Note:It's actually here everyone: the final chapter of 'Blood of the Birds'. I know both the story as a whole and this last update have taken me forever, so thank you all so much for your patience. I'd also like to thank you guys for the wonderful reviews I've received over the course of writing this story, and please do continue to review if you ever re-read any of the chapters; I'll respond to every one that I can.

For those of you who have stuck with this story from the very beginning, this chapter is for you. I couldn't have done it alone, so thank you.


45 – The Boy Who Hid

Albus took after his hidden name. His entire life had been fueled by impossible standards, and he had set himself up for unavoidable disappointment time and time again, because although the people around him expected him to be as brilliant as Albus Dumbledore or as brave as Harry Potter, really he was as cowardly and mysterious as Severus Snape. And then there was the potion-making, which was what now gave Al his only source of comfort on these rainy, dark days in late September. He liked being able to make something powerful out of little things that, by themselves, held no power at all. He liked the precision and the timing of brewing a pot, because it was something that, if done correctly, would produce the same results every time. Most of all, though, he liked the fact that making a potion didn't require a wand. Al would never have claimed that being wandless meant that he knew how Scorpius felt after losing his magic or how Ilana felt in a family of Muggles, but because his current wand had originally belonged to James, going without it was a way of hiding his pain. Maybe that was what made him so similar to Snape: the pain. Maybe it was the pain that kept him in hiding.

His guilt over James's death hadn't been so much of an exploding time bomb as it had been a pot of forever-boiling water. His grief hadn't come in waves so much as it had sunk him to the bottom of the sea. Yes, he had run away, but he could still see the shadows passing above him in their search for The Boy Who Killed. He could feel the weight of everyone he'd left behind rolling over him, and it was every time he stirred a potion that he was able to surface for air.

The potion he was brewing now was a medicine – an antibiotic concoction for Hogan, Al's youngest dragon who had grown sick over the summer. Al didn't exactly know what the illness was or where it had come from, though Charlie continued to claim that it was homesickness coupled with fatherlessness, for Hogan had been an orphan since the day he'd been bound. Al was unconvinced, yet here he was anyway, making an anti-depressant for a dragon.

Powdered horns were the last ingredients in the recipe, and Al sighed upon discovering that there were no jars left in the overcrowded kitchen. For a moment, he considered using his wand to summon a new jar, but upon looking at the pliable piece of rosewood that immediately reminded him of how broken James had been before his death, Al decided he'd rather just get the jar himself.

He was reaching for the top shelf in the (literally) nippy office he had finally gotten used to when he recognized a piece of penmanship and nearly let the jar shatter across the floor. Barely catching it, Al turned to stare at the scripted envelope that sat unabashedly on his uncle's desk and whispered to himself, "She is looking for me." The perfect cursive that made up Charlie Weasley's name and address belonged to Rose, so of course Al would have known it anywhere.

At that exact moment, the front door creaked open and Al heard Charlie shout at him, "Oy! Your bloody beast has fled the coop… AGAIN!"

Al rolled his eyes, but otherwise didn't react much; he was used to this by now. Running back into the kitchen so that he could pour the powdered horn into his cauldron, Al grabbed his wand and personalized staff jacket and was halfway out the door when he passed Charlie and stopped to ask, "That letter on your desk – what was it about?"

"The invitation, of course," Charlie said without hesitance. He was normally the most secretive Weasley by a landslide, so his willingness to answer made Al slightly suspicious.

Still, Al was happy to take advantage of it, pressing Charlie more by asking, "What invitation?"

"You don't know?" Charlie's surprise was also cause for suspicion.

"No," said Al. "I suppose I don't." And he didn't pry any further.

The yellow door shut behind him, and Al sighed again because he dreaded this part of his day. Then he took a few steps onto the main road and prayed that he might avoid the Balaur locals just this one night, but of course he had no such luck. He had only made it to the next house over by the time one of the town elders, a brittle old woman with a stick-thin figure and wrinkles to match her wrinkling walking stick, approached Al and asked while pointing at his knee, "Cine ești tu? În cazul în careai venit?"

Al, who despite his best efforts hadn't learned a word of Romanian in the near nine months he'd been here, ignored the woman and carried on. He would have Apparated by now, but the town and sanctuary were under non-Apparition security bubbles ever since Astoria had paid her visit last year. He couldn't ignore it forever, though, because the old woman was shortly followed by a young girl, and then her parents chimed in, and then came a handsome bachelor.

"Cine ești tu?" Half of them asked.

"În cazul în careai venit?" asked the rest of them.

By the time Al made it to the end of the street he was happy to be caught up and spun around in an invisible wormhole. The bigger problem was that he never knew exactly where to go, for though Zephorien had been escaping his enclosure nearly every day since May, the dragon was getting much smarter and going much farther the more Al "rescued" him. Today, it took Al sixteen Apparitions to finally find Zephyr torching a farm field outside Budapest.

Al had been careful not to let Zephyr carry around all of his guilt like he had once before, so it was frustrating to know that the gesture wasn't making a difference. Sure, the dragon would return to Belaur without protest every night, but he was still putting Al through unnessecary stress. Sometimes it reminded him of Lily's werewolf transformations and how he would have to go find her the morning after every full moon, but that only happened once a month. Zephyr's torturing, like James's, was constant.

The wind from Al's wand put the flames out instantaneously, and he walked through the burnt field like a tumbleweed bouncing across a desert. In front of him, Zephyr was panting sulfurous dragon breath into the air so that even the miraculous sprouts that had survived his fire were being killed by the sheer potency of his nose. Al approached him without fury or fear, and once he was only feet away, looked directly into the piercing red eyes he never thought he'd love so much and scratched his scraggly beard while smirking beneath it. Zephyr imitated Al by twitching his nose, then used his impressive wing to scratch the back of his neck. Al imitated him by untangling his long black hair, which he hadn't cut since before the battle. Once both the boys were laughing, Al mounted Zephyr and together they flew to the sanctuary, where Zephyr dropped Al off and then climbed up the protruding cliff he had been chained to not so long ago to avoid the obnoxious snarls coming from his cousin Hebridean Blacks.

On his way back to Charlie's, Al couldn't help but wonder if he had done the right thing coming here. He'd left the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch only a few days after the battle had been won, and with five dragons to care for he'd had no choice but to knock on Charlie's door. For nearly nine months, Charlie had been keeping Al's secret by not informing his worried family members and friends of his whereabouts. Al had explained that he needed time, and had even told Charlie why through heaps of salty tears. And for the most part, the time away had in fact helped Al, because he enjoyed being a staff member here, but he still questioned how Charlie could spend his whole life in such strong human solitude. Perhaps Al was almost ready to admit that he was lonely.

No one was left on the streets to lecture him this time, but Al could feel the eyes of dragons penetrating his skin like the trail of a spell, as if they were the Romanians and he was the foreigner. By the time Al stepped through Charlie's door, the former was sitting on the couch doing paperwork for some incoming Ironbellies from Ukraine and the latter had an announcement to make.

"I think it's time for me to get on my way," stated Al, his hands in his uniform pockets.

He was going to express his gratitude for all that Charlie had done for him when his uncle put down the papers and said before Al had another chance to speak, "So you do know what the invitation was for?"

"What? No," Al said. He'd been leaning against the fireplace but now pushed himself up so that he could stand shakily and rub his overheated eyelids. "No, all I know is that I don't belong here, in this place where people accost me on the streets for absolutely no reason, because this is the one place where I've done nothing wrong!"

He hadn't been expecting those words to come out of his mouth, but he did believe they were true. He believed that he'd been a hard worker without a single day off, and that he knew the names and stats of every dragon at the sanctuary, and that he could brew chicken blood broth and "homesick" medicine faster than any local here, and that even though he hadn't exactly gone out of his way to connect with people didn't mean that he deserved to be met with a wall whenever he walked outside. He expected that from the people he'd hurt back in England, but not here, not here in the one place he'd ever tried to save.

He was still fuming and so wasn't paying enough attention to see Charlie stand up from the couch until he felt coarse, labor-filled hands on his sunken shoulders. "Hey, hey, you're right. You haven't done anything wrong here, which is precisely why I haven't sent you straight back to my sister. You're a smart kid, Al, maybe too smart, so I'm surprised you haven't yet realized that those people aren't accosting you."

Al wouldn't dare interrupt, but he was now looking into the blue eyes that reminded him of Rose as Charlie continued to explain, "Cine ești tu? În cazul în careai venit? It means who are you? Where do you come from? They think that just because you don't reply, you must not know the answer. They don't realize it's just because you don't speak the language."

"No," said Al instinctively. "No, I think they do understand. I think they're the only ones who do." He wouldn't know the answers to those questions even if they had been voiced in English.

Backing away from Charlie, Al unbuttoned the jacket and attempted to give it back to his uncle but Charlie insisted he keep it. In return, Al pulled Charlie in for a grand hug and whispered in his ear, "You have no idea how much you've done for me. Take care of Hogan, okay?"

"You're not bringing him?" Charlie asked as they broke apart

Al shook his head. There was only one dragon who didn't belong here as much as Al didn't, and so Zephyr was all he needed. Once Charlie nodded his approval to this, Al told him, "I'll come back someday."

"Don't worry about it," Charlie laughed, his many earrings jingling with a kind of sincerity that matched the bounce in his voice. Al believed him when he added, "I'll be seeing you sooner than you think."

Zephyr was waiting for Al at the town border, because of course he'd known that Al had needed to run for months now. Al didn't use any invisibility spells as he and Zephyr took off for where he didn't know, because for once in his life he didn't want to be hidden. He liked the idea of finally being seen.

He didn't wake up until he could smell the water of the English Channel. It wasn't just saltiness that flooded his nose, but a sharpness so intense that for a moment Al was convinced he was only now having his first breath. He used to love autumn because it meant the beginning of a new year at Hogwarts, but it was also the chill in the air: the reminder that spring couldn't exist without winter, and that happiness only felt real when it was juxtaposed with pain.

"Where are we going, Oreo?" Al asked Zephyr as the dragon flew directly west, away from the bursting sunrise.

Zephyr grunted and flicked his head back lightly as if to tell Al to shut it. Al didn't want to take the lead on this trip, because he was fully aware that Zephyr knew him better than he knew himself. He was simply going to let Zephyr land wherever he wanted, whether that was in a forest full of fresh meat or on the back porch of the Potter house in Godric's Hollow.

It was neither. At first, Al didn't recognize the strangely deserted cobblestone road onto which Zephyr descended, but the attention he'd been paying over the last few hours of flying meant that he knew approximately where they should be. He had recognized the cityscape of London and the familiar Muggle neighborhoods in Surrey, even the castle colleges of Berkshire. That would place them somewhere in Wiltshire, where the rolling hills went on for eternities and where Zephyr wouldn't find much more than burrowing mice in the clipped grass behind the hedges.

Hopping off Zephyr's back and looking around in confusion, Al still didn't know why they were here until he spotted the inordinately large iron gate Zephyr was currently banging on to open. Al ran after him and pointed his wand at the gate while thinking silently, Alohamora. The gate swung open willingly, causing the determined Zephyr to practically fall straight into the front yard of an immense mansion that looked lonelier than any home ever should.

The building was perfectly symmetrical but for the one steeple that looked as if it had been blasted off and was then replaced with a loose white covering while under construction. Most of the windows were dark and dirty, but the ones closest to the double front doors had been cleaned recently. Al's vision still wasn't the best, so he had to walk rather close to the door in order to make out the silver-painted, S-shaped serpent crest engraved in its middle. Above the ancient Malfoy sigil was a carving that must have been quite fresh judging by the wood shavings still falling from it. This one was the silhouette of a white falcon flanked by a small cardinal on one side and a darker hawk on the other.

Turning back to Zephyr for some sign of support for what Al was about to do, the latter found his unruly pet chasing an albino peacock across the front yard, at one point even attempting to torch the bird with his fiery breath. "Zephorien, NO!" Al yelled, his hand already latched onto the talon-shaped knocker.

