Standard Disclaimer :: All things Harry Potter belong to JK Rowling and affiliates. This fanfiction is a non-profit venture written for the enjoyment of myself and my readers.

Pre-Story Introduction :: Just so there's no confusion, the AU divergence of this story from canon starts at the end of the Battle of Hogwarts, but the story itself is set in 2002. Backstory is explored as time goes on, so roll with it for now. Look, zombie apocalypses and politics! And one more note, about the title. I'm aware that technically, it should be The Dementors' Stigma, but again, roll with it, unless it's annoying enough that I should change it, and fast. Zombies!

Dedication :: To Seratin, Lutris, Zeitgeist, Vira and the others on DLP, for putting up with my insanity, for reading early drafts, and just being there.

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Incorruptible: The Dementor's Stigma

By Matt Silver

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Chapter One of Sixteen: Insects

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A year ago, when the dead started returning to life, what was left of humanity showed their true faces; they became either the best of us, or the worst of us.

The pureblood agenda would tell those who'd listen that the worst of us were the Muggles, and that we, the wizards, were the best of us. To me, it didn't matter. Muggle or wizard, you could be bitten, and when that happened, you would die, coming back soon after as nothing more than a shambling monster with an insatiable taste for human flesh. I didn't dwell on this undeath. It was life I was concerned about, and in a world ravaged by this outbreak, one could never be too careful about losing theirs. Careful and cautious; common sense was the best tool in anyone's arsenal.

There was no better time to exercise that common sense than a supply run, and there were eight of us armed for today's scavenging trip. Headed up by Head Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt, the team - myself excluded - were all fully trained Aurors and Hit-Wizards, or in the case of Ron and the younger two members, were close enough. The first thing we did today - the first thing we always do - was scout out the target from a distance: a supermarket, one of those larger chain stores that was stocked to meet the demand of three towns all within the same area.

"I've got four over here," said Auror Proudfoot, directing our attentions to the family of four zombies milling about near the supermarket's car park. In the daylight, especially on sunnier days like this one, the grotesque features of the undead were illuminated for all to see. Stray bits of flesh melted off of their faces as they dragged their legs behind them, mouths agape and droning out a low moaning sound, as dull and mournful as one of Professor Binns's lectures. They puttered around aimlessly, shambling and shuffling, moaning and groaning, searching for anything resembling their next meal. If they smelled it, if they heard it, or even saw what looked like a tasty human being, their focus would be on that instantly.

"Ron, how many do you see?" Kingsley asked, taking Proudfoot's Omnioculars for himself and looking through them.

"Same as before - twelve," Ron said, his own pair of Omnioculars glued to his face as he scanned the town below.

"Got about thirty hanging around the town square," I warned.

Kingsley nodded, his face a mask of calm. "Duly noted."

Under our feet, the undead were moaning in protest. The four of us were situated on the well-barricaded roof of the town's primary school, the second-highest vantage point offered to us. We could see most of the place from up here - the residential areas were spread out around the school in a mundane pattern, criss-crossing about and leading into the town's main streets, where, off to the side, the supermarket was located. The rest of the town and a look at the roads beyond was blocked by an austere clock tower smack dab in the middle of everything. And, of course, where there were houses and shops and clock towers, there were the walking dead hanging around in between.

When the outbreak had hit, people packed into cities like sardines in a can began to spread the infection at an extraordinary rate. If one infected individual died, he or she would reanimate, and then go on to bite another person, who would die, reanimate, and repeat the process again. It was a chain reaction that was impossible to stop, and it hadn't been. This town was like the others, like the bigger cities, and the highways in between. The walking dead owned this world now.

"Kingsley," I said, breaking the older man out of his count. "There's a small pharmacy, right around the corner from the supermarket. Five walkers outside."

He adjusted his Omnioculars. "I see it. You need to go?"

"The Muggles are running low on antibiotics. It'll be worth a look, and I know what to look for."

"Take Ron, and Davies when he gets back."

I nodded my thanks. We kept up our scouting for another few minutes before three loud crack noises broke the lull, one after another; the rest of the team, apparating in. The first was the tall and wiry Auror Savage, who nodded to Kingsley, rattled off a number and wandered over to help Proudfoot, flicking the other man's ponytail with a finger and earning a thick-jawed scowl in return. Hit-Wizard Strauss, a comfortably older-looking veteran of both Voldemort wars, and Ryan Davies, his nineteen year-old apprentice, appeared next, informing Kingsley of their own reports of the area before starting ritual exercises in wand safety. A few more minutes passed before the last member of the team, Auror-in-training Lara Wilkinson, returned. But when she did, her face was stark-white under sunny-blonde hair, and her hands were pale. I immediately thought she had splinched herself or something, but discounted that thought just as quickly.

She was scared. Genuinely, totally, mind-numbingly, scared.

I, as the team's Healer, and Kingsley, as the team's leader, were at her side first. "Lara, what happened?" I asked carefully.

"She's new," Savage said disdainfully. "Probably just saw a scary walker."

Proudfoot snorted, but I ignored them both and instead focused on Lara, who was having difficulty getting the words out. After a moment, she shuddered and began to talk, quietly and fearfully. "The next town over... Mist."

Oh shit. Mist meant Dementors. Dementors were very, very, bad news.

Ignoring the fact they were the source of the initial outbreak, they immediately took advantage of the chaos and broke free of their lodgings underneath Azkaban, for the first time in centuries a free roaming species able to wreak havoc all over. They dined on souls up and down the UK, growing in number at any opportunity by settling themselves down after a feed and reproducing immediately. An unnatural mist would hang over the air of their breeding grounds, and the mist itself became a telltale sign of their presence. If you saw the mist, you'd be smart to run - or, in our case, disapparate - as far away as you could. The Muggles had no comprehension of these monsters, but they something lived in the mist, and they knew to run. We knew that while the undead could be combated and put down for good by destroying their brains, the Dementors would ceaselessly roam the wastelands. They were out of control, and were the real threat out there.

"I saw it from the clock tower," Lara explained shakily. Kingsley was busy reviewing the Omnioculars recording she had given him, and I was making sure she wouldn't pass out, jabbing my wand forward and murmuring the occasional spell to keep her upright. Savage was right about her being new to this - hell, she was younger than I was - and not everybody adapted to going out into this new world as well as some did. That even the thought of Dementors could make a grown wizard curl up in a ball and cry was enough reason to hit her with calming spells.

"Are you completely sure?" Savage pressed.

"She has no reason to lie," said Strauss, the age lines on his cheeks frowning along with his mouth.

"She could've seen a Blubbering Humdinger for all we know!" Proudfoot burst out.

