Well, this is it. A big thanks to all who reviewed/alerted/favourited after the last chapter. This last one is another monster size-wise, and features a nice big comprehensive timeline of events thus far before we get to the main action. Anyways, enjoy!
Disclaimer :: All things Harry Potter belong to JK Rowling. This fanfiction is a non-profit thing written for enjoyment of myself and my readers.
Breach of Contract: Twelve Signs.
Written by Matt Silver
The Events So Far ::
June, 1997: Dumbledore is killed by Snape. The alternate divergence of the Breach of Contract backstory starts here.
August, 1997: Remus Lupin leaves Tonks before they can start a proper relationship, deciding to join up with Greyback's werewolves and try to subvert them from the inside. Voldemort takes over the Ministry, killing Scrimgeour along the way. Auror Dover's first year as an Auror is off to a great start.
September, 1997: Harry, Ron and Hermione go on the run and start Horcrux hunting. They break into the Ministry and retrieve the Slytherin's locket. Meanwhile, the Carrows and Snape start their terror campaign at Hogwarts, torturing people left and right. Neville steps up and starts up the DA again.
October, 1997: Harry, Ron and Hermione make a conscious choice to run back to the Order for help. They explain to several key folk about the Horcruxes, and Moody starts a campaign in earnest. The Order wards Grimmauld to high hell and use it as a headquarters. Muggleborns and other enemies of Voldemort go missing or end up dead.
November, 1997: Tonks's parents are killed. She and Harry bond over that, but she gets into a horrible depression. Horcrux hunting stays futile as all heck. Despite Remus's best efforts, he begins to succumb to the wolf side of him and goes feral.
December, 1997: Neville joins up with the Order while on holiday, and several Death Eaters are gathered and interrogated. Moody devises a plan to kill a bunch of Death Eaters at Bulstrode Abode, and on Christmas, Harry, Ron, Bill, Neville and Moody burn down the manor, killing not only the Death Eaters, but their families, an unlucky Order member, and several dozen innocents locked up in a dungeon prison.
January, 1998: Moody captures Rabastan Lestrange and lets Neville question him. Although the Order is able to gather intelligence on Malfoy Manor, Neville's torture gets out of hand and Rabastan is killed. Many in the Order witness this event.
The Malfoy Manor raid goes off without a hitch. Pettigrew is killed by Hary and no Horcruxes are found. Several prisoners are rescued, including Arvark the goblin Chieftain and his assistant Loki. Both swear life debts to Harry.
February-May, 1998: The war hits a bloody stride. Horcrux hunting is put off while the Order does battle with the Death Eaters in open battles. Many are killed as collateral damage, Unforgivables are tossed around, and people die brutally. A lot of bad shit happens. After Moody's death, Harry himself murders and tortures and lowers himself and the Order down to Death Eater levels.
Late May, 1998: The Battle of Hogwarts. Harry calls in Arvark's life debt and retrieves Hufflepuff's Cup, while Ravenclaw's Diadem, Slytherin's Locket and Nagini are all destroyed during the battle. Several people are killed, such as Parvati Patil and Fred Weasley, not to mention Death Eaters such as Rookwood, Bellatrix Lestrange, Lucius Malfoy and Snape. Voldemort himself uses the Killing Curse and destroys the Horcrux that inhabits Harry's mind. Harry survives the curse and kills Voldemort somehow. It was spectacular, but unimportant now.
June, 1998-October, 1998: Rebuilding begins, and Kingsley Shacklebolt becomes Minister for Magic. Harry, Ron and Terry Boot join up with the Aurors to hunt down the Death Eaters. Greyback and his group run off into the wild, and Remus briefly tries to liberate the women and children before succumbing to the wolf yet again. Most of the Death Eaters are killed or Azkaban'd, though some buy their way out, like Christian Selwyn, Verdant Greengrass and Draco Malfoy. Those who did not actively participate in the war start to cry foul about the Order not getting prosecuted for their war crimes, and Kingsley, who recently lost his wife and son, starts to listen.
Mid-November, 1998: Neville is arrested. Chaos and confusion reigns and the picture becomes clear to the Order: they will be tried for their crimes. Harry is understandably a little angry at that, and believes that the purebloods have corrupted Kingsley.
December, 1998: Outlook on Neville's upcoming trial looks bleak, and from there, the rest of the Order will fall until Harry is finally prosecuted. He visits Kingsley and gets the full story - how Kingsley believes the war was won the wrong way, and how all he has left is justice, pure and true. Harry kills him for his betrayal, and sets about creating an elaborate fire that claimed the Minister's life. The Wizengamot puts a puppet in charge, while Harry looks for a solution to his current problem with his goblin friends.
January, 1999: Arvark and Loki come through, and Harry learns of a contract that he can create in order to shift reality itself. He can erase events, memories, perceptions and manipulate physical documentation of events. He cannot bring people back to life, and he may've left some inconsistencies, but he does it because he believes it to be his only option. He captures Draco Malfoy on the 12th of January, kills the last Malfoy as the first sacrifice, and shifts reality. The contract is now bound to him, and must be renewed before a set deadline every few months of so.
February, 1999: Harry and Tonks stumble upon the last stand of Greyback's werewolf group. Harry finds Remus Lupin alive and well, and, at the old man's behest, hides him and fakes his death.
February, 1999 - November, 2001: Life moves on. Harry deals with normal things, like his partner Dover's incompetence or his bosses Boot and Robards playing politics at work. He continues to renew the contract by killing bad guys and former Death Eaters. Tonks resigns from Auror fieldwork and starts teaching trainees, and her and Harry become best friends. Meanwhile, Harry continues to see Remus, regular meetings that tread over old ground over and over, and usually end unpleasantly for both parties involved.
November 7, 2001: Events of Chapter One: Eight.
November 28th-November 30th, 2001: Events of Chapter Two: Nine.
December 13th-December 15th, 2001: Events of Chapter Three: Ten.
December 16th-December 20th, 2001: Events of Chapter Four: Eleven
Chapter Five: Twelve
Approaching Midnight, December 20th, 2001: The Twelve Signs
Sometimes, I was very glad I could block it all out. I shifted reality because some bad things happened and I wanted everybody to have a happy ending, and while I could probably reconcile that with my conscience, if it wasn't for the bleed-through effect, I'd probably be a gibbering mess of guilt. The enormity of shifting reality weighs on my very being a lot more than that prophecy ever did. Maybe my contract decided to be nice to me. The theory behind rewriting reality itself never mentioned anything like this, though, to be fair, they were just theories before Arvark and Loki sat me down and showed me a recipe and handed me over a barebones contract to fill out.
I called it a bleed-through effect. I think it's because I erased or rewrote a lot of events that happened to me as well as other people. Because I was under the proper wards, the shift didn't erase my memories or anything, but sometimes it was like it had. Sometimes, I'd pick out a memory I know nobody else has, and I'd block it. Repress it to the back of my mind and forget that I felt guilt over the events that played out. Not only my individual memories had been affected - apparently everything could be repressed or blocked out to an extent. It made it easier to look people in the eye. I knew it would make it easier to make love to Tonks, simply blocking out the guilt and the pressure and feeling the happy ending I was crafting for myself.
Tonight, that ability and the contract that gave birth to it are being challenged. There's a ghost who wants to pull off a rebirthing ritual and reset reality back to how it was, and he hired a seedy former Azkabanee to help pull it off. Twelve Muggles have been murdered, innocents butchered and branded, their families' minds twisted into burying their loved ones out where the ghost himself was buried.
I sat across the way from St Michael's and checked over the equipment I had dummied together in the last fifteen minutes. My deep robe pockets made odd noises as miniature explosives clinked against materials needed for a quick and dirty exorcism. I ignored the noise and instead concentrated on the detailed little ward map I had conjured up. In preparation for their ritual, Jensen and Fallon had gone all out with keeping this little cemetery off the grid for the night. Various wards to keep the Muggles away, a few tricky ones to prevent Ministry sensors from catching any strong bursts of magic, and a number of trap wards designed to keep those entering the area locked up if they tried to leave.
Those last ones were definitely for me.
St Michael's was, like most good cemeteries, away from people. Just off the road from an outer suburb area not unlike Little Whinging, St Michael's was basically a large ditch surrounded by three high hills and some expansive forest. The forest most likely got chopped back every few years to make extra room for graves and such, though St Michael's wasn't particularly large by any standards. Having checked the wards, I strolled across the road and took up position on one of the overlooking hills, getting a nice view of the place.
Gravestones dotted the place haphazardly, some tall, some small and some too ornate and overly lavish for a graveyard. Statues of angels with hands covering their faces took up sentry and formed a border of sorts - the cemetery was not gated or fenced off. Looming over the statues were tall lampposts to light up the area at night, the dull yellow lights flickering weakly. Three crypts took up positions near what I'd roughly call the middle of the graveyard, and just off to the side of the three of them I could see where the ritual was going to take place.
The large runic pentagram was my first clue, the sign burned into the grass and illuminated by an old sickly green colour that lit up the cemetery more than the lampposts did. Twelve stone pedestals stood at equal distance from one another around the circle, with twelve coffins of varying sizes and models propped up on the pedestals at a slight angle. Floating above each of the coffins was a zodiac symbol, the signs hanging lazily in the air like a Dark Mark and coloured a similar bright green as the pentagram was. A flash of pearly white caught my eye, and I spotted Maximillian Jensen's ghost.
He was only forty-seven when he died, and his current transparency removed the more visible age lines and made him look even younger than he was when he died. Forty-seven, in wizard's terms, is an unfortunately young age to die at, barring wars and the like, but Jensen never carried himself as the mourning ghost type. No, he carefully projected himself as genial and dignified, the nicest pureblood you'd ever meet. But it was an act. The dignified air about him slipped when he was emoting, and it proved to me that forty years of practice while alive and a hundred years of practice as a ghost does not make for the perfect pureblood if it's not in his nature. Sure, he was as arrogant and opportunistic as the best of them, but he was slightly rebellious in a way I could never quite put a finger on. Unpredictable, even.
Jensen floated lazily above the pentagram, his ghostly feet almost dipping into the small black cauldron sitting in the direct centre harmlessly. Under his watchful eye, Arcturus Fallon stood outside of the pentagram and carefully levitated something into the cauldron from a distance. Fallon was a sour-looking fellow who rarely talked, a constant frown marring his hawkish features. Dark hair cut short lay atop his sharp head, and he was very tall, but did carry himself in that awkward gangly way some did. Despite the little frown on his face, he appeared calm and collective as he levitated some more ingredients into the cauldron, including, I noticed, the Marius ritual knife, a large silver blade coated in dried blood.
Fallon was my actual killer, but Jensen was the brains behind the operation. The wards around the graveyard had no anti-Portkey wards, so I assumed that Fallon would have his own emergency escape Portkey on his person. He left his position from outside the circle and walked towards the largest of the three crypts, the name Jensen emblazoned on the front in garish font. The crypt's doors were open, but from this angle I couldn't see if anything was inside. As Fallon gathered one last ingredient and levitated it into the cauldron, I levelled my wand on my forearm and took aim. I'd only have one shot.
