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The kettle let out a shrill whine in the kitchen.
In the living room, Harry sighed and glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. The slender metal hands claimed that it was mere minutes short of six in the morning. He grimaced, putting a hand on each arm of the chair, and pushed himself up.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the fireplace. His face was smooth, unblemished, if a little pale, and looked like that of a man in the prime of his life, brimming with good health. The intermittent speckles of white and grey were the only sign of his real age.
Harry walked over to the mirror and touched the only wound he'd never been truly able to heal from; a thin, jagged bolt of red lightning on his forehead. He stared at it for a while, lost in memories. Without realizing, he picked up a thick homemade card that had lain hidden behind the clock.
In the centre of the card a pair of smiling faces beamed up at him, waving and laughing silently. The elder of the two, a stunning woman, lifted the other, a girl of about five, and threw her in the air, catching her before she could fall. Harry watched them laugh, longing to hear the laughter that he could see, just once more.
With an elegant, cursive hand, the words Happy Birthday Daddy glittered in green and silver ink. Just below them, in bright blue, was printed the name Katie with the painstaking care of a child only just learning to write.
Harry wiped a few traces of dust off the card, smiling sadly. It was old, and saved from falling apart only by magic. He frowned as he noticed a tiny rip in one corner. Placing his thumb and forefinger over the slight tear, Harry fully covered it and muttered a word under his breath.
Golden light spilled out from under his hand; he pulled it away to check that the magic had worked. Seeing that it had, and that the card had knitted together, leaving no sign of imperfection, he put it back in its hiding place, behind the clock, where nobody but him would ever see it.
Sighing, he made his way to the kitchen and lifted the kettle from the top of the stove where he'd left it to heat. The stove was broken, so he'd conjured a lilywhite ball of fire to heat the kettle. He wrapped the fire in a subtle sphere of magic and tossed it like a ball into the living room's hearth. The magic shattered like glass as it impacted against red bricks behind the fire, and the lilywhite flames melted away into the hearth. The fire that had already been burning there rose a little higher, burned a little hotter.
His movements were slow and sluggish as he made himself a large mug of strong coffee. He needed it. He was exhausted.
All night he'd been wishing that he could sleep, but that wasn't an option. As much as he yearned for rest, he needed much more to stay awake, and wait. The call should be coming in a few hours. He yawned widely and took a gulp of hot coffee. It stung his tongue and throat going down, but that only helped kick him awake – a kick much needed.
He rubbed his eyes blearily and topped up the mug before heading back through into the living room.
The fire roared with a pleasant heat which spread throughout the room, making Harry feel drowsier than he already was. He stretched out on the couch, using an armrest as a pillow, and fought to keep his eyes open.
Over the course of hours one mug became five, and eventually Harry ran out of coffee. He sat there, grumbling under his breath, and absentmindedly fingering a plain silver bracelet from which three charms hung; a wand, a ring and a cloak.
As his fingers brushed the charm shaped like a cloak, it began to emit a soft silver light. The light caught Harry's attention.
He whipped his hand away as if stung by an insect.
This was dangerous territory. He could feel the ebb and flow of magic in and around those three charms; a requiem that called to him, enthralling like a siren perched on treacherous rocks, her soft, lulling song a call to doomed sailors.
Harry closed his eyes and attempted to block out his magical senses, shutting them down one by one. He felt a strange sense of loss as his awareness of the life around him faded into nothing. The birds roosting in trees outside suddenly vanished from his mind, as did the hundreds of insects hidden among the foliage. There were no insects within the house. Even they had enough intelligence to stay away; the primal, raw intelligence of basic survival instincts.
He focused on taking slow, steady breaths and listened to the rhythmic beating of his heart, blocking out all thought.
"-tter. Mr Potter? Sir? Mr Potter? "
He blinked, opened his eyes and stretched.
Harry could feel the pulsing of life nearby with his ethereal senses, but it was odd, twisted, somehow, as if it was only half there. He frowned, trying to remember what that odd sensation meant. He knew that he'd felt it before.
At last, Harry took notice of what he'd been hearing for the past minute. He sat up with a jerk, and saw the head of a young woman bobbing nervously among green flames.
"Yes?" he asked, slurring his words as his stiff body and mind protested at being roused. The woman steeled her face into a polite expression, chewing on her lower lip a little. Harry grimaced at the sight of fear, even in such a small sign, and she jerked backwards quickly.
"Spit it out, girl. I'm not going to hurt you," he said, a tone of disgust creeping into his voice.
She shuddered, and pulled herself together. "Good morning, sir. I'm Healer Wentson from St Mungo's. I'm very sorry to disturb you this early, but you're the only one on the list of Mr. Nick Browning's contacts and family members, and –"
"Yes, yes, I know. I'm familiar with hospital policy," interrupted Harry, waving a hand dismissively. "How is he?"
She looked downwards, seemingly into the burning logs that her face hung above of, and stuttered in embarrassment.
"The – the organ regeneration was a success, and the magical contamination from the healing ritual was kept to a minimum," she said. "We're still monitoring his progress, and the current prognosis is favourable. " As she spoke the fear in her voice dissipated, replaced by a professional tone; discussing simple medical facts was familiar grounds for her. "The series of lacerations on his upper torso have been fully healed, with minor scarring. The scars will be visible, but won't hamper his everyday lifestyle, or even vigorous exercise, unless he exerts himself far more than he should, at his age."
"My age, too," said Harry. The young woman flushed.
"I'm afraid that the burns on his face will remain, due to the dark nature of the curse. Our curse expert, Healer Basil, was able to counter the cursed fire that he was attacked with before it did too much damage."
