B. July 10, 1983


He knew. Walter didn't think his sister had any idea that he was perfectly aware of what she did at night, but he was. Not that he would tell her, and he certainly wouldn't tell the little ones; they were still too young to know that such things happened, much less that they happened to Katie, but he was fourteen, and that was certainly old enough to know what sex was, and that there were wizards who bought and witches who sold.

It had actually been his father who had explained that to him. They had been out Christmas shopping, of all things, a Christmas he had never imagined would be his last with his parents, and they had managed to get themselves lost after trying to navigate the underground's constant construction-related detours. The part of London they had found themselves in wasn't precisely the best, and his father had wound up having to do a little explaining to his thirteen year-old son after he asked why a woman would be wearing such a short skirt and low-cut top on a night so cold, and what those marks were up the insides of her stick-thin arms.

Maybe, in retrospect, that night had been the beginning of the end of his childhood. It was certainly over now, and he knew that was wrong. Fourteen should still be a kid, really – well, maybe not entirely a kid, but definitely not an adult. Walter was an adult now, whether or not his voice was willing to settle on a single octave for more than a sentence, whether or not he was still growing at a rate that was beginning to go from steady to alarming, whether or not he could justify to himself a reason to even own the razor he diligently ran over his still-smooth cheeks once a week just to get used to it. He was an adult, because what else did you call someone with a family to help support, children to help raise, and a battle to fight?

The frustrating reality of being trapped in fourteen was something that made him so angry all the time that it actually rather frightened him. Once he had even snuck into Ravenclaw tower under a Disillusionment Charm behind two of the other D.A. members, but the protective spells on Boot's trunk were more complicated than he had expected or been able to counter, and after a while, he had to admit that trying to Polyjuice himself into one of the older students had been a pretty stupid idea anyway. Well, at least a pretty desperate one.

He just wanted to be able to help Katie. Not help her with what she was doing, obviously, but help her not have to do it. If he were old enough to just not have the stupid Trace on him…he had so many ideas, things that he knew there would be no use even suggesting to her, because she would say they were wrong, but what she was doing was so much more wrong, Walter didn't understand why any of it mattered any more. This was war, wasn't it, and if Neville could teach them to kill, if teachers could use the Cruciatus and his father could be murdered for nothing more than being Muggle-Born, then what in Merlin's name did wrong even mean?

As it was, he had kept it from her what he'd really been doing when she thought he was doing little chores for Muggle families. He'd done those things at first, but they were all such busybodies, they didn't pay for dung because they thought they were giving him ice-cream money, not helping him survive, and he had already nearly wound up putting himself in hospital with the heat just weeding enough stupid flowerbeds to pay for a few proper meals for the five of them. Since then, he'd found something better, even if he hadn't been able to do it nearly often enough – once again, they said too often he was too young – but he'd been able to do enough to keep her out of Knockturn Alley through almost half of Christmas break, and he'd never felt better about anything in his whole life. That definitely couldn't be wrong.

It wasn't as if he was doing anything to people, either. Not like stealing. And they'd approached him, anyway. Walter had been trying to cool off a little by dipping his shirt in a public fountain, and a Muggle man had approached him, taking in the harsh lines of his ribs, the broken blisters on his hands, the filthy jeans and the haunted eyes. The man said he looked like a runaway, like he was probably pretty hard-up. He'd gone on the defensive immediately, but the man hadn't been trying to turn him into the police at all. Instead he had an offer, a chance for Walter to make pretty good money, and all he had to do was help the bloke with his business.

That business was some kind of illegal Muggle potion trade, he had learned pretty quickly, but Walter didn't care. If Muggles wanted to make themselves shake and sweat and look like death warmed over and throw away all kinds of money on tiny bags and envelopes of white powder and little chunks of smoky-looking crystal, then that was their problem. All he did was get it from point A to point B, collect the money, and deliver it to the man to receive his commission. True enough, sometimes he'd been tempted to just keep the lot, but it had been made very clear what the consequences of ever stealing from his employer would be, and Walter had never been stupid.