"But she didn't," Kingsley interjected. "There's no mistaking that mist, but this doesn't change the mission. We are always prepared to deal with them. Everyone here can cast a Patronus Charm, and I know that for a fact."

Of course, only me, Kingsley, Strauss and Ron could pull off a fully corporeal Patronus, but I kept my mouth shut. As one of my old teachers used to say, positivity was a form of Healing itself. As one of my older, much more favoured, teachers used to say, stop arguing and get to it. The longer we stayed out here, the chances of a Dementor encounter went up.

"... the plan goes ahead," Strauss was saying. "However, we leave someone on the clock tower to watch the mist, to be sure none are heading in our direction."

"No way," Proudfoot said stubbornly. "Not a chance. We should ditch it and leave, right now. No risk, no harm."

"There are vital supplies in there," I said flatly. "We come back tomorrow or next week, and this town could be the Dementors's next nest."

"Then it's not worth the risk!" Savage snapped.

"I'm sorry, do the words 'vital supplies' mean nothing to you two, or -"

"I agree with Harry," Kingsley said, cutting me off. He pointed to Savage. "The clock tower is your responsibility. We'll take an hour to get what we need. Report to me half an hour from now and bring the Ominoculars - just because you didn't see something doesn't mean you didn't miss something, understand? The Dementors will be easier to spot in the daytime, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't exercise some vigilance. Go, Auror Savage."

With a disappointed sigh, Savage turned on the spot and disapparated. In the school below, a few zombies moaned sorrowfully at the noise.

"Ron, Davies, you're with me," I said. For Davies's benefit, I pointed out where we were going. "Apparate to there, keep your wits about you, and guard the front while Ron and me get what we need. Got it?" He nodded nervously, and I turned to Kingsley. "We'll join you soon.

"If anything happens to me, you're in charge."

"Comforting, putting the twenty-two year-old in charge," I groused in good humour. "Also, try not to get lost - I have a Wizengamot session later, and they'll yell if I show up late because I was busy looking for you."

Kingsley smiled wryly. "Be careful Harry." And with that, he disapparated, followed by Strauss, Proudfoot and, after she took a moment to compose herself, Lara.

On my three count, Ron, Davies and I disapparated to the street below. Immediately, the five walkers I spotted earlier turned our way and began their steady, determined, gaits towards us, arms raised, their mouths wide open and dried bloodstains showing on their teeth.

"I'll take the two on the right," I announced, but before I finished speaking I'd already nailed one with a Piercing Curse; aimed at the centre of its forehead, backed by a bit of oomph to push the spell through the cranium and into the frontal lobe, killing the zombie properly, instantly. Ron took my signal and aimed at the two on the left, while the one in the middle, an overweight and balding man wearing a very bloody business suit, was left for Davies. It didn't take much doing for the rest of them to go down. Preferred methods varied from person to person, especially in dealing with small, manageable, groups in an open area like this. I liked keeping things simple, and so did Ron. He used brute force, bludgeoning heads with bursts of brightly-coloured magic, gory showers of blood erupting into the air and chunks of skull and brain matter flying everywhere. We took care of our pairs, and I was about to take care of the one we left for Davies, still walking, when its head began to shake and tremble. The zombie's skin tone soon resembled that of a plum, before its head simply exploded under the pressure like a balloon, spraying a pinkish mist all over the vicinity.

The headless corpse fell to the ground beside its comrades, and I turned to Davies. "Nothing fancy," I chided; I'd recognised his spell, and it wasn't the best for this kind of work. It required a complex arm movement that would've been impossible to pull off in closer quarters and, had circumstances been different, he would've been eaten.

"Sorry," Davies muttered.

In the distance, I heard the sound of a window breaking. I ignored it and strolled forward, scanning the front window of the pharmacy as I did, getting a look at the layout from the outside. "Looks clear."

A hand, nearly rotted to the bone and stained with dried blood, slammed against the glass, and we all stopped. I heard the muffled moan coming from inside the store before the zombie itself appeared, a young man missing one of his eyes, its gaping maw mashing up against the glass in an attempt to eat us from inside the pharmacy. "Well... it looked clear," I corrected. Ron snorted and ambled forward again, and I followed.

"There's one over there!" Davies suddenly shouted, and I pivoted on the spot to look. He was pointing down to the far end of the car park, where a lone walker had appeared from around the corner, dragging itself towards us.

"Then take care of it," said Ron, dismissing the situation entirely.

"But..." Davies hesitated. "Alone?"

Did his voice just crack? Really?

I sighed, remembering that I was responsible for him right now. I caught his eye and spoke calmly, "Davies, what has Strauss taught you on how to deal with situations like this one?"

The kid, who for the first time looked as young as his age, nodded. His voice was soft as he said, "He told me to try and make them less scary, you know, in my head."

"Like a Boggart. Sensible."

"I know it's just one, and it's so far away, but... It only took one to start all of this, didn't it? I heard -"

"Davies, you're ignoring Strauss's advice. If it took just one to start this, and it didn't, it would not've started in the middle of a car park with three fully-trained wizards there to deal with it. And you are fully trained, so remember that. These things are like Inferi, but different. They'll walk through fire to get to their meal, and they're not under anyone's control... The walking dead work on instinct, and die only one way." I made a gesture, slamming a fist into my open palm. "Aim for their heads, destroy the brains."

"I know, I know. Stunning spells, stuff like that, won't work."

"And that's all there is to it. So, now, tell me what'll make them it less scary to you. You've got the tools, you know what to do."

He paused, and I did too, though a bit of annoyance seeped into me as I realised I could be spending this time getting those antibiotics. "Insects," Davies said eventually. "Bugs. When I was little, I was really scared of bugs. Even the small ones. I wanted them to go away, and I told myself I could just step on them." He smiled shakily. "Squashy squash."

"Exactly," I said. "These things are insects. There's a whole lot of them and they're easy to take care of, because, as you said, squashy squash."

It wasn't really sound advice, but it was what he needed to hear. Realisation dawned on his face, and his features visibly steeled. He walked away from us slowly, bring his wand to bear and holding it steady in his hand. A single jet of light shot out of the tip, and the approaching zombie dropped like an insect, the top half of its head rolling off down the street.

"You were so much meaner before you became a Healer," Ron joked.

I headed over to the pharmacy door, where the zombie inside was still pounding at the glass, pressing itself forward, thunk, thunk, thunk. I pushed the door open with a bit of force, swept the thing off its feet, and splattered its brains on the floor with a forward thrust of my wand. Another walker was waiting by one of the nearby shelves, and a single steel spike flew over a row of feminine hygiene products to embed itself in its eye. It dropped the ground, making more than a little clatter as it crashed into another shelf.

"I still have my mean side," I murmured to myself.