The detailed list of Nick's injuries brought back the images that Harry had been pushing out of his mind since he had seen them. He remembered the smell of charred skin and hair, and the thick puddle of blood spreading on the floor. The assailant, a psychotic young man who the Aurors were still looking for, had been standing over the broken body of his friend when he'd arrived, a look of utter panic on his face as he realized he'd been spotted.
The look of panic on the assailant's face had wrenched into one of horror when he'd realized that it was Harry who had caught him.
Seeing that the young Healer was watching him expectantly, Harry gave a cursory nod of satisfaction at her report.
"Very well," he said. "When can I see him?" The Healer opened her mouth, but Harry raised a hand in warning, a threatening note coming into his voice. "Don't even think of talking to me about visiting hours, or the hospital's post-trauma visiting policy. I'll be nice and come through the door, rather than the walls, but I won't hesitate to tear my way in past the wards if that's the only way I can see him."
Healer Wentson gulped audibly and cast her eyes downwards, remembering who it was that she was talking to.
"Mr. Browning is scheduled to be moved from our intensive care unit in two hours."
"That makes it eleven," he said, standing, and towering over the Healer, all traces of the exhaustion that had dogged his past few nights gone. Her look of fear returned in full force, undisguised. Harry gave a snort of contempt. "Tell the front desk to expect me there at ten thirty."
"Yes sir," she said, hurriedly, eager to get away. "Goodbye, sir. I'll tell them that right away."
She pulled her head back from the fireplace and vanished. Red-gold sparks danced in the space where it had been, and spread to encompass the rest of the fire, slowly turning it back into its natural roaring tongues of orange. The eerie green light that had flooded the room faded away, dimming into a softer, yellow light.
Harry turned to face the sunlight filtering in through a gap in the curtains. With a flick of the first two fingers of one hand, he pulled them open, letting real light rush into the room. He squinted against the sudden brightness, averting his eyes.
Bathing in the morning light, Harry stood there silently, thinking about his friend. Worry for Nick had clouded his judgement for several days now, and he had been starting to feel old, half-forgotten temptations rising. The promise he had made to Nick many years ago was a constant source of relief whenever treacherous thoughts began to form in his head. Loyalty to those he cared about was something that Harry defined himself with; the standard by which he was determined to live his life.
The fact that there were so few of them only served to heighten his need to stay true to the friends he had.
Brightly lit now, the room seemed somehow larger, more open – and yet also more confining, due to the sight of a long, low green hill stretching down from the very walls of the house. Harry could see faint wisps of smoke in the distance, over thickly wooded hills and a few open fields. The nearest town was almost five miles away and was little more than a small village. That was how he liked it. Decades had passed since he'd last been in public without wayward glances and hushed, fearful whispers following his every footstep.
Nick had been his only real contact with the outside world for many long years.
The sunlight reflected off a framed picture that Harry kept on a low table beside the couch. Aside from the hidden card, it was the only picture in the house. He sometimes wished that things had been different, that he had more pictures. Other days, when he was in a bleaker mood, he was grateful that he'd been spared a repeat of the pains suffered in keeping that friendship going; in keeping a memory of his humanity alive.
He picked it up with a rare, wistful smile. It showed two men sitting at a table outside a small pub in Germany. The one on the left was Harry himself; younger, brimming with confidence, and looking far less serious than he did now. The other was Nicholas Browning. He used to wear a short, carefully trimmed moustache, and as Harry drank in Nick's carefree smile, he grinned faintly. Even as his eyes moistened, he smiled, remembering how she had harassed him for weeks about the moustache, all but begging him to shave it off. A pink smudge blocked one corner of the photo, from where her thumb had blocked the camera lens.
Gently, Harry returned the picture to the tabletop, and picked up the empty coffee mug that sat beside it. He went through into the kitchen and began to rinse it in the sink. As the icy water ran over his hands, his smile and wistful, longing mood vanished, just as his exhaustion had vanished when Healer Wentson had delivered her report.
Anger began to bubble in the pit of his stomach, hot and blinding.
His eyes fell on a portion of the floor that was slightly discoloured, set near a recess in the wall. He stared at it intently, jaw clenched.
Quicker than he'd moved that day, Harry thrust a hand into his pocket, drawing out a long, battered wand. He pointed it at the oddly faded group of marble tiles and hissed an incantation. With a harsh grinding noise, the tiles spun, shifted, and overlapped to reveal a small hole in the ground, and a set of dangerous-looking narrow stairs that led down, disappearing into the dark.
The noise cut off abruptly. Harry descended the steep flight of stairs in silence.
Each step was old and worn to dip in the middle. A small puddle had collected in more than one. Even so, Harry descended blindly, not bothering to hold onto the wall for support, and did not stumble or slip once.
As he drew closer to the base of the stairs an unpleasant smell assaulted his nostrils; the characteristic and familiar odour of decaying flesh. The basement that Harry kept hidden was shrouded in perpetual darkness. Even though he couldn't see his own hand, let alone the treacherous, narrow steps beneath his feet, he could clearly feel the delicate, rich thrumming of energy that indicated another source of life from across the room. It was more potent a presence than Healer Wentson's had been, but felt different, as if it had been covered in a thin film of grease or oil and had great holes torn into it by a savage beast.
Harry lit his wand, calling forth a ball of light. With a sharp flick of his wrist he tossed it into the centre of the room, where it hung like a small, blue-tinted sun, and the room was illuminated by its pale light. At one corner an emaciated man squatted with his arms held above his head, his skin pale and gaunt. He was naked save for a thin layer of ingrained muck and a few dirty scraps of cloth, and dried blood matted his hair.