Zephyr looked to him pleadingly, but Al insisted by widening his eyes. Eventually, Zephyr complied and let the peacock run off before settling down to rest in the field, but by this time anyone who was inside the establishment had overheard Zephyr's stomping and Al's scorns, so the door was opened before Al had the chance to knock.

Scorpius Malfoy was standing a foot in front of Albus Potter. He looked about as great as Al looked terrible: his white hair was carefully groomed but still voluminous enough to have some shape, flowing across his forehead in a way that would have made Scorpius's father proud; his face was practically aglow, every battle wound now merely a speck on porcelain skin and eyes both well rested and excited; his clothes were just as classy as one would expect from a Malfoy, collared ice blue shirt buckled into fitted brown pants.

"Who are you and where did you come from?" asked Scorpius as if he couldn't recognize the friend standing before him – the boy with a long bed of black on his head and shaggy facial hair running down his chin and neck – and initially Al took his questions quite seriously.

He had his mouth open to defend himself and hopefully provide a viable answer when Scorpius cracked, shaking Al's shoulder to show he wanted to hug him but also respecting Al's space, and saying, "I'm only joking, mate! All that matters is that you're here, and that you're just in time." He seemed genuine with his giant pearly smile, but about what Al had no idea.

Deciding not to ask because questions had never gotten him very far in life, Al set Scorpius straight by saying, "Er, actually, I really just had nowhere else to go."

"Well, it means a lot, Al. It means a lot that you made it."

Al's confusion had reached a high enough point that he was considering asking Scorpius what was going on, but was distracted when he heard a female voice he had never stopped thinking about coming from deeper inside the house. Scorpius was still holding the door and thus blocking Al's entrance, but that wasn't enough of a barrier to stop Al at this point.

"Is that-" Al started to ask while pointing inside.

"Yeah, it is," Scorpius answered with understanding, opening the door wider to make room for Al. "Come on in. I'm sure she'd love to see you." His last sentence sounded mildly unsure and strongly protective, but Al was no longer listening.

His hawk instincts had taken over and so Al didn't need permission as he made a bee-line for the drawing room of a house he'd never been inside, but he stopped and waited to hear the voice again when he saw too many closed doors around him. That was when Scorpius caught up and yelled at the door to Al's right, "Ilana! Lizzie! Why don't you come out for a minute?"

"Uh-huh, and why don't you stop bothering us, Mister Paranoid!" yelled a voice from behind the door that Al didn't recognize. It must have belonged to Lizzie, though for the moment Al didn't remember that the name was one he'd heard before. "We only have so much time left and you need it to be perfect, remember?"

Al would have been extremely curious about this conversation if he wasn't so anxious to see Ilana, his feet tapping the black varnished floor of the echoing room in anticipation as Scorpius knocked on the door and answered, "Look, this is important. If you two don't come out now, I'm going to let myself in."

Apparently, that was something the girls absolutely could not let happen. Scorpius was smirking from the victory and Lizzie was opening the door a crack and wriggling herself through within seconds of Scorpius's threat. Once she was fully outside, Al craned his neck in search of a follower and Lizzie babbled on to Scorpius, "That wasn't funny. You could have ruined your entire future, you know…"

Scorpius cleared his throat and gestured backward toward Al, which made the girl, whose tight skirt and flowery blouse that perfectly matched her purple eye make-up and contrasted her straight black hair, ask with a hint of disgust, "Oh, who's this?"

It was this question that made Ilana show herself. She also shimmied out of the door and then closed it shut, wiping a few white feathers off her bejeweled sweater before laying eyes on Albus. Once she did, everyone in the room when silent upon hearing Ilana's hitched breath, and Al just stared at her. He stared at her thick hair that hugged her face like snow around a tree, fragile flakes of magic around firmly rooted truth. He stared at her scar-less arm that crossed her chest like bars on a submerged berm, a barrier he'd never been able to see. He stared at her green eyes that shone like abandoned things do, a neon sign of his residue.

Lizzie kept looking back and forth between Al and Ilana, so Al appreciated Scorpius trying to pry her eyes away when he asked, "How's it going in there?"

"Ugh, it's a slow process," said Lizzie, clearly caring enough about the subject to ignore the guest. "We may have to pull a very early morning tomorrow to get it done. Of course, if someone would just use her magic to patch the thing together we could finish a hell of a lot sooner."

She was now back to looking at Ilana as if the words she spoke had something to do with the girl whose attention was still on Al, so Scorpius lost Lizzie once again and just sighed to hear her say, "But bonkers, Scorpius, don't be rude! Who is this gentleman before us in dire need of a makeover?"

Ilana was the one to break their mutual gaze, introducing Al and Lizzie by explaining, "This is Potter, er, Albus Potter. Potter, this is my sister, Lizzie."

Suddenly, Al remembered the letter Ilana had thrown in the fire the night before their last day together in Grimmauld Place – the one with Lizzie's name on it. Of course this was Ilana's sister, being that they looked almost exactly alike, Lizzie only slightly taller and substantially more perky.

Scorpius took over from there, announcing to the room, "He just now arrived, so I figured I'd pull you out to see him." Lizzie still seemed confused about Al's importance, but the more she looked at Ilana the more she realized who he was to her sister.

"You're the one who broke her heart," said Lizzie confidently, her stance more intimidating than it had been a minute ago.

"He didn't-" Ilana attempted to defend Al, but he stopped her before she went too far.

"I did," he admitted, looking to Scorpius when he said, "I also ran away… multiple times."

The silence wasn't too awkward and was broken before long, Scorpius asking, "Speaking of which, where have you been? Nobody's heard from you since that day on the Quidditch pitch." Scorpius didn't look all that personally slighted by this, though he still bore the pain of many others Al had surely hurt. Ilana was one of them, which must have been why she was currently facing the floor rather than look at him again.

"I was in Romania with Uncle Charlie," answered Al. "I needed to escape, but I think I always knew it wouldn't be permanent, so I've come back."

Sensing that the others were too emotionally involved to react civilly, Lizzie was the one to loosen up once more and say, "Good for you. A wedding is the perfect time to reconnect with family."

Al nodded absentmindedly, still concerned for Ilana, but then found himself blinking profusely and asking, "Wait, what? What wedding?"

Like any responsible and respectful adult, Scorpius didn't notice Lizzie's guilt stricken face and instead took the blame upon himself as he said, "I thought you knew; we sent you an invitation."

Al shrugged. He hadn't received a scrap of mail all summer.

Understanding this even without any words exchanged, Scorpius cleared things up for Al by saying quite proudly, "I proposed to Rose last May and we're getting married at Hogwarts tomorrow." Tomorrow marked Rose's eighteenth birthday, something both Scorpius and Al were aware of.

"Yeah!" Lizzie said, back to being excited. "Lanny's the best man, and we're making the wedding dress together."

That was what Charlie's letter had been about, and why it had been written with Rose's penmanship. That was why Scorpius wasn't at all angry to see Al, because nothing could break his happiness. Al was happy, too. Of course he was – his two best friends were getting married! But where had he been while they'd been planning the nuptials? What had he been doing that was more important than what Ilana and Lizzie were doing now? And the question that terrified Al the most was what would happen in the future. Would he be there for his friends as they moved into a house together, as their honeymoon period faded, as they started having kids? Would he ever learn how to be an adult friend when he'd never fully grasped the concept in childhood?

It took him a long time to respond to no one in particular, "That's terrific. Congratulations, mate! Really. I suppose it was only a matter of time, but I'm sorry about all the people who won't be there to see it." Al wanted to say James's name, he wanted to apologize for causing the loss of one of Rose's favorite people, but his mouth was only able to speak cryptically and so he hoped Scorpius would read between his lines.

"Yeah," Scorpius said. "Me, too." There was more than just James. There was Draco, Arthur, Narcissa, even Astoria. Still, the list in Al's head didn't make him feel any less guilty, because he blamed himself for over half of the deaths he could think of.

Ilana was the one to break this silence, nudging her sister and announcing, "We should get back to the dress. I have to take it to The Bird's Nest in a couple hours for Rose's fitting, and at this rate there's no way we'll be ready in time."

Scorpius nodded okay but it was Al Ilana looked to guiltily as she and Lizzie disappeared behind the side door. As soon as it was shut, Al could hear Lizzie whispering to Ilana about him, but he tried to focus on anything else. Unfortunately, there weren't many options, seeing as the room – however large it was physically – was practically barren, with only a few pieces of furniture and a spot on the ceiling where a chandelier should have been.

Noticing Al's gaze, Scorpius explained, "I know it's not exactly the coziest place, but it's what I know. I'm in the process of renovating it, though. I want to build a school here. The property's big enough and I could convert some of these rooms into classrooms, leave the drawing area open for indoor practice. I want to teach people how to become Animagi, but in a proper way."

Scorpius had Al's full attention now, but Al was still overwhelmed with the news of the wedding, let alone Scorpius's ambitious goal. In fact, Scorpius had never actually told Al that he was an Animagus, though Al had always had his suspicions. It was too bad Scorpius wouldn't be able to transform anymore, thanks to having lost his magic. Al partially blamed himself for that too.

The thought must have been written all over his face, because Scorpius said then as if he was answering Al's direct question, "I didn't lose it. It took Rose and me a while to figure it out, but I can still transfigure. Turns out it was always a part of me; it was never really a part of my magic."

"That's amazing," Al said with the first smile he'd had since stepping foot inside the manor. Looking around once more while also attempting to hide his emergent shock, Al added, "It all is. Look at you – you're growing up. You've got this house and a job and a wife. You're all grown up." His voice was cracking and he could feel tears welling in his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. This was Scorpius's day, and even though Al didn't know exactly who he wanted to be yet, he knew he wanted to be less selfish than he'd been these past three years.

Scorpius ran a hand through his hair and Al's tears faded away so that he could chuckle at the tic he'd so missed. Not noticing the laugh, Scorpius spoke over it, "I would never have gotten this far without you. You know that, right? You know that not a day has gone by that Rose hasn't used one of her special Auror trackers to look for you?"

"I thought about you, too. Both of you, every day. I just wasn't ready yet. I can't explain it."

"I know." There was a reason Rose had been looking for Al but Scorpius hadn't. Rose worried, but Scorpius always had an unspoken sense of faith.

Having calmed down by now, Al changed the subject and asked, "So, Rose became an Auror, eh?" He had always hoped she would.

"Yeah," Scorpius answered, standing a little taller now to show the immense pride he had for his fiancée. "She's still in training, but I think she's actually ready to take the exam now; it's only Ron who doesn't want to lose his protégé. She loves it, too. She didn't even take these past few days off to prepare for tomorrow, so she's working now and letting her mum and Hugo and the girls do all the busy work. I should stop talking about her, though, or else I'll give in and break the rule by flying through her window tonight."

"Is that why you're staying here? Because you can't see the bride the day before the wedding?"

"Her or the dress." It was clear from Scorpius's frustrated tone that he wasn't so keen on these superstitions, and Al suspected Rose wasn't either, but she also deserved to spend some time with her family and it was all in good fun. "You'll stay here tonight as well, I presume?"

That caught Al off guard. Then again, like he'd said earlier, he had nowhere else to go. So he said, "Yes, if that's okay."

Scorpius laughed at the ridiculous question and then gave Al the run-down on the sleeping arrangements. Ilana and Lizzie were sharing Narcissa's bedroom, so the only available place for Al to go was Draco and Astoria's old room, but Al said that was fine. He'd slept around plenty of unfriendly ghosts before. Then, before Scorpius could invite Al to do something with him for the rest of the day, Al made some excuse about needing to take Zephyr hunting before he ate any more peacocks. This was partially true, but Al also just needed the day to himself to clear his head.

