Pain. Bright light. Pain. Screams. Pain. And then the high, cold voice, near-laughing the dreaded words –
Harry sat bolt upright in bed, hand clutching at his forehead. The hated famous scar was burning white hot, and Harry's head snapped around the room, unconsciously searching for the owner of that voice. His tense posture relaxed minutely once he'd scoured the dorm – he was safe, he was at Hogwarts. Voldemort was nowhere near him. But, a traitorous corner of Harry's mind whispered, Voldemort was near someone. Someone had been tortured that night, someone had been killed, murdered – while you watched. He repressed a shudder, guilt pooling in his stomach. He listened for a moment to the snores of his friends, before shaking his head. There would be no more sleep for him that night, he knew. Checking his alarm clock, he swung his legs out of bed and pulled on his dressing gown. It was six in the morning, so the common room would be empty, and he could at least move around without waking anyone. He paused when his hand knocked the small piece of metal and plastic on his bedside table. How Dawn had managed to make such an advanced piece of Muggle technology work at Hogwarts, he didn't know, and he'd avoided mentioning it to Hermione and Ron in case it sent his female best friend into a research frenzy. She'd told him to call if he needed her, any time of the day or night, but… part of Harry still shied away from anything that would inconvenience his newfound family. His childhood had left him all too aware that adults didn't like being woken, and Dawn got so little sleep as it was… He wouldn't wake her, he decided. He was fifteen years old, and it was just a nightmare. He didn't need to bother her with this.
Despite his resolve, he scooped up the mobile phone and dropped it into his dressing gown pocket. Just in case, he reasoned. And Dawn had told him to always keep it with him. He picked up his dream diary for Trelawney, hoping to make up a few more ridiculous omens of death and disaster before breakfast. He'd just about caught up with his other work, but the dream diary was still a bit lacking. He padded silently down the tower stairs, his thick woolen socks muffling all noise as he made his way into the common room. He stopped dead at the bottom of the stairs, spotting the outline of a person curled on one of the window seats, and pulled back into the shadows, listening intently.
"A brighter day is coming my way, yes tomorrow will be kinder…"
The soft voice continued over the hesitant guitar. Harry peaked out from the stairwell, not wanting to disturb whoever it was singing. He started when the voice spoke more loudly, and realised that the music had ended.
"You can come out, Harry. I know you're there."
He flushed involuntarily, and stepped out in to the dim room. His aunt was curled around a rather worn looking guitar on the window seat, leaning back against the wall. She patted the free half of the window seat and he accepted the unspoken offer, settling down as she leaned the guitar against the edge of the seat.
"What's up?" she asked, tilting her head to study him.
"Nothing," he replied hurriedly. "Just woke up and couldn't go back to sleep, thought I'd, uh, do some homework."
"Uh huh," she replied, raising one eyebrow skeptically. "'Cause, y'know, that's what sane people do…"
"What about you?" Harry asked, noticing how far from her usual self she looked. Her hair was pulled back into a messy bun, and it showed just how tired she looked. In fact, she looked entirely too tired and fragile in that moment, and it threw Harry. He was used to his aunt – both her and her sister – looking as if the world held nothing to faze them. All of a sudden, it struck him – was it more that there was nothing left that would shake them? He felt as if he was looking into the eyes of an old woman, much older that his aunt's seventeen years. But then Harry felt like that himself sometimes – as if his classmates were all just so much younger, like he was an old man in a teenager's body. As if he lost all traces of childish innocence a very long time ago.
"Can't sleep," she shrugged. "Weird dreams."
"Me too," Harry nodded, glancing over at the fire.
"So, homework, huh?" she asked, a trace of a grin lighting her face.
"Divination," he replied, wrinkling up his nose, "we're supposed to keep a dream diary."
"And you aren't really sure that you want the world's best dragonfly impersonator analyzing the contents of your subconscious?"
"Not really, no." Harry suppressed a shudder. He really didn't want Trelawney knowing that his dreams were full of killing curses and Voldemort. She'd probably announce that he was fated to follow in his footsteps.
"So what do you do?" Dawn asked, tilting her head to one side.