Heavy chains wound around his wrists held the man inches off the ground, unable to sit or lie down. Another long, winding length of chain wrapped around his ankles prevented him from standing. Fresh blood glistened in wide circles around his wrists and ankles where the bare metal had cut into his flesh, leaving smeared tracks of dried blood running down his arms and pooling at his feet.
"Up," whispered Harry, accompanying his words with a sharp thrust of his wand. "Wake up."
The gaunt man let out a stifled yelp of surprise and looked up. His eyes were unfocused, and he refused to look directly at Harry. Fear was written clearly across his face. Dark rings nestled beneath his eyes, and purplish bruises dotted his face and chest, products of the wall that Harry had collapsed on top of him before taking him prisoner.
"P-please," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm sorry...please."
Harry ignored the pleas for mercy, and stalked forward, wand in hand, and green eyes blazing furiously.
The light went out.
"Please!" the man cried desperately.
Above the room, inside the house, and throughout the deserted countryside that surrounded it, a shrill yell of pain interrupted the quiet of the morning. There was a flurry of beating wings as the few birds nesting outside rose into the air, away from the shrieks of agony. The desperate screaming came and went erratically for more than half an hour, and then faded into silence.
Inside the room, Harry narrowed his eyes.
Golden light exploded from the man's body, so brilliant that it was blinding, and disappeared in seconds. Quiet, sobbing breaths broke the silence.
"P-please," the man whispered again, slurring his words.
The screams didn't fade for another fifteen minutes, but this time they died away completely and forever.
Much later, Aurors would find an unrecognizable corpse, mutilated far beyond recognition through judicious use of darker magic than most of the magical world knew existed. The body, though hardly recognizable, would eventually be identified as Nick Browning's missing assailant. Among the decaying flesh and boiling blood Aurors would find a small vial of swirling, silver memory, detailing the gruesome torture session that had preceded the body's current, horrific state.
Through the memory, Harry's face remained expressionless. After his prisoner's screams finally ended, he turned to face the Auror viewing the memory in the pensieve, as if he were really there and not simply a memory.
"I have given this warning before," he said. "Stay away from me and from those I care about. Every man who crosses the line and harms somebody under my protection will get this treatment, or worse. My tolerance of this idiocy is at an end."
The Auror shivered and leapt out of the pensieve, terrified at being so close to Harry, even if only a mere memory of him.
A tired-looking Mediwitch sat at the front desk, working her way through a small queue looking for aid.
Harry ignored them and strode past to stand directly in front of the queue.
"Hey!" squawked the man who had been talking to the Mediwitch. "You can't just-"
Harry turned around and fixed the man with a glare. He took a step back, muttering an inaudible apology, eyes wide in recognition.
"I was told you'd be coming, sir," the Mediwitch said, shuffling papers on her desk as an excuse to avoid looking at Harry. "What can I help you with?"
"I'm here to visit Nick Browning."
The Mediwitch looked up at him for the first time, then glanced down at a curling roll of parchment propped against the side of the desk.
"Ah – yes. He's still under observation, sir, in our intensive care unit. He's scheduled to be moved into a regular ward at eleven. If you'll take a seat through in the waiting area, I'll send somebody to fetch you when Mr. Browning is ready to see you. It's just through that door on the left, there, and along the corridor."
Harry nodded, wishing that Nick had already been moved. He had learned a great deal of patience over the years, but where the health of a friend was concerned that was all forgotten, replaced by a sense of blinding urgency.
The Mediwitch flicked her eyes up at him again in surprise at hearing him say that. Harry grimaced for what felt like the hundredth time that morning. Too many people seemed to expect him to act like a violent, arrogant, and dangerous dark wizard.
He passed through the door, pretending that he couldn't feel all the burning gazes on his back. The waiting room was almost deserted, save for a harried woman of about thirty, her hair pulled back into a tight bun, and her daughter. The girl was a few years older than Katie had been, but looked too young to have started Hogwarts.
When Harry entered the room, the woman pulled her daughter onto her lap, and whispered something in her ear. The girl wriggled irritably, but her mother refused to let go, giving Harry a brief, wary glance.
The sight of the young girl, so obviously carefree and unaware of who he was, brought a slight smile to Harry's face – but the way that the woman stiffened as he walked past made it drop away as quickly as it had come. He took a seat at the far end of the room, not wanting to cause any more worry for the woman. As foolish as she was acting, in his mind, she was obviously here to visit someone, and he didn't want to add to the concern she must already have been feeling.
From his seat he could see part-way down the corridor, which stretched past the unattended Mediwitch's station covering one wall, and into the first three rooms. Two were empty, but the third had a half-closed door. Through the glass surface Harry could see an old man sleeping on starched white sheets, propped up by a number of pillows into a half-sitting position.
By the time the clock set on the wall displayed the time as eleven, Harry was beginning to grow impatient. Another five minutes passed, and he began to tap his fingers against the hollow metal legs of his chair.
He stared at the clock, willing the hands to move faster. Without turning, he sensed the powerful pulsing of healthy, magical life moving nearby.
"My mum said that I'm not allowed to talk to you."
Harry glanced down at the little girl, and then shifted his eyes back onto the clock.
"Maybe you should do as she says, then," he replied absently.
"My hamster died last week," she said. Harry sighed and looked at her. She was looking up at him earnestly, with wide, blue eyes and a hopeful expression. With one hand, she fiddled with a butterfly-shaped button on her dress. "Can you-" she began, a pleading note in her voice.
But Harry stood up, towering over the little girl, and said, "No. I'm sorry. I have to go now."
Harry walked away, ignoring the slight protest from the girl. He noticed that her mother was dozing in her chair; apparently another all-nighter like himself, if the dark bags under her eyes were any indication.