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We finished up quickly. I filled my bottomless satchel with bottles of pills, and Ron's own sacks were filled with the rest of the store's stock, chocolate bars included. I didn't even have to dissuade him from collecting all the electric shavers; he'd learned his lesson from last time. We left the pharmacy and headed down a ways, turned a corner, and walked into the supermarket's main car park. Cars, of all shapes and sizes, were still parked there, some boasting broken windows, some covered in bloodstains, some having both, and more than one had a corpse or two sprawled inside. There had clearly been a panic to get supplies from the supermarket, and it had ended with a zombie attack. I could feel the spent chaos in the air, whether it be because of a stray bloodstain, a car upturned in the middle of a lane with all doors wide open, or even the few zombies milling about.

The appearances of these walkers told different stories; who they could've been, how they could've been bitten, everything and nothing at the same time. One man dressed in a jogging tracksuit, who couldn't outrun a horde in time. One slightly overweight woman with a chunk of her lower leg missing, bitten by her own child. A half-naked teenager who partied a bit too hard and woke up being chewed on by his friends.

They were proper corpses after an encounter with the business end of my wand, and were out of my mind by the time we reached the supermarket's entrance. From the outside, it looked relatively intact, with only a few shattered windows and a spray of dry blood on the wall; which was really about the norm for buildings these days, so no matter. Two sets of automatically sliding double doors were our way inside, though the power had been cut by now and they weren't moving automatically. One set was clamped around a rotting corpse, and the other was wedged wide open and held as such by nothing - Kingsley's group, no doubt. The three of us walked in, following a trail of corpses as we did.

The supermarket was big - bigger than the local one the Dursleys used back in Surrey at least - with a dozen or so aisles facing us as we entered, dulled signs pointing out what products each aisle held. The smell of rotting corpses was present, as always, mixed in with what I could only assume was the smell of refrigerated meat turned unrefrigerated and left out for a year. Sections for fruit, vegetables and for frozen foods were pushed to the back of the store, while a deli sat on the far right and a bakery on the far left. The chaos of the initial outbreak showed here and there, with capsized shopping trolleys choking aisles and boxes and cans of food lying haphazardly on the ground. The shelves weren't all that empty, I noticed. There must've been only so much shopping the panicked Muggles had gotten done before things went to hell, and nobody had tried coming back.

I was about to announce our presence when Kingsley wandered out from one of the aisles, trailed closely by Lara. She looked a little better; the colour had returned to her cheeks, and she wasn't shivering anymore. Healer me nodded in satisfaction.

"Got what we needed," I said when they saw us, "and more. Our friends at Granford and Liliford will be happy."

"They better be," Proudfoot said darkly, appearing from behind Kingsley and Lara. "Why we help those Muggles I haven't the foggiest, but -"

Kingsley turned and looked at the man. He didn't say a thing, and I couldn't see the look on his face, but I could see the look on Proudfoot's, his expression turning belligerent but his mouth snapping shut. I quite enjoyed that, honestly. There's a reason Kingsley's the best leader a team like this one could ask for; hazard control.

I heard a sharp crack from behind me, and turned to see Savage waltzing in, sparing only a single glance at the corpses along the way. He tossed his Omnioculars to Kingsley, who caught them and instantly pressed them to his face to review the recorded footage.

"Don't bother," Savage said. "Whole lot of nothing out there. The mist hasn't so much as twitched since we arrived."

Kingsley still took a moment to check for himself, and so Savage wandered over to Proudfoot and asked, "How many did'ya get?"

"Seven," Proudfoot boasted. "Dumb fucks never saw it coming."

"I'm pretty impressed," Ron said transparently. "I didn't know you knew which end the spells came out of, Proudfoot."

The two Aurors glared at him, and just because I was standing nearby, me as well.

"It was four, actually," said Strauss, walking out from the deli side of the supermarket. He pointed to one of the larger, broken, windows near the front of the store, one I noticed earlier. "Made quite a noise. Missed two in one go."

Proudfoot said nothing. To add insult to injury, Lara piped up, "And I got the one by the trolleys, not you."

"Enough," Kingsley said firmly. He handed Savage's Omnioculars to the man forcefully. "Strauss, what did you find?"

"Security office had two inside, and I took care of them. The deli and the frozen food sections are too far gone, of course, and don't even get me started on the seafood section." The older man shuddered. "It was about five minutes before I remembered to put up a Bubblehead Charm," he lamented.

We all got a little chuckle out of that, cutting through the tension in the room that was swimming in the air around Proudfoot, Savage and everyone who didn't like them - so, you know, everyone but Proudfoot and Savage.

Without further ado, Kingsley called for us to split up and start scavenging, sending me and Ron towards the bakery. A supermarket of this size would be an undertaking for a group of Muggles, and they would throw more people and expend vital supplies to get less than a small group of us could obtain. Every scavenging team has a list of things to specifically be on the lookout for, and given that we could carry just about everything in our bags or by shrinking them, there was no limit in how much we could get, even the things nobody really needed. We had to be conscious of the Muggles more than anything - these supplies, while in need for the good wizarding folk, were in dire need for the Muggle settlements of Liliford and Granford, the two largest communities that had sprouted up out of the ashes. Both towns were being supported by us on the sly, with supply drops being "found" by our people on the inside and aid being rendered in every way possible without breaking the Statute of Secrecy.

But that was another issue entirely, and as long as I had a seat on the Wizengamot, it would be resolved.

To cut a long story short, the next hour went all according to plan. Ron and I split off after raiding the bakery, and I soon found myself bumping into one of the team in the canned goods aisle.

"Savage?" I said in disbelief, dropping a can of peaches into my bag. "Why aren't you on the clock tower?"

He waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing to see, and Shacklebolt had to take Strauss with him to kill the curious dead pricks wandering up this way."

I nodded, remembering the group I'd seen in the town square. "So... I'm in charge then."

Savage sighed, rolled his eyes and let out an exasperated, "Yes..."

"So what have you found then?"

"Food."

"Like?"

"Rice."

"Oh that's good. Granford's short on rice."

"They are."

"Well it seems you're doing them a personal favour by collecting rice now, wouldn't it?"

"Yes."

"And if I were to check it, say before I dropped it off to them later today, there wouldn't be any curses on the rice packets, would there?"

He narrowed his eyes at me, and I returned the gesture. "Carry on then," I said.

So, very deliberately, I turned my back and walked away from him. He wouldn't curse me in the back - he was unpleasant and a bigot, but not stupid. I continued my walk up the aisle, flicking and swishing my wand and levitating the canned foods off the shelves and into my bag. At a certain point I attempted to juggle five cans in the air, but my concentration was broken and the cans went down with five identical, all-too-loud thunk noises when I heard Lara cry out:

"Dementors!"