"Make it up," Harry confessed, grinning. "She always predicts my untimely death, and so if I put in loads of dreams of my own painful and imminent death I get decent marks. Ron and I both do it."
"Hey, sounds like a plan. If nothing else, it'll keep you amused," Dawn smirked, thinking of her own few lessons with the fraud of the North Tower.
"Dawn?" Harry asked, slightly hesitantly. Even after realising that adults shouldn't treat children the way the Dursleys had treated him when he stayed at the Burrow and saw how a real family worked, he still didn't like to ask questions. That had been the number one rule at the Dursleys, even higher than blame Harry for anything that went wrong, not drawing any attention to himself, or not show Dudley up. He supposed it was ingrained in him.
"Mmhmm," she replied absently, redirecting her gaze back to him.
"Where did you get a guitar?"
She gave an odd half-smile, before answering, "It's Nix's old one. He shrunk it down to fit in his trunk, as we weren't really sure if it was allowed. I snuck up and 'borrowed' it when I realised I wasn't sleeping tonight. I'm nowhere near as good as he is, though."
She was pulling at a thread in her oversized jumper as she spoke. In the firelight, Harry saw the litany of fresh scratches and cuts that covered her hands, one stretching up her wrist and out of sight.
"How do you do it?" he asked without thinking, a frown puckering his forehead.
"Do what?" she asked, looking at him in confusion.
"Go out at night, fight, get hurt, and then do it all again the next night. Don't you get sick of it?"
"Sometimes," she answered, face softening as she turned to look out the window. "But I don't think I could ever just stop."
"Why not?" he prompted. The feeling was familiar, the will to keep struggling against whatever tried to hurt you, but Harry had fought for his friends or his own life. A small part of him couldn't imagine being prepared to put his life on the line for nameless, faceless strangers.
"Because I know what's out there," she replied simply. "and I know how to fight it. I'll never be able to stop knowing, and well, I don't think I could just hide from that. I'm strong enough to fight, so I do."
"I just… I can't imagine it. I mean, I know Voldemort's out there, and I know he'll try and kill me when he gets the chance. And I know I'll fight him when he tries. But I couldn't… I don't know if I could cope if that was every night," Harry confessed, looking down at his knees. He had pulled them up to his chest as he spoke, arms wrapping around them protectively.
Dawn frowned, hating that someone so young could state so calmly that a crazed mass-murderer was after them. She wanted to tell him it wasn't true, that he wouldn't go through the fear that had been her life at his age, but she knew she couldn't lie to him like that. Instead, she said:
"Look out of the window, Harry."
He turned and took in the view. The sun was just beginning to rise over the grounds, pale golden light making the lake shine.
"I see that, and I know I made it. The world spins on, and I made it through the night to see another sunrise. And I know that because of me, so did people I probably wouldn't recognize on the street. They wouldn't recognize me either, but – they live. They'll live, and be happy, and have children, and make other people happy. Their light continues, and spreads light over the people they love. And sure, maybe I am putting myself in harm's way. But given who and what I am, I'm always going to be a target. So why spend my life looking over my shoulder? I may as well live my life to the full, may as well fight for my life, and in reality, the more evil I take down means one less thing gunning for me and mine. Hiding would mean leaving the people I love in danger – you, Buffy, Will, Xan, Giles, Faith, Andy, Nix, Connor, Lo, Jordy. So I fight. And the sun comes up again."
"When can we start training again?"
The words came out before Harry could prevent them. He'd asked for training as soon as he'd moved into to Council headquarters, but since returning to school the sessions had stopped. His first week in Hogwarts had been eventful, and he had the odd feeling that he didn't know half of what had really gone on. He immediately began to clarify his outburst, not noticing Dawn's assessing gaze.
"I need to be able to protect myself. Something always happens, and I'm always scraping by on luck, or with other people's help. I need to be able to fight, to know what I'm doing. I can't keep winging it, I – "
Dawn cut across his hurried explanation, holding up a hand.
"I get it," she said, smiling faintly. "I've been meaning to ask if you were still interested, and sit down to hash out a schedule. The only issue is Umbridge."