He returned after dark that night. The sisters were still locked away in the side room and Scorpius was asleep upstairs, so Al tiptoed into the room that had once belonged to his mentor – the mentor he had killed by stabbing the Sword of Gryffindor straight through her back. It wasn't as if he could smell her there; Astoria hadn't even stepped into the room for years, let alone slept in it. Even so, there were parts of the rather large and spacious bedroom that reminded Al of her. There was a painting over the black-sheeted bed of Malfoy Manor, and on the steeple that was currently under construction was a nearly imperceptible speck of a bird, its color the purest gold. There was a necklace lying on the bedside table that Draco would most probably have never questioned, but that Al knew right away was one of Charlie's dragon tooth creations. There was a bookshelf filled with more dust than paper, but the one book whose spine was actually cracking and whose title was fading from old age was The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

All of Astoria's secrets were sitting out in the open, just like they always had. One of her most dangerous qualities in life had been her mystery, because she wore the truth so close to her that it was always overlooked. Knowing this better than anyone, Al found himself mindlessly searching for something that might appear too obvious to the naked eye. He knew there was no point inspecting the floorboards, even the ones that were creaking, and of course there wouldn't be a thing hidden under the bed. His eyes turned finally to the desk in the corner, which had most likely been shared between Astoria and her husband, and on one side was a drawer with three very different, but all highly intimidating, locks.

One was in the middle and in need of a key; another was on the right and had a hinge; the last was on the left and was a hanging padlock. Upon first inspection, the drawer seemed impossible to be opened even with magic, for if these locks had been made by a witch then surely they couldn't be opened by a wizard. Smirking because Al knew what Astoria had been up to, he left his wand in his pocket and merely placed his hand on the drawer handle, not bothering to attempt at any of the locks, and pulled. The drawer opened smoothly. Of course Astoria understood the power that came with no magic at all; that was why she was so afraid of the people who didn't have it.

Inside the drawer was a stack of memorabilia: letters from Tonks and more from Charlie chronicling the summers the trio had spent apart, ancient newspaper clippings with any mention of the Resurrection Stone, and moving photographs of Scorpius's childhood. It was the photos Al was most drawn to, pulling out the stack of them and smiling at the sight of that familiar blond boy concentrating on a game of chess as a three year-old or being held in loving arms as a newborn. There were two pictures of Astoria and her baby at St. Mungo's, one with Scorpius looking rather sickly and Astoria peering at him with a kind of sadness she had always denied in front of Al, and another of her happily cooing at a baby with his hands outstretched toward his mother's cheeks. In the right-hand corner of the first photograph, the date April 29th, 2006 was written. That was Scorpius's birthday. The second had been taken on the same day, despite the fact that the child in this photo was larger and far healthier than the first.

He stared at this date for longer than he should have, and by the time he realized that he was scared to take a second glance at the photo itself, he was already doing so. His fear was justified when he saw a tuft of black hair on the excited infant's head. Scorpius couldn't have been born with any hair, especially black. Al had known for a while now that Astoria hadn't been far from Ginny's room when he'd been born, since complications following Scorpius's birth had kept her there for months after April. He also knew that Ginny had been unconscious and Harry had been absent during his birth and that his grandfather, Arthur, had been the first person to hold him. But had he really? Was Albus really the highly crazed son of Harry and Ginny Potter? Did he really come from two loving parents, when he knew deep down that he had always felt more like an abandoned orphan? Had he really been born without the Trace or had a powerful witch taken it off of him? Was it possible that Al hadn't been born on July 1st at all, but rather had been born months earlier, only to be unhappily pried away from his true mother's arms? Was Astoria his blood mother and Scorpius his blood brother? Was he even more hidden than he had ever known himself? And, more curiously, was there any way he could ever discover the whole truth when the only one who would have known he'd already killed?

Al's head was spinning and his eyes were darting back and forth between the sick baby that had Scorpius's snowflake birthmark and a cold, bald head, and the healthy one with clear skin and a blackened skull. He wouldn't have been torn away for anything but the voice he heard almost an hour later, when both his mind and eyes were tired enough to give in and when his heart had never been more in need of hers.

"You didn't write me. Not once," said Ilana from the doorway that Al had his back to. It had been dark outside for many hours now, so he was uncertain how late it was, but he could hear the slurring sleepiness in her accusatory voice.

He stuffed both of the photographs into his pocket as he said, "I've never exactly known what to say." He hadn't received any letters from her either, but he chose to keep the blame on himself because he knew that it would be unfair to do otherwise.

"True. We never really talked." They had always preferred other activities, and really, who could blame them? Talking led to disagreements, realizations that perhaps the differences were stronger than the similarities, but sex led to love, admiration of the differences that somehow made them appear more similar.

Still, loneliness was more than just a feeling. Sometimes it had a voice, too, which was why Al turned around then to face Ilana so that he could say, "That doesn't mean I wasn't always wishing I could talk to you."

What she did next surprised him, and he loved that he could still be surprised by her. Ilana didn't chuckle or smile in reaction to what Al said, but she did look down at the floor, as if she needed to look at her feet in order to make them move. She didn't look up again until she was close enough to touch Al, but even then she didn't reach for him. Instead, her green met his and she said, "Want to talk now?"

He could never deny her, but he also didn't want to. They talked all night. They talked about Ilana's Muggle university and Al's time in Romania, they talked about how insane it was that Rose and Scorpius were getting married so young, they talked about the bizarre connections in the world that had brought her brother Felix and his cousin Violet together. They talked while standing by the desk, they talked while sitting on the creaking floor, they talked while lying on the haunted bed. They never stopped talking, because pauses were dangerous for them, yet still somehow everything Ilana said sounded seductive, intimate, close to him. "Hello" sounded like "come here." "Potter" sounded like "I love you." "Not once" sounded like "forever." For the first time, Al didn't give in to the overactive imagination he had for Ilana Higgs, because for the first time he knew that what he heard was truer than what he felt. What he was given was truer than what he wanted. What he hid from was truer than what he sought.

Both Al and Ilana must have fallen asleep at some point, and when Al woke early the next morning Ilana had already disappeared. Al didn't miss this part of their relationship; he had never liked the way they were magnets: always either too close or too far apart. He tried to give her the benefit of the doubt this time, knowing that she was most likely downstairs finishing Rose's wedding dress.

Al was going to head downstairs to see if he could offer some magical help when he walked into the second floor hallway and heard pacing a few doors down. Scorpius's bedroom door was open, and Al absentmindedly held onto the photographs that could prove his connection to his best mate as he changed directions and walked toward the sound of Scorpius's nerves.

He found Scorpius marching rhythmically around the queen-sized bed that sat lonely in the center of his room. Scorpius sensed Al's presence before the latter had the chance to knock, though he continued to fret with his nest of hair even as his body stilled and he said, "Rose just sent me a Patronus – she's going mad! Apparently, Ron's gone missing and not even Hermione can figure out where he might be."

This was bad. This was very bad. Al had plenty of his own problems to sort through right now, but he knew just as well as Scorpius did that Rose would never walk down the aisle without her father's hand to hold, and Scorpius wouldn't want her to. What Al didn't understand was where Ron could possibly have gone, considering Ilana had explained to him last night that Scorpius had in fact earned Ron's permission before proposing to Rose in the spring. Ron had no right to go back on his word the day of the wedding.

Deciding that there was nothing he could do to solve this issue himself, Al tried to focus on Scorpius's own anxiety by providing his friend with a distraction. Out of nowhere, he asked Scorpius with an unexpected sense of seriousness, "D'you think you could teach me how to shave? Without magic, I mean. You look like you have quite a clean cut."

Scorpius laughed, because of course this was one of the most ridiculous things he had ever heard. But when Al refused to break, Scorpius's laughs turned into a smile and his eyes squinted as if thankful before he turned toward the adjacent bathroom. Al followed him closely, and once inside, Scorpius handed him something called a razor and pretended to hold it to his face and pull lightly against his skin. Al copied the gesture, and though he cut himself a few times, he rather appreciated the act of revealing himself with his own two hands. There was something cathartic about peeling off his mask, something liberating, something real.

It seemed to calm Scorpius down, too. Soon, the bridegroom was staring out the open window in his brand new suit and taking deep breaths of air from the misty morning as he waited for Al to finish grooming. Once all the black on his face had gone and he'd healed his Muggle wounds, Al approached Scorpius, standing behind him and the window and trying to gain a sense of what Scorpius might be thinking of.

The only thing that intrigued Al about the scene outside, where Zephyr was snoring on the freshly wet grass and where the sun had yet to shine through the overcast clouds, was that same smell he had encountered when flying here. Without thinking to add context, he asked Scorpius, "What is that?"

Somehow, Scorpius knew exactly what Al was referring to, answering, "Petrichor: the scent of rain on dry earth."

Al was looking at Scorpius, fascinated by the smile that reeked with contentedness plastered on Scorpius's face. That was a smile Al had never worn himself; that was a smile that meant Scorpius could be happy forever. Curious, Al said, "I know Rose's story, but what is it that you love so much about the rain, Scorp?"

"I suppose I like the way the rain shatters open the clouds," he replied, still looking out the window and not at Al. "You know, the way it reminds me that I'm not alone, because skies break too."

Cost was comforting. Pain was comforting. Even people were comforting. "I'm sorry I haven't been here, mate," said Al. "I can't imagine what it must be like for you, going through everything that's happened. And I don't just mean after the battle." He meant all of it. He meant everything he'd missed, from the summer Scorpius had spent all on his own, to the deaths and loss Scorpius had dealt with along the way, to the decision he'd made all on his own to piece his life back together.

"I know," said Scorpius, and this time he looked at Al. "And I like this conversation. It finally seems real, because this time it has two sides."

Al laughed in an appreciative way, because he needed his pride leveled and because Scorpius had always been good at it. Thinking this and also missing the final point of their trio, Al told him, "You're going to be an amazing husband, Scorpius. I've never known two people who were more made for each other than you and Rose." He was going to add some sort of threat concerning the potential for Scorpius to break Rose's heart again, but he decided against it because he didn't want to speak so blatantly for James.

"Thank you," Scorpius said. "You know, I'd really like you to be in the wedding today, but I'm not sure I want to fight with Rose over which one of us gets our best man back." For now, Ilana was acting as Scorpius's best man while Hugo was Rose's.

"You mean, because she'd win?" Al joked.

"Basically," admitted Scorpius. Back on task, though, he added, "But actually, there might be something else we could use you for. How would you feel about getting ordained?"

Al didn't expect to cry, but as soon as he blinked the rain was shattering his own clouds. Al had always been in the middle of his two best friends, so it seemed only fitting that he stand between them on their most important day. "I'd feel honored."

They stared at each other for a minute or two before Scorpius pulled Al into a grand hug, and in that moment Al wondered what it would have been like to have grown up as Scorpius's brother, as Scorpius's twin. He pictured them chasing each other through this mansion like Al followed Scorpius now, bothering their fighting parents in Draco and Astoria's bedroom where they were headed now, trying on Draco's too-big black suits that now fit Al more perfectly than Harry's ever had. In that moment, he wondered if this was the life he was supposed to have lived. He wondered if he hadn't actually been running from the wrong life, but rather to the right one.

They descended the stairs just in time for Ilana and Lizzie to come bursting out of the side room with a bundle of covered fabric in the former's beautiful bare arms. Ilana was leading the way to the door, and after smiling subtly at the sight of a dapper Al, passed by Scorpius while barking at him, "You're going to be late!" She wasn't in her dress yet, but Al didn't care; he still couldn't take his eyes off her.

"She's right, actually," Scorpius said upon checking the watch Ron had given him on this day last year. Then he and Al shuffled out of the hall and through the front doors until Scorpius was transfiguring into a falcon in the middle of the front yard and taking off for the long flight to Hogwarts.

Meanwhile, Ilana was checking Rose's dress one last time as she prepared to Apparate, but when Lizzie saw Zephorien waking up she suddenly became too excited to continue her walk home. Ilana gave her sister a look of concern and Al found himself saying, "You want to ride on him? I was going to Apparate there, but I'm sure Zephyr could use the exercise."