I turned my head and gestured to Savage, who was standing stock-still in the aisle but didn't need to be told twice. The two of us walked out of the aisle, wands in hand, and I spotted Lara ducking behind one of the checkout counters. She was pale and shaking again, and I ducked down and waddled towards her.

"You okay?" I probed. She nodded shakily.

"Are you sure it's Dementors?" Savage asked without preamble.

"Two of them, coming into town," said Lara. "I went out to see if Auror Shacklebolt or Strauss were coming back, and I saw the Dementors instead."

"They strayed from the mist," I said. "Why?"

"Maybe it's just routine... Maybe they smelt us out."

"From a town over?" Savage said incredulously. "Are you serious?"

"Regardless," I cut in before an argument could start. "We need to get the others and get out of here before they get too close. They get too close and you'll have trouble apparating out."

"But what about -"

"Kingsley and Strauss will be fine, Lara. We'll worry about the others first. Last I saw, Ron was heading for the storeroom by the loading dock." I turned to Savage. "And Proudfoot?"

"Fruit section," he said. "I'll get him, and you go for the storeroom. We meet back here."

Lara looked stricken. "And Davies?"

"I don't know," Savage said with a shrug. "I think Kingsley told him to guard the front when he and Strauss went off."

"I'm sure he's fine," I said reassuringly.

I wasn't quite sure. In fact, given that we were at the front and Davies wasn't here, I was pretty fucking unsure right now.

"You should leave right away," I said to Lara. "Go back to Hogsmeade and do what you're trained to do." She nodded and disapparated on the spot, and Savage and I peeled off. I cast a look at the sky outside before heading back down the aisle I came from. It was bright and sunny just minutes earlier, but was now greying subtly in the presence of the two Dementors. It'd only take the two of them to make this supermarket very dark and very cold within the next few minutes. That in mind, I vaulted over the cans I dropped earlier and bolted towards the storeroom.

"Ron!" I called out. "Come on, we gotta go!"

The door to the storeroom was wide open, and I could see nothing but darkness as I ventured inside cautiously. I called for Ron a few more times, and received no reply. Well, until I heard a dull moan. Instantly, the tip of my wand was lit, and I found myself face to face with a walker in the dark. It was an older man, the tip of his nose missing and his hair all but wisps on his wrinkled head.

We both acted at the same time. He lunged for me, and I swung my wand out wide. A jet of purple light hit him in the chest and took a chunk out of it, and he was swept off his feet by the force of the spell. He writhed on the ground, trying to stand back up, but I didn't let him.

"Sorry," I muttered, flicking my wand. The Piercing Curse drilled into the zombie's head and splattered blood not only on the floor, but on a pair of boots: Ron's, in fact.

"Nice one," he said, nudging the corpse's head with his boot. "I heard you yelling. What's going on?"

"Dementors. Probably here by now. I gotta go make sure Proudfoot and Savage get out okay, and find Davies after that. So you should head off."

He snorted. "Nice try. Come on, we'll go find him together."

We left the storeroom and returned to the supermarket proper, but something had changed. The place was dark. And quiet. Too bloody quiet.

I didn't call out for anybody this time. Ron and I extinguished the lights on our wands. By feel, we cautiously navigated ourselves towards the cereals aisle, and I tried to make out any shapes in the darkness.

I let out a frustrated, but quiet, breath, and it was immediately visible front of me. Gooseflesh erupted on my arms. Cold seeped into my bones. The unnatural chill of a nearby Dementor, one I knew all too well.

The aisle seemed to go on too long and the darkness sitting at the front of the store looked omnipresent, eternal. It felt like we walking towards a thick fog, a blanket of despair and cold, dark and all-encompassing. Uncertainty sprang from inside of me - where were the others? Were they dead? Had they just left? Were Davies and Proudfoot found in time? But, most importantly of all, where were the Dementors?

"We should go," Ron whispered. "Harry..."

"I know, I know," I whispered back. "But there's something..."

There. A form huddled behind a checkout counter, an outline in the darkness. It was shivering, and as we got closer, I could hear soft sobbing sounds coming from it. Or rather, him. It was Davies.

A gust of wind picked up from inside the store, and the sound of a cloak whipping through the air followed - the Dementor was there, and it was advancing on us.

I needed no more encouragement. I thought hard, searched my mind and summoned a happy memory of a woman with blonde hair, buried deep within my subconscious. One came to mind immediately: the two of us enjoying a nice breakfast after a thirty-six hour marathon shift at St Mungo's. We were giddy with laughter in our sleep-deprived states, and had, sometime during our shift, made a bet on who would fall asleep first. I won when she slumped forward on her chair and ended up burying her head in a plate of pancakes. That was a happy memory. I could use that.

For Sarah...

"Expecto Patronum!" I cried out. It took a moment, but the tip of my wand exploded in a burst of white light, and it formed into a thick shield, breaking through the darkness and almost returning the entire supermarket to the sunny mid-morning it was at before. The Dementor, a figure draped in a dark cloak and hood floating in the air with an almost-predatory laziness, stopped in its tracks and froze on the spot as the light began to shape and form, to coalesce into something recognisable - the stag Animagus form my father could turn into. The Dementor, upon seeing the corporeal shape, with the big horns and all, turned tail and glided away, only to be followed by Prongs. The Patronus cut a swath through the darkness at the front of the store as it followed the Dementor outside.

I didn't relax. The cold was still there, and with the Patronus outside, the darkness returned. One Dementor remained. My Patronus wouldn't last for long either, and the other Dementor might just come back with a vengeance. I had to act quick.

"Ron," I said, my voice suddenly hoarse. He was still there, and I could see his face in the din - he was sweating in concentration, his mouth half-open and his wand squeezed in a tight grip.

"Couldn't find... Couldn't find a good memory," he said lowly.

"And I just lost one," I muttered, the fleeting happy memory in my head turning bloody and violent, as most did. It wouldn't ever be a happy one again, I knew.

I tried to summon up another memory, just to be sure, before I remembered something.

"Davies!"

I ran forward, and Ron followed. I made out the spot where Davies was in the darkness, but something had changed. He wasn't moving.

"Davies!" I called again, and a familiar whipping sound was my reply. I thought of winning the Quidditch Cup in my third year. "Expecto Patronum!"

This time, mine wasn't the only Patronus in the fray. The stag was joined by Ron's terrier, the two of them rushing forward and pushing the remaining Dementor into retreating the same way its friend did. It was near the door when I heard another voice cry out, "Expecto Patronum!" and a luminous, yet formless, burst of light smacked into the Dementor's side.

I don't think I'll ever be happier to see Savage and Proudfoot ever again.

"Shacklebolt and Strauss still haven't come back," Savage said upon seeing the two of us, his tone offering no feeling of animosity nor friendliness.