Spells from a distance were tricky. Magic had this annoying tendency to simply dissipate into nothingness after it travelled a certain length, and someone with great power or using a finely tuned spell could make the distance I was attempting.
"Stupefy!" I thought. A sharp red lance of energy materialised out of the tip of my wand, and I reared my shoulder back and threw the spell, the Stunning Spell becoming beam-like as it travelled. Jensen let out a sharp cry as he spotted the spell first, but Fallon's attempt to turn and figure out where the spell was coming from ended with the red beam striking his neck and knocking him unconscious immediately. I didn't wait for him to hit the ground before I started to run down the steep hillside, my wand out and carefully trying to avoid jostling the tools in my pockets. At the bottom of the hill, I vaulted my way over a couple of graves and flicked a second Stunner towards Fallon's unconscious form.
"So you came!" Jensen said jovially, having not moved from his position above the cauldron, which was now bubbling. "I was starting to think you weren't going to!"
I spared him only a brief glance before incanting my strongest Blasting Curse towards the cauldron at the ghost's feet. To my surprise, the spell simply fizzled out as closed in on the cauldron, so I tried the same thing on the coffins and the pedestals holding them up. Again, the spells did not hit their mark.
I let out a frustrated breath. "Magic dampeners around the cauldron and the pedestals?"
"Should've thought of that one for Fallon too," Jensen replied. He frowned as I shot a spell through him. Good to know I could still do that.
"Goblin-made," I noted, frowning. "Fancy wards, fancy dampeners to prevent some angry man with a wand from simply blowing shit up."
"We've been planning this for nearly a year, Mr Potter. Once the ritual is underway, there'll be no stopping it."
"No way to stop it, you say?" I grinned and fished out a bottle from my left robe pocket. A sickly purple substance swirled about inside of the bottle, kept from escaping by an oversized cork. "Whipped this up in about five minutes back home. Years of mishandled Potions lessons and a few war-taught recipes. The bottle's been charmed unbreakable as long as the cork stays in. I take it out, I smash it, and then this entire graveyard gets levelled. A magical explosive, sure, but it's still pure destructive force that your dampeners won't be able to stop. I think that'd probably stop the ritual, actually."
"So why haven't you, then?" Jensen asked.
"I feel like chatting for a bit first," I replied congenially. "Put one ghostly toe out of line and I'll smash this potion. Got a bit of a switch going on too." I shuffled the sleeve of my right arm down, showing Jensen my wand holster. "Set my wand holster a little differently today. I flick my wrist, and the mechanism hits a touch-activated Portkey I made. The explosive in my left hand will be exploding merrily by the time my Portkey gets me out of here."
"You haven't seen my third trick." I slipped the explosive into a little catch tied around my left wrist - easier access - and picked out another vial from my robe pocket. I showed it to him, grinning still. "Iron shavings. Keep a ghost bound for a full minute, which'd be long enough to start an exorcism."
"Pray tell, Mr Potter, if you have all of these fancy toys at your disposal, why not just get to the exploding and the exorcising?"
"Because, like I said, I want to chat. I have the time. You know some things about me and I'd like to know how to prevent any future... incidents like this one." With Fallon down for the count, Jensen was mostly harmless. If he tried to bolt, I'd stop him in his tracks with the iron. While my Portkey would take me out of here if needed, I wanted to take care of these two before even thinking about retreating.
"A chat..." Jensen rolled the words off of his tongue. "I'll ask a question, you answer, and then you'll ask a question and I'll answer, then? I'm awfully curious about some things myself, you know. But I have one stipulation."
"I ask that the one question, the immediate question that you wish to have answered, be left to the end. I think you know which one."
I did. That one was "Why the hell do you need me out here tonight?" Instead of asking, I simply nodded, levelling my wand at him and not loosening my hold of the iron shavings in my left hand. A cool wind picked up, though I doubted it was an entirely natural one. Wild magic was dancing in the air tonight, and there was only a few minutes left until midnight struck.
"I bet this is quite the scoop for you, Mr Jensen," I started off. "Got bored with being a ghost for a century, then became a reporter when the first war ended, right? Or a little after. Couldn't do much even in your current state, 'cause you had yourself bound by the Ministry. I think I liked Rita's solution better, myself."
"Ah yes, Rita the beetle." He shuddered in an exaggerated matter. "I don't have your question, I'm afraid."
"I'm getting to it. Since we're putting off the question I really want to have answered, I'll start off easy. Why Fallon?"
"Pliable mind, easily bought, lacking morals, great magical power and skills to match... Need I go on or would you like to see his resume?"
"I don't need to, but I'll take that as your question. My next one: you covered your tracks well, Max. You had your goblin friend hide the paperwork and played up the rumours when it came to hiding the Marius knife. You probably weren't expecting somebody to check the goblin archives and not the ones the goblins let the wizards see, but that's fine. My question, though, is why did you make so many mistakes? The tenth victim was from Italy, and yet you had him buried here! Your eighth was the brother-in-law of a Ministry department head, and that definitely caught the Ministry's attention. Not so smart, really."
He smiled petulantly. "Regardless of who the eighth victim was, I had no intention of letting the Ministry catch on to my ritual. As for the tenth, he was deliberately chosen to attract your attention, Mr Potter, to here, tonight. Didn't exactly work, and I did need to send the notes, but he was supposed to be your first clue."
"First clue about what?"
"Ah. My turn for a question, Harry." I nodded and indicated for him to get on with it. "What is the nature of your relationship with Miss Tonks?"
"Fucking like bunnies." You cannot take the inner gossip out of a good reporter, I always say. "You said that you didn't think the Ministry would catch on about your ritual, so it was no matter that the eighth was Jason Cole's brother-in-law..."
"Sounds vaguely familiar."
I ignored the dry witticism. "The tenth was meant to be my clue, the Ministry weren't supposed to know about the ritual... and the knife was well hidden behind lies and missing paperwork." Oh that son of a bitch. I laughed. "You never knew. You never knew about my reality shift when you started. There was a different objective from the start. You're not a reporter who found out about my contract and wanted to stop it. You're a ghost. First and foremost, right now, you're a ghost who can't move on by himself, and you've already lived a century as one. You tired becoming a reporter to spice up your undead life, but that didn't work. So you had a desperate idea and wanted it to go off without a hitch. A rebirthing ritual."
Jensen said nothing. Before he was my blackmailer, he was a manipulator and the brains behind the Constellation Killer's handiwork. Before he was that, he was a journalist. A ghost before all of that. Before that, he was an arrogant pureblood who died too young - not even fifty years old. He had married into an old family with access to ritual knives and old books and everything he'd ever need.
The ritual was for him.
"Your note said that this was a ritual that would set things back to how they once were, and you were once alive," I deduced. "Making me think that you were going to unmake my contract was misdirection. A trick to get me here tonight. But you asked me to hold off on asking you why you wanted me here, and I will. So my question: how far did you go to hide the ritual? Where did it go wrong?"
Jensen narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms. He still hadn't moved from his spot above the cauldron, perhaps worried I would blast him with iron shavings and destroy him before he could get his body back. "I have been a ghost for far too long, Mr Potter. Undergoing this ritual is my one chance to get my life back. I took the necessary steps in order to hide things, and the best way to hide things is to make them never exist in the first place."
Well how 'bout that.
"So I shifted reality," he said. "More specifically, I got Fallon to do it. He really is quite the bastion of power when we get down to it. We thought we were being so original too! But it turns out that we were taking a leaf out of Harry Potter's book. You shifted reality to hide things yourself, Mr Potter? Did you shift reality to win the war?"
I shook my head. "No, I shifted reality so I could move past it."
"How's that working out for you?"
Poorly, I thought. "It'd be great if I didn't have someone supposedly threatening my contract. A lot less stressful for all involved. Now right there you asked an extra question, so I believe I will too."
"By all means."
"You shifted reality to hide the two most important components of the ritual - to hide the files behind the Marius vault that would link you to the knife used to murder the victims, and to hide the zodiac signs, right? That's why you didn't care if the Ministry got on the investigation - your shift should've prevented them from seeing the signs."
"You are correct."
"But I saw through it." I remembered pretty clearly - I had indeed been the first one to spot the zodiac sign on Mr Lawrence, our ninth victim. "Your reality shift took away the collective perceptions of everybody looking at the bodies. To them, the twelve signs didn't exist, but I did see the one on the ninth victim. I didn't on the eighth - I was unravelling, you see. I was close to a contract renewal, and that happens every few months. But when I'm that close to a deadline, my perception of the reality around me is closer to how it was before I created the contract. I wouldn't see your reality shift because I wasn't part of your one."
"I had the same hypothesis."
"When I saw the ninth victim's Sagittarius mark, I broke the spell for everybody else, but only for the marks. I had the dominant hold over the current reality, and your own shift was leeching off of mine. I could perceive through yours when I wasn't unravelling, and if I willed everybody to see the marks, they would. Complete accident, but that's what happened."
"Not hearing the question."
"I'm not done rambling, Maxi," I said with a little grin. I felt oddly relieved that unmaking the contract wasn't Jensen's ultimate goal. But the fact that he knew, the fact that he had Fallon kill innocents, and so much more? My expression sobered. "You didn't just shift the files the goblins showed Dover, did you? The goblin files themselves were shifted away, but my friend Loki is special. Loki's a goblin, you see, and he was there when I shifted reality nearly three years ago. He can perceive through things like I could, and that's how he found the Marius will and those inventories you tried to hide, not to mention the records of Fallon's visit to the Marius vault to get the knife. So it seems you guys do have a goblin friend if you got these fancy dampeners, but he's ignorant to the Marius side of things."
"Too many with knowledge of our plans or identities is never a good thing," Jensen said wisely.
"Okay, here's my question. How and when did you realise I shifted reality?"
"When you were unravelling as you were investigating Mr Goren's death. I thought nothing of it at the time - you always had this taint of Dark Magic about you, no doubt a lingering trace left over from whatever You-Know-Who did to you."
"I was a Horcrux, but that's irrelevant right now."
"Indeed. But when the ninth body started up a chain of investigations into the previous eight victims and zodiac rituals, I pieced together that somebody must've seen through our shift. You, I realised, shifted reality, though in a different way to Mr Fallon and I did. I planned to catch you attention with the notes and the tenth victim for reasons we'll go into later."
"I guess we shall. I suppose you can ask me your next question now."
"Much obliged," he said acerbically. "This is about the nature of your reality shift, actually. My research indicated that there's always a big price for magic of this nature. I read an amusing anecdote about this wizard who shifted reality and made himself into a celebrity. He had power and wealth and women, but a demon was created to balance things back out. The demon went on a rampage before he could reverse the spell. So, what is your demon, Harry Potter?"