"Really?" Lizzie looked to Al with wider eyes than he'd ever seen.

Ilana jumped in before Al could respond, telling her sister, "Lizzie, you told me you didn't even want to go when I asked you to be my plus-one. And don't act like this dragon is the same as the ones in those cartoons we used to watch, you hear? Magic isn't all brilliance. It nearly destroyed our family."

Al had his shoulders hunched and his hands stuffed in his pockets, trying not to interrupt because really magic hadn't almost destroyed the Higgs family. He had.

His cowardice was even more apparent to him when Lizzie fired back at Ilana the way Ilana always fired back at Al, "Yeah, Lanny, it nearly destroyed us. And anyway, you've been sulking without it for a year; don't even try to tell me you haven't been carrying your wand with you everywhere because I've seen you with it every day. And please, Ilana, don't pretend with me." She glanced at Al then, though Al didn't understand why until she added to her sister, "You were your absolute best when you were at Hogwarts and when you were with this boy. All I want is to experience just a piece of what makes you happier than I've ever been."

Begrudgingly, almost imperceptibly, Ilana nodded. She still had to Apparate to make sure she got the dress to Rose on time, but she told Al to meet her at Hagrid's Hut, and before long he was lifting an exhilarated Lizzie onto Zephyr's back and teaching her how it felt to fly. And when she wasn't looking, he transfigured Lizzie's clothes into an emerald green dress, based off of the one Ilana had worn at her graduation with a spell Scorpius had taught him years ago.

They landed in a clearing in the Forbidden Forest so none of the guests or current students would spot Zephyr, and together Al and Lizzie walked along the burnt path Al hadn't journeyed since the battle. He could see the castle spires rising through the mist when the neared the forest's edge, and Al was just as hypnotized by the sight of Hogwarts as Lizzie was, not because it looked different than he remembered, but because it looked exactly the same. There was Gryffindor Tower at the tallest peak, with its new bricks shimmering gold of the lion and its roof pointing sharp like talons.

"What's it like up there?" asked Lizzie, catching Al in his reverie.

Al used to ask that same question. He used to wonder what it was like in the Gryffindor common room, where students could watch the birds and Quidditch matches from their bedroom window. "I wouldn't know," he said then. Now, he wondered if he ever would.

The only thing that broke Al's concentration was the familiar bark that was growing ever closer to him. Saber, the giant slobbering idiot of a bloodhound whom Hagrid called his best friend came bulldozing into Al like an Oppugno jinx. The dog's paws, which were each about the same size as Lizzie's head, pounded onto Al's shoulders and threatened to bring him down, but Lizzie's laugh caught Saber's attention before Al gave in, just after he'd received a welcoming lick on his face. Al was wiping away the spit that smelled of freshly killed ferret when he heard Hagrid's deep voice echoing through the trees.

"Oy, Saber! Now's not the time ter be runnin' away, boy!" called the half-giant, and by the look of Lizzie's furrowed eyebrows she could already tell that this particular shout belonged to someone quite special in the magical world.

Smiling to himself, Al called back, "It's okay, Hagrid! I've got him!"

"ALBUS POTTER?" Hagrid exclaimed as he appeared from within the trees, immediately suffocating Al with his furry arms locked around Al's back, the ends of his combed bear pressing into Al's fluttering eyelids. "Blimey, i's abou' time yeh showed up! Yeh're nearly nine months late."

"I know," said Al once he broke free. "Sorry about that."

Hagrid never listened to apologies; he didn't have to when to him there wasn't ever anyone worth blaming. "No matter," he shrugged Al's words aside and banged him harder than he meant to on the shoulder to add, "But fer Pete's sake, stop standing 'ere! Rose is almost ready ter walk down the aisle!"

"All right, all right, I'm going," Al complied, his hands surrendering in the air. He was about to take off when he glanced back at Lizzie and was struck yet again by her spring-filled eyes, which were wider than Saber's as she took in the sight of Hagrid standing only a few feet in front of her.

"Why, 'ello there! I'm 'Agrid! Who are yeh?" Hagrid waved at her from above.

Lizzie gulped in fear, but when she looked at Al he reassured her by saying, "Don't worry. He's even friendlier than he looks." Then he ran off, Saber leaping gallantly behind him.

Hagrid's Hut had also been perfectly rebuilt, and seemed to have even received a new addition on its western side – an oversized patio that overlooked the currently flowering pumpkin path. Al didn't let himself stop to take anything much in before he walked through the door unannounced, hoping that if he didn't have any time to think of what he'd say to Rose then perhaps he wouldn't have to say anything at all.

Of course, things didn't work out quite as he'd expected. The one-roomed home that usually seemed so packed with just Hagrid was surprisingly empty when Al stepped inside, and at first he feared that he may in fact have been too late and that Rose had already left. But then he saw the back door opening, and in came Hugo, ducking beneath the door because he was nearly as tall as Hagrid now and wearing his hand-me-down white dress robes like they had been tailored especially for him.

The first ginger stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Al, causing Hermione to bump into the back of her only son and Rose to screech from behind her, "What's going on? Is he here?" The second question sounded like a mixture of anger and hope, and though Al deserved both, he suspected neither was meant for him.

"No," answered Hugo, "But someone is." Then he moved aside, and Hermione slowly pulled herself and Rose into the room, careful to handle her own ruffled dress and Rose's slip delicately.

Al didn't know why Rose wasn't dressed yet when surely she only had a few minutes left of prep time, but he didn't get the chance to ask before Rose was running toward him and embracing him just like Hagrid had done not long ago. He had to admit, as much as Albus loved Hagrid, this hug was far superior to the last.

The relief he had been waiting for since deciding to leave Romania finally washed over him when he felt Rose's smooth hands around his neck and heard her panicked breathing start to steady in his ear. He knew it was killing her to not know where her father was, and surely it was killing Scorpius to keep from comforting her, and Al appreciated the fact that for today, he could be their glue. She was just as relieved as he was.

"Are you all right?" Rose asked, pulling away from Al if only so that she could inspect his body for any scars or breaks. He was just as physically whole as she was, though he had to give her a bit more credit for the beautiful braided knot of fiery hair she had done up, for his was never anything but messy.

Taking her face in both of his hands to make sure that she stopped surveying him and looked him straight in the eyes, Al told Rose, "I'm all right. I'm sorry it took me so long to get here, but I'm here now. I'm here for whatever you need, whether that's an officiant or someone to announce a cancellation."

Rose's eyes were watering, but she tried to hold back her tears so that she wouldn't ruin her makeup. Al knew upon seeing this that she hadn't been letting herself be at all vulnerable until he walked in, either because she was more comfortable with him over anyone else or because no one else had given her any sort of choice. "I do want to marry him," she said, "I – I want to be with him for the rest of my life. I just… My dad, he's-"

"I know," Al nodded, his hands now steadying Rose's shoulders, but he spoke more to himself than to Rose when he finished her sentence with, "I know you need your dad." After he'd said it, Al wondered why he hadn't thought of Draco considering his recent discovery, and why it felt like Harry was still the one he truly needed.

Al was too lost in thought to hear heavy footsteps pound through the front door behind him, but he could see Rose's focus change, could see the tear she'd been holding back break free and pour quickly down her blushed cheek, could hear Ron's hitched voice as his uncle said rather cheerfully, "What are you all doing? We've got a wedding to start?"

Turning around in synchrony with Rose, Al saw Ron standing in the dress robes that matched Hugo's with his arms wide open as if ready to receive a hug from his only daughter. Unfortunately for Ron, Rose's rage took after Hermione's, and as if Hermione's crossed arms and cold glare weren't enough, Rose punished her father by marching toward him and hitting his chest repeatedly with the bag that Al presumed held her wedding gown inside.

"YOU ARSE, RONALD WEASLEY! Where have you been?" Rose yelled.

"Calm down!" said Ron in surrender as he tried to hold on to Rose's flying arms. "I know I'm late; the trip took a little longer than I expected. But believe me, it was worth it." Al wasn't sure, but he thought he saw Ron glance at Hugo for the second half of his sentence.

Rose didn't have much of a choice but to forgive him, since forgiveness was in her nature and she really did want to marry Scorpius today. So, faster than Al had anticipated, Rose snapped into Auror mode and ordered everyone in the hut to various tasks, telling Hermione to help her with the dress, Hugo to make sure they followed Lizzie's detailed instructions on how to get it on, Ron to wait outside and give the signal to the string players when they were ready, and Al to run to his post.

There wasn't any questioning of Rose's direction, so Al was completely silent as he walked out of the hut and started running down to the shore of the Black Lake, where a magically laid path of rose petals formed a bridge across the water and all the way to the oasis island where rows of guests were sitting and where an ice blue Scorpius stood facing the castle. Al suspected that it was one of the longest wedding aisles of all time, but the walk was worth it when he passed all of the staring family members and strangers who gaped at the sight of him and walked straight for Scorpius and his beautiful bridesmaid, who was wearing a chiffon dress to match Scorpius's suit and whose black hair had been adorned with tens of yellow gems that glowed like fireflies.

Ilana winked at Al as he took his post behind Scorpius, centered in between two colorful trees and facing the sea of guests, almost all of whom he recognized and absolutely all of whom recognized him. On Rose's side were an empty few seats for her parents beside Al's grandmother Molly and the aging Mr. and Mrs. Granger. Behind them were Percy, Audrey, the young Molly, and a very ghostly Lucy, with Charlie on the edge and looking directly at Al with a proud smile to counteract everyone else's. George was right behind him and was passing the time by stuffing all sorts of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes products in his older brother's ear and watching Charlie's reactions. Next to him were Angelina and the kids, Fred with a newly healed Lila Jordan and her father, Lee. The last few rows were filled with old students and professors from Hogwarts, including Seamus Finnigan, Dean Thomas, and their newly connected family, a very pregnant Cassidy nuzzling her husband Sam's neck beside Caitlin and Aaron. Flitwick, whom Ilana had told Al was the interim Headmaster of Hogwarts until they found a replacement, was there too, though Neville was seated on Scorpius's side with Luna, Holly, Colin, and Lysander. Hagrid took up the entire back row, though it appeared that Lizzie had been sweet enough to squeeze in beside him, and in front of them sat what was left of Al's old Slytherin Quidditch team: Mercy Golding, Salem Keyes, Lindsay Doyle, and Madison Bulstrode. Scorpius's front rows were the ones Al's eyes had been avoiding, however, since that was where Bill, Fleur, Teddy, Victoire, Dominique, Remy, and a newly born nephew Al had yet to meet sat, as did Harry, Ginny, and Lily.

Al's mother looked understandably angry upon seeing her son, and Ginny's fury was getting the best of her as she tried to leap from her seat to approach Al, but Harry held her back. He was the calmest of the three, surely knowing by now that there was nothing he or Ginny could do to either punish Al for killing James or to somehow get Al back; Al was punishing himself enough already, and clearly where he went with his life was his decision and had been for years now. Lily's expression cut Al the deepest, though, because his little sister wasn't at all little anymore. She was sixteen and stunning, her curves filled with the precocious personality her scars now hid, and the brown of her eyes that were so like their mother's were searing holes past her blackened werewolf bruises and into Al's hands, because it was his hands that had disappeared from her life so suddenly after the battle: his hands that had brewed her wolfsbane potions, his hands that had picked her up from Astoria's floor, his hands that had tried so desperately to stop their brother from bleeding out, his hands that had buried their brother in the ground.

"Is she coming? Did Ron show up?" asked Scorpius anxiously from Al's side.

He had to ask a few times to snap Al out of his trance, but eventually Al looked to his friend and nodded, gesturing toward the castle where Hugo and Hermione were walking along the rose petals to say, "Look, there they are."

From then on, Scorpius didn't take his eyes off of the place where he knew Rose would soon be, and most of the guests turned around as well, so Al managed to relax a bit as the focus was taken from him and as he too watched the Weasley family walk the radius of the lake to join their newest member.