"Couldn't help this kid though," Proudfoot grunted, stepping forward and prodding Davies's form, still curled up in a ball, with his foot. "They Kissed him."

We all took a moment of silence. Savage's idea for a moment of silence seemed shorter, though.

"Well, let's get what he has."

Proudfoot nodded, and with a wave of his wand, Davies's body crumpled and went prone on the ground, face-first. I watched as they removed his bag and dumped the supplies he had gathered in their own bags. When Savage began patting down his cloak pockets, I stepped in.

"Leave it. Him," I said firmly. "We're taking the body with us."

"Do we have time?" Ron asked.

"I'll side-along it." I looked at Savage and Proudfoot. "No objections?"

They shook their heads. "Okay, you two can go on the count of three. One, two -"

A blood-curdling scream erupted from Savage like a fierce flame, and he fell to the ground. We all tried to act at once; my Piercing Curse managed to stab him in the stomach, missing the reanimated Davies as his teeth pierced Savage's neck and sunk in, hard. Blood spurted out and splattered on our legs, and Proudfoot let out a loud, guttural, roar, waving his wand and blasting Davies off of Savage with a burst of force.

The zombie flew halfway across the store and slammed into a checkout counter, the audible sound of bones cracking as it did. Tension filled my stomach, and Ron and I held our wands steady, ready to strike Davies down when he stood up again. The darkness of the Dementors had gone, and the returning sunlight allowed me to catch a glimpse of Davies's fully reanimated form.

Tall, fair-haired, and young. Dark, fresh, blood smeared around his mouth, staining his teeth an unpleasant crimson colour. Eyes a dull white, yet they gleamed slightly in the light. The dislocated shoulder and twisted arm gifted by the checkout counter Proudfoot slammed him into. No visible bite marks. No bite marks at all.

That... had not happened since The Dementor's Stigma, a year and a lifetime ago. When you get bitten by a zombie, you die and come back as one. That's the rule. I hadn't seen a reanimated corpse like this since the initial outbreak, after The Stigma killed and reanimated those affected. The disease itself died off shortly after the entire world was going around eating each other, and I'd seen no more cases of it since. But this wasn't The Stigma, either. There were no black lesions, no signs of fever and a slow death.

The Dementor had Kissed him and removed his soul, hadn't it? But this time, it had left something behind. Madness. Rage. Hunger. Instinct. A Dementor had just created a zombie on the spot, getting its fill of soul food along the way.

Davies eventually moved, dodging Ron's first spell in the process, and I noticed he moved fast. Faster than any zombie I'd ever seen. Faster than a corpse should move.

A sickening thought filled me with dread. What if he wasn't dead? When the Dementors Kissed somebody, they left them brain-dead, a shell of their former selves, and they all died eventually. But this time, the Dementor that fed on Davies left behind enough to become like a zombie, but alive.

Holy shit. This was new. This changed things.

But it didn't change one thing: Davies was out to kill and eat us. Ron knew it, and that's why he kept flinging spells. I knew it too, and I took careful aim.

Davies was coming fast, but he was zig-zagging to avoid Ron's volley. Ron's spells came out at timed, predictable, intervals, and I took advantage of that. When Davies moved to the right to dodge a spell, letting out a screech of displeasure as he did, I tripped him up with a Trip Jinx, and we didn't let him get back up. A Blasting Curse from Ron took off his head completely, leaving the fleshy stump of his neck behind, spurting blood as the corpse fell to the ground like a fly with its wings cut. A dead insect. Squashy squash.

"He was still alive," I said to Ron.

He didn't say anything. He was too busy pointing his wand at someone behind me.

The tip of a wand buried itself in the back of my neck.

"Heal him," Proudfoot said shakily. "Heal him now."

Savage, of course. A bite in the leg from Davies to make him go down to the ground, and a bite in the neck to finish the job. The leg wound wouldn't have killed him right away, but the fever would've ended his life eventually, and his unlife would start soon after. The neck wound meant more blood had been lost, and if a vein had been hit, he would bleed out within minutes. Worst of all, it wasn't something I could stop; the bites told of the undead's magical origin and, like any good cursed wound, there was simply no way I could wave my wand and stem the bleeding. Spells, potions, Muggle medicines... They were all useless.

Proudfoot knew all of this.

I turned slowly, my wand hanging at my side. I looked at Proudfoot, trying to convey what needed to be conveyed: Savage was a goner.

"No." Proudfoot shook his head, anguish evident on his face. "You heal him. Right now."

"And how would I do that?" I said quietly. "How, Proudfoot? Magic up a way to stop the bleeding? Tried that before. Make a cure in the one minute it'll take for him to bleed out? Not likely. Spent months looking for a cure before I gave up. Don't even think there is one."

"But you're a Healer."

Something snapped inside of me, rage bubbling to the surface. My left hand slapped Proudfoot's wand out of my face. "Fuck you. I can't do anything, and you know it. I've tried before. Many times. And it won't work. He's dead."

"No he's not!"

"He is! Do you need me to tell you how? Why? Do you want me to tell you I have a cure waiting in the wings? Do you want me to save him?" Something bitter entered my voice, and I spat, "Do you want me to heal him?"

"Yes."

I didn't tear my gaze away from Proudfoot's as I flicked my wand. A single spell shot out, and hit its target soon after; the Piercing Curse drilled into Savage's brain, killing him instantly.

We were all silent for one very tense minute. Proudfoot's mouth opened, and I saw fire in his eyes right before Ron Stunned him. The Auror slumped to the ground, unconscious, his wand rolling out of his hand as he did.

"Thanks," I said hollowly.

"You're welcome."

"We should get out of here before the Dementors come back."

Ron nodded. "Couldn't agree more, mate. But..." He hesitated briefly. "What did you mean, about Davies being alive? He wasn't."

"He was." I left Proudfoot and Savage's forms and wandered over to Davies. A cursory check confirmed my suspicions. "There aren't any bite marks, Ron." I checked again. "No lesions; no Stigma signs. He was Kissed with a little extra tongue, as it were. Did you notice? He was showing some kind of intelligence."

"Instinct," said Ron. "When he was dodging my spells. And he was fast."

"A regular walker is a corpse that's walking around, trying to eat us. A walker has all the intelligence of a corpse. Davies was still alive, and whatever the Dementors left in him was this single-minded predatory need to feed, and because he was still alive, he had enough brain function to dodge you... It didn't stop him from being taken down by my Trip Jinx because he was still a single-minded creature. You were his main target, not me."

Ron let out a low whistle. "Way beyond me. You going to tell Bill and the rest?"

"Yeah, but... Let's keep it between us for now. I don't know what to make of it all."

