going to give any more aid. More than seven years have passed. They have given up."
"Please, James," begged Lily tearfully. "Otherwise, I'll search for him on my own. I don't care how long it takes, I will -"
"And what about Neville?" cut in James, a bit sharply, and he instantly regretted it, seeing the hurt in his wife's eyes as her resolve to go in search for her son came crashing around her. "No, Lily, you have a son to care for here. I will fetch him back from the Weasleys and you will stay with him," he said firmly. "Then I will go to the Ministry and find Chief Auror Sirius Black and convince him that there is a new development in our missing son's case."
Lily looked at her husband with relief. She kissed his cheek and said, "You haven't spoken to him in ages. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"For Harry," he nodded. Then, the light in his eyes dimmed further. "Also, I need to mend some bridges that should never have been broken. We have been invited by him and his fiancée to the Greengrass Manor for Christmas Eve dinner. I was going to politely refuse but…"
"Let's go for it," said Lily, taking James' hands. "I have a good feeling about it."
Nodding, James apparated to the Burrow, reflecting on how close their families had become. Neville and Ron were very close friends, while Lily relied greatly on Molly during her emotional relapses when James wasn't around. James waved from outside when Molly Weasley's face appeared at the window. Within moments, the door opened and James walked in.
"I hope Neville behaved himself, Molly?" he asked.
"As usual, Neville was a perfect angel until he was led astray by Fred and George," Molly said.
James stifled a chuckle. "What did they do this time?"
Molly shrugged it aside. "Nothing serious or bad or worrying. Just some childish pranks." She grinned. "Although, when Ginny became upset with the prank, Neville told the twins off and apologized very sweetly. He was a right gentleman."
James grinned at his adopted son. "Ready to go back home, sport? I have some work at the Ministry until late." He frowned at Neville's reluctant expression, as he glanced back at Ron and the twins. Sighing, he turned to Molly. "Looks like the kids haven't finished yet. Molly, can I impose on you -"
"Oh, don't be silly, James!" Molly exclaimed. "Neville can stay as long as he want. I'll fetch Lily and we'll make a nice dinner, while you and Arthur finish work."
Sirius Black was surprised. He turned eagerly to his assistant, Kingsley Shacklebolt, and nodded. "Don't be standing there, Kingsley, show Mr. Potter inside!" But he himself got up simultaneously. "Never mind." Walking to the door, he threw it open, and saw his childhood friend staring at him.
"James," Sirius whispered.
James Potter smiled ruefully. "May I come in, Sirius?"
Sirius jumped back, realizing he had frozen in his place. He showed James to a seat. "Can I offer you a drink? Tea, Coffee?"
"Do you have anything stronger?" James enquired. "The snow has chilled me to the bone."
Sirius nodded. "Kingsley, some brandy please." They both sat and stared at each other in silence while the assistant to the Chief Auror poured to glasses of the liquor. "Pour yourself some too," Sirius muttered. "Shut the door on your way out. I don't want to be disturbed."
James took a sip, his gaze falling to the desk. "Busy time, huh?"
"You bet," said Sirius. "I'm taking the whole fortnight off from Monday till the New Year."
James smiled softly. "So you and Betty McKinnon?"
"She goes by Elizabeth Greengrass nowadays," Sirius returned.
"Not for long, I suppose," said James. "Elizabeth Black… it does have a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"
Sirius snorted but shook his head. "She's keeping her name. Her elder daughter is a bit…" Sirius paused. "Daphne was against the whole idea from the start." James raised an eyebrow. "But we've become great friends lately and she doesn't mind it so much now. Betty promised her she wouldn't change their names, and I'll move in, instead of they moving out. I don't mind really."
James hesitated. "Sirius," he began. "Padfoot… I'm sorry, I haven't been the best of friends to you. How can I ever ask you to forgive -"
"Don't Prongs!" Sirius cut in sharply. "Please don't apologize." A dark look entered his face. "It might not have been intentional but I did make a terrible mistake that night that caused great pain to you and Lily. Lily's face from that night still haunts me to this day. Your wish to stay away was fully justified. I'm just glad you are here now."
James didn't reply for a long time. Finally, he said, "We never blamed you and I think you know that. There was just too much… too much going on… Lily's pain was too much for me to handle… I had to be strong for her… the betrayal of Remus and Peter…"
"James, you don't have to explain anything," Sirius said firmly. "The fact that you are here now, perhaps to accept my Christmas Eve invitation - ?" He looked hesitantly at James, who smiled. "Good. That's enough."
James raised his glass and both friends toasted the rebirth of their friendship.