Hugo was leading his mother onto the island and Al had a close enough view to see his disappointed eyes scanning the guests and only pausing momentarily on Colin Creevey. It was exactly when Al realized that Nigel must have left the Weasleys' at some point during his own time away that the red-eared boy stepped out from the trees flanking Al, taking a spot at the altar next to Ilana as Scorpius's groomsman just as Hermione sat down and Hugo stood at the end of the aisle.

Scorpius and Ilana were both smiling to see Nigel there, though by their lack of surprise it seemed as though they had been in on the rescue plan, which Al suspected was what Ron had been so busy with last night and this morning. Nigel was smiling, too, and Hugo had his mouth open and was crying as he made his way to his spot on the other side of Al, never taking his eyes off of Nigel's and silently communicating all that they couldn't yet say. There was something different about Nigel, much like what Al had noticed in Lily: war had made him age far too quickly, and not only had he beefed up since last year, but his skin looked tired and worn, like the pages of a well-loved book.

The wedding party was nearly complete now. Even though it seemed uneven for two to stand on Scorpius's side and only one on Rose's, everyone understood that the empty space on Rose's side was in fact filled, because of course that was where James was meant to be.

Al's eyes flickered from the empty space back to the aisle, where the distant image of Rose was growing clearer with every step. All eyes were on the bride now, whose dress was skin-tight satin at the chest, a stream of pure falcon feathers pinned to the bodice and growing down the length until they exploded into the incredible winged skirt and train. She was a bird, and she didn't so much walk down the aisle as fly.

The rain started pouring just as Ron gave her away willingly, shaking Scorpius's hand before transferring Rose's hand to her groom's, and Rose was beaming with happiness as Ron sat down and performed a silent spell on the wedding party to make sure no clothes were soaked. Al waited to start the ceremony until Rose saw Nigel and whispered to Scorpius, "Did you?"

"No," Scorpius shook his head. "It was all Ron."

Then Rose turned around to share in Hugo's joy and together they mouthed the words "Thank you" to their father before Rose faced Scorpius once more and gave him the chance to tell her how beautiful she looked.

Rose's eyes closed when she heard Scorpius's words and it was then that Scorpius gestured at Al to begin. Clearing his throat, Al watched Rose open her eyes and bore into Scorpius as he said above the rain, "Ladies and gentlemen, witches, wizards, Squibs, Muggles, and Floes, family and friends, welcome. We are gathered here today to witness and celebrate in the love of Rose Weasley and Scorpius Hyperion Malfoy. This is not their union; they have been united since the day they met; I should know, because I was there. This is their promise, not of forever, but of tomorrow. This is their promise to live each new day that they are given together, as best friends, and as husband and wife. This is their promise to move forward from the losses they and we have all faced in order to learn what they may gain in the future. This is their love."

There was no reading. Al didn't think one was necessary, so instead he asked to proceed straight to the vows. Scorpius went first, taking both of Rose's hands in his so that they formed a four-folded fist and saying, "Rose – my finder, my rescuer, my promise – you are tolerant and you're caring and you don't give yourself credit for anything. I thought about giving you that credit now, but I knew you wouldn't want it. What you'd want is to thank everybody here today for getting you, me, us to this day, to this altar, to this moment."

Scorpius turned away from Rose then, facing various members of their audience one at a time. Rose continued to look at only him, though, even as he looked first to Lucy and said, "So, thank you, Lucy, for convincing us that love lasts a whole lot longer than a single lifetime.

"Thank you, Lysander and Lily, for testing us in ways we never should have let you.

"Thank you, Nigel, for showing us that everything's more powerful in pairs, even people.

"Thank you, Ilana, for reminding us of the importance of family even when ours weren't around.

"Thank you, Hermione, for making everything easier.

"Thank you, Hugo, for making nothing easy.

"Thank you, Ron, for holding on to her when I couldn't, and for finally letting her go.

"Thank you, Al, for giving us not just something to live for, but something to fight for." Al wasn't expecting to be on Scorpius's list of acknowledgements, and he wasn't sure how he felt about it now. He wasn't sure if he wanted it, even though for the past three years it had been the only thing he'd ever wanted.

Lastly, Scorpius turned to the empty space at the altar and then back at Rose to say, "Thank you, James, wherever you are, for loving her just as much as I did. And finally, thank you, Rose, for knowing everything and being everywhere, but loving in spite of it. Thank you for being strong enough to bring my mother's kingdom to its knees, and to lift my feathers back into the sky. You deserve all the credit in the world for that. Thank you for letting me love you, because I do. You know I do."

Al had to stop Rose from leaning in to kiss Scorpius, causing the guests' tears to turn to laughs as she tried to shake off the praise so that she could voice her own vows. Once she was calm enough, Rose sighed peacefully and said, "Scorpius – my finder, my rescuer, my promise – you say I know everything, but really the only thing I ever knew was that I was supposed to be with you. That's what I've based most of my decisions on, from the worst of them to the absolute best. You are my ice. I am made of water that flows rather than resists, that caresses and surrounds but never stops or solidifies. I am patient as well as strong, and I find my way around every obstacle… except you. You're solid. You're a wall. You're my ice. I flow straight into you, head-first, feet-first, everything-first. You make me stop. You make me steady. You make me loved. I love you, Scorpius. You know I do."

On Rose's side came a silver wedding band from Hugo, and on Scorpius's side an identical one from Ilana. Together, Rose and Scorpius slid the rings onto each other's fingers and they looked up at each other and kissed like petrichor: a kiss to shatter open the clouds and remind everyone on the island that they weren't alone, because love healed, too.

A floating tent with strings of raindrop-shaped lights had transformed the island into a dining and dance hall for the reception. Albus ate a hefty portion of supper during his time at the wedding party table, though Ron and Hugo still outweighed his plate and Ilana laughed at the silly competition they were all having. The table had too many seats to house a single flowing conversation, so Rose and Scorpius had really just been talking to each other with the occasional snog, while Ron looked on in worry and Hermione tried and failed to distract him. Hugo and Nigel were also seated together, though they left soon after eating to have a private conversation on the beach. That left Al and Ilana, and while the two had plenty to discuss, the latter was busy checking in on Lizzie every five minutes and the former was preoccupied with what was going on at the adjacent table.

The Potters and Longbottoms were seated there, and while Harry was attempting to enjoy his conversation with Neville, both Ginny and Luna looked rather numb, picking at their food but not eating very much of it. With all of the parents distracted, Lily's state of invisibility had allowed her to go slightly off the rails; Lysander had offered her a sip of liquor from his flask a half hour ago and she had yet to give it back.

After dessert had been served and when Lily was so tipsy that she nearly let her plate shatter on the floor, Al excused himself, walked up to Lily from behind, grabbed his sister hard on the shoulder, and started to drag her into the trees as he sneered, "This is out of hand. I mean, blimey, don't you have class in the morning?"

Lily didn't say anything. She just stood there with her arms crossed, staring at the wet ground with contempt and loneliness. She had always hated being treated like the little sister, but she had it coming when she played the part so brilliantly. If Al hadn't seen the glistening tears staining her bruises as she took another swig of firewhiskey he would have sent the flask shooting out of her hand and into the lake without even his wand's help. Instead, he just looked at her pitifully and said, "You have to stop this, Hillbilly Lily." He knew that hearing that name was the only thing that would make her listen; James used to call her that.

"It isn't her fault!" called Lysander as he stumbled toward them, just as drunk as Lily was because he'd been drinking plenty before he'd handed over the loot. "I gave her the flask."

Al broke eye contact with Lily, who was now heaving through her tears and trembling lips, to squint his eyes at Lysander and say, "Yeah, thanks for that, by the way."

"And thank you for killing my best mate! And my brother!" Lysander slurred at him.

Al considered going into attack mode to defend himself from the comment, especially since half of it wasn't even true, but he decided against it when he saw that Lysander's very dry expression wasn't at all hardened. The last of the Scamanders didn't want to hit Al, or even blame him for something neither of them could fix; he just wanted to stop blaming himself, and Al understood that.

Ignoring Lysander and turning back to his sister, Al said to Lily, "Look, I know you're hurting, and I'm sure my absence hasn't helped in that matter. Your pain is warranted, Lil, but you shouldn't be humiliating yourself as well."

"Why not?" she asked, still crying and flailing the flask around in her floppy right hand. "I've done plenty of it this year as it is. Anyway, my face is humiliating!"

Just hearing the words made Al's heart break a little, his chest physically throbbing as if he'd been stabbed, and so for a while he couldn't manage to say anything. That gave Lysander the chance to interrupt, scoffing and saying to Lily, "Are you joking!? Look at you, you're gorgeous!" He was gesturing to her face now, though he didn't dare wipe away a single one of her tears. "And that face you complain so much about – the face that holds all of your secrets plain to see – is a gift. Don't you get that? At least with your face you have no trouble crying in front of people, which is all I've wanted to do but haven't been able to for the past nine months."

Slowly, Lily's arms steadied and her red dress stilled and her tears halted. "Funny," she said to Lysander. "All I've wanted is someone who can make me stop."

Al left them then, figuring that Lily and Lysander could probably help each other more than he could help either of them. Of course, this meant that Al had nowhere left to go but back to the reception, only when he heard Ilana giving her "best man" toast, he considered everywhere else he could possibly go. Obviously there was nothing going on between Ilana and Scorpius, but for some reason just hearing her talk about any other guy made Al's stomach crawl. He supposed he'd always been the jealous type.

He ended up on the beach next to the rose petal aisle, where he could hear Ilana's faint voice from afar but couldn't make out her words, obscured by the winded waves and the familiar footsteps of Harry Potter walking toward him. It had only been a matter of time until Harry tried to pull Al aside, and surely he'd seen Al walk off with Lily and used the opportunity to his advantage.

Al wasn't expecting Harry to yell or scream or pounce like Ginny wanted to, but he didn't expect Harry to act like everything was somehow okay either. That was why Al was rather surprised when Harry stood beside him, his hands stuffed in his pockets and his glasses pointed crookedly at the red sun setting over the water, and said, "It isn't just about James – why Lily's upset, I mean. She killed someone, too, and she doesn't know how to deal with it."

"What, and you do?" asked Al. He preferred this conversation to the one he expected, which included endless questions about where he'd been and why he'd needed to be there for so long, but it still felt condescending. Did Harry really think that Al didn't know his sister had killed Calder Anhinga and Ryder Rookwood? Then again, maybe Harry was simply choosing to believe that Al didn't know because, for the first time, it wasn't his fault. But it was. Everything was.

By the time Harry responded, Al had forgotten his question, but he figured it out when Harry repeated for him, "No, I don't know how to cope with murder, because no, I haven't ever killed anyone. Even Voldemort, I didn't really kill, because it was his own spell that rebounded on him. But I know plenty of people who did kill, and some of them I had quite a lot of respect for."

Al was finally listening now, because Harry had never liked to talk about his past, and because the stories he told tended to twist even the most flawed characters into heroes. "Albus Dumbledore killed someone, and so did Severus Snape," said Harry. Turning away from the water so that he could look at the boy he'd named after both of these brave wizards, he added, "You remind me of Dumbledore, actually. I know you probably think you're more like Snape, but Dumbledore – he made a lot of mistakes. He killed his very own sister when she was young and defenseless, a Squib in fact."

Ariana. Al remembered the girl from the portrait he'd used to get in and out of the castle last fall, and to sneak the Forbidden Flock in before the battle. He had always known her name, but for some reason he'd never suspected that she'd died as young as she was displayed in the painting, or by whom she was killed. Art was like that, though – it lasted forever, making it difficult to remember that the same couldn't be said for its subjects.

"It wasn't on purpose," Harry continued. "But he did it. Years later, he became the greatest wizard of all time, and do you know how he did that?"

Al shook his head no.

"It wasn't because everyone around him forgave him. His own brother never did, even after Albus died. It was because he forgave himself. He forgave himself and he believed that Ariana forgave him, and he didn't just become the greatest wizard of all time. He became the greatest man, too."