I tapped the side of my head with the business end of my wand. The balance for me was that I would feel the contract, feel the reality shift, as long as it was being maintained and anchored to me. I don't think it was really the contract's intent to allow me to simply block off and repress the guilt, but I could, and I called that lucky. Very damn lucky.
Jensen nodded. "Fallon's shift made a literal demon, I'm afraid. A nasty bugger that took quite a bit out of poor Fallon, but we have him nice and restrained."
Oh that was not good. Demons were bad. Demons were tough nuts to kill, and I'd never dealt with one before. "Where is it?" Okay, so I couldn't help the slight waver in my voice there.
Jensen hooked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing at his crypt. "In there. Fallon and I have been so proud of the child he created. I named him Archimedes."
Now that was some fucked up shit. I listened hard for the first time, listened past the wind and my own steadily beating heart, and heard what sounded like muffled screams coming from inside of the crypt.
"He took Fallon's voice," Jensen said dispassionately. "So we locked him up tight and made sure to gag him. He's very loud for an unintelligible demonspawn."
I gaped at him. "Are you two nuts? You wanted to hide your ritual so badly that you had to keep that thing locked in there. Near people."
"We took the proper precautions, and Archimedes won't be a problem when we break the reality shift. Ours, I mean. Not yours."
I forced myself to look away from the crypt and block out the sounds coming from inside. Jensen was smiling a shark-toothed smile at me from his spot above the centre of the pentagram. I hadn't entered the circle yet myself. "I gather that you wish to ask some more questions, Mr Jensen?"
"Indeed! I'll let you go now, if you wish."
"Fine. You went to all the trouble to hide the zodiac brands and the knife, but why didn't you just keep the bodies for yourself? Seriously, that had to be a saner option than locking up a fucking demon in your crypt!"
Jensen scoffed, and for the first time tonight, I saw scorn in his expression, and it was directed at me. "Do you have no respect for the people you've killed, Mr Potter? These twelve poor souls-" he waved a hand at the coffins all around him, the zodiac signs still floating above them. "-for a cause I wish to respect. I gave their families closure by giving them the bodies. I did not let uncertainty destroy them! I am not so heartless that I would hide these sacrifices from those that love them!"
I snorted. "Respect? Nice one. So I imagine that if I hadn't have stumbled into the picture and found the zodiac signs, the families of Mrs Aquarius and Mr or Mrs Pisces would get their dead relatives back long enough for a funeral? And the families would bury 'em here at their own will, right? Forced into having a funeral held in this shithole with a demon nearby? You're all heart!"
"Oh yes, let the Boy-Who-Lived to shift reality take the moral high ground," Jensen said, his tone mocking.
"I didn't kill innocents, Jensen!"
"Twelve innocents, sure. Tell me, Harry, how many people have you killed to renew your contact since you started? How many people died so you could continually rape the minds of those around you?"
I barely needed to take a moment to count, but the answer was dripping in irony. "Twelve, my twelfth not even a few days back."
"Well how about that, then. And I bet that only half of them actually have families that know their loved ones are dead now."
I narrowed my eyes and almost exorcised him on the spot. "Okay, how about we talk about the fact that you tried to hurt my friends. I don't take lightly to my partner being cursed, my friend being sicked on me in his vulnerable state, and I especially dislike that you saw fit to remind my new girlfriend about her own crappy experiences with werewolves!"
Jensen glared. "I did no such thing. Your Auror Dover was cursed simply because he followed a lead and set off the short temper of a man with a loose wand. I simply erased the evidence. I did not start the rumours about the knife's current location and I did not feed them to your idiot partner."
"Fine, if you want to wash your hands of that. Are you going to deny sending Remus Lupin to come and kill me on the last full moon?"
He genuinely looked confused. "Lupin, eh? Didn't he die?"
I laughed hollowly. "Fine, if you want to play it that way..."
"Neither myself nor Fallon had anything to do with your attack on the full moon, Harry, I swear that. In fact, we were out hunting Mrs Farrow, our eleventh sacrifice, and Mr Randolph, the twelfth, that night. Fallon always said he did his best hunting on the full moon... Well, he always communicated it, I guess."
Suddenly, there was a strange hum in the air. The pentagram's bright green light turned a neon blue colour, and the zodiac signs started to crackle and waver statically, like a television with bad reception. Jensen crowed in triumph.
"Excellent!" he cried. "I believe it's now past midnight, and my rebirthing ritual is about ready to start!"
"Like hell it is!" I hissed, furiously attempting to destroy the coffin-toting pedestals around the circle, to no effect.
"Relax, Harry," Jensen said. The cauldron at his feet became enveloped in a light similarly coloured to the pentagram beneath it, and Jensen held out his left hand. The cauldron's contents began to boil and hiss. "The knife and the wand have been stripped of their unique materials and the other ingredients are at their boiling point... Oh, Harry... I can feel it. My remains, of course. Not much life left in them, but enough to make me whole again. I even added a little something to take twenty years off of me, you know!"
"So close!" I said fiercely. "So close and this is where I'll simply destroy this fucking graveyard, Jensen! Or..." I laughed. "Maybe I'll let you get your body back, and then I'll kill you. I'd bet anything you won't come back as a ghost the second time!"
He ignored me. "Soon... I will have my rebirth." The words were spoken lovingly, the cauldron at his feet hissing out a green flame in reply. It struck his foot, and he chuckled. "It tickles. I can feel it, and it tickles." He closed his eyes. "Mmm... if you want to ask me that one question, now's the time, Harry."
"Actually, I'm feeling kind of generous," I said, my teeth chattering at the cold power in the air. "You may want to know why I won't feel bad when I kill you! You may want to know why I won't give a good damn when I go home later! I will sleep very well tonight, Jensen!"
He laughed, a sudden burst of unnatural wind carrying the sound. I spared a glance at Fallon and saw that he had not moved from his spot, and was still unconscious despite the activity.
"You're getting better and better at giving the press what they want, my boy! How about you tell me why you shifted reality, then? Give me the uncensored version. Let me hear the righteousness in you tone, and let me hear you justify your sins to me, Harry Potter!"
"Okay..." I took a deep breath, taking all my pent-up frustrations with me. At the drop of a metaphorical hat, I let it all out. "Imagine if you will, Mr Jensen, that your whole life leads up to one moment. One moment where you're expected to kill or be killed. It's been a horrible life so far, with murder and torture and not much in the way of love. But there's always that ray of hope, and that is the fact that you might survive the war intact, that your friends might survive the war they need to survive, and they'll get the happy ending they deserve. You kill, but you're not killed. You survive and conquer, do some pretty horrible things along the way, but you still survive. Everyone can rebuild and persevere, and eventually, we'll all move on and live life.
"Doesn't happen that way though. You join up with the Aurors, even considering going full time as you get strung along, cleaning up the Ministry's mess for them. You do a damn good job and you think to yourself that it's finally over. That the pressure and the guilt will just go away and you'll live happily ever after. Doesn't happen. The pureblood menace, those that avoided prosecution or sat on the sidelines during the war, want their revenge. Our side must be held accountable for the horrors we committed to save the world from Voldemort, they cry! Kingsley Shacklebolt is Minister at the time, and despite negative rumblings, you convince yourself that he will make things all better. He's the Minister, of course, but he's also your friend and your war buddy!
"But, once again, it doesn't fucking happen. Kingsley decides to play by the rules to help him sleep better at night, even if that means destroying everything we worked hard for to win the war. I killed him, you know. I killed Kingsley because he couldn't be talked out of it. I respected him so much before he betrayed us, and it hurt to kill him, but I did it anyway. Not Neville or Ron or Tonks or Hermione. I killed him. It was my responsibility, with Dumbledore gone, to carry everyone through to the ending they deserved. Once I killed Kingsley, I had reached a point of no return, so I shifted reality.
"Here we are, years later." I gestured a hand at my surroundings. The wind had picked up and the glowing pentagram was humming softly. Jensen's transparent lines were becoming sharper and more pronounced. "I've got it all, don't I? A girlfriend, the normal work problems like an asshole boss and a lazy partner, and, in a couple of days, I'm going to enjoy a nice Christmas dinner with my friends. But I can't go on and live life to the fullest, can't leave behind the guilt and everything, until I get this thorn out of my side. The thorn's name is Maximillian Jensen. Have you heard of him?"
We were both silent for a moment. The unnatural wind carried the muffled screams from inside of Jensen's crypt. Jensen ignored them, digesting my words. Eventually, he tipped his head at me. "I'd lift a glass of scotch to you, my boy. You've hard a tough one, and this whole thing must be quite the ordeal-"
"Don't patronise me. Start explaining why you wanted me here tonight. I'm not needed, that much is evident. You could've gone about your night, got your body back, and avoided any unpleasantness."
"You may see this confrontation as avoidable, but I did not. I sent you the notes and the clues so I could give you something tonight. Something you've probably never had before." He paused. "A choice."
"A choice," he said simply. "You had no choice in how you grew up as you did, you had no choice but to single-handedly win a war for your side, and you had no choice but to shift reality itself to protect your friends. By the time I realised that you were more that what I expected, I made a choice myself. You shifted reality, and that made you dangerous. In the two weeks between the ninth and tenth victims, I mulled it over. I could choose to take the rest of my work towards the grand rebirth away from prying and very investigative eyes, or I could appeal to you directly."
"Then you're an arrogant idiot," I said.
"Perhaps, but you're Harry Potter. I knew it was too late the moment you found the Sagittarius mark on Mr Lawrence. You saw the twelve signs, you found the first ritual book and you were on my trail. If I had successfully gotten my body back tonight without you being here, you still would've found me somehow. Maybe that is me overestimating your talents or maybe it's just that I don't want to look over my shoulder when I come back. I don't like uncertainty. If you would've found me out, you would have hunted me down and brought your swift justice upon me. I could not have that." He sighed. "I'd rather give you the choice, and that's why you're here. You can exorcise me right here on the spot. You can let the ritual be completed, and I could get my body back. If the latter happens, a second choice must be made. You can either kill me and frame poor Fallon, or you can let us go into the night. You can avoid another two deaths on your conscience and avoid spinning a new web of lies to those around you. This is an opportunity for everyone here tonight to get what they want, and nobody needs to know about your contract. You can even Obliviate the knowledge from our minds, if you wish."
The choice? Let them go or do what I came here to do. Either way, the end result would be the same - more guilt and more lies. We may both have a shaky moral ground, sure, but Jensen didn't know who he was fucking with. I do not let people run away. I will not abide by their killing spree because Jensen wanted his precious life back. I will not let anybody who knew about the contract walk away. Loki and I were the only ones to know and even then, Loki was very expendable.
"No deal," I said firmly, strongly, my voice not wavering, my posture straight and my eyes blazing with conviction.
"Ahh... yes." Jensen's lips quirked. "I suppose I know why then, don't I? Well, I took a gamble in the end."
"Twelve dead Muggles and two dead wizards, all for nothing."