He pushed open the door to the reception, idly noting the time as he did so. It was getting close to a quarter past eleven.
As he drew close to the front desk, the Mediwitch on duty obviously recognized him. She said something that he didn't quite hear to the woman she'd been about to speak to, which made her nod and move away, torn between wanting to stay at the front of the queue and not wishing to get too close to Harry.
"Excuse me," said Harry. The Mediwitch put down the papers she'd been holding, and gave Harry her full attention. Taking this as an indication to go on talking, Harry asked, again, about his friend. "I was told that Nick Browning was to be moved into a ward by eleven. It's fifteen minutes past that, now."
"I'm sorry, sir, but there has been a slight delay. He'll be along any time now."
Harry put his hands on the edge of the desk and leaned forwards slightly, looming over the Mediwitch. She sucked in a harsh breath, but didn't move backwards, although Harry could tell that she was fighting the impulse to do so.
"Please return to the waiting room, sir," she said shakily. "I'll send someone upstairs to check on Mr. Browning for you, and they'll be right through to see you. Just a few more minutes, please."
Harry ground his teeth in irritation, and made his way back into the waiting room. The young girl and her mother had disappeared in the time that he'd been gone.
As he sat down, he saw that the old man in the room across the corridor had his eyes open and was sitting up fully. Harry watched him for a moment, wondering why he was in the hospital. Their eyes met, and Harry found himself fascinated as the old man neither flinched nor looked away in fear. Faint flecks of darkness permeated the sense of vitality that Harry could feel from him; a bleak foreshadowing of death approaching. There was a great deal of sadness in the man's eyes.
Harry could recognize him for what he was – a terminal patient, with death only just around the corner. The man knew it, too. Harry could see it in the weariness in his eyes, and in the look of defeat sprawled across his face.
Spurred by a mix of morbid curiosity and boredom, Harry rose and rapped on the wooden frame of the door. The dying man beckoned him inside.
"Hello," said Harry.
"It's nice to have a visitor," he replied, a faint smile on his face. "Sitting in a hospital bed gets dull, with nothing to do."
Harry picked up the man's chart, which hung from a metal railing at the end of his bed, and studied it intently.
"I can never make head or tails of these things," said Harry, lifting the topmost sheet of parchment to peek beneath it. "What is an arcanistry-induced polyvitric asphyxiation?"
"We mere mortals call it Saltlung," the man replied pleasantly, as if unconcerned by the bleak diagnosis. "My lungs are slowly changing from flesh into crystals, like gigantic pieces of salt."
"I see," Harry said, his face expressionless.
He replaced the chart on the end of the man's bed, and hesitated, unsure whether to take a seat or leave.
"My name's Sam," the man said, gesturing at the empty chair beside his bed. "Samuel Rade, to the Healers. But just Sam for you."
Harry chuckled and took a seat. "Nice to meet you, Sam."
The two sat in silence for a while. Harry ran his eyes over Sam, seeing no real signs of poor health on the outside, but finding an ominous glassy sheen over his torso when looking with ethereal senses that most didn't possess.
"Thank you for coming in," Sam finally said, breaking the awkward silence. "I've been in here for weeks, and I feel like I'm going loopy with nothing to do but pester that attractive Mediwitch to pick up the book I accidentally keep dropping."
"It's no trouble." Harry hesitated to ask a delicate question, but did so anyway. "Have you had many visitors? Your wife, or kids come in?"
Sam didn't reply for a long time, casting his eyes over the sheets covering his legs before finally turning to face Harry again.
"No," he said. "There were never any children, and after my Becky passed away, I hadn't the heart to remarry. What about you? Are you here to visit family?"
"A friend. He was attacked by some idiot with a violent streak and no sense. I've been sitting around for days, waiting to hear if he's going to die. He's on the mend now, I hear." Harry sighed. "I hope."
"Waiting for someone to die," muttered Sam. "That's what I've been doing these past few weeks."
Harry fixed Sam with a long, hard stare.
They sat in silence, again. Harry clenched his jaw tightly. He felt as if he had to say something to Sam. The signs of fear and uncertainty were all there, and he easily recognized them for what they were. But there was a certain familiarity that they lacked, and to barge into a man's death uninvited is the single, most rude thing another man can do.
There was a single window in the room, and though he knew it was artificial, Harry stared at it fixedly. Sam kept sneaking glances at him from the corner of his eye. The stillness was less uncomfortable than it had been when Harry had first entered the room, and as his thoughts circled Nick's tenuous grip on life, Sam finally broke the silence.
"What do you think it's like?" he asked. "Dying, I mean."
Harry's gaze never strayed from the green illusion of a forest past the small window, and his body language didn't give anything away. To question death was not something he found surprising. He absentmindedly crossed his legs and leaned back on the chair.
"I wouldn't know, Sam," Harry said, taking a grim satisfaction in his words. "I have never died."
"Oh, come on," said Sam, giving a small, forced laugh. "You know more about it than that, Mister Necromancer."
Harry's eyes left the lively landscape and settled fully on the old man on the bed. He found a fair amount of expectation on Sam's face, of anticipation. Now he could see the faint trickle of fear he'd come to expect from people, but even as Harry smiled a small, dangerous smile Sam's eyes didn't stray.
"You know who I am," Harry said, not bothering to make it sound like a question. He had thought Sam hadn't recognized him; an old man's dream, perhaps. "You know who I am, yet you invited me in."