Harry scowled. "So I can't learn to fight because of the Toad?"
"Who said anything about can't?" Dawn replied, a wicked grin lighting her face. "Just means we're going to have to be sneaky."
Buffy looked up at the wrought iron gates. It was odd to see them chained, as even though they had been kept shut as the first war began to affect the wizarding world, her parents had never even considered chaining the intricate gates. Her eyes swept over the pair of statues that flanked the drive – stone lions, each with the front paw nearest the gates resting atop the Potter crest. It had been far too many years since she'd stood here, and she deeply regretted that her brother and sister-in-law had chosen a small holiday cottage to hide in, rather than trusting in the wards that had kept the Potters safe for centuries. In all the years that the family had lived and loved, violent death had never visited the family estate. No invader had ever made it in, no attack had succeeded. But Voldemort's servants had somehow infiltrated a number of the old estates, Buffy rationalized with a sigh. It was only natural that James and Lily began to doubt the security of the ancient wards, and so decided to retreat to a property that barely anyone knew about.
Shaking her head to clear her melancholy thoughts, the Slayer stepped forward, placing her wand hand on the muzzle of the nearest guardian. She murmured the family motto, and felt a sharp prick as the statue tested her blood. Normally the combination of motto and her magical signature would have been enough as she had been keyed into the wards since birth, but as James, then the Head of the Family, had placed the estate into stasis, to remain untouched until the family returned to claim it, her claim to the bloodline needed to be proven. It was ancient magic, now thoroughly illegal – ensuring, of course, that no new family could acquire a seat such as those enjoyed by the old lines. The pain was fleeting, and Buffy watched as the chains on the gates fell away. The gates opened for her without so much as a creak, and she began the long walk up the drive.
As she drew close, she saw the rows of windows, previously dark and empty, light up to give the sprawling manor house a welcoming feel. She reached the steps up to the front door, and when she began to ascend them, the great oak door swung open in welcome, revealing the familiar entrance hall. She had vaguely expected dustsheets to cover everything, or at least a thick layer of dust to coat the surfaces, but it was as if the occupants had only stepped out for a walk a minute ago, not been absent for nearly a decade and a half. The door swung shut behind her, and she paused, turning around in the entrance hall, taking in her perfectly preserved childhood home. For a second she fancied she could almost see the ghosts of herself and her twin playing in the halls with their friends.
She sighed, shutting her eyes. James was gone. The mental connection that had existed between them had been silent since they had parted, with both siblings promising not to open it until they had news of Voldemort's defeat. She had expected to feel something, if she was honest. It didn't seem plausible that the inexplicable link could be so brutally severed without her feeling a thing. She should surely feel lonely in her head, or as if something was missing. A part of her felt guilty, knowing that she had been unaware of her own twin's death for so many years. They'd always believed that they would know instantly if the other died, but apparently that had been a childish folly. In truth, she had had no idea that James was irrevocably gone from her mind, and had believed that the Wizarding world would still be locked in civil war when she had contacted Professor Dumbledore. It was the reason she had chosen to address the letter to him at Hogwarts, thinking that even if Dumbledore was no longer Headmaster his successor would remember her, and Hogwarts represented the one constant she could depend upon. She been stunned to discover that the world she had left had been altered so completely. She'd had no idea of what her baby nephew had achieved, no idea that her family been torn apart. She muffled a sob – it seemed weak somehow, to be grieving for her lost brother so long after the fact. But to her, James had only died that summer, along with all chances of the reunions she had imagined.
"Mistress Elizabeth?" a high-pitched voice piped up. "Mistress has come home at last?"
"Mistress is alone? Where is Master James and Miss Lily? And little Master Harry and Miss Dawn?"