His demeanour shifted. All traces of congenial ghost were gone, his eyes dark and his entire aura shifting to something dangerous and chilly. I've never pissed off a ghost that badly before. I never want to again.
"The ritual is almost complete," he said stiffly. "Two or three minutes. You wish for me to simply regain my body before killing me?"
"You want your life back that badly? I'll let you have it for ten glorious seconds," I spat.
"Archie!" he barked. In the distance, I heard a snapping noise.
"What did you do?" I demanded, my left hand already reaching for the iron shavings.
"I have no intention of dying again," Jensen said coldly, his eyes wild. "I had Fallon set up a voice commanded release rune on the shackles that held Archimedes in my old crypt."
I swore, hurling the iron shavings at him and intent on keeping him there. To my surprise, the shavings simply bounced off of him instead of immediately burning through his image and bounding him to the spot.
"Look at my feet, Harry Potter!" Jensen said excitedly, and I did. The cauldron beneath him had finally stopped bubbling, now glowing and humming with raw power. A stream of golden light reached out and touched each of the floating zodiac signs above their respective coffins. The green zodiac signs turned a dark colour, a wave of sickly green light travelling back up the golden stream and into the cauldron. There was a bright flash, and I shielded my eyes. When I opened them, golden tendrils of light were leaping their way up Jensen's form, and his feet suddenly gained colour. He was reconstituting from the bottom up.
"The ritual will take my remains and the flesh sacrifices of these poor Muggles and build my new body around this old imprint," Jensen chattered. "My body will reconstitute and then my heart will start!" The entirety of his feet were now tangible and very solid. I heard another snapping noise from Jensen's crypt. "You best take care of Archie, you know. He's kinda hungry."
I unhooked the explosive potion from the catch around my wrist. "That's it, I'm blowing this graveyard up!"
"No you will not," Jensen said triumphantly. "You cannot exorcise me right now, and stopping the ritual with your bomb will allow me to remain as a ghost. I will leave, Harry Potter, and the ritual will happen again somewhere. Twice, even. The first time, I'll get my body back! The second time, I'll unmake your contract and fix reality back to how it should be!" He laughed, a dark laugh that sent chills down my spine. "You think you can kill Archie in the minute it'll take in order for me to get my body back? While you're distracted, I'm going to get out of here!"
Okay, now I'm pissed. I heard a disturbingly loud, yet still muffled, roar from the crypt. Demon incoming. Jensen's legs were solid again. He'll be escaping while I deal with a freakin' demon. The odds were not stacked in my favour, and I couldn't leave the demon to get loose. No running...
I placed the magical explosive carefully on the grass. "Hey Jensen, you've got a good handle on my mental state now, but you haven't learnt the most important thing! I do not like it when people fucking run away!"
I aimed my wand and took my chance. "Diffindo!"
The spell was aimed high enough so that it wouldn't fizzle out as it approached the cauldron, and Jensen had barely a moment to register shock as both of his legs were severed off at the knee. The legs fell to the ground bloodlessly. He had said that the ritual was creating him a body using the current ghostly imprint, and it turned out my hunch was right - his missing limbs didn't turn back into ghost limbs or anything, and the ritual didn't reconstitute them back again. He hovered in the air, the top half of his chest and his head still transparent, but everything starting from the thigh up was solid. When his heart restarts and the ritual is complete, Maximillian Jensen would not be running away.
Bet the bastard didn't see that one coming.
"What have you-"
"Shut up! I have a demon to kill!"
I've never fought a demon before. The theory on them was mostly, you know, theoretical. But I shifted reality that one time, didn't I? Why couldn't I decapitate me a demon?
Demons have heads to decapitate, right?
I undid the latch of my Portkey/wand holster invention. I knew that I would probably trigger it accidentally if I was in the middle of a battle, and that was not part of the plan. I slipped the Portkey, a small button not unlike the ones Fallon attached to his victims, into my robe pocket. The explosive-in-a-bottle was safe where it was. I had my wand and my wits about me. Demon killing time.
I got my first glimpse of Archie the demon though, and my convicted wavered. From a distance and under a blanket of shadow, the thing could almost be mistaken for Fallon. It was a hodgepodge of mismatched colours, from pulsating blood reds to tawny brown, each colour seeping into the one beside them through what looked like black gelatinous vein-like lines. The demon had Fallon's hawkish features taken to a logical extreme, and had a sharp beak hanging over a wide frog-like mouth. Lines of razor teeth bit into the red ball-gag tied around its lower mouth, while the beak itself was held shut by what looked like barbed wire. Sharp purple ridges formed a protective shell on its right side, while the left looked closer to human skin and muscle in consistency, though not in colour. A pincer off its right forearm snapped into the air, and a sharp skewer replaced its entire left arm. Beady red eyes shone through the darkness, taking in the unconscious Fallon, the ritual site, the half-spectre in the centre of the pentagram, and me, wand raised and sweating just a little.
Now that is some fucked up shit.
I started strong, my most powerful Bludgeoning Curse aimed for the fleshier side of Archie's chest. It roared and deflected the spell with its pincer, the spell smashing into the roof of the crypt it had just escaped. Half of Jensen's name on the front of the crypt disappeared as the rest of the roof exploded, the demon simply staying put as stone rained on him. I tried a second Bludgeoning Curse, and although the demon couldn't deflect it in time, the force of the spell only threw him back a centimetre or so, a tiny dent appearing on one of its ridges. Not a good sign by any means...
I swept my arm in an arc, a jagged circular razorblade spitting out of my wand and towards Archie, aimed for its neck. Instead of moving out of the way or deflecting the blade, Archie simply ducked a little, the blade heading for its mouth. In a timed move, the demon's skewer arm batted the blade upwards, a thin cut striking the thing's cheek and severing the ball-gag in its mouth. The ball-gag dropped to the grass, and the demon's wide mouth started spitting out a viscous green spittle. Though the ball-gag remained unaffected, the grass surrounding it withered and died. Acid, of course. Great.
It roared a bone-chilling roar, one that carried in the wind. The lampposts helping to light up the graveyard exploded in a shower of sparks and glass. I heard the glass of something distant shatter, probably the closest Muggle home, and I was suddenly very thankful I had charmed my explosive potion to be unbreakable.
Its screams died down, soon replaced by the howls of the resident ghost in the vicinity, or, I corrected myself, the reborn human in the vicinity. As I had hoped, Jensen's legs had not reconstituted after I had severed them earlier, and the man now sat on the burnt grass - the pentagram surrounding him no longer illuminated - and just stared at his missing limbs. Welcome back, Mr Jensen. I hit him with a Stunning Spell, knocking him down like Fallon did minutes earlier. Focus now shifted to the demon heading my way.
The damn thing, free of both of its gags, was gnashing beak and teeth at me, a very bestial roar coming from its mouth and a sharp craw from its beak. Its legs, rather human-like excepting that one hoof its left leg ended with, rippled as it charged my way. I reflexively animated the nearest gravestones with a spell, sending them flying towards Archie in an attempt to slow him down. Yeah, it didn't work. It shrugged off the stone and my follow-up curses, taking a Blood-Boiling Curse, a Heat Haze Hex and a very powerful Concussion Curse like a champ. It kept on coming my way.
So I ran. Archie smashed through several gravestones as it darted across the wet grass after me with ease. I ran faster. A green glob of its acid spit sailed past my ear and made a nice hole where the undisturbed grass atop a Mr John Blackstone's grave lay. I kept running, eventually lengthening my stride to head up a steep hill and out of the immediate area. My new plan was to explode the potion from a distance and hope like all hell my new friend had the good grace to stay within the radius of the explosion as it went off. Of course, that plan went to shit the moment the damn thing started following me up the hill, only stumbling a little on its uneven legs and using its skewer arm as a crutch.
I reached the top of the hill first, stopped to take a breath, and tapped my wand at the ground. Archie was halfway up the hill, its skewer stuck in the wet dirt. Perfect. My Tremor Jinx shook the side of the hill heartily, a great mound of muddy dirty attacking Archie's legs and upsetting its balance. It tumbled awkwardly back down the hill, my jinx uprooting it each time it started to right itself. Eventually, it hit the bottom of the hill on its back, flailing about like a stunned turtle instead of a demon created by dark magic in the hands of a powerful amateur.
I blasted it while it was down, several of its larger ridges going flying due to my spellfire and the side of its face copping a severe case of Piercing-Curse-to-the-cheek-itis. I conjured a thick length of barbed wire and tied it around the demon's legs from a distance. It screamed as I tightened my hold, damn near garrotting its meaty legs then and there. Thick black blood spat out as the wire dug into its flesh. I was about to summon the potion, but the demon didn't give me the chance. Archie had apparently picked up a trick from yours truly, and started stabbing at the bottom of the hill, and it stabbed really damn hard. I felt a light tremor under my feet, and it was enough of a surprise that I tripped and started my own uncomfortable descent down the hill.
I heard another scream, and I noticed my path would head straight for Archie, who was snipping at the barbed wire with its pincer and holding the skewer straight out towards me. My tumble would end leg first, and I knew where that skewer would end up if I couldn't help it. I kept a tight hold of my wand and summoned a large gravestone my way - Mr Blackstone's, as it turned out. I carefully attached the thing to my feet and reinforced it into a sort-of magical shield. My new stylish surfboard jostled my descent something awful, and I winced as painful vibrations travelled up my body. Archie still held its skewer out, ready to intercept the gravestone heading for its face.
On second thought, this hadn't been my smartest idea.
Archie and his raised skewer rushed towards me, blasting through the left side of Blackstone's gravestone like a hot knife through butter. The skewer travelled up and nicked my inner left leg, starting from the ankle through my shoe and ending at the knee. I kicked out with the rock attached to my right foot, bouncing awkwardly off the demon's forearm and ejecting myself painfully off to the side, now at the bottom of the hill. I barely caught myself and shielded my chest from an incoming blob of acid, the demon using the distraction to bound forward and jump on top of me. Its pincer pinched at my stomach, hard.
I let out a cry as its face got close to mine, rolling my head furiously to avoid its dripping acid spittle. I chanced a glance into its eyes, shuddering and almost wetting myself at the look of victory in them. Its left arm skewer rose to impale me through one side of my chest and out the other horizontally, but I took action first. I remembered Remus's werewolf form on top of me just a few nights ago, snarling and preparing to end my life. Then, I had shoved my wand into its side and started blasting, but now I thankfully caught myself from shoving my wand into its hardened right side, instead stabbing at the softest part of its neck.
Like anything getting stabbed in the neck, it screeched and blood spilled out of the wound, a blackish ichor that felt incredibly weighty as it spilled down my front. I didn't hesitate in widening the hole by blasting it with my submerged wand, the beast on top of me wildly gyrating and trying to get free of my hold. But I held strong, pulling my wand free with a disgusting squelch noise and pushing the demon's weight off me with my legs and a Banishing Charm at the same time. I barely avoided having an acid hole burned into the side of my face as it flew off of me and hit the ground, a singular drop of the acid singing the side of my neck.