Sam chuckled, and there was some genuine mirth behind it, this time. "Oh, I know perfectly well who you are, Harry Potter," he said. "I doubt there's a single man or woman out there who doesn't know who you are. And while I'm slightly concerned about you taking my soul as a plaything when I finally pass away, there's no denying that you're probably the most knowledgeable man there is when it comes to death and the afterlife."
Harry fell silent and considered the man, weighing him with his eyes. It wasn't the first time someone had dared to ask him about life and death. Men and women alike, drowning in desperation over the loss of a loved one, had approached him from time to time, looking for reassurance; wanting to hear the magic words from someone they considered an authority on the subject.
But this was the first time that he'd come across someone who was afraid of death for himself, and not looking to come to terms with the death of someone else – at least, one daring enough to actually ask Harry about it. Perhaps that was what made this case different, or perhaps it was Harry knowing Nick would want him to give solace to a man who was destined to die alone.
"What is it that you wish to know, Sam?" Harry asked; his voice soft and even. "Are you afraid of death?"
Sam looked away.
Terminal patients generally have a certain air of sadness about them. Harry had known several in the course of his life. Some are better than others at keeping the memory of impending death at bay. Family visits and they will smile and play with the children and try to set everyone's fear at ease, so that when the time finally comes they can quickly move on with their lives. Others distance themselves from the living, feeling like marked men, knowing that death can claim them any minute.
Harry was starting to see what group Sam belonged to.
"My time is limited, Sam," Harry said. The man looked back at him, a hint of anxiousness making its way to his face. "Tell me, what is it about death that scares you, that keeps you awake at night?"
"You knew I wasn't sleeping earlier?"
Harry gave him a look that showed age and experience. "A man this close to death never sleeps."
Sam laughed bitterly. "You are nothing like I imagined," he said. "Where is the man so vicious and powerful prisons can't hold him? Where is the man Death itself fears? I can see both, Harry, but I'd never have guessed. The legends are false – the legends fall short."
Harry saw the man fold into himself, dragging whatever memories haunted him to the forefront of his mind. "Legends," Harry said slowly, his tone slightly condescending, "are made by men and for men. People believe what they wish to believe. When evidence to the contrary threatens to upset the balance they carefully construct around themselves, they will choose to be comfortable in ignorance over being right."
"And if I choose to be right?" Sam said, and his sadness was replaced by a challenging, almost angry tone in his voice. "If I choose to know?"
"Then I will tell you about death," Harry said, a smile of satisfaction on his face, "and tonight you will sleep soundly."
"That'll be a relief," replied Sam. He sighed wearily. "Call me greedy or selfish if you like, but I'd gladly go up to the long-term ward and wrestle one of the patients for a vial of their Dreamless Sleep potion."
"Death is a selfish journey, perhaps the most selfish journey a man can embark on. The things we do in life, the paths we choose – they can all be done with someone at our side. Honestly, the most wonderful thing about life is the company of those we choose to keep by our side."
Sam cocked his head to one side, and gave Harry an intense look.
"And the ones you've chosen to keep by your side?" he asked. Harry replied with a mirthless grin.
"Life is for the living, Sam. I died more than forty years ago. I've had companions over the years, but they've all fallen away. The living and the dead aren't meant to co-exist, you see. The journey of death, the transition between one state and the next – it is a selfish one. A lonely one. Some make the journey against their will, feeling there is still something among the living that they are compelled to experience, something or someone that they will miss in the afterlife. It is the most prominent of these who become ghosts, so long as they have the inherent magical ability needed to create one. Ghosts, as you know them, are little more than imprints left behind, like a wispy portrait caught outside its frame."
"Others are saddened on behalf of those they leave behind, yet know that there can be no other way. For them, death is natural; a part of life to experience, and it can be wondrous or torturous, forced or chosen."
Sam nodded silently. Harry paused for a moment, glancing at the man in the bed out of the corner of his eye. His hands were gripping the bed sheets tightly. Harry knew that he was no orator, to move a man to passion and tears in a few simple words. He paused, and glanced at Sam, who lost some of the harsh tension in his grip quickly. Harry shrugged it off, assuming it to be nothing important.
"But however you look at it, the journey to the afterlife is selfish, because no matter who you leave behind and what awaits on the other side, it is only your will and your beliefs that will carry you through."
Harry stopped speaking and waited to see if Sam had anything to say. The other man simply sat there, wearing a distant expression, clenching and unclenching his fists unconsciously.
He grimaced, suddenly, and clutched at his chest. A silent gasp slipped from between his lips, and he leaned forward. Harry focused inwards for a heartbeat, and snapped his unnatural senses into their full potency. The glassy sheen on Sam's chest was pulsing, almost glowing. It seemed a little larger. Sam lurched forwards, wheezing, with his face screwed up in a harsh visage of pain.
Tiny tears formed in the corner of Sam's eyes. He wasn't crying, Harry noted, but rather his eyes were reacting to how fiercely and tightly the muscles in his face were held.
The two of them remained like that for several minutes, frozen in a tableau of agony.)Dark power whispered at the back of Harry's mind. He ruthlessly crushed the urge to use that power, to cheat death in tearing loose all marks of ill health from Sam's body, and remake him as a bastion of perfect, immortal health that ran contrary to the very nature of life and death.
Harry grimaced. Nick wouldn't want him to do this.
The moment was lost.
The door to Sam's room banged open, and a trio of Healers in lime-green robes rushed inside.
"'Please stand back, sir!' frantically shouted the first, while pulling a wand out of his robes. Harry didn't move as they crowded around the bed, but, instead, sat there, watching their haste as if from a great distance. One placed a hand on Sam's chest, forcing him to lie down, while the third ran the tip of his wand around the infected area of Sam's torso. A dim blue light began to shine from the path drawn by the wand.