Had Harry ever questioned Dumbledore's intentions? Had Dumbledore willingly conceded this truth to a young Harry as if nothing was wrong, or had Harry discovered it after Dumbledore's death? And if the latter, how had Harry ever forgiven him? Just because Harry hadn't personally known Ariana didn't mean that the act had any less of an impact on him, or at least on his view of the bearded wizard. And what Al had done was so much worse, because Harry did know James, because Harry was personally connected to the victim… because he was personally connected to the culprit.

Al hadn't said anything, and apparently Harry had taken that as a sign for him to leave, so he was half way to the tent when Al turned around and asked loud enough for him to hear, "And how did he do it? How did Dumbledore forgive himself?"

Without completely turning around, Harry answered, "I suspect he chose to."

At first, Al felt slighted for the lack of advice Harry had just given him, but then he realized how much lighter he felt just having asked the question in the first place. He had long since accepted the fact that his brother's death would haunt him for the rest of his life, but tonight was the first time Al had considered that perhaps the murder didn't have to haunt him too.

He wasn't sure what time it was at this point, but the ever disappearing sun made Al think that it was about time he returned the reception to announce the first dance. Sure enough, everyone was looking antsy as they stood from their seats and absentmindedly walked around the floor. "Ahem," Al coughed to gain their attention. Once the guests were looking to him, he moved all the tables aside with a flick of his wand and revealed the hidden grand piano in the very middle of the floor, announcing, "I do believe it is time for the real fun to begin! Rose, Scorpius, if you wouldn't mind…"

The newlyweds happily took to the floor, and Al was so enthralled by the way their hands never broke apart even as they had to turn around or walk through people, and the way none of Rose's feathers fell from her dress even as the train caught on multiple chairs, that he didn't notice who was playing the piano until the music started. It was a song he'd heard numerous times throughout his summer in Grimmauld Place, and it sounded exactly the same now as he remembered because the same girl was playing it.

Even as other couples – Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, Neville and Luna, Teddy and Victoire, Hugo and Nigel, and a very courteous Lysander and grateful Lily – joined Rose and Scorpius in their dance, Al continued to dart his eyes around them so that he could watch Ilana play. Her fingers were faster than the dancers' feet, and her eyes never even needed to look at the keys she was pressing, almost as if she knew them better than she knew herself. He used to be able to press her the way she was pressing that piano; he used to know which parts of her skin that, when kissed, would glow; he knew which parts that, when touched, would make another part of her body move in response to the her lines of neurons; he had learned how to love her long before he'd ever learned to love himself.

Behind Ilana, on the far side of the dance floor, sat all those who didn't have anyone to dance with, and though Lizzie seemed to be enjoying her time alone, the same couldn't be said for Al's cousin, Lucy. Her eyes were hollow and her mouth was taut as she looked on at the couples, and because Al was curious about how the grieving process could differ so much for different people, he found himself walking toward Lucy once Ilana paused in between songs. Unfortunately, though, he didn't quite make it all the way before another grieving female caught his attention.

Mercy was sitting alone at a table that Al would have walked straight by if she hadn't said to the surrounding air right as he was close enough to hear, "I really did love him, you know – your brother."

Al knew that he didn't deserve her defense. He had never believed in her even when she'd been honest and sincere with James from the beginning. He tried to make up for that now by telling the beautiful blonde, who, lucky for all mankind hadn't laid back on her hair or makeup even in her grief, "I know." He had already passed her when he added in retrospect, "You should go back to work, Mercy. You and I both know you're the best Auror the Ministry has." Al honestly and sincerely hoped that she would listen.

Finally, he made it to Lucy and took a seat beside the girl who was wearing nothing but black. The darkness matched her hair, but Al thought she was oblivious to the way it made her engagement ring shine like a literal diamond in the rough. His sincerity with Mercy had prepared Al for what he said then to Lucy. "I'm sorry about Lorcan. I wasn't with him when it happened, but if I had been, I would have tried to save him. I hope you know that."

Having Lucy's attention was like having the attention of Kingsley Shacklebolt, and Al was glad to know that this time he'd actually earned it because this time he was actually speaking the truth. Lucy looked at him, nodded with all the energy she had left, and said, "Thank you."

Because Lucy had yet to look away from him, Al had the feeling that she actually enjoyed having someone to talk to for once. People had no doubt been tip-toeing around her for months, and she didn't deserve that. Just because her face was perpetually stoic now didn't mean that the same could be said about her heart. That thought was what made Al look back at Ilana while he asked Lucy, "Do you ever think about what your life would have been like had you ended up together?"

A minute passed and Lucy didn't say anything, so a scared Al turned back to her and quickly apologized upon seeing her eyes welling with tears. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked something like that," he said, thinking his assumption had been wrong after all. "We should talk about something else-"

"No," Lucy interrupted him, and this time her parted lips told him that he had in fact been right. The tears were a side effect of memory, not of loss. "You know, my family doesn't ever mention him around me, but our future, it's actually, well it's one of my favorite things to imagine. It has to be, because even now, he's all I have. He wasn't just a chapter in my life…" she stopped, not able to come up with the right words.

Al felt obliged to finish for her, because he knew exactly how she felt. "He was the whole bloody book."

They were still looking at each other, still swimming in each other's pain, when an exhausted Nigel collapsed in the chair beside Al and said as soon as he saw the solemn pair, "Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to intrude."

"No, it's okay," Al shrugged off Nigel's concern. As soon as he spoke, Lucy had returned to her pensive state, her eyes locked on the middle-distance and her hand forever twirling the ring she would never let go.

Nigel sighed, still shamefaced, and Al suddenly saw the beads of sweat running down his forehead from his strawberry-blonde hair and the heavy rise and fall of his chest through his collared shirt and matching blazer. He and Hugo had been dancing for a while now, and it appeared as though this was Nigel's first break. Laughing at the idea, Al commented, "Looks like he's forgiven you, then."

"As much as he can, anyway," Nigel chuckled. "I think my running away will always hurt him, but he knows that I'm here now."

Al nodded, but he didn't exactly understand. Why was it that people could forgive each other so easily for running away, yet they could never bring it upon themselves to ever let them go? Curious, and because ever since their conversation about the Elder Wand Al believed Nigel to be one of the wisest wizards he'd ever met, Al asked, "This is where you tell me all you need is love, right?"

"Actually, that's a lie," Nigel said without a second thought. When he saw Al's raised eyebrows, he explained, "I had love and I still said goodbye."

"Why?" asked Albus.

By this point, Nigel knew that they were no longer talking about Hugo, but he continued to use his own insight nonetheless. "I needed to find something more, on my own. I didn't want to lose myself just because I'd found somebody else."

Al was looking at Ilana, who'd stopped playing piano and was now talking with Scorpius by the bar, when Nigel intuitively added, "But you should ask her to dance anyway."

Patting Nigel's shoulder in thanks, Al stood up and walked across the floor, confidently interrupting Scorpius to offer his hand for Ilana to take. She looked both pleased and fearful as she followed him onto the nearly empty floor to sway to pre-recorded slow songs, and he felt the same. He didn't know where they were going to go next because he didn't have the best idea of what she was thinking lately, so of course he was scared. He was scared he might never see her again even if he finally decided to stay.

For a while, they remained silent, Al breathing in the scent of her flowery hair, Ilana tracing his spine with her talented fingers. They were daring the other to speak first, and Al was the first to give in when he said, "Tell me what to do, Higgs. Tell me how to brew the potion that will pick up all the pieces. Tell me what ingredient I'm missing."

She thought for a moment, eventually furrowing her eyebrows and saying, "In the Muggle world, we have to read these Greek myths: epic poems, they're called. Some of them focus on kléos, the quest for glory, while others focus on nostos, homecoming. You, Potter, have always wanted to find glory for yourself, even when everyone else around you – Scorpius, your father, me, for that matter – have only ever wanted to come home. I'm not going to stand here and tell you that nostos is more important than kléos, but I do think you should consider the fact that one of them hasn't exactly been working out for you."

Al understood what she was telling him to do, but he still didn't particularly like the idea. He didn't want to go home without her, which he tried to explain by saying, "But that's not fair. The home I would be coming back to isn't the same as yours." They lived in separate worlds, no matter how much they denied it, and Al had learned long ago that neither of them was willing to make a move.

Her fingers had stopped trailing his spine, her hands moving from the back of his neck to the front of his chest as if she wanted to push herself away from him. Normally, he wouldn't have let her, but he was trying to be better. He was trying to be worth the choice she had to make.

"I get it," he said. "I know that you don't love me. You never did." After all, she'd never said it.

They had stopped dancing at this point, but instead of pushing his chest away, Ilana's hands were now clinging ferociously at Al's shirt and her eyes were glaring at him and her jaw was tensed. "You think that I don't love you?" she asked as if offended. "You have no idea."

Around them, families were beginning to Apparate home for the night, and there wasn't a single couple left dancing. It didn't faze them, though, because Ilana was angry and Al was hypnotized. He hung on to every word she said, and each one seemed more incredible than the last.

"I love you more than I've ever loved anything or anyone in my life. I love you so much that it terrifies me, because I would choose you over anything, because I had to convince myself to choose my family over you and I still came back to you in the end. I love you so much that I hate you, because everything I do wrong is your fault, because everything I do is for you."

She had brewed the pot of Veritaserum in his fifth year because he'd asked her to. She had helped him brew the potion that scarred her own skin because he he'd asked her to. She had stayed at Grimmauld Place even after he had found out about her blood status because he'd asked her to. She had never told him that she loved him, but he had never asked.

The control he had over her was the kind of control he'd aspired to have for years, but it felt wrong over her when he'd only ever wanted it over himself. Everything she'd done for him had hurt her, and it had all been his fault. "How can you still feel that way after everything that I've done?" he asked.

Her answer was instantaneous. "Because despite everything that you've done, you are never passive. You may have chosen wrong every bloody time, but at least you chose! At least you did something. Most people don't do much of anything, especially me."

He was going to argue with her, because claiming that she never did anything was an insult to him. Ilana had done everything for Al, or at least everything worthwhile. Still, he didn't get the chance before she was rambling, "Lizzie's right: I can't escape you, just like I can't escape magic. It's in my blood as much as my family is, and one day, if I have kids, it'll be in their blood too, and I won't be able to keep them from discovering it just as I haven't been able to keep myself from it. And if I can somehow use my magic for good, if–if I can cure Muggle cancer with some sort of magical medicine like phoenix tears, then maybe it'll all be worth it. Maybe then it will have been for something."

Al was so in love with her. He was so in love with her muddy blood. He was so in love with her wacky yet wise sister. He was so in love with the image of her children. He was so in love with her ambition, with her certainty, with her conviction and the fight she had with herself every day between magic rush and Muggle release. He was so in love with all the things she loved.

Dancing again even though there was no longer any music playing, Al told her, "I will never get used to you."

"You say that like it's a good thing," Ilana laughed.

"It is. You're unpredictable. You're… an imperfectionist. You're not perfect, but I think you might be perfect for me."

He wanted her to know that, but he also now understood what was going to happen to them next. He understood that they couldn't just go back to being together, because they both had bigger things to do. They weren't like Rose and Scorpius – they couldn't just support each other as they each followed their dreams, waiting at home every night for the other to finally come to bed. They consumed far too much of each other to be able to focus on anything else, and so for now Al had to find his home and Ilana had to fuse her worlds together, and they had to do these things alone. They weren't ready to be one person together because they didn't yet know who they were supposed to be on their own.

Ilana knew all of this as well. That was why her head was leaning on his chest and his chin on her head. That was why she said, "Maybe, in a few years, you'll be walking down Diagon Alley as a free man, alongside all the free Muggle-borns."

"You had better be walking toward me," Al held her as close as he possibly could.

"I'll be running," she said.

A few minutes later, Ilana and Lizzie walked back down the rose petal aisle and flew Zephyr all the way to Surrey with Al's permission. They had parted, for how long Al didn't know, but beforehand she had kissed him like forgiveness and he had held her like hope, perfectly imperfect at being exactly what the other needed but never what they needed themselves.