If only he were just a little older. Then he could do it properly, even with the Trace, he wouldn't have to be just a runner. Some of the guys who worked the operation were no older than the D.A. staff, but there was as much of a world of difference there as at Hogwarts. They had diamonds, real diamonds big as chunks of glass worn in gaudy, flashy rings, and more gold jewelry than one person should ever wear at once, Muggle cars that were sleek and roaring and throbbing with music and you didn't have to be from their world to know cost an easy fortune. People like that never had sisters who worked the streets, even if they bragged sometimes about buying them. Sometimes he wondered if they'd ever bought Katie.

Instead, he was fourteen, and all he really had to offer that could change things properly beyond a night or two's reprieve was his own blood. So he threw himself into the D.A. with all the heart and fervor of the man the boy's body belied and betrayed. Yet his age kept thwarting him, even there. He was clumsy, he couldn't help it. His body just wasn't in the same places or at the same proportions from what had to be hour to hour. He knew the jinxes, the hexes, the techniques, he kept up on the physical training after most of his year had dropped panting to the sidelines, but then there'd be a foot out of nowhere, an elbow he'd sworn was somewhere else, and he'd be out.

It was enough to drive a man mental.

When it was finally time to fight, when Harry finally returned, when it was at last his chance to do what he had been waiting and hoping and sweating and dying for all year, he was so much more than ready. And when she looked down her nose at everything they'd done and forced everyone under seventeen to evacuate, he snapped. It wasn't just him, either.

Oh, he'd filed out of the Hall quietly enough at first, but that had just been plain shock. Abject disbelief that he could really be being sent away. Then he'd seen Katie coming down the stairs to join the other older students, and that was the last of it. Not her. Not here. He couldn't protect her from what was outside the castle walls, but damned if she'd have to fight his battle on top of it!

Walter had roared in fury and defiance, grabbed his wand, wheeled out of the line and gone sprinting towards the fighters who were waiting for their orders from the teachers and Order members conferring with Neville inside the Hall, and he hadn't been alone. Creevey, Garrett, Peakes, and Coote had been with him instantly, but they didn't even make it to the top of the stairs. For the briefest of moments, he felt something hot and shuddering slam into his back, and he knew the sensation of a Stunning Spell only long enough to hate it more than he ever had anything until that second before it all crumpled to black.

He'd awoken again in a place so brightly colored and strongly scented that it seemed for a while to be more hallucination than consciousness before he finally identified the interior of Honeydukes Confectionary. He was there with the rest of the Gryffindor fourth-years, and he noticed that he wasn't the only wizard just now groggily sitting up. The girls were regarding them with looks that came in various shades of disdain, but they didn't seem much happier on the whole with their enforced evacuation, and Natalie MacDonald was pacing in front of the large front windows like a caged animal, rolling her wand so quickly between her hands that it was a miracle her palms didn't catch fire.

They had been locked in good and proper by Madam Pomfrey, the windows unbreakable, the doors only able to be opened from the outside. Geoff said he had heard rumors of a tunnel from Honeydukes to Hogwarts, but the idea was quickly abandoned when Euan pointed out that Neville's battle plans very specifically involved blocking all tunnels and passages, the only exception being the one through the Hogshead they had been forced to evacuate through.

Outside on the street, things were eerily quiet. Hogsmeade seemed a ghost town, not so much as a bat or an owl flickering through the dim streetlights, but in the silence, the trapped young soldiers could hear the beginnings of the battle almost a mile away. The cracks and bangs were faint, no more than the rattle of distant firecrackers, something that could be drowned out by a whisper, but no one was whispering. Barely anyone was even breathing. If it could be heard at all, it was bad, and Walter could feel the hexes straining on the tip of his tongue to join them.

They watched, pressed to the window in ironic reversal of the hundreds of little finger and nose-prints that smudged the opposite side of the sweet shop's glass, Sugar Quills and Acid Pops crushed underfoot and shoved aside to make room for one more person to try and catch a flash of light, the shimmer of a jinx from the dark sillhouette on the hill. Then the outline of the familiar building shuddered, twisted, and they witnessed in sick disbelief, Natalie whimpering softly as if in pain as Ravenclaw tower ripped from the castle and fell.