I discovered immediately that it's hard to keep a good demon down, its pincer claw lashing out and grasping my upper thigh, squeezing painfully. I rolled myself free of the vicegrip and recovered quicker than I ever had before. A blast of fire spun out of my wand, and I crafted it into an axe-like shape. I directed the fiery axe creation towards the demon, swinging it down and taking off its pincer arm at the shoulder. Archie, bleeding profusely from the neck and its legs still wrapped in barbed wire, couldn't stop me from chopping off the skewer arm either. Both shoulder wounds immediately cauterised over after the limbs were severed.
"Oh just fucking die!" I snapped, taking a few measured steps back. My head pounded from exhaustion as I dodged yet another ball of acid, my concentration breaking and the fire axe disappearing. Archie's constant gurgling cries from both beak and mouth were starting to grate, and I spat out a Piercing Curse. The spell drilled right between its eyes, and, after a bit of work on my part, it dug into its forehead, through its skull, and then out the other side. The demon shrieked at me some more, more black ichor leaking from its wounds. It may've been the Piercing Curse, it may've been the blood loss from both severed arms or the neck wound I'd ripped open until it was as wide as its mouth, but it finally stopped moving.
I let out a sigh of relief and walked away from the body, intent on finishing off Jensen and starting my frame job on Fallon. It'd be easy enough. Trust me, there were harder things to do in shorter timeframes, and I had done them before. This one time, I burned down several floors of the Ministry, made myself an alibi to avoid getting caught as the arsonist, and consequently Imperius Curse'd the inspectors to make it all look like a big accident. That was difficult. This'd be easy.
I approached the ritual site, taking in the fact the graveyard was now very dark and blissfully quiet. The innocuous magical explosive in a bottle still lay in the grass where I left it, and I scooped it up. First things first, I'd need to find the ward stone, wherever it was hidden. Destroying the wards meant that the Ministry could be alerted to the high concentration of magical energy in the area that would no doubt show up when I made a crater out of St Michael's. Disrespectful to the folks buried here, sure, but Jensen had brought them into this, not me.
I was about to step around one of the twelve stone pedestals when a great glob of acid landed on the polished mahogany coffin held up by the pedestal on my right. The wood melted right through, and I caught a glimpse of the handsome-looking corpse of a man who probably had not been dead all that long. Mr Rudolph, the twelfth, I presumed. The acid dripped off of the coffin and onto Rudolph's face, immediately setting about eating at his decomposing nose. I turned away from the sight. That fucking demon, I swear...
It was crawling my way, snapping and snarling still. The wounds on its head and neck had disappeared, but it still had the barbed wire digging into its legs (leg and hoof - whatever), and was using the stumps of its arms to propel itself forward. Can't keep a good demon down. Even though he was stupid enough to be manipulated by Jensen of all people, I felt my respect for Fallon rise. How the hell did that guy manage to restrain this thing in the first place?
I didn't let the demon get far. I hobbled on my injured leg and flicked my wand, more than a dozen conjured darts and arrows meeting Archie's gnarled face and turning him into a rough approximation of a pincushion. More than half of the projectiles went all the way through, too. One particularly sharp arrow had lodged itself in Archie's eye, and I set it on fire, starting a chain reaction with the other wooden projectiles and erupting the demon's entire top half in flame. It screamed and thrashed and shrieked and gnashed about for a painful few moments, eventually becoming still once more, its fiery head resting on the grass. Tiny embers started to light the grass around the body, and I turned away.
Okay, where was I?
The ward stone would have to be nearby. Somewhere on Fallon's person would make sense-
I heard a familiar roar.
"Oh what the fuck," I muttered, glancing back at the demon. It hadn't moved far from where I left it, and its head was still on fucking fire, a bizarre torch lighting up the area. I carefully circled around it and conjured a very sharp metal javelin, holding it above me in my left hand, poised to strike. Archie screeched one last time before I impaled it through the back of the head, pushing the spear straight through and into the ground. I dug it in deep, twisted it a little, and let the flames travel up the spear. But still, in a feat I will definitely add to my list of things that shouldn't just fucking happen (Right up there with a drunken Romilda Vane sleeping with Ron hours after she'd seduced me), it kept twitching.
Okay, so it was impossible to keep a good demon down. I briefly considered leaving it here and consulting a book on the subject of demon killing, but I was tired and my body ached. My leg was still bleeding, so I bound it in makeshift bandages to prevent, you know, death by blood loss.
I heard a low moan behind me - Fallon was stirring.
Fallon. The man who had created this demon through a reality shift that was different yet similar to my own contract. Archie's resemblance to Fallon told me one thing - Fallon's shift, like my own, was tied to him being alive.
I was working on getting around my own possible death destroying my contract, but poor Fallon wouldn't get a chance. I didn't let him stand - before he could open his mouth and say nothing in protest, I simply exploded his head like a watermelon, bits of his brain raining all over the place and leaving a fleshy stump where his neck used to be. Poor Fallon nothing. That man had killed twelve Muggles for Jensen and some gold, and he'd get no sympathy from me. He should've just refused the money when he had the chance, the twat.
There was a sound not unlike a large vase being smashed against a tiled floor, and a flash of reddish lightning flared up in the sky. I strolled a pace away from the still alight and twitching demon, watching as a gust of wind suddenly swept up and overtook it. A reddish hue filled my senses. I hadn't detected Fallon's reality shift being created all those months ago, but it had latched onto mine and birthed Archie out of a mix of Fallon's power and my own. My reality shift was the dominant one, and I only started to subconsciously realise Fallon's was there after seeing the Sagittarius mark on the ninth victim's body and then breaking the shift's hold over everybody else. I'd bet anything the increased feelings of pressure I had felt for a week after finding the sign was a side effect, my own reality shift catching on to the leech's presence and my contract warning me in its own twisted way.
The magical wind swept away from Archie's now thankfully still form, and the next gust simply took the demon with it, a flood of ash joining the breeze and heading out into the cold night. One more thing to take care of then.
I went over and slapped Jensen's cheeks with my wand, scorching them. I didn't care - my own cheek barely avoided some fucking demon acid. He'd live. Okay, maybe not.
His eyes fluttered open. "I'm alive," were his first words, said with such reverence and a great relief that I almost flinched. He took in a deep breath, ignoring the fact I was hovering over him with a dangerous smile on my face.
"Hiya Maxi," I said. "Ten seconds, as promised."
He chuckled ruefully. "I don't suppose there's anything left to say, is there?"
I cast a glance to where I had severed his legs off. "I hope it's all it cracked up to be, Max. Less of an imprint left behind because you couldn't move on. More alive now. Pain must feel... odd, huh?"
"Odd and very refreshing," he said. "You look pained yourself."
I shrugged. Unless Archie's skewer was laced with some kind of poison, the cut on my leg would be easily healed, same with the burn mark on the side of my neck and the pincer-shaped marks on my stomach and thigh. I'd be fine. I told Jensen as much, and he chuckled again.
"I hope you can live with yourself, Harry Potter."
"I can and I will," I said, nodding. "I will go home and maybe catch some sleep with my girlfriend wrapped around me. I don't have nightmares anymore, Mr Jensen. The contract - I shifted reality and it's leaked into me, you see. If I concentrate, I can block it all out. No guilt, no pressure, no nightmares."
I expected a look of scorn or jealously, but Jensen simply frowned. "Your contract... it messes with your mind?"
"In a good way, of course."
Jensen shook his head. "No, you don't understand. You simply block it out? No challenge from your conscience or anything? Just push everything to the back of your mind?"
I nodded, and my mouth twitched into a frown.
"And you can forget it all. Forget that you should be more cautious, be more wary, and the fact that you need the guilt to remain sharp and remember why you keep fighting."
"I know why I keep renewing the contract, Max. It's my only choice."
"Only choice," he breathed exasperatedly. "Boy, listen to me! It's deliberate. The contract is bound to your will, and it's an incredibly strong piece of magic. Fallon could barely reign in Archie, and he only shifted reality months ago. You've had years! The contract has affected you. It's made you reckless and it's messing up things that shouldn't..." He paused, muttering to himself. "Because it's trying to kill you."
I balked. "Sure it is."
"Listen!" Jensen snapped. "It doesn't want to be bound. It doesn't want to be a slave to your will, and it keeps you complacent. Normally, it will let you block off the very things that'll keep you alive. But when you're unravelling, close to a renewal, something feels different, right? Maybe you have a little less luck?"
I thought about it, but only for a second. That I forgot the Silencing Spell when I went to take down Selwyn... My perpetual bad luck in the fight against Remus... Both had been closer to a renewal deadline than anything else I'd dealt with lately.
Jensen's eyes lit up. "See! Harry, you-"
I held up a hand, my head pounding. "Don't try and delay things, Jensen. I'm sorry, but it has to end this way."
He sighed, studying my face with piercing eyes. It was the last thing he'd ever see after all, and he couldn't help looking curious, I bet. Seeing and understanding something, all within the extra second I kept him alive. For him, it probably felt like years.
"What happens if you can't renew your contract in time?" Jensen asked. "What happens if your lies catch up to you, or somebody senses the reality shift like I did? What happens if you die?"
I placed my wand against his temple, and he shuddered at the touch.
"Harry Potter, what happens if your luck just runs out?"
"I'm sorry it has to end this way, Mr Jensen," I said lightly, my eyes no doubt betraying the put-upon tone.
As if he had reached a final decision, Jensen stopped talking and started breathing in his last lungfuls of cold air. He looked at me. "You're quite remarkable, you know. It's a shame I never got to have my exclusive interview..."
My wand-tip lit up a sickly green colour.
"Make it painless then, Mr Potter. I think it's time I moved on... Been a while since I saw my Roma..."
He closed his eyes and I fulfilled his final request.
January 13th, 1999: Changed
I hadn't slept. I couldn't even fathom sleeping at the moment. My mind was racing and my curiosity was peaked at a morbid level. It was like I was playing God or something, walking in the Atrium among the crowds of the Ministry and observing my new reality - my creation born of blood and pressure.
In fact, I hadn't visited the Ministry since I killed Kingsley and burned a few floors down to cover my tracks. I hadn't wanted to show up in this building while that tosser with the fez whose name I hadn't deigned to learn was in charge, continuing his campaign against our side. I was too busy researching the reality shift and creating the contract, constantly adding new ideas and little notations on stray bits of parchment in my study in Grimmauld Place. Something of this enormity had to be perfect - I couldn't shift reality a second time nor add to the current contract, and even if I could, I'm not sure I'd get lucky and survive the ritual a second time. Call it a hunch.
I couldn't have my fiery death yet. Or at all. I wouldn't be sleeping until I had double-checked every shrub in wizarding Britain was perceiving things differently and not remembering things some might call 'incriminating'. The Ministry was the best place to start.
People nodded to me politely as they passed - I was still a big enough celebrity in these parts, and now that no one could remember that they were supposed to prosecuting me, I received no looks of suspicion or distrust. For once, my fame was helping out immensely. A happy ending was just around the corner. I could feel it.