"Sir!" repeated the Healer. "We need space to work in."
Harry studied Sam intently. The violent pulsing of corrosive magic grew steadily worse.
One of the Healers, younger than the rest, turned to face Harry, her expression pleading. She opened her mouth to say something, but the words got caught in her throat. Her skin was pale, and clammy. She hardly looked old enough to be out of Hogwarts, let alone working at St Mungos. Harry saw genuine concern for Sam in her eyes; he wasn't simply another figure on a clipboard, or a few lines jotted down in a file. She wasn't just doing her job. She cared.
It was this which made Harry's decision.
He left the room silently, and closed the door behind himself.
Darkness tickled at the back of his mind, the ever-mounting pressure growing a little larger. In spite of everything, Harry was only human. Well, mostly human. Or at least a little.
His self-control wavered, just for a moment. The shadows lurking in the recesses of his power surged forth.
Harry closed his eyes and tried to focus, to let it disperse. It writhed in his grip, biting and tearing at the remnants of his control.
The distraction was too much for Harry. He slipped, again, for an instant, and the darkness escaped into the forefront of his mind. He'd been pushing it back for years, but even a second free was too much. Almost against his will – but still very much within his desires – his dark power touched the soul of every living thing in the waiting room.
Harry ripped back the power with a savage effort, and stopped it from claiming more innocent lives.
On the windowsill, a potted plant withered.
"I'm afraid that there's some bad news, Mister Potter. Perhaps you'd like to hear it in private?"
Harry opened one eye a crack. A young wizard stood before him, wearing plain brown robes. Not a Healer, he surmised. They wore lime-green at all times within the hospital.
"Here is fine," he said. The other wizard bit his lip nervously.
"There were some unforeseen complications with Mr. Browning's recovery. The team of Healers did their best, but his injuries were more severe than they thought. Umm..."
A cold, hard lump formed in the pit of Harry's stomach. Nick would be okay; he'd been through far too much by Harry's side for something as simple as this to kill him. Harry told himself that, over and over, trying to convince himself that it was true.
"I – I'm afraid Mr. Browning has passed away."
Harry let out a harsh, hissing breath.
The brown, withered potted plant crumbled into ash.
He needed to see Nick. Now. He told himself that the Healers had to be mistaken. It didn't feel like Nick was gone – he had to see for himself. Here, in the whitewashed waiting room, it didn't seem real.
"Where is he?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but hospital policy states that we can't let you in unless you're a family member," said the young wizard.
Disbelief shattered beneath a rush of anger at the young wizard who had the sheer audacity to stand between Harry and the last friend he'd managed to salvage from beyond the end of the world. Harry stood abruptly, glaring furiously at younger man, and took a step closer. The other man visibly stiffened and took a tiny step backwards.
"Do you know who I am, boy?"
"I-I'm sorry. The policy says that I can't –"
Harry grabbed the neck of his robes, and pulled him closer, lifting him a half-inch off the ground.
"Who am I?" he hissed. "Answer me!"
"Harry Potter," whispered the other wizard, struggling feebly in Harry's grasp. Harry released his robes. He landed on the ground with a soft thump, stumbled backwards, and almost fell.
"Now. Where is Nick?"
"Fourth floor," mumbled the man quickly backing away from Harry. "Ask for Healer Wentson. She was leading the team. I'm just an assistant. I didn't do any of the healing! It was her fault, not mine!"
Harry stared at him in disgust. Terrified of Harry and Harry's anger at the death of a friend, he'd attempted to fob the blame off onto someone else. A remnant of the dark powers nestled deep within Harry's subconscious touched the front of his mind eagerly. He embraced them, and ripped out a small chunk of the cowardly wizard's life.
He gasped, and fell to the ground, wheezing. Harry walked past him, deliberately treading on the corner of his robes as he scrambled to get up, leaving a large dusty footprint.
As Harry passed Sam's door, he paused and glanced through the glass pane set into the door. The Healers were crowded around the bed, blocking all view of Sam. A fresh wave of guilt at leaving the old man washed over him.
The stolen life bubbling inside Harry gave him an idea; he crafted it into a message, and pushed it at Sam. Laden with the primal energy of life, it would revitalize him, kick him back into life, and while ensuring that he'd survive the current spike in his illness, would whisper in his ear.
I'll come back for you, old man. Hang on a few more minutes.
Harry ran into Healer Wentson at the top of the stairs. She jerked visibly at the sight of him, her face taut, and lime-green robes marred with large brown stains.
"He's through there," she said quietly. "We can't leave him there for too long, because of all the other patients, but because you're – because you're who you are, Healer Tanning said that you can have twenty minutes with him, maybe."
She gave Harry a nervous look, and Harry strode past her, deep into the hospital.
Near the back of the fourth floor, hidden by thick curtains, was a bare white room with a single smooth slab of stone in the centre. The stone hovered in the air like a legless table.
Nick lay on top of it.
His eyes were wide open, but blank, and empty. Harry was painfully familiar with that look, but he'd hoped to never see it on Nick. Thin trails of blood decorated his bare chest and arms. Beneath a mask of burns, his face was hardly recognizable.
Harry's gut twisted at the sight of his friend's desecrated body. Bright light spewed forth from three candles that spun slowly in the air, a foot above Nick. A single flame came from all three of the wicks, forming a bright white orb of light. Harry recognized them from an ancient Healing ritual.
Looking around, he saw other components of the ritual, carefully hidden around the seemingly bare room. Feathers from rare birds were woven into a netted mat on the underside of the stone slab, and runes were carved into the walls, and inlaid with marble almost the same shade as the bare white.
All these things hid the trappings of magic, and made the room look as close to a stark and professional chamber as possible.