Buffy opened her eyes, looking around for the owners of the voices. Her gaze settled on a pair of house-elves, dressed in the livery that they had worn for as long as she could remember. Other families preferred to leave their house-elves in rough smocks fashioned out of pillow cases or tea towels to ensure that they could never be mistaken for clothes, but the Potters had discovered that the best way around the clothes issue was to present each house-elf with a bolt of fabric, allowing the elf to fashion their own copy of the uniform. The elves were smart and neatly dressed, without the family ever having presented them with a garment. Buffy recognized the elf on the left as Tobb, the Head Elf appointed by her father, who had served as a butler for the estate. He had not aged visibly since she had set eyes on the elf last – she remembered with a shock that placing the house in stasis also caused the elves to freeze in time, falling into a magical sleep until their masters returned. The little elf wore a pair of dark grey trousers and a grey-purple tunic edged with the gold braid that denoted his position in the household, and his feet were bare. Next to him was Mitsy, the housekeeper and head cook. Her simple dress was the same shade as Tobb's tunic, and she wore a white apron around her waist. Her feet were also bare, and a grey-purple cloth cap covered her head. A length of gold braid decorated the band of her apron, marking her out as the senior female elf. Both elves were looking up at her in awe, having not known who would be returning to the house.
"Hello, Tobb, Mitsy. Yes, I've come home, and Dawn and Harry will be here for Christmas."
The two elves were nearly bouncing at the thought of Christmas coming to the estate once more, and Buffy hated that she was going to have to tell them the horrible news.
"James and Lily… won't be coming home. They…"
Buffy fought back the tears that stung at her eyes. Mitsy gave a low cry, and Tobb rocked back on his heels, as the realization that not only was Mistress Elizabeth opening up the estate alone, but that they were directly bonded to her as Head of the Family.
"Tobb will tell the other elves, Mistress," Tobb mumbled, his ears drooping.
"Thank you," Buffy murmured. She swiped angrily at the moisture that had clung to her eyelashes. Now was not the time for a breakdown, not when the estate needed seeing to. She took a calming breath before saying, "Could you show me around, please? It's been such a long time, I could do with looking over the place."
The two elves nodded, perking up slightly. They were eager to show their Mistress that the house and gardens were ready to welcome the family, and Tobb began to lead Buffy around the manor, while Mitsy popped out of the hall to prepared the rest of the elves for presentation to the Mistress.
Buffy leaned back onto her old bed. She had refused outright to take up residence in the master suite – she knew full well that she was more of a regent than a true head of the family. Whenever Harry was ready after he came of age, she would hand over the reigns of the family, and so the suite was his if he wanted it. Secretly, she suspected he wouldn't want it, not now. She also knew that her reasons for turning down the suite were not entirely based on her realistic view of the situation. In her mind, it was still her parents' room, and she knew James had felt the same way when he and Lily had moved in after their wedding. Their mother and father had both been gone by the time of the wedding, but she knew it had only been the long talk with his mentor, Frank Longbottom, that had allowed James to see the logic in moving into the suite, especially the increased proximity to the nursery ready for their future children.
She had immediately authorized designs for Dawn's room to be drawn up for consideration, as her room was still fit for a three year old rather than the seventeen year old she was. Harry had still been in the nursery when he was last resident in the estate, and yet she had paused before designating a room for him. She had eventually decided allow him to decide, wondering whether her nephew would prefer to occupy James' childhood room given how few links he had to his parents. A permanent room for Remus was already being worked upon, using the guest room he had preferred as a guide. Sirius already had a room on the family corridor, given that he had moved in as an extra son the summer after sixth year.
Buffy pulled her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. This place was exactly as she remembered, and her heart ached knowing that things would never be exactly the same. A sob escaped her, and she hugged her legs tighter. She hadn't realised how much she'd been banking on the family she'd left behind still being here on her return, and coming home had only confirmed what she had discovered during the summer. James would never again burst into her room without knocking, and she muffled a half-sob, half-laugh. How dearly had she wished for him to stop when they were young? She'd give anything for her brother to be annoying her now.
The Slayer rose from her bed, turned to the window and stood gazing out over the estate. Things may not ever be the same again, but she would ensure that laughter filled the halls of the Potter estate once again. A split-second decision made, she headed for the Head's study. She had a letter write, and then she needed to begin the preparations for the Christmas period. It had been far too long since happiness had graced the manor, and Buffy would not let it wait another year.