I bumped into Neville in one of the service lifts. "Neville? What are you doing here?" He looked pale and gaunt. While before he was in a Ministry holding cell and awaiting a rigged trial, he was now just recovering from a vicious virus that kept him home in bed for the last few weeks. At least he looked the part.
"I was just here to do some Wizengamot business, you know. Since Gran's accident, they'll need a new Longbottom in the chamber..."
I grinned. "But since you're Neville freakin' Longbottom, you'd rather be back at Hogwarts with your plants?"
He nodded happily. "Right! I'm signing my seat over without fuss, but I have the option to get it back a few years down the track. Don't think I will though."
"Smart lad. Politics." I made a face to emphasise the point. He laughed, and I used the distraction to brush his mind with Legilimency. It was perfect. My sense of satisfaction swelled - Neville didn't remember burning those people alive at Bulstrode Abode, he didn't remember flaying the Carrows and starting up the Battle of Hogwarts, nor did he remember accidentally killing Lestrange in a torture session gone sour. He didn't remember being arrested first as a message to me. Not only that, but the Legilimency probe couldn't detect any visible sign of tampering within his head. The shift was working.
"... Heading to lunch at the Leaky Cauldron later," Neville was saying. "Care to join?"
"And interrupt you chatting up Hannah Abbott?" It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself. I always knew those two had had an awkward teen crush on each other a few years back. Maybe I could help along the happy endings, eh?
Neville turned a brilliant shade of red and started to splutter, so I rescued him.
"Listen, just be yourself. Talk plants and talk about her work. Ask her out if you feel confident. I think you can handle it." He's Neville freakin' Longbottom. Tampered memories or not, he'd man up. "Anyway, I gotta be somewhere, though if I do swing by the Leaky for lunch, I'll find a way to help you out. Deal?"
He hummed. "Deal."
We shook on it as the lift stopped at Level 2, and I hopped off and made a beeline to the Auror Office. My little desk sat in a lonely corner next to Terry Boot's, and it had accumulated a little stack of mail in my absence, including a backlog of the last week's set of the Daily Prophet. I checked them over. The news was mundane - no witch hunts against our side or anything of interest. I settled in my desk and started in on some paperwork, as if I had never left after Kingsley had Neville arrested.
A couple of hours later and I was back in the Atrium again. Scuttlebutt had spread over the morning about Dirk Cresswell's new permanent position as Minister after Kingsley's accident. The guy with the fez? Shifted him out of the job and the history books as a Minister. Sorry, guy, but I'd rather have Cresswell in the top job. He's fair, he's Muggleborn, and most importantly, he wouldn't buckle to pureblood pressure. I would've said the same about Kingsley once, but circumstances were different then. I shifted reality, remember? I think that entitled Cresswell for a free ride to the top, and the purebloods themselves had suddenly forgotten that they wanted to prosecute me and my friends.
My stomach dropped a bit as I spotted a mane of mousy hair in the crowd. Mousy hair, most of the time, meant Tonks. My joy over the successful reality shift lessened some as I realised there were wounds that the contract couldn't heal. I couldn't bring back Tonks's parents and I didn't even think Remus to be alive and able to be shifted back home where he belongs.
I pushed my way across the crowd and reached her, noticing the dazed and somewhat lost look on her face. Tonks was a brilliant girl when she wanted to be - a firecracker mix of easy humour, dynamite good looks and an ever-changing roster of hair that brightened any dull day. She was in one of her more depressing moods today, and although I felt the need to keep looking around for more signs of my successful reality shift, I felt the want to go to her. She was like me - no parents, good friends dead or missing during the war - except for one thing: she didn't grow up like I did, and she had felt years of love and happiness. To have it all torn away so cruelly by the war? No better than my sob story, that's for sure.
She looked like she needed a good friend, and I was that friend.
"Wotcher Tonks," I said cheerily.
"Wotcher Harry," she returned half-heartedly. I deflated a bit on the inside, but my resolve didn't waver.
"I'm heading to lunch," I said, subtlety absent.
She cocked an eyebrow at me. "That's great, Harry."
"And then I have the rest of the day to do one thing. Can you guess what it is?" She didn't immediately answer, so I elaborated. "I'm going to take my dear friend Tonks out for the day, against her will if I have to, and we're going to have fun."
Sounded simple in my head, but I think it may've come out a little callous. I'll have to work on that.
She didn't immediately grasp my line of thought. "Huh?" See?
"I'm a bastard," I admitted. "Haven't really been there lately. Holiday seasons and all that. But I realised that I have a very good friend that I haven't caught up with much lately."
"And you're going to take me out, by force if necessary?" There was a teasing lit in her tone that felt warm and familiar.
"I know I'm not a fully-fledged Auror yet, and thank God given the amount of paperwork the others do, but I know some spells. Spells that can, you know, restrain you, drag you along..."
"Drag me along?"
I nodded. She looked a little more cheery, and didn't object when I grabbed her by the hand and led her to the nearest Floo exit. There were a few people ahead of us in a line, and I held her hand tightly.
"See?" I said with a smile. "If those fireplaces can fit wizards the size of Robards, they can fit the two of us. I'm not letting you out of my sight."
She grinned. "Lunch first?"
"We're going to the Leaky. Lunch and a show - I've kinda maybe pushed Neville into trying to ask Hannah Abbott out. It'll be... interesting to watch, I'm sure."
She looked ready to laugh at my enthusiasm for meddling in Neville's affairs, her hair unconsciously gaining some its lustre back. Whatever comment I was about to make next was interrupted by a polite cough to our side.
I was in too good a mood to even snap at the guy. Well, he was a ghost, actually. Pureblood-looking type, dressed old-fashionedly, probably mid-1800's. However, given how backwards the wizarding world appeared at times, it wouldn't have surprised me if this man died yesterday.
"Can I help you?" I asked politely.
The ghost shot me a predatory grin, one I'd seen before. "Mr Potter, I presume?"
"Yeah. I'd shake your hand, but..."
He waved it off with an easy chuckle. "No need. I'm Maximillian Jensen from the Daily Prophet. I was wondering if you'd like to make an on-the-record comment about Minister Cresswell's ascension to power?"
Reporter? A ghost reporter at that? Now I'd seen everything. But I was feeling boisterous and cheery today, probably helped by the lack of sleep.
"Sure. I'd like to point out that, before I say anything, misquoting me will end badly. Tonks, remember what happened to the last guy?"
She, completely straight-faced, made a snipping motion with one hand towards one of her waggling fingers on the other. Jensen, being a guy first and foremost, no doubt caught the threat. Joke. Either or...
The ghost chuckled again. "If anybody could figure out a way to castrate a ghost, it'd be the remarkable Harry Potter."
"Stop, I'm blushing. Okay, here's my quote: Minister Cresswell has the potential to do a lot of good, and I'm hoping he has a successful tenure as Minister for Magic. The world needs stability right now, Mr Jensen. I think Cresswell might be our guy, but actions speak louder than words."
Jensen nodded along, digesting my words.
"Maybe I should write it down?" I suggested.
"No need, perfect memory recall. But I should put the feelers out for a new scribe... Is that all, Mr Potter?"
"Sure. Also, if you play me fair in your article, I may even give you an exclusive interview in the near future."
The ghost's smile looked genuine, and he waved a hand. "Another time then, Mr Potter. Enjoy your day."
"You as well." With that, he was gone. I turned to Tonks. "Journalists? Can't even get rid of them by killing them these days."
She giggled. Sometime during my conversation with Jensen, her hair had shifted into a brilliant lavender colour and kept long, rolling down to her shoulders in a way I quite liked. My hand caught hers again, and we headed to the Floo together.
Today, everything had changed. For the better, I knew. I had shifted the big problems away, and now it was time to be there for my friends and deal with the little problems in life. The war was over. Time to leave it all behind.
Three Days After Maximillian Jensen's Second Death: I'm Sorry
The war hadn't left the cemetery out at Godric's Hollow any less empty. It was a precious commodity to be buried here, among the Petrells and the Potters and even a few Dumbledores. I wound a familiar path through the snow, juggling the flowers I held in my arms. As usual, I had charmed them to survive the harsh environment the middle of winter brought on, ensuring their survival for a few days longer than normal flowers would. It was the best I could do, and the child inside of me hoped they'd appreciate the gift.
Two gravestones, side by side, were my destination. Somebody else had left flowers for James and Lily Potter before I could, but I didn't mind. They deserved to be honoured just as much as anyone else in this graveyard, and a brief glance at the rest of the sea of headstones showed similar flowers nestled at every grave. Some kind soul had left them, just like last year and the year before.
Beside the graves of James and Lily lay two golden plaques, both commemorating the death of two men whose bodies had never been found. Sirius Black, my godfather, and Remus Lupin, who I had killed personally. This year, I spent less time at my parents' graves and more time in front of Lupin's plaque. I hadn't ever paid much attention to it - it was a sad thing half-buried in the snow, and I had known he was alive since the plaque had been placed there. But now...
"Sorry, Remus," I muttered. Sorry I killed him. Sorry I drove him to spending his final hours unleashed as a werewolf.
Jensen and Fallon hadn't been responsible. Remus Lupin's rampage just over a week ago had not been a warning to me. A broken man's desperation brought on by our last meeting led to the stronger half of Remus Lupin's mind gaining control. I couldn't put a name to my attitude towards Remus. Maybe it was selfishness or maybe it was just pure disgust at Remus Lupin running away all those years ago.
I had visited Remus's abandoned cottage just yesterday. I found the door swinging in the wind. The Wolfsbane I had brought him was still where I had left it, in the grass and unopened. He had not broken out of the chains usually keeping him locked up each month. He hadn't even locked himself up in the first place. Standing there in the small chamber I'd fashioned to lock him up in each month, I pieced it all together. Remus Lupin had been fighting the werewolf side of his nature all of his life. Greyback, meanwhile, had embraced his. When Remus joined up with Greyback, he was forced into accepting the wolf. Remus spent years fighting it off when he took up seclusion in that cottage. One missed dose of Wolfsbane close to a full moon would be catastrophic for his mental state.
So he deliberately didn't take any Wolfsbane that night. The rage he had been feeling over everything about me probably gnawed at him. The wolf must've taken control of his mind before the transformation. Remus had Apparated into the city, transformed, and sniffed me out at Tonks's flat.
Upon understanding the full picture, I stewed in guilt for a while. The contract may've let me block things out, but this guilt was vivid and it had nothing to do with the contract. Yet, I still went back to Tonks, enjoyed the night and was very blissfully aware of her thousand-watt smile, one I hadn't ever thought I'd see again after her parents died. Remus losing control wasn't going to make me give her up or anything like that. Instead, I was going to try my hardest to not repeat one of Remus's greatest mistakes.