Except for the horrific corpse laid to rest on the stone.
"Nick," he whispered, touching his friend's cheek as lightly as he could. His anger had dried up, leaving behind only a dangerous hollow feeling. He longed to fill the gap that Nick's death had caused. He longed to bring him back.
Almost subconsciously, Harry flexed the incredible power at his disposal. The white flames sputtered and died.
It would be wrong, he told himself. He reminded himself that he'd promised Nick that he wouldn't do this again, and that it would do no good. He told himself that each addictive taste of power would drag him back into his glorious, terrible days as the Necromancer, the much maligned God of Death. Like a mantra, he repeated the word promise over and over again silently.
He had to choose between the most important promise that he'd ever made, and the man who he'd made it to.
Alone in the darkness with a dead man, Harry made his decision.
He placed one hand over Nick's heart, and let raw, untainted life flow through him.
"Live," he whispered.
Nick's body jerked wildly, as if struck by lightning. The smell of burnt hair rose into the air. Golden light exploded from Nick, and shimmered around Harry. Where Harry's hand met Nick's chest, a halo too bright to look upon was formed.
Nick's chest contracted and expanded, in a mockery of breath, over and over again. Heavy beats echoed around the room as his heart burst back into life. Guiding dead flesh back into health with stolen power that no mortal man should possess, Harry healed Nick. The burnt skin ran like molten rock for a moment before reforming, whole, and new. Cracked ribs shattered into dust, and new ones grew from the remains of the old.
Still, it wasn't enough. The body lived, breathed, and was perfect in every way. But it wasn't human. There was no soul.
Harry reached out and tore Nick's fleeting soul back from its passage into a distant place – and thrust it back into his body.
Nick's body convulsed violently. Limbs flailed wildly, in every direction, and his back arched, lifting up from the stone slab in an unnatural pose. Out-flung legs and arms thrashed against Harry, who simply brushed them away, despite the deep indents left in the stone slab where the same fists and feet had beaten against it.
After several long, chaotic moments, Nick's body stilled, and fell back onto the slab.
And then Nick sat up.
He gasped for breath, looking around himself in confusion, disorientation, and no small amount of wariness, until he saw Harry. His features softened somewhat, and he looked down at himself, inspected the unbroken skin where gaping wounds had been moments ago.
"Oh, Harry," he said, his tone gentle but chiding. "You shouldn't have done this."
Harry grimaced, and stuck his hands in his pockets. "I – Nick, I –"
His newly resurrected friend clapped his hands together loudly, cutting Harry off.
"Don't make excuses," said Nick. "We both know why you're here; why I'm here."
Harry sighed. This was a familiar situation. Every time that he'd given in to the desire to use his necromantic abilities, Nick had been there to hammer some sense back into him. His life before befriending Nick had been very different, fraught with horrors and wonders beyond the wildest dreams of most witches and wizards, let alone the fantasies and nightmares of Muggles.
"I'm sorry," he said, meaning his words more than he could express. They rang hollow in his ears, crude and impotent. He wished that he knew how to tell Nick how much he regretted it – and, at the same time, how he'd had little choice. Nick knew. Harry knew that. But it didn't make things any easier.
"Don't fucking apologize," snapped Nick, stretching his arms with a series of small popping noises as locked joints were forced back into movement. "You apologize too much. Come on, man," he said, softening his tone. "You've kept to your word, and let the past lie where it belongs, for how many years now? Ten? Fifteen? Nearly twenty, if we excuse a few slips here and there. That's all this is. A slip. A tiny little slip. "
"I couldn't just leave you to rot," said Harry, "You knew that I'd do it, didn't you? That if anything happened to you, I'd bring you back? We've been to hell and back together." Harry's jaw tightened, and he stared at the stark white ceiling, his expression darkening with every second that passed. "Or at least you watched while I turned the world into hell."
"The dead don't belong with the living. Let go."
"I can't." Harry laughed bitterly. "I can't let you die."
"I'm already dead, Harry. I don't belong here. You, of all people, know that."
"Dammit, Nick-" started Harry, wrenching his hands out of his pockets to seize Nick by the shoulders.
"No!" shouted Nick, interrupting Harry, and pushing him away with inhuman strength. "Enough excuses! Every second you keep me here, it gets harder for you to let go." As he spoke, Nick's words become more desperate, and he spoke quicker, laden with a burning urgency. "Do you think that I can't see the haze in your eyes as you start to regress? I've seen it before, and I will NOT see it again. I'm dead! Let me rest."
Harry knew that he was right, but a niggling worry at the back of his mind leapt out of his mouth before he had time to register what he was saying.
"I can't keep doing this by myself. It may be months, or years, but without you around..." He trailed off, disgusted with how pathetic he sounded. It was true that Nick had held him back when temptation had proven to be too much, but he was no child clutching at his mother's apron strings.
"What? You'll roll over for the darkness inside you? Grow a pair! You've beaten this back for this long, and you can damn well do it until the day you die."
Harry smiled mirthlessly; bitterly. Nick was right. Again. Harry knew that he'd succumb to his dark powers, but he also knew that he'd recovered, and brought the world back from the brink of annihilation – an annihilation that he himself had caused.
"And if I never die?" he asked. Nick stared at him for a long time, silent.
"Even gods die," he said at last. "But I'm a man, Harry. My time has passed."
Harry smiled faintly.
"Yeah." He hesitated, wondering how to continue. "I've never been good with saying goodbye..."
"This isn't goodbye," said Nick. "You know where I'm going better than I do. Come visit me once in a while, yeah?"
"Yeah," said Harry. "See you around, old man."