He agreed, and we spent a minute gathering up the corpses, and Proudfoot, together for a side-along apparation to the designated meet-up spot. We were about to head off when Kingsley and Strauss apparated into the store. They took one look at the two corpses and to us, then back to the corpses again. The blood drained from Strauss's face upon seeing Davies's headless corpse, and Kingsley looked at Savage's body with pity.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Sorry," I said, though it felt hollow to my own ears. "Dementors. Two of them. And uhh... in the chaos..."

Kingsley nodded understandably. He would understand, I knew. Things happened sometimes despite best laid plans. Kingsley wasn't much for letting the guilt show, but I knew the loss of two lives would eat at him.

"I need to know everything," Kingsley said. "Why is Proudfoot unconscious?"

"He reacted badly to Savage's death," I replied. "He'll have it rough, but I think it's best we keep him off duty for a bit. After we -"

"I'm sorry, but..." Strauss swallowed heavily, still looking at Davies's body. "Can we not do this now? I mean, he just... He was just a kid."

"No, you're right," Kingsley said sympathetically. He looked at the bags filled to the brim with supplies we had gathered. "You did good. We all did good. In fact, you'll get some free time, if you want it."

Ron's eyes lit up. I knew what he was thinking about. I didn't want, nor need, time off, and before I could tell Kingsley that, I checked my watch, and swore. "The Wizengamot session's already started. Dammit, I have to go." I nodded at Kingsley and Strauss, and sent a pointed look at Ron. He nodded back, and I knew he wouldn't spill on Davies's death. Satisfied, if only with that rather than anything else that happened, I turned on the spot and disapparated.

..::..-.-..::..

Hogwarts was built to last through anything and everything over the centuries, the entire area protected by a ring of mountains, the Great Lake to the south and the Forbidden Forest to the east. A boundary wall made of stone ringed around the parts of the castle not protected by the forest or the cliff overlooking the lake. The defences had been overcome by Voldemort a few years ago, but it was a concentrated effort that required multiple people on the inside working for three-quarters of a year to bypass the defences for those outside. A horde of undead would have a lot more trouble, especially given the population inside the boundary and under the protections of Hogwarts had tripled since the initial outbreak. Built to last, with people inside to protect it.

It wasn't just a school anymore. When Diagon Alley was overrun and the Ministry was abandoned, everyone ran for Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, where the slight outbreak there was quickly taken care of and strict quarantine policies on dealing with the infected put to use. The halls of Hogwarts were now home to the Ministry's administration staff, with the Minister himself locked up in an office on the seventh floor. The grounds themselves held the rest of the Ministry, departments and offices replaced by rows of tents on the lawn.

The esteemed body of the Wizengamot met in the Hogwarts Great Hall, and that's where I was headed. The two Aurors manning the main entrance gates quickly determined that the blood I was covered in was not my own, and that I wasn't infected. The gates swung open soon after that, and I kept a brisk pace as I made for the front doors, nodding to the various Aurors and security wizards along the way. I made sure to clean the blood off, too; wouldn't want to give the wrong impression.

"You're late," the Hit-Wizard guarding the Great Hall said, before opening the double doors for me anyway. The groaning and creaking sound, old and tortured, they made in opening made me glad I wasn't aiming for a quiet entrance.

Every head in the hall turned my way, and I met no gaze as I walked in, my footsteps echoing on the flagstone floor. The four house tables were gone, replaced with a large, rectangular, oak table with matching, stiff-backed chairs, twenty-one in all. Only sixteen were occupied, and I made my way to my usual chair in between Neville Longbottom and Bill Weasley. I sat down without a word, my gaze moving to the high table, those sitting up there looking down on the rest of the room from their raised position.

Chief Warlock Tiberius Ogden had no need to chastise me for being late - the flat stare was enough. He was a short old man with skin resembling a dried prune and a head of thick white hair, and although he looked larger than life on the Headmistress's usual seat, I knew him to be a bit more genial in private.

"Now that Healer Potter has joined us..." he started, his voice strong. "We can discuss the events that transpired earlier today. Your team's routine mission of gathering supplies did not go accordingly, we have learnt."

I turned my head and shared a look with Neville. "There are more important matters to discuss," I said after a moment. "This meeting is supposed to be about the issue of disclosure -"

"Which we've already talked about, Potter," Christian Selwyn said, sitting in his chair opposite me on the right side of the table. He was smirking. "The general quorum's discussion was interrupted when young Auror Wilkinson, a member of Head Auror Shacklebolt's team, your team, returned to report to her superior."

Selwyn tipped his head towards the high table, to the chair right of Ogden's. There sat Samuel Stark, the Senior Undersecretary who was, nine meetings out of ten, the representative of Minister for Magic Gawain Robards. Stark held dual titles of Senior Undersecretary and Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, but he was barely an Auror, a paper-pusher at best, so Kingsley handled the more practical side of things for the latter poistion. Either way, if Lara had returned alone and was forced to report to a superior...

Everyone knew something had happened today. Lara had been forced to tell Stark; I shouldn't have let her go back first. For all she knew, we were all dead at the time she relayed the report, that a Dementor attack was imminent.

I had to think fast. "Regrettably, there was an incident today."

"What kind of incident?" Angus MacMillan asked.

"Two dead," I said bluntly. "An unfortunate tragedy, and one that could've been avoided, yes, but it was a risk the two were always aware of. It happens more often than we all wish it did, but people die out there."

"Miss Wilkinson said it was Dementors," Ogden said. "Was she correct?"

"Yes. We drove them away, but in the confusion, one of our people were killed, he reanimated, and caught us by surprise."

"And what were two Dementors doing there?" Leo Parkinson asked snidely. I got the feeling the question was rhetorical. "More importantly, what were you all doing there if you knew they were nearby?"

So Lara had spilled about the mist. Dammit. "We needed the supplies, and we got them," I said. Beside me, Neville winced.

Selwyn's smirk widened, but it was Parkinson that spoke up again. "You split up, correct? Sent one person to watch the mist, and all but three of you were doing your duty."

"No, we were all doing what we had to."

"What did the girl call it again? A pharmacy? You were at this pharmacy with two others - Weasley was one of them."

Parkinson was not alone in instigating me, and Selwyn piped up, "You were looking for Muggle supplies, weren't you?"

I let out a frustrated breath. "Yes. I was gathering vital supplies for the towns of Liliford and Granford." I saw Selwyn's mouth open, and I cut his next statement off with a wave of my hand. "Just say it. Just say that if we hadn't've split up, the three of us could've helped speed along the scavenging at the supermarket, and we could've gotten out of there before the Dementors showed up."

The others stayed silent; I think I said enough for them. Ogden held up a placating hand and cleared his throat. "Gentlemen, please. Healer Potter is not on trial, and we do not need to dissect today's events in any further detail. A tragedy, nothing more."