Once she was gone, all Al had left to do was wait. Hardly anyone was still on the island, all of the guests but Ron and Hermione having Apparated a while ago now and Hugo, Lily, and Roxanne having walked back up the hill to their dormitories. Hagrid was still there, though barely, considering the fact that he was sitting unconscious under a maple tree. Hermione was busy cleaning everything up, and Ron had just pulled Scorpius aside for a "man talk," leaving a patient Rose with no one left to talk to but Al.

They were sitting on the piano bench, each of them attempting to play and then grimacing at the horrific chords they made. When they'd had enough of the juvenile game, Rose leaned tiredly on the closed piano and Al covered her back with his suit jacket. Remembering Scorpius telling him something about the honeymoon he and Rose had planned, Al kept Rose awake by asking her, "So, headed to Australia, eh? What's that about?"

Rose sat up so that she could respond, "The Granger grandparents wouldn't stop talking about how wonderful it is. They bought us plane tickets and everything, so I figured there was no harm in taking them up on it." Al knew that neither Rose or Scorpius cared much about where they spent the next few weeks so long as they were together, but it was still a nice gesture and, of course, tradition.

"What about you?" Rose nudged Al in the side as he too started to lean on instrument. "Are you going back to Romania?" Scorpius must have filled her in on where Al had been all this time.

"I dunno'," said Al, though he doubted he would be back at the dragon sanctuary any time soon. "I might go back to Malfoy Manor, actually, so long as Scorpius doesn't mind." He didn't want to impose on what would soon be Rose and Scorpius's permanent home, especially while it was under construction for Scorpius's school, but they'd gone for a while and Al still had answers to search for that he was fairly certain were all located there.

Rose looked confused, but still said, "I'm sure he wouldn't mind at all." Her real concern came through when she asked, "But why would you want to be there?"

Al hadn't been planning to show anyone just yet, but if there was one person he wanted to confide in it was Rose, so he soon found himself pulling Astoria's photograph from his pocket, handing it to his best friend, and saying, "I found this. It was taken on Scorpius's birthday, but look at the baby's hair."

He didn't need to say any more for Rose to understand his suspicions. Still, he tried to emphasize the importance of this possibility by telling her as well as himself, "What if Astoria was my mother, Rose? What if I'm not a Potter at all? What if I've just been running away this whole time because I've been looking for my true past?"

Rose didn't like this idea. She didn't like this idea at all. Al could tell from the way she handed back the photo forcefully and asked, "Why would you ever want that? Why would you ever want to consider the idea that Harry and Ginny aren't your real parents, or that Teddy and James and Lily aren't your real siblings?"

"Because it would be easier that way!" Al answered without thinking. He hadn't actually considered why he might want his suspicions to be true, and now that he was voicing the reason he wasn't so sure that it was apt. "It would be easier to know where my hate came from. It would be easier to know that, in the end, I didn't actually kill my own brother. It would be easier to hide."

"It might be an explanation, yes, but it wouldn't excuse any of the things you've done, Al," Rose said, seeing right through him. "Nothing ever will. And yes, it would be easier to hide, but it wouldn't be right. What you're hiding from is truer than what you seek. The family you have always had is more real than the one you suspect you may have lost." He couldn't hide forever. He had to go home.

He was nodding in approval of Rose's words when Scorpius rejoined them, his face slightly flushed from the undoubtedly intense conversation he'd just had with Ron. Before pushing Rose into the bench more to make room, though, he gave them a warning by saying, "Excuse me, but the newest Mr. Weasley would like to request a seat, please." He wasn't actually going to take Rose's name, but Al knew that Scorpius truly liked the idea of it.

Moving over to the point that he was nearly falling off the edge due to Rose's overflowing skirt, Al asked jokingly, "Since when do you announce yourself to anybody?"

"That's just it, mate. Rose isn't just anybody," said Scorpius, leaning around Rose to face Al. "She's my wife."

Rose like that word very much. Biting her lip upon hearing Scorpius speak of her with such extreme confidence, she couldn't help but kiss him, courteous to stop quickly so as not to make Al too uncomfortable. A few yards away, Ron and Hermione were yelling something about wanting to get on their way and needing a goodbye hug, and Rose and Scorpius were about ready to leave when Al told them, "I'm going to miss you two."

"Yeah," Scorpius agreed. "Well, we've missed you."

Then Scorpius lifted his bride in the air and carried her over to her parents, to whom they said goodbye before flying off together, Rose in a fresh set of clothes so that she could ride James's old Firebolt, and Scorpius carrying the dress in his own falcon feathers. Al watched them until he couldn't see them anymore, and then he woke Hagrid, delivered the giant back to his hut, and made for the Forbidden Forest where Zephyr had recently returned from Surrey, ready to take Al back to that iris field he loved so much, which just so happened to be a couple kilometers behind Godric's Hollow.

Albus walked through the back door without knocking, because this was his home. The lights in the living room were off, but instinctively Al's hands searched through the dark to find the hooks reserved for James's broomstick beside the fireplace. His hands ran over it softly, just as they ran over the pot of Flu Powder James had once puked in, and the sofa he'd fallen asleep on countless times while Harry read him his favorite stories, and the kitchen counter he'd sat on more than eaten on. Everything in this house belonged to James, but touching them made Al realize that they belonged to him too.

Ginny and Lily must have been asleep by now, but Harry was sitting at the small breakfast table sipping a glass of pumpkin juice. He didn't budge even as Al sat down across from him, almost as if he had been expecting his son to join him here tonight.

"Tell me something, Al," said Harry.

"What?" Al asked.

"Something you shouldn't."

Al didn't know where to begin. There was so much he hadn't told his father, so much he had purposefully not told him, so really he could start anywhere. Still, it was the one thing Harry already knew that Al most want to tell him, so he said to his father – his real father, his only father, "I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be a hero like the characters in your stories. I wanted to be a hero like you. And when I didn't feel like I could be that for the Order, I suppose I hoped I might be able to for the Forbidden Flock."

"But no hero wants to be what they are, Al," Harry told him. He wasn't patronizing this time, and perhaps he never had been. Perhaps Al had always just been hearing things he shouldn't have. "Heroism, it's not something you should strive for, not really. It's a thing that's thrust upon you, like any other responsibility, and one that I never wanted you to have to bear."

Al believed him. He believed his father because even though he hadn't earned the same types of responsibilities Harry once had, Al had been thrust burdens from the Flock that he had become responsible for, and none of them had been ones he'd wanted to bear. The real difference between his responsibilities and Harry's was that Al had never been able to adapt well to his, but Harry had borne them like a true hero.

Thinking this, Al found himself saying to his father, "You should be the next Headmaster of Hogwarts."

"What are you saying?" Harry asked, shocked to hear these words at all, let alone from his rebel son. "They'd never want me to do that. I was the Chosen One before, but I wasn't in this war. I didn't save anyone this time around."

"That's exactly why you'd now be perfect for the job," said Al. He could barely see Harry in this little light, but he could have sworn that there was something shimmering behind his spectacles. "Hogwarts doesn't need a savior anymore. What it needs is change, and you're one of the only people I know who is fully open to that idea. I think that's why I've always resented you so much. Change always terrified me, you see."

"Oh, really? Why are you here, then?" There wasn't a house more changed than this one, where James had once lived.

That didn't matter, though. The house itself didn't matter; it was the people in it, including James, who did. So, Al told Harry, "This is who I am. This is where I come from." Then he picked up Harry's glass and took a sip of his juice without asking permission, stood up, turned the corner, and walked up the stairs to his bedroom like it was any normal night at the Potters'.

Al was quiet as he ascended to the second floor, where Lily's room was attached to his via nothing but a small bathroom. Shutting his door carefully so as not to wake her or their mother, whom Al would surely need to have many conversations with before getting back to their normal routine, Al shut his eyes momentarily and opened them to the private oasis he had so sorely missed.

His potions were all still sitting in disorganized stacks on his bookshelf, an only slightly clean cauldron starting to crack by the window next to Witherwings, the grey owl who was very pleased to see his master once more. Everything was exactly the same as he'd left it, except for the oddly shaped pile of unidentified objects scattered across his unmade bed. Stepping closer and whispering, "Lumos," Al inspected what turned out to be a heap of unopened letters with the light of James's wand. Apparently people really had written him this summer; it was just that all the owls knew before Al had that this was where was he supposed to be.

Al cleared most of the letters off so that he could lie down, but one he kept in his hands and opened as his head touched the pillow. It was the wedding invitation, which he'd recognized from Charlie's envelope as well as Rose's penmanship. The piece of paper inside wasn't anything too special, at least not until Al noticed the handwritten note on its back that read:

We might be starting a new life together, but we still won't value that life without you in it. Please come home to us, Al.

Rose and Scorpius

And that was how, on one rainy, dark night in late September, Albus Severus Potter fell asleep to the sound of a cardinal singing, a falcon diving, and a hawk squealing. It had been over a year since he had been home, even longer since he'd heard all three of the birds at once as they flew through the skies of Godric's Hollow, a town haunted with memories of late yet loved witches and wizards. He smiled at the familiar sound, slowly drifting into a comfort that would ready him for all his unhidden years ahead.

Eighteen Years Later

One beautiful, sunny morning in late August, Avis Malfoy woke to the sound of birds chirping – well, one bird, to be specific, and it was more of a call than a chirp. Smiling at the regal sound that only grew stronger with age, Avis jumped out of her bed and ran across the driftwood floorboards to her open window. Leaning over the sill and letting her strawberry blonde locks blow in the morning breeze, she spotted a gorgeous white falcon eyeing her from the branch of the front yard maple tree.

"Morning, Dad!" she sang to the bird, laughing feebly through raspberry lips.

Her father, Scorpius, used the tip of one of his wings to point to the tip of the other, as if gesturing to where a person may wear a watch. Rolling her big blue eyes and playing with the Malfoy family crest that hung low on her chest, Avis yelled, "I know, I know! If you're not five minutes early, you're late!" Then she shut the window tight and struggled to pull the overflowing rucksack from under her bed.

The thumping of the trunk as Avis pulled it down the stairs echoed all across the high ceilings and down to the giant practice room on the first floor of the Minerva McGonagall Memorial School for Animagi. Avis was fairly used to making as much noise as she wanted in her house, considering all summer there had been over a dozen other loud-mouthed kids staying there as they trained to magically transform themselves into animals, a task Avis had mastered since the day she'd been born. This summer, she had been particularly proud of her canary-self, and had boasted her flying skills multiple times by showing off to her older cousin, Leo Scamander. She was looking forward to showing off in the classroom this year, though, as tomorrow marked her first day as a student of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Avis's mother appeared at the bottom of the stairs with her arms crossed and a defiant look on her face. Shrugging as if she hadn't just peeled off a couple layers of paint with her suitcase, Avis said, "What? I needed to bring it down so that you could figure out what I still have to buy today."

"Uh-huh," Rose said, annoyed but still leaning down to search through the trunk. "You'd better go eat your breakfast quickly, Little Bird. Your father is very eager to start flying there."

"Great!" said Avis as she bolted for the front doors, skipping her breakfast entirely and transfiguring over the threshold so that she soared into the sky without even waiting to shut the door behind her.

Unfazed by her daughter's usual behavior, Rose remained seated by the trunk and only whispered to herself, "What a piece of work. Only eleven and she already rules the roost." And it was true. Avis was a wild one, but Rose had to admit that she loved that about her only child. She and Scorpius had tried for years to have kids before Avis came along, and that one little bird had more than made up for the five children they had lost along the way.

Dog slobber was the only thing that could ever wake Addy up. She'd picked out the mutt from the Muggle pound herself only a few years ago, and now Firefly had become an integral part of the Potter family. This morning was no exception and, unlike her best friend who was always unfathomably early to everything because her excitement so outweighed her laziness, Addy was already running late.