"I'm sorry," I said again. Something warm stung my eyes, but I turned away from the plaque bearing Remus's date of birth and a date of supposed death that was years off. I think I'll forever wish he had been part of the body count along with the rest of Greyback's crew, massacred by vengeful Irish wizards. At least then I wouldn't close my eyes and remeberer a werewolf on top of me, its amber eyes widening in shock as I tore it in half with my wand.
I could boast all I'd like about blocking things out thanks to the bleed-through effect, but some things would stick with me for a long time. This was one of them.
After lunch and my annual visit to Godric's Hollow, I headed to the office. I rounded up a few bits of stray paperwork to take home for the night, and was about to head out via the stairwell when I heard Robards's office's door slam shut.
The man himself lumbered out, carrying a large cardboard box under each arm. His eyes were bloodshot and his general demeanour disgruntled, and his expression soured as he spotted me. Instead of cursing at me or changing his path, he shuffled one of the boxes out from under his arm and pushed it into my hands.
"I'm taking the stairs," he grunted. "Carry that."
I nodded as we headed out, half the office watching us leave without killing each other. I'd bet anything that somebody would be calling for Healers to meet us at the Atrium. I had no intention of fighting or anything, too drained from the morning's events. Evidently not wanting to fight either, Robards started talking pleasantly.
"Plans for Christmas, Potter?" he asked.
I nodded. "Lunch and dinner with some friends. You?"
"Tropical Christmas," he replied. "My new assignment."
"It'll be a shame to lose you, sir. I'm sorry."
He snorted. "Cut the bullshit, Potter. You're glad I'm getting shafted. You hate me and I hate you. Williamson and Cresswell, meanwhile, hate me more than they hate you. They slap you with a week of anger management and reassign me to the ass-end of Brazil to play negotiator to the goblins now that they've stopped eating the other ambassadors. Our illustrious rewards for taking care of the Constellation Killer case."
"They slapped me with a month, and you did nothing to help the case," I corrected. "Besides, you get your own private beach and a little cabin all to yourself. Good thing too. You could use a tan."
"Funny," he said, though his tone conveyed anything but. "Friendly word of warning though, while we're talking all nice-like."
"All ears, sir."
"Watch your fucking back, Harry Potter. You may effortlessly float through things like reviews and politics, but you know just as I do how much everybody is playing everybody in that office."
"Except me, you mean."
"Bullshit," Robards said. "You're just one of those sneaky bastards who tells the world he's not playing them, but he is. You know how I know that?"
I shook my head.
"Because a few days ago Ravenwood came to chat to me. She and her partner were doing a patrol or something back on the sixteenth, and guess what they found."
I didn't, and he answered anyway. "Three bodies. Muggle teenagers out on the town. Ripped to fucking shreds. They could only be identified by their drivers licences, their faces torn the fuck off and scattered across the alleyway they were found in."
Again, I said nothing.
"Werewolf attack, it turned out. Audrey hedged and she hedged, but she eventually told me a thrilling tale of how a werewolf huffed and puffed down Harry Potter's door, and how he eviscerated the thing after hurling himself out of a window from the fourth floor."
"I'm surprised she talked."
Robards nodded. "I wasn't. Audrey's fair. She'll make a damn fine Head Auror now that I'm gone, a latter day Amelia Bones. She'll do what she has to in order for justice to be played out."
I frowned. "So she told you that I told her and Rachel to cover it all up. To ignore the fact that we'd have an incident on our hands with Talbot's people. She told you everything."
The former Head Auror grinned a wide and unfriendly grin. "Oh how 'bout that. I was tickled pink at the idea. Harry Potter politicking his way out of a situation. Perhaps he was deflecting the fact he's plowing that Metamorph slag, or maybe he's trying to downplay the fact the werewolf was out to get him. Keeping secrets, Potter?"
I dropped the box I was carrying, letting the contents spill out on the stairs. "I think this is my floor, actually. Anything else before you go off and play goblin ambassador for the rest of your life?"
He fished his stubby little wand out of his pocket and levitated the fallen box off the ground. "Watch your back. Audrey and you may be chummy now, but she's a shark, just like you. Say what you will about me being in charge, but at least you were sure you could handle me, am I right?"
My glare told him everything he needed to know.
"Stew on that one for a while, Potter," Gawain Robards said roughly. He turned away and headed down the stairs. "Happy fucking Christmas!"
And like that, he was gone. I was now left with a potential problem in the form of Audrey Ravenwood watching my every move in my work hours. I gave Robards a head start before heading down the stairs myself, mulling over his parting words. I knew that I might need to heed his warning sometime in the future, but for now? I had another meeting to go to, one that would surely end badly for one particular party.
Loki was waiting for me at our regular meet-up spot at Gringotts, his arms crossed and his expression not unlike he had swallowed something unpleasant. "Well?"
"Nice to see you too, Loki," I snapped, flicking my wand. The door behind us shut tight and I created a little alarm ward to warn me if any goblins were approaching. "We need to chat."
"I told you that I've already taken care of the files you asked me to make disappear. Are you really so paranoid-"
I silenced him with a hand. "There's one more loose end, Loki. About the Constellation Killer case."
"Yeah. Something coincidental, a little too coincidental to be overlooked. Let's just say that I've underestimated you, and trust me when I say that is a compliment, Loki." I narrowed my eyes at him. He was projecting aloofness and was schooling his features in a careful and very guarded way I hadn't seen before. "The ingredients for the rebirthing ritual were rare finds. The goblin-made magic dampeners and the wards around St Michael's were good stuff. One of the wards specifically looked a lot like one we used years ago when I shifted reality. To hide the surge of power from the Ministry."
"Jensen must've had a goblin accomplice then. I wonder who it could be?"
"Cut the bullshit, Loki," I snapped. "He shifted reality to hide the goblin files, but Fallon must've been in contact with someone in order to purchase those sensitive ingredients. I did some digging." I threw a rolled up piece of parchment at him. "Got that from Fallon's flat. Your handwriting on it. I explored a few hunches and found out that you're one of the lesser goblins usually assigned to manage the vaults nobody really touches these days. Like the Marius vault. And, say, eight months or so ago, you took Fallon into the vault and watched as he pulled out a ritual knife and some gold. And you put on an act, the salesman who could help Fallon get what he needed for a ritual."
"My activities outside of our business are none of your concern-"
"None of my fucking concern?" I hissed. "You fucking knew! You knew they planned out a rebirthing ritual, and that twelve Muggles would die. From the start! You gathered the ingredients for the ritual! You were helpful little goblin guy to them as well. And people died. Innocents got hurt."
"So?" he said coolly.
"Worst of all, you knew all along and stonewalled me. When I brought you Lavender's book and told you to find some information about this ritual, you hummed your way over the next few weeks, telling me that you were busy with the goblin rebellion in South America. But when I told you that the contract was being threatened, it took you all of three days to magically find the inventories and the Marius will. Why then? Because you were worried. If my contract was breached, you would be one of the first to die. You didn't want that, and you played up the pathetic little Loki card! Do you understand what this means for you?"
He sneered. "You'll kill me."
"So help me if you ever consciously hold things back like that ever again, I will. I will come here, hunt you down, and then mount your head on my bedroom wall!"
My last words echoed throughout the small office. Loki just stood, still as an ice sculpture and his expression just as cold. I disliked being tricked. Little Loki with no backbone and a curiosity about things was a lie. He was a shark and a trickster. Maybe his name should've tipped me off - he was dangerous.
And the look on his face told me he would continue to have business dealings that didn't involve me, even if more people died. He wouldn't work just at my behest or gold. He'd do what would be best for Loki. He had finally crossed that line in my eyes, and he was officially expendable.
"I'm sorry, Loki."
I snapped my wand in his direction and blasted off a Killing Curse at his chest. However, I did not expect the spell to go through him and make a small crater in the wall, bits of stone exploding outwards and similarly sailing harmlessly through my intended target. I swore as a bit of flying debris hit my leg. Loki hadn't moved. I gaped at him, and he smirked victoriously.
"Astral projection spell," he said. "I guessed you would be a little angry if you found out my involvement. I expected it, actually."
"You're a dead goblin, Loki," I spat. "You're dead, but you just don't know it yet."
He hummed at me. "Sure. Let me tell you how things are going to go. In my business, attempted murders are expected. Someone tries it more than once, and I get angry. But I know you're a loose cannon, and let's just say you've been good to me in the past. You've tried to kill me once, and that I will remember. Try it again, and I will actively start trying to undo the mental hold you have over me. I will break your reality shift and burn the contract in front of your eyes. I will live and laugh, while you will no doubt suffer and maybe even die."
Loki's projection started to waver and hiss. "Time's up. I'm willing to continue our business, of course. Though you'll have to forgive me if we can't do it in person anymore. Who's next on your list come renewal time?"
"Jack Larson," I bit out.
He nodded. "Good to know. Send me a note when the time comes, and I'll take... double my standard fee from his vault." The projection bowed, smiling mockingly. "Good to do business with you, Harry Potter. Have a nice holiday."
The projection hissed once more, and a blue flash of light signalled Loki's exit. I just stood there for a moment, trying to logically figure out a way to track him down and make sure he'd never betray me again. Logic fell out in favour of emotion, anger bursting forth. I thought about Remus, about Robards and about Loki. Three minor elements in my life haunting me now - covering up Remus's death and ousting Robards as Head Auror has saddled me with a new challenge at work with Ravenwood in charge. Underestimating Loki about matters of trust had bit me in the ass, and although he hadn't in so many words betrayed my contract, it still angered me that he could one day screw me over.
These were problems that needed to be rectified. Problems for the future with no immediate solutions.
I just hoped I could find a reasonable solution before I lost everything.
Christmas, 2001: Moving On and Living Life
"Not even close," I said, scrunching up my nose. "There's festive cheer, and then there's a monstrosity of multicoloured hair."
"You don't like it?" Tonks said indignantly, the offending hairstyle in question near blinding me.
"Well there's a line into tacky-land, and the red and green? Crossing it?"
"Hey!" She caught herself from looked angry at my response, instead smiling a little. "This is one of those things where you poke fun at my hair so I wear it more often to get a rise out of you, isn't it?"
"Sure sure. Whatever delusions you want to have..."
"You're not just saying this 'cause you secretly like it and want me to do it more often, are you?" My face must've twitched the wrong way, because she crowed in triumph. "I knew it!"
Well it didn't look that bad, but I tried to keep feigning disinterest. "Whatever you say dear."
She made a face. "Please don't call me 'dear'."
"Sure thing mistress," I said teasingly.
"Oooh... I quite like that," she purred, eyes sparkling. I was regretting that comment now. "Call me Mistress Dora, Harry. Oh yes..."
My girlfriend the multicoloured gallery of surprises, ladies and gentlemen.
"Dover!" I shouted out, pounding the door to his flat with one hand and half-heartedly fending off Tonks's wandering hands with the other. "Help! There's a crazy Christmas-themed witch trying to kill me!"
The door wretched open, revealing Dover, dressed casually and all the world his usual rumpled and unshaven self. He grinned at the two of us, my arm now wrapped around Tonks and her fingers lazily poking at my side.