Selwyn nodded. "I accept that, but today's topic of discussion indirectly led to that tragedy." I let out an incredulous snort, and Selwyn continued, "Am I incorrect? For months this body has debated on the issue of disclosure, a proposal to save the Muggles, what little of them there are left. This disclosure would have us reveal the existence of magic to them, to break the Statute of Secrecy and create a joint society in a devastated world... I must argue that two wizarding lives were lost today, simply because Harry Potter chose the Muggles first."

"Two lives were lost, Christian," said Dylan Brown. "To save countless others with these supplies. Show some respect."

"Two wizard lives were lost," Selwyn countered.

"Not worth the cost to save some Muggles," said Bulstrode.

"I do not wish for anybody else to die," MacMillan said firmly. "We have to -"

Brown shook his head. "The disclosure -"

"- is going nowhere," finished Parkinson. "We've been discussing it for months, but the vote hasn't been called yet..."

"Because certain members don't seem to take this seriously," Bill said, leaning on his words with pointed looks at the empty chairs by Selwyn and Parkinson.

One of them was Draco Malfoy's, a part of me noted. I could almost imagine the mocking comments: "So who died, Potter? I'm going to guess it wasn't Weasley, despite it fulfilling a dream of mine," or "Dementors, was it? I'm almost proud you came out of your fainting spell long enough to only lose two people."

Come to think of it, I'm glad he wasn't here. Selwyn was bad enough.

"They seemed not to have attended because the vote isn't happening," the man said with an easy shrug, as if three of the missing people - Malfoy, Harper and Burke - weren't dissenters of the bill.

Parkinson nodded beside him. ""We must put this issue to a proper vote, and when it fails to pass, we can move on to more important matters."

And then, well, the hall erupted in argument.

Despite the ultimate goal of the disclosure bill, I couldn't help but wonder if it was worth being here to see this. The purebloods were adamant about the uselessness of even discussing saving the Muggles, and they wanted to force a vote calling so they could make it definitive, once and for all. The group descended into arguing because everyone felt the pressure, and I sat back and said nothing, feeling plain tired with it all.

Ogden's wand snapped out after a minute, and a sharp cracking sound filling the air ceased all arguments. He, ever the peacekeeper, wore a placid look on his face as he addressed us, "I think," he said, "that will be all for today's session. We will reconvene next week, and the time and date will be sent out sometime within the next few days. The topic will concern the continual debate over the disclosure of existence of magic to the surviving Muggle population. Dismissed."

Selwyn shot me a triumphant look as he stood from his seat, but I ignored it. The group didn't linger in the hall; after shaking hands and exchanging various pleasantries, the place was soon empty of all but myself, Neville, and Bill.

"Are you okay, Harry?" Bill asked, his scarred visage marked with a thin frown. "Is Ron...?"

I wasn't really, but I assured him I was. "Ron's fine too," I added. Bill looked relieved to hear that. I looked over the rest of the hall, remembering one conspicuously absent face. "Where was Susan?"

"She escorted Wilkinson out of here to get an official statement," Neville replied. "Stark was busy, so..."

"Right. I don't get the feeling I missed anything new today."

"The usual," said Neville. "Talk of resources, some of the logistics of helping out the Muggles, who would be an ambassador..."

"And, of course, talk of purity of blood, the risk that the Muggles would one day rise against their betters simply because of their nature... The usual." Bill sighed. "I think we'll call today a loss, mate."

"In more ways than one," I muttered.

"They're going to keep calling for the vote."

"And if Ogden's pushed enough, it'll happen," Neville remarked. "Or else we risk losing him, and if that happens, we won't even be having the disclosure discussion. The purebloods won't spare a thought for the Muggles."

"If the vote's going through, and with twenty-one members... Two-thirds majority will be needed. We might not have that."

"We can work that out later," I said. I shook my head and stood from my chair, and Neville and Bill did the same. "Let's meet to talk about it, all right? Susan too. I have to go help Ron drop off the supplies to our Muggle friends. There's, umm, something we should talk about, too. Could be big."

They nodded in understanding, and let me go. I turned and headed from the hall, weighing the issue in my mind carefully. This disclosure had to go through, and the Muggles had to be saved. Maybe it was a lifelong response of mine, maybe it came with the territory as a Healer, but I would try anything and everything to save their lives.

I got the sinking feeling that the great game of the Wizengamot, however, might eat me alive.

..::..-.-..::.

"Come on Harry." Ron was at it again, trying to make himself feel less guilty by getting me to take some time off with him. He was concerned, and maybe channelling Hermione's ghost, but I didn't think it had hit me that hard. The losses of today weren't so out of the norm that it would, not with the world like it was, not with the experiences with Voldemort I'd had as a teenager. Not after losing Sarah.

But Ron kept trying. "Harry..."

"Ron, I'm fine. Not 'fine' fine, but actually fine. Tired, and maybe hungry, but fine. Can you hand me the rice?"

He did, and I plopped the bag into a nearby crate. We were dropping off supplies at an old bus station stop down the road a ways from the town of Granford. It was a routine - we'd hide the supplies from any Muggles that would pass by, and the Ministry would signal their people inside of the town about the new drop-off. The witch or wizard would then leave the town with their usual scavenging group, made up of Ministry operatives, head off for a few hours or days and come back with the supplies we dropped off earlier. Sometimes, a few Confundus Charms would have to be employed on some nosier Muggles, but the entire operation was all the aid the Ministry could give until the disclosure bill would pass. It had kept the Muggles afloat for months now, and that was the important thing.

Ron was definitely angling for some time off, and he did have a good reason for it. His girlfriend, a former classmate our age named Megan Jones, was stationed inside of Liliford, putting her Muggleborn background to good use and posing as a schoolteacher. If Ron got his time off, he'd call in a favour and get her out for a few days, setting up a Polyjuce double for her as he did, and enjoy some quality time with her. He would no doubt spend most of the time at the Ottery St Burrows, the collection of wizarding families that formed under the umbrella of Bill's leadership in the same area The Burrow once stood. I knew all of this, his grand plan, because he enthused about it every chance he got, trying to get me to come along as he did.

And, like always, he pulled the Teddy card.

"I think he'd like a visit from his godfather, wouldn't you think?" Ron said nonchalantly while stacking several cans of soup together. I resisted the urge to throw them at him.

"Teddy's fine," I said shortly. "Checked up on him for his birthday."

"What, six months ago? Godfather of the year right there."

"Look, as far as he's concerned, I'm the big strong uncle Harry who goes out and keeps the big bad Dementors away from good little boys and girls."

"Lupin and Tonks didn't make you his godfather because they thought you'd flake on their child..."