"Sister, we're going to leave without you!" came a familiar yell from downstairs as Addy slowly rose from bed, greeted Firefly with a kiss, and stumbled over to her wardrobe.

"Shut it, PJ!" Addy retorted with a slam of her dresser drawer. Her little brother, Phoenix James, had always been a nuisance, especially when it came to her prep time in the closet.

See, Addy's process was very complicated and therefore required a great deal of time: first, she had to pick out the perfect outfit, usually consisting of a good deal of purple and of course green to match her eyes, then she had to brush out her thick black hair that was luckily much tamer than her sister's, and finally put on jewelry and shoes. Her aunt Lizzie had supplied her with myriad choices in each of these departments, and today she settled for a sequined green sundress with sandals and bangles, choosing the latter simply because she liked the way the bracelets clanked together when the wind blew.

Once she was dressed and had led Firefly downstairs, Addy joined the rest of her family in the kitchen, where both pots and cauldrons sat on the stove, where there was a dishwasher as well as some dishes floating in the air and being cleaned by magic, and where one of her parents was drinking a glass of pumpkin juice and the other a goblet of coffee.

"Good morning, Princess," said Al as his daughter took a seat on the table beside him.

"Daddy, I'm not a princess," Addy corrected her father. "You're an Auror, not a king!"

Across the table and behind a propped-open copy of the Journal of Medicine, her mother laughed and said, "Ah, but you're still very important. Your very own grandfather is the Headmaster of Hogwarts."

"Yeah, and it's not fair that she gets to see Grandpa Harry every day starting tomorrow," complained PJ. He wasn't sitting at the table, far too antsy to stop pacing around the room.

"Relax!" Al tried to calm him down. "You only have one year left, and then you'll be at Hogwarts too."

A coy breath was heard then from beside Ilana, and suddenly a very small, bug-eyed girl sat up in her chair and said innocently to her brother, "You don't see me complaining, and I've still got three whole years to wait until I'll be at Hogwarts."

Al and Ilana smiled at Iris even though PJ ignored her, but their attention was redrawn to their eldest daughter when Addy mumbled, "Headmaster of Hogwarts is nothing. Avis's grandfather is the Head Auror, and her grandmother is the Minister for Magic!"

Ilana barely heard Addy's whining, but Al was all ears and asked his daughter with the utmost concern, "I thought Avis was your best friend. Why are you so worried about being at school with her?"

"I'm not worried about being there with her. I'm worried about not being as good as her."

Both Al and Ilana looked to Addy then with very serious expressions, and it was Al who put a hand on each of Addy's shoulders and told her, "Aderyn Rose Potter, don't you ever think that you aren't good enough, for anything or anyone. You are going to be a brilliant witch and a beautiful person, no matter how talented or untalented you are at that rubbish they call Transfiguration. You hear?"

Addy nodded. After thinking for a moment, she even managed to say, "That's true. Plus, Avis doesn't have her own dragon, but I do." Zephorien had been a member of the family far longer than Firefly had, longer even than Addy herself, and today she and her family would be flying to Diagon Alley in royal style.

"Mum! You will not believe who I just saw snogging at the ice cream stand!" Talen's voice boomed through the shop, obscuring the shouts of his rascal brothers who were currently flying miniature brooms past his untarnished face.

"Who?" asked his mother with the utmost curiosity; Lily had always been one to enjoy a piece of gossip, which was probably why Talen was so clearly the favorite of her five sons. The ten year-old had her fire, and he also fired back whenever any customers asked her about the scars on her face.

Walking up to the cash register so that he could hop on the stool and handle some payments, Talen gave his mother a minute to corral the young and rambunctious Miles and Gram off their brooms and order them back upstairs where they had a playroom full of magical toys that Lily wouldn't need to pay damage fees for. Once she had returned, she asked Talen again who'd been snogging, and he told her, "Remy, with Will Thomas, no less!"

"No!" Lily exclaimed, waving goodbye to the family that had just bought their son a new Firebolt as they exited the shop.

Talen nodded and said, "Hard to believe, right? Werewolf and Dream Boy together at last."

"Can't say it hasn't happened before, though, can you?" came the voice of Talen's father as the door chimed open. Lysander still liked to think of himself as a sort of dream boy, just as tall and handsome as the stars he wished on every night.

Lily smirked at her husband as he approached her and planted a sloppy kiss straight on her lips, all the while ignoring the boy who was currently dangling from Lysander's shoulders and complaining about how disgusting it was that his parents were still so in love.

When they broke apart, Lysander released Xavier from his hold and Lily said, "I see you found him, then."

"Aye. He was hiding in the far reaches of a book shelf at Flourish and Blott's, claiming that he was supposed to be meeting Artie there. Artie, however, was nowhere in sight, so I figured I'd haul him back before Hugo caught him."

"Good thinking," said Lily. Hugo Weasley owned most of Diagon Alley at this point, including Flourish and Blott's, Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, and his husband's wand shop. He had only let other members of the old Gryff Group buy properties adjacent to his, which was how Lily had landed the James Potter Quidditch Supply Shop, and how Roxanne had turned the competing joke shop into a sea glass store.

"Hey, where's Leo?" asked Lysander suddenly. "He needs new robes, no matter how unnecessary he believes them to be."

Lily chuckled and informed Lysander that their eldest son was counting inventory in the back. Leo had been the child they'd never intended to have, back when Lily had still been a teenager and when she and Lysander were nowhere near ready for marriage. Still, he had turned out to be quite the young leader of the family, always putting extra hours into the business and claiming the same robes he'd worn for four years of school still fit him fine just so that he could keep his parents from spending any more money on him. Lily was just happy that, even with the surprise pregnancy, her sister-in-law Ilana had been able to stop the werewolf gene from being carried over to Leo and the rest of her boys. This way, they could tell all of their secrets on their own terms and revel in uncovering others'.

Artie's dads were the talk of the town. Hugo had just published his sixth book, and there were posters with his face plastered on them in every shop window. Meanwhile, Nigel had recently been named the best wandmaker in the country. Arthur Dennis, their adopted son, had a lot to live up to.

His parents had never cared that he'd originally come from Muggles, but after spending nine years watching wands choose one young witch or wizard after the next, Artie was starting to feel like he'd be missing out on a world that he'd very much like to explore. That was why he'd decided to spend this morning picking up every wand in Nigel's shop to see if anything – anything at all – might happen with them.

He had tried over two dozen wooden sticks when Nigel asked from his workshop, "Aren't you supposed to meet Xavier at Papa's shop?" Ever since Artie had been taught to speak, Nigel had been called Dad and Hugo had been called Papa.

"Yeah, but I have to wait for Papa to take me," Artie replied, focused on another wand now. He had always been a very diligent child, quiet and observant but also quick and smart. His freckles and oversized glasses made him look a little dorky, but he had never cared too much about any of that. Neither of his fathers had ever gotten by on looks alone; they got by on pure talent, and Artie was planning to do the same.

The wand he held in his hands now was quite short, perhaps only eight inches or so, and it had been made with willow wood and unicorn hair. Artie was fascinated by the snowflake pattern carved into its grip, and it was the first wand he'd held that made him feel both delicate and powerful. He wasn't exactly sure what he was supposed to do with it, but he'd seen hundreds of magical kids pick up a wand and flick it at something, so he decided to point it at the staircase in the store corner.

Closing his eyes and thinking about the wood of the stairs splitting and sinking into the floor, Artie flicked and swished his right hand. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the stairs hadn't changed a bit, and he was about to lower his hand in defeat when he heard Hugo's voice cry out, "What in the name of merlin's beard is going on?"

He must have been trying to descend the staircase when he'd run into the range of Artie's wand, for now Hugo was floating in the middle of the shop, flailing one arm around as if that would help to steady him while the other arm reached for the wand he'd dropped. "Papa!" Artie exclaimed. "I-I'm sorry!" Then he dropped the wand he'd been holding and Hugo instantly fell straight to the floor.

Racing to his side, Artie was about ready to cry for fear that he had broken his own father when Hugo sat up and rubbed the back of his swollen head. Seeing him alive would have been enough to make Artie feel slightly better, but Hugo wasn't just alive; he was sheepishly grinning from cheek to freckled cheek.

"What's all this raucous about?" asked Nigel as he came out from his workshop and into the main room to see what was going on. When he saw the two loves of his life huddled awkwardly on the floor and noticed Hugo's radiating joy, Nigel couldn't help but smile too.

That smile only grew when Hugo said to him, "Guess what, Squirmsnail? Our son's a wizard."

Somehow, all three of them had made it this far. Rose, Scorpius, and Albus were all sitting at a table drinking butter beers at the Leaky Cauldron while their children wandered about Diagon Alley. Time passed quickly for them now, conversations stretching into hours in which they would gush about Avis's chess skills or Iris's piano playing, and even talking about work was fascinating for them. Scorpius was famous now that Hugo had finished writing his biography, and he was also happy to have helped his nephew complete his Animagus form just the other morning, Leo now as true a lion as there ever was. Rose and Al were similarly proud of their work in the defense field, where just last week they had arrested a couple of snatchers Knox had tipped off to Al.

Their current conversation had flowed through these usual topics before it landed on them questioning which houses their respective daughters would be sorted in at Hogwarts tomorrow evening. Rose and Scorpius both had a feeling that Avis couldn't possibly be anywhere but Gryffindor or Slytherin, and Al told them that it wouldn't matter either way. Slytherin's pure-blood reputation had been lost years ago, and now the house was both well respected and well loved.

Thinking about how far they'd come in their mutual quest to end Muggle-born discrimination, Scorpius found himself staring at the red brick wall that separated Diagon Alley from Charing Cross Road and said, "Who knows? Maybe one day there won't be any more brick walls separating the magical world from the Muggle one. Maybe soon we'll all finally live together in peace."

Suddenly concerned, Rose asked her husband, "Do you feel that we're not whole?"

It was Al who answered for Scorpius, "Well, we may not be whole, but we're not empty." And he had a funny feeling that they never would be again.

Note: Please tell me what you thought of any/all of this; I desperately want to know! I hope the presence of an epilogue surprised some of you, because I was careful to never mention it as being part of my master plan even though it always was. Also, if you have questions about what was written in the eighteen years later (or what wasn't written, for that matter, since I know a lot of integral characters were left out - Knox and Dominique, for example), let me know! I have futures planned for every character, so I can tell you anything you'd like to know. If you'd rather imagine their futures for yourself, though, I understand that, too.

Also, if you're a big music fan, you should check out my tumblr page, because I am about to blog some playlists that inspired the various BotB couples (there is one for Rose/Scorpius, Al/Ilana, Hugo/Nigel, Lily/Lysander, and Knox/Dom).


Announcement: Unfortunately, I also come with some sad news. This chapter has taken a lot out of me, and schoolwork is getting pretty intense at my college, so I've decided to stop writing fan fiction so that I can focus on my original work. Of course, I may return sporadically when I feel nostalgic, but I don't think I'll be writing any long fics again. If you are still interested in reading my work outside of the fanfic genre, please subscribe to my fictionpress account and I'll try to upload stuff there.

For those of you who are curious, I did have a few BotB spin-off ideas that now won't be written - one was the obvious sequel story following the kids you were just introduced to where they would unite the Muggle and wizard worlds once and for all, another was a lead-up to the epilogue chronicling the relationship between Lily and Lysander, another was Astoria's backstory with her years at Hogwarts alongside Charlie and Tonks. I'm sorry these won't be coming to fruition after all, but again, ask me about them if you're curious.

UPDATE: Slytherin Kingship, a reader of BotB, has graciously decided to write his/her version of the sequel story I presented all here. Check it out: u/4533624/ First chapter will be up by December.

Finally, I just want to say that writing fanfic, especially this one, has been an absolute blast. All of you readers are wonderful people and have each individually upped my game in the writing world. Whether or not I ever write fan fiction again, I will always cherish it, I will always read your reviews and messages, and I will definitely never stop writing in general.

Goodbye for now,