"Never pegged you for the type to complain, Harry," he drawled.
"You're hysterical," I said dryly, shoving a wrapped box into his arms. "Merry fucking Christmas, Mac."
"Happy Christmas!" Tonks chirped.
Dover tore into his present, his eyes widening as the paper came off. "Odgen's Finest Firewhiskey circa 1845?"
"The whole office chipped in," I said, somewhat afraid my friend would burst into awkward tears. It was just alcohol... "Except Boot, of course. He's too busy sulking over Robards getting booted."
Dover chuckled. "Thanks for this guys," he said sincerely. "Pass on my thanks to the rest of the office when you get back, okay?"
I waved him off. "Yeah, about that... Tonks doesn't start until mid-January, and I may be busy with anger management training for the next month or so."
He snorted. "You serious? I think we all got short-changed for this whole damn thing. You got anger management, Robards got fired, and I got a few weeks off... And they want me back next week!"
I cast a glance at Tonks and we shared a conspiratorial grin. Dover caught on immediately.
"Uhh... what am I missing?"
"Got a Floo call last night," I said. "Minister Cresswell wanting to thank me for the Christmas card I sent him, you know. Gave me a gift of my own. Two, actually - one to pass on to my partner. A nice bonus, if you will."
"You're fucking with me! Really?"
"He isn't," Tonks piped up. "Once word hit Cresswell's desk about Robards's poor conduct and how it nearly got you killed, he had no choice but to get rid of old Gawain and start handing out pay upgrades to the two lead Aurors who solved the Constellation Killer case."
I took over. "I made sure to tell Cresswell and Williamson all the dirty details, too. How Robards interfered with our investigations, how one brave Auror almost died..."
"Poor Auror Dover," Tonks sniffed. "He almost died too young."
"Why?" Dover asked. "I mean, I'm glad I'm getting a nice bonus and all, but I didn't really do anything."
"You've read the Daily Prophet, right?" I asked. "They kept things vague on how we found the Marius ritual knife and how it led back to Christian Selwyn, but it was your ingenuity that found us our biggest lead."
"The guy who cursed me?"
I nodded. "Fawcett had been Obliviated. Not a very thorough job on Selywn's part, mind you, because Fawcett kept paperwork on all of his dealings. Blackmail material, you know. So when I went back to raid the junkyard Fawcett owned, I found the paperwork about him selling the Marius knife. Selwyn bought and paid for it straight out of his vault, and Fawcett had it all written down before our dear Constellation Killer could wipe it from his memory."
"I found our killer?" Dover said in disbelief.
"Technically, you just identified him through Fawcett," Tonks said. "Harry here braved the archives room and found out that the bodies were all being buried at St Michael's cemetery. Turns out the killer actually needed the bodies, and he was using misdirection."
I took the ball and ran with it. "Easy enough to figure out he needed them when the eleventh victim got Portkey'd away."
Dover gave me a look, and Tonks explained, "The ritual was supposed to take place on the winter solstice. Something went wrong before the Aurors could get there though."
"Selwyn blew himself up," I said happily. "The ritual was faulty or something. Left a huge crater where the graveyard used to be too. I think next time it rains we're going to have a new lake... complete with dead bodies that survived the explosion. Ugh."
It wouldn't take a Muggle rocket scientist to figure out how I pinned Jensen and Fallon's work on Christian Selwyn. The man was thought to have fled the country by the time the Auror Office took the case back when our killer was known as The Sorcerer. The official guess was that he got spooked and continued his murders in seclusion, only occasionally getting in contact with his solicitor in order to get himself the ingredients needed for such a ritual.
What did I do? I started by taking down the wards around St Michael's, blowing the place up with my little potion and making sure the charred remains of the Marius knife and the wand using to brand the dead Muggles could be found in the debris. Without the wards, the Ministry could detect the magical energy my explosion caused, and a team of Aurors were dispatched. While they looked over the crater, I quickly got to work. Fallon's reality shift was gone now, so I had Loki hide the paperwork the shift tried to hide - the Marius will, the inventories and anything linking Jensen to St Michael's cemetery.
I showed up at the crater where St Michael's used to be in my official Auror capacity, acting all confused but quickly piecing it together. In the next few hours, I found out that the first ten Muggles were buried at the cemetery after some magical manipulation on their families. I planted a false memory inside of Brandon Fawcett and ingeniously stumbled upon the man's little blackmail book at the junkyard, and identified Christian Selwyn as the Constellation Killer. From there, I simply Confunded Selwyn's solicitor into thinking he had supplied the ingredients for the rebirthing ritual, and posited that Selwyn must've accidentally killed himself while attempting the ritual. In one fell swoop, I successfully framed Selwyn and hid any involvement related to Jensen and Fallon. Case closed.
For mine and Dover's invaluable service and to recompense us after Robards's poor conduct, we were getting quite the pay-raise. Telling Dover the exact amount was akin to giving a perpetually drowning man some air - his eyes rolled back in his head and he started twitching in joyous shock.
"Congrats," I said, patting him on the shoulder warmly. "We now make too much damn money."
"Speak for yourself," Dover wheezed. He stumbled back into his flat and sank into the sole cushioned chair taking up residence in his pigsty of a flat. Tonks and I just stood in the doorway, grinning.
"I think we broke him," I whispered to Tonks. "Alcohol and money and he still has some more time off work while I do my anger management." I raised my voice. "Hey Dover, did I mention that I convinced Rachel to go out with you?"
I think he may've passed out for a full minute. Upon coming to, he smiled at us both.
"Merry Christmas," he said cheerily. "I should probably head over to my folks' place for lunch... Where are you two headed?"
"Weasley's," I replied.
"Don't let me keep you two then," he said. He thumped me on the shoulder and gave Tonks a wary pat on the arm. "See you later guys."
"Same to you Dover." Tonks and I showed ourselves out of his flat and headed to the stairwell, quickly and privately preparing to Apparate to the Burrow.
"You think he'll ask Rachel out?" Tonks asked, hooking her arm in with mine.
"He might. She's a gossipy girl and he's a lazy slob. Match made in heaven."
"You've got that look in your eye," Tonks said shrewdly. "Haven't seen that since you pushed poor Neville into asking Hannah out."
We Apparated together, appearing on the hill overlooking the ramshackle yet comfortable Weasley household. In the distance I could spot a few figures with red hair engaging in a fierce snowball fight.
(Echoes in my mind. Can never fully forget. The contract tries and it tries to make me forget. To block and repress and lose myself with Tonks. But I know that's what it wants. To make me complacent and eventually free itself from my control, even if it kills me. I remembered the final words of a man facing death for the second time.)
Tonks pouted at me. "You've been hanging around Molly Weasley too long. She's made you into a little matchmaker."
"Oh yes, I had forgotten that you stopped showing at Weasley dinners lest Mrs Weasley try and set you up with the nearest garden gnome."
"It was fine when she tried to set me up with Bill - that I understood."
"She didn't want Fleur as a daughter-in-law."
("What happens if you can't renew your contract in time?")
"Right. Then she had that thing about Charlie still being a bachelor, of course."
"Then we all discovered he likes his women a little more scaly and dragon-like..."
"Then she totally lost it and tried to set me up with Percy!"
"I believe our new Head Auror Audrey Ravenwood would object to that unholy union."
("What happens if your lies catch up to you, or somebody senses the reality shift like I did?")
"The one-eared man and the clumsy Metamorph. Somebody think of the children."
Tonks's eyes narrowed until they dangerous slit-like. "I just can't believe she tried to set me up with Ron!"
I shuddered. "And I was right there the entire time..."
("What happens if you die?")
"Exactly!" Glad that I was in agreement, she pressed herself closer to me. "Should be fun though. To catch up with this lot."
"Then a little Christmas present exchange at your flat."
She nodded, her red and green hair bouncing against my side. "Sounds like a plan."
I smiled so damn hard my cheeks hurt. The war was over, and I had had enough of trying and failing to let go of it. To move on. The contract wasn't a reflection of what I had to do to survive the immediate post-war fallout. The contract was all about the happy ending I'm working towards. The contract was about walking down the hill to the Burrow, Tonks at my side. It was about hearing the happy cheers of my oldest friends greeting us rambunctiously. I'd keep renewing the contract, and I would do it with the conviction of a man fighting for his happy ending and everything that comes with. It would be worth it every time, I knew.
Contract renewals, though, could wait. I had a happy ending to work towards.
("Harry Potter, what happens if your luck just runs out?")
Well, that's basically it. Kinda an ambiguous ending, but it was what I had in mind. Originally, I had planned to make Breach of Contract into a series of stories with escalating stakes, but I realised pretty early in the writing process that Twelve Signs was something special. Unique, to me, in how it came together just how I imagined it, and my months of planning worked out as I hoped. Getting something like that is rare, and it was awesome to write while knowing that I was doing pretty darn good with what I had planned out. So I realised that, while I have some cool ideas for a sequel, I might leave this story as it is and make the ending a little more ambiguous, just in case I never do a sequel.
So, this is what we got. Harry's contract wants him dead and will be making him complacent to block things off and unlucky while close to renewal. The contract will make him not think about what would happen if he was distracted or couldn't renew in time. It won't allow him to think about alternate options. But Jensen's final words have affected Harry, and maybe his mind will eventually become his own again. The sky's the limit now - will the contract continue to have a hold over Harry? Will he break free of it and get his happy ending? Even if he did break free, could he think of an alternative option and then live with himself? Could he do all this and keep his relationship with Tonks steady?
But then, there's the other side of the coin: Would the contract keep him complacent until one day, he just dies? What if, sometime close to a renewal, the contract's influence makes him break his neck by tripping and falling down the stairs he takes up to the Auror Office every day? What if Audrey Ravenwood begins to snoop into Harry Potter's affairs after she begins to get suspicious? What if Harry crosses Loki a second time, and Loki starts looking for a way to undermine him? So many roadblocks or potential problems to come Harry's way, and unless I write a sequel, the ultimate ending will be left up to the reader. Twelve Signs wasn't about Harry ultimately fighting the contract. It was about a wizard killing Muggles ritualistically, Harry dealing with his closest relationships, and him ultimately leaving the war behind, now fighting a new war in his mind against the contract he created... and he only subconsciously knows he's fighting it.
(And yes, I'm a little undecided myself on where things would go from here for me. The storyteller in me wants to have fun simply destroying Harry Potter and having reality crumble around him, while the pessimist inside of me is thinking I'd screw it all up if I tried a sequel)
So, unless I'm sequel-ing up, this is about it for this story. I hoped you all enjoyed it, and I'd like to offer a big thanks to all who reviewed, favourited, alerted or community'd this story. And a big pre-emptive thanks to all those who may do the same in the future. What's next for me? Probably something a little lighter than Breach of Contract, though hopefully no less fun to read or write. I've always wanted to do a zombie apocalypse story in the HP world...
Thanks for reading,
Matt Silver 3k.