Walter's eyes squeezed shut, and he turned away, unable to look any more. Oh, Merlin…please, Katie, hang in there…I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…I tried…I never wanted you to do this too….

Hot tears of shame and helpless frustration began to leak down his cheeks, and he didn't care if anyone saw, if anyone knew. A quick glance around the room proved to Walter that he wasn't even the only one. It was just so unfair. They'd given themselves so much all year….

The awful, silent stalemate broke suddenly as a shrill, screaming wail split the night, obliterating all sounds of the battle. He clapped his hands to his ears, wincing back against the noise assaulting his senses, then he felt himself break out into a wild grin and a soundless cheer as they all saw what had set off the Caterwauling Charm.

Colin, Leslie, Demelza, and the other underage sixth-year Gryffindors were sprinting down the street, wands in their hands, looks of determined exhilaration on their faces as they came to a skidding halt in front of the store windows. Colin waved his arms, urging them back, and Walter had barely taken refuge behind a display of Chocolate Frogs when the door blew apart in a shower of sparks and splinters. His own wand was in his hand now, and he jumped to his feet, running to meet their rescuers.

The older boy's cheeks were flushed, his words breathless and tumbling over each other, but the point was clear. They were going to fight. Walter grabbed him in a quick, irrepressable hug, surprised to realize that Colin was no bigger than he himself as he lifted the sixteen year-old briefly off his feet in his excitement, then they were off, gathering the others, stunning the adults who tried to stop the mass escape, and much to Walter's delight even taking out a half-dozen Death Eaters as they made their way back to the pub that would lead them up to the real fight.

The passage seemed so much longer this time, even though they were running, and then it was blocked, the door scalding hot, and they were forced to double back, blast their own exit through the roof of the earthen tunnel and out onto the grounds of the castle. His heart was pounding in his ears as he clambored up the crumbling sides of the pit they had created, then there was no time for anything else, because this was it, this was what he had waited for, trained for, dreamed of. Silver masks and black cloaks and hexes flying everywhere and every mask to him was the face of someone who had murdered his father, imprisoned his mother, degrading his sister, starved his brothers.

No matter how he tried over the years, he could never quite remember the details of the battle itself. Some moments, like when Dennis had killed the Death Eater who killed Colin, were seared irrevocably into his memory with all the vividness of a photograph, but most of it was just a blur. Spells and counter-spells, hexes, jinxes, curses and blocks, running and ducking and attacking and following orders and yes sir yes ma'am through the dust and the blasts and the flashes.

Then there had been the cease-fire, but that was no better. You couldn't afford to start thinking again because you had to find and help and search and tag and remember the charm for a Featherlight, because Goldsteins' feet and ankles had been shattered beyond recognition under a falling chunk of stone and you had to lift it and lift him and get him to the Great Hall before there was no more time. McGonagall had taken him aside, spoken gently and carefully and told him that Katie had been killed in the early part of the battle, but even that memory came with the detachment of a dream.

Things weren't really real again until after it was all over. Really over, and You-Know-Who was just a bloke named Riddle in the end, a bloke that Neville had stood right up to like he were just a hooligan and that Harry Potter had killed with something as nothing as Expelliarmus. It was so mad and dreamlike itself that it seemed to break the dream overall.

Walter had fallen to his knees then, his whole body shaking, too overwhelmed to even know what was making him tremble so hard, making him want to throw up but his throat too tight to do it, making him cry in a way that he never had before as he curled by his sister's charred remains. His own voice sounded strange to his ears, the sobs different than they had been in Honeydukes only hours before, deeper and more raw somehow, scraping his throat in aching rasps.

For the first time, but not for the last – he still had a mother coming back from Azkaban, a household where he was now father and husband instead of just eldest son, three siblings waiting for him in a motel paid for with a young woman's pride – Walter knelt in the broken remains of a children's school and wept like the man he had already been for too long.