"Drop it, Ron. I'm not taking time off, I'm not going to check up on Andromeda, see your family, or anything like that. I'm very busy trying to prevent Selwyn and his friends from stopping this bill from getting passed..." I rubbed my temple, a gesture I used to do when my scar was hurting, but now I only did out of habit. "Take your time off, Ron. I know what you want to get up to with Megan."

The tips of Ron's ears turned red. "Well, that's beside the point..."

"Hey, far be it from me to stop you from getting a little action. Merlin knows you need it -"

"Oi!" Though he said it indignantly, he soon began to laugh, and I smiled. "You're jealous, mate. Not my fault you ignore all the very, very, attractive Medwitches you work with."

The smile dropped from my face. "With good reason, Ron. Kinda have rules against it."

"I'm just saying that it wouldn't hurt to, you know, try... How 'bout Lara?"

"Barely out of her teens."

"It's not like we're not."

I loaded the last bottle of antibiotics in the supply crate. With a flick of my wand, the crate was lidded up and covered up by a nearby bush. "Okay, we're done here. Liliford next."

We gathered our things and prepared to head off, Ron muttering to himself about the random girls he could throw me to. I let him, rolling my eyes the entire time, and once we were ready, I steeled myself and said, "Apparate in three, two, one..."

The sensation of apparation was familiar by now, but no less odd. It felt as if I was being squeezed in a thick tube, my arms feeling uncomfortably close to my side and my legs snapping together. My stomach flipped and flopped, and I was acutely aware of the day's events catching up to me, suddenly lightheaded. I shut my eyes for a second, and when I opened them, I was standing on a grassy hill. Ron appeared beside me soon after, instantly dropping his bag and sorting out the things that needed to go into the designated supply crate.

I joined him, ignoring the sudden prickle at the back of my neck, as if it was colder than it actually was.

"So what are your plans with Megan again?" I asked Ron, hoping to prevent him from railing on my own lifestyle.

He didn't disappoint, launching into a tirade about romantic gestures he picked up from a book, talking with an enthusiasm I hadn't seen from him since before Hermione died. He seemed taken with Megan, and that made me feel a little better. I couldn't help but think back to earlier, when he summoned his Patronus after failing the first time, and I wondered if it was because he thought of something that didn't have to do with Hermione, and all the sorrow that would come with. Hell, I had trouble using memories of Sarah, which was why the happy memories I spent summoning my Patronus disappeared soon after. I could hold on to them longer than Ron could, but they still disappeared eventually.

"There's this lake out by The Burrows - we went there once or twice when I was young, but when it was just the Ottery St Catchpole Lake, you know? At night, it's so wicked if the moon's full, and I bet she'll love it."

"Sounds great," I said absently, more focused on the task at hand.

Ron placed the last stray bag of crisps from his bag in the supply crate, nodding enthusiastically as he replaced the lid. "Doesn't it? I hope she can actually get a few days off. Kinda ruins the plans if she can't get away from the town for a bit."

"It must be..." I couldn't find the word for it, but eventually decided on, "Hard. I mean, she's right over the hill."

Liliford sat at the bottom of a valley, protected on all sides by large, grassy, hills. Roads went in and out of the town, but the main route of evacuation in case of a zombie-related emergency would be to go via the mines, which burrowed into the side of one hill and came a few kilometres down the road at an old mining station. The hills were well fortified, and, as such, didn't have many undead visitors. The town itself was run by an old navy officer who deserted when things went to hell and he decided to go home, and he kept things running without going mad with power or trying to institute too many restrictions. All wizarding reports to the Ministry told of him being smart and capable, a lot like his counterpart in Granford.

Ron looked a little disheartened when I mentioned how close Megan was, and he sighed tiredly. "I miss her, you know? And Bill and George and the rest at The Burrows. Merlin, I never realised how much I needed the time off, you know? It's probably the same to you, Harry. I know you, mate. You'll feel it eventually."

I matched his tired sigh with gusto, plopping myself down on the closed crate. "Look, if it'll make you feel better, I'll take a day or two off, okay? I probably need to catch up on some sleep anyway - can't have Selwyn outfox me because he gets more sleep, can I? But, Ron, just don't pressure me into trying to live normally in this... this completely fucked-up world. I don't think it's possible right now. So stop."

"Harry," Ron said, meeting my eyes, "I'm your friend. I'll never stop. If I didn't, Hermione would kill me, make sure I reanimate, and kill me again."

I chuckled softly. "All right, we're done here. Wanna go wave to your girl?"

"Yeah, yeah..." he said, though he walked down the hill anyway. After a second, I followed, chortling.

"Mate, I haven't seen you like this since Romilda dosed you with a Love Potion by accident. Do I have to get George to intervene..."

My words trailed off, hanging in the air. Shock and disbelief hit me, crushing my insides and twisting the remains into despair. I walked forward, but it was like walking through a blanket of darkness, waiting for a Dementor to strike.

Liliford's set-up had been perfect, and the town's leader had been competent and smart. He could deal with any situation and take care of his people.

Barring magical circumstances.

Mist. Thick, rolling, mist, hanging in the air at the bottom of the valley. The afternoon sun reappeared from behind a cloud, and the way the sunlight couldn't even penetrate the mist enveloping Liliford told of how unnatural it was. It was cold. I had felt this cold many times, and not hours earlier I had been in the middle of it.

The Dementors had gotten Liliford.

..::..-.-..::..

To Be Continued in Chapter Two: Ingrained...

..::..-.-..::..

Post-Chapter Notes:

- Next Chapter Tease :: Harry deals with the fallout, the Wizengamot gets political, and a visit to Malfoy Manor. And zombies, of course.

- Wizengamot Scorecard :: The Wizengamot politics and the members involved are big parts of this story, but right now they're all just names, and as time goes on, keeping track might be for the best. Next chapter will go into which member is supporting which side for the vote, and the scorecard will reflect that, though for now, here's the member list, all but three familiar and canon names:

Members :: Harry, Neville, Bill, Susan, Boot, Brown, Patil, Hart, Malfoy, Parkinson, Bulstrode, Selwyn, Gale, Harper, Burke, MacMillan, Smith, Diggory, Zabini, Aquilla and Cuffe. Presided over by Chief Warlock Tiberius Ogden. Member Count: Twenty-One.

- Update Rate :: Chapters will be posted every two weeks. The story is completely written, all 240k words of it, but given chapter length - between 10k and 18k words, with a few exceptions breaching 20k - I thought it best to trickle them out a bit. Each chapter will have a quick recap of the previous chapter, however, because I know what it's like to open a new chapter after a couple of weeks and forget what happened last time.

Thanks for reading!

..::..-.-..::..