"How are the girls? You mentioned Daphne. What about the second daughter?" said James.
"Astoria," Sirius replied, with a bright smile. "She's a delightful girl." His smile dimmed. "Birth complications and premature conception has left her weak and incapable of speech." James looked at him sympathetically. "But Prongs," he said thoughtfully, "there is so much life in her! She is the most vibrant and lively person I've met! An angel, if I ever saw one."
"Your new family sounds wonderful," said James. "I can't wait for Christmas Eve!"
"Oh, look at me!" Sirius chided himself. "I'm being so selfish. How's Lily holding up? How's Neville?"
James was about to return a polite answer but hesitated. He took a deep breath. "I'm worried, Padfoot." Sirius' face became full of concern. "Even after all these years, we're still unable to let go of Harry." He sighed, it was finally out in the open. "Just now as well, I was right outside your office when Lily urgently called me home."
Sirius remained silent.
"She said she got a feeling, a premonition, some sort of intuition, a conviction - yes, a conviction - that Harry's alive," James rambled. "I'm troubled, Sirius, because I got it too. That very same instant."
Sirius' eyes widened.
"It has happened several times," continued James. "But it is always stronger with Lily. Today, she was almost prepared to leave home and hunt for Harry all by herself."
Sirius sighed. "Where would she start looking?"
"That's precisely why I am not looking for him," James muttered. "I convinced Lily to stay with Neville." Sirius nodded. "I know this is against Ministry guidelines, as Harry's been missing for more than seven years -"
"Consider it done," Sirius stated. "I'll get some of my best people working on it." His optimism faltered. "Although, there is very little to work on… James, don't get your hopes up."
James shook his head. "It's not about hope. It hasn't been for quite some time," he said ruefully. "This is about closure. Thanks, Padfoot." James smiled.
Sirius looked out the window at the heavy snowfall. "What happened, James? We were so… untouchable, unbeatable, we were the mighty Marauders… always so wild and free. Look at us now. One, in Azkaban; another, out of touch and he better stay that way; and the two of us, at tenterhooks with each other."
James finished his brandy. "Tomorrow night, then. We don't need a full moon or Lupin to be wild and free, do we? Let's let Prongs and Padfoot relive old times again!"
Sirius turned his head from the depressing sight outside the window and to his friend. They both had identical grins on their faces.
Elizabeth smiled. Her younger daughter, Astoria, had a much broader than usual smile on her face. She had been beginning to get worried about Astoria and her worsening mood. Even her garden failed to make her happy, but that had changed a couple of days ago. Astoria had left the house sullenly but returned a few hours later with a massive smile on her face. Since that day, the little girl had been insistent about having her meals in her garden.
Once again, Elizabeth observed fondly as her daughter grabbed her picnic basket from its corner in the kitchen and dropped half a loaf of bread and some cheese inside. Chuckling, Elizabeth left her tea and placed some fruits and a bottle of spiced apple juice as well. It was a cold December afternoon and Elizabeth tightened the coat around her daughter, before kissing her forehead.
"Run along, baby, but be back if it gets too cold."
Elizabeth watched Astoria rush outside before realizing that her fiancé had arrived from the floo and was observing her. Smiling, she walked over to him for a quick hug.
"The Potters will be joining us for dinner tomorrow," Sirius Black said, as he poured himself a cup of tea.
"That's great!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "It will be good for Daphne and Draco to meet Neville before they start Hogwarts. What changed Mr. Potter's mind?"
Sirius sighed. "I think it's been coming for sometime. I'm glad, but I don't know how I'll ever be able to face Lily."
"Shush," Elizabeth said softly. "It wasn't your fault."
Sirius smiled ruefully but didn't argue with her. "I see Astoria's gotten over whatever had been bugging her."
"Yes, and I'm so glad. I was getting very worried about her. Apparently, she's got herself a new invisible friend," said Elizabeth.
Sirius chuckled. "Who's it this time? And whatever happened to Monty the invisible python?"
"Monty hurt a rabbit," said Elizabeth, "and that's why Astoria was annoyed with Monty. Her new friends are a unicorn and a boy."
Sirius blinked for a few seconds before laughing. "A boy! You can tell she's starting to grow up!"
"Yes, and I am so glad there won't be any Blacks or Potters let loose in Hogwarts when she goes there!"
Sirius' face fell slightly, he stood up and sighed. "There should have been a Potter going to Hogwarts next September."
Elizabeth gazed slightly as her fiancé fought against the demons of his past, as he gazed outside the window into the surprisingly bright December day.