With a heavy heart and dry eyes, Harry released the magic binding Nick's soul into his body. Nick's eyes rolled back into his head, and he fell forwards, pitching off the stone slab, and falling onto the floor with a meaty thump.
Harry carefully replaced Nick on the slab. Several long, painstaking minutes passed as he redrew the wounds that he had healed moments ago with the tip of his wand.
When he left the room, there was no sign that he had ever been there – save for a faint greasy film on the enchanted candles, like a fine layer of oil shimmering in the air around the pure white flames.
Once on the stairs, Harry's thoughts began to move away from the man he'd just left, and towards the one who he'd been speaking to before that. He hoped that the little boost of vitality he'd sent in Sam's direction would be enough. Unwilling to leave such matters to fate – but perfectly content to twist fate's arm to get what he wanted – Harry headed back down towards Sam's room.
Sam looked awful.
Haggard, exhausted, and marred with thin pink lines all over his face, showing where his features had been warped into a screwed-up mask of agony, Sam showed every one of his years, and a handful more.
Hidden beneath dark rings, however, there was still a spark of life in his eyes.
"Come to finish your tale?" he quipped in a raspy voice as Harry sat down.
"My tale is hardly a bedtime story. It will leave you with nightmares flooded with horrors beyond imagining, and wonders too terrible to behold. I can continue to tell you about death, without delving too deeply into my past, if you wish," he said.
The man nodded. "I think your tale is fascinating, and good stories are meant to be told. I assure you, Harry, you will find no better audience than me."
Harry smiled sadly. Sam reminded him a bit of Nick. He always insisted Harry shared his adventures with him, usually on those long nights they spent sipping scotch and remembering the golden days. The pain in Sam's face was almost a mirror image of the expression that Nick had worn on long winter nights in front of the fire, nursing his injured hip from damage recalled by the colder weather.
After he had spoken, Sam burst into a coughing fit. When it subsided, he wiped a few specks of blood from his lower lip. Harry noticed a light spattering of red-brown stains on the otherwise white duvet. Most of it was still fresh, and slightly wet. Only a small portion had dried already.
"Are you okay?" asked Harry. Sam nodded, and gave a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm fine." He gave Harry a small, mirthless grin. "Going to tell me the story before this kills me?"
Harry grimaced at the blasé dismissal of Sam's impending death. He was accustomed to seeing people die, but even in so short a time, he'd grown a little fond of Sam.
"My story," Harry began, "is not without its dark holes. I'm sure you've heard of some already, but the worst ones are often ignored by people. There is good in there, too, and some light – light to illuminate the darkness, and the searing might of divine light. But before then, before the wrath of gods fell upon me, there were simpler times. I was an innocent child once, after all. And while there were moments so dark, so dangerous, that they threatened to overwhelm me, there was also someone to help me cope, to help me resist the infinite pull of power and death."
"But where to begin? There are so many instances of my life that would work as a beginning. I could tell you of the Battle of Hogwarts, of the skirmishes of Europe, of the army of the undead. I could tell you things that would make your skin crawl. Or I could tell you of moments so heart-wrenching that would make the most stoic man in the world weep like a child."
Sam smiled faintly. "I would like to hear it all."
"In that case I will tell you everything," Harry said, and settled down on his chair more comfortably. "We can skim through most of my childhood, as it was not only unpleasant, but unremarkable as well. I could start with my first year at Hogwarts. That is when it all began for me. That was the moment my first friend turned my world upside-down with only four words."
Harry took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The usual impassiveness of his face faded into a slight frown, as if the memories of his early adolescence were something to be treated carefully. He mulled the words in his mind for a moment, and when he spoke next his voice was tinted with regret.
"And yet my first year at Hogwarts set me down a path no sane man would want to travel," Harry continued. "That year I met a man who would take everything away from me, the same man who had left me to rot in my uncle's house, the one who had taken away my parents. I speak of Lord Voldemort, the most powerful Dark Wizard in centuries – or at least one of the top two."
Harry leveled Sam with a serious look. "But to truly understand the life of a Dark Wizard," he told him, "you must first cast off all ideas that you already hold about dark magic. Forget rumours, knowledge, and speculation. Can you do that?"
Sam nodded immediately. "Yes, of course," he said. "I am not a biased listener."
"Of course you aren't," Harry said, and now a faint smile graced his face. Sam's lack of fear for him was a refreshing change. "Most of what is said these days is utter tripe anyways. This, however, is true."
"True darkness," he explained, "the darkness found in the eyes of a murdered child, or the heart of a fallen star – it falls slowly, and suddenly, and precisely where I wish it to. I am the unsung herald of night, and the one true master of death."
"However, as powerful as I was, as skilled and deadly as I could be, it was never enough," Harry said. "Lord Voldemort had power beyond my comprehension. He was the champion of magic itself. He had surpassed death, and wielded the power of a newborn god."
He paused for a moment.
"And you see, Sam," Harry carried on in a soft whisper. "Even gods die. I should know. I killed them."
Harry cleared his throat. "But this story is not about gods and men, about power and murder," he continued. "This story is about the deepest, most pure dreams of an innocent child, about the building fury of a betrayed teenager, and about the quest for vengeance of a broken man." Harry smiled a sad, bitter smile. "The story of my life."
"It begins at the end of my first year at Hogwarts, when my friends and I discovered Lord Voldemort was attempting to steal something very valuable," he explained. "Something the then Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, was keeping hidden in the bowels of the castle."
"Lord Voldemort sought resurrection, you see, and there was no better tool than the Elixir of Life. A wraith was all he was back then, a mere ghost of his former glory, and all that stood between him and power was me, because I had the Philosopher's Stone..."