o─-o─-o─-─-─-─ WITHOUT THORN THE ROSE ─-─-─-─o-─o-─o

Disclaimer: I am not J.K. Rowling.

Notes: Thanks for all the reviews, favs, and follows. 100+ reviews, yay! In response to a couple of questions about last chapter - Harry was not locked in a cell at the end of chapter 14. James had a tryst with a fellow guard (female), not a prisoner, in an abandoned cell, then asked her to leave so that he could take a kip (in the cell). Harry and the female guard were both outside the cell when James closed the door, not inside it. I'll try to rewrite that to make it more clear.

Well, here it is, the last chapter of this story. This chapter is the denouement, so it wraps up some of the lingering questions, but there are still a few loose threads that won't be picked up until later.

o─-─-─-─-─ 16. AFTERWARD ─-─-─-─-─o

Harry woke to the soft murmuring of voices and the warmth of sunlight across his face. He opened his eyes to the sight of swaying trees. Trees! There were no trees on Azkaban.

Harry looked around groggily, shielding his eyes from the bright light of the window. He was lying in a bed made up all in white, in the corner of a room sectioned off by pale blue curtains. That told him that he was in Mungo's. A stripe of wallpaper decorated with smiling animals told him this was the children's ward. Harry could hear a dozen different voices conversing in low tones.

"…tibia fractured in three places…"

"…spell damage to the retinas…"

"…time for your potion, Mr…"

Harry massaged his temples, trying to remember how he had gotten here. It came back in a dizzy rush, and he stared at the ceiling with mute horror, remembering all the crimes he had so casually committed. Did they give eleven-year-olds life sentences?

A rattle alerted him to someone drawing the curtains back. It was James. He seemed startled to find Harry awake, and, for a moment, wavered on the verge of leaving again. Harry couldn't read the man's face. It spoke, perhaps, of worry and love, but also of anger and resignation.

"Harry," James said, pulling up a chair by the bedside. "Son."

"Dad," Harry answered cautiously, wondering if his injuries had triggered James' protective side.

"I have a few questions for you," James continued.

Harry looked away, sighing, as dread mounted inside. It was like that, then. Still. He watched the trees swaying in the bright sunlight outside the window, and remembered swaying in green light. Surely if he could survive three attempted murders, he could survive one conversation.

"How long have I been here?" Harry asked quietly.

"Two days."

"I see. What—what happened?"

"I was hoping you could tell me that."

Harry glanced at the shadows moving on the curtain, and James, following Harry's line of sight, cast a privacy spell that muted the sounds of the ward.

"Who found me?" Harry asked, smoothing the white cotton blanket covering him, to give his nervous hands something to do.

James sighed, then pulled a rolled-up newspaper from his back pocket and tossed it on the bed.

The cover of the Prophet had a three-inch screaming headline and a picture of Harry being cradled in James' arms as his father marched into St Mungo's. There was the fiercely protective expression Harry had hoped for. It must have worn off while he was sleeping.

BOY-WHO-LIVED KIDNAPPED, ASSAULTED BY CULT

In a shocking development last evening, Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, was admitted to St. Mungo's Hospital. Potter, 11, currently resides on the island of Azkaban along with his father, Auror and wizenguard James Potter. The junior Potter, unconscious, badly burned, and bearing several stab wounds, was discovered by his father in an abandoned sub-basement of the wizard prison, and was rushed to St Mungo's immediately by the senior Potter, who also notified Aurors of the grisly scene at Azkaban. At present, the younger Potter is still unconscious, though healers expect a full recovery.

According to the official report of the DMLE, the area in which Potter was discovered is normally used as an ossuary to store the skeletal remains of deceased prisoners. The scene bore unmistakeable evidence of recent dark magic and blood rituals, possibly including human sacrifice. Aurors also discovered the body of Wizenwarden Fintan Oakes, who perished from a severe blow to the head, and the mutilated remains of one hundred and eleven former prisoners of Azkaban, in various states of decay, contrary to approved methods of interment.

"It was a chamber of horrors," one witness claimed. "Dead bodies everywhere, naked, rotting."

Sources who wish to remain anonymous indicate that certain members of the Wizenwatch, including Wizenwarden Oakes, had formed a cult and were regularly engaging in dark magic and rituals. What purpose the improperly disposed bodies may have served in their rituals is unknown. A survey of the records has revealed gross irregularities, including several prisoners whose remains are missing. Investigators have been working around the clock to restore order to the records.

"At present, the bodies we are currently missing are those of Sirius Black, Bartemius Crouch, Jr., and Bellatrix Lestrange," Senior Auror Kingsley Shacklebolt said at yesterday's press conference. "Given the irregularities at Azkaban, we must assume that they may in fact still be alive."

Inmates Rabastan and Rodolphus Lestrange, the notorious Death Eater brothers, also appear to have escaped during the uproar at the prison. At present, Aurors do not believe this to be a related matter. Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that a large contingent of the dementors may have abandoned the prison, as well. The Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures would be in charge of that investigation, if in fact the beings have abandoned their posts.

Members of the Wizenwatch are currently being questioned as to their knowledge of the cult and the escapes, but James Potter has already been announced as the new Wizenwarden. At the press conference, he announced that each wizenguard would henceforth undergo more rigorous screening procedures, beginning with those still in the employ of the Ministry.

See page 3 for details about the Death Eaters who may be at large…

See page 4 for an analysis of cults in wizarding Britain…

See page 5 for a discussion of whether children should be allowed to reside on Azkaban…

See page 6 for an overview of security measures at Azkaban…

See page 7 for a biography of the new Wizenwarden…

Harry set the paper down. "Congratulations," he offered. James cocked his head. "On your promotion."

James cleared his throat. His expression was inscrutable. "Thank you."

Harry stared at his knees.

"What happened?" James asked flatly.

Harry looked out the window at the trees again. He thought for a moment. "I was in the attic, playing with Lady. Someone knocked on the door, and when I opened it"—he broke off and shrugged. "I dunno; they must have knocked me out. It's all a bit of a blur after that."

Harry glanced up at his father with a guarded expression. James was staring at his son with a completely blank face save for a slight tension around his mouth. After a moment, he crossed his arms and jerked his chin.

"They saved your hand, but I'm afraid there's a piece of coral wedged in it that can't be removed."

Harry lifted his coral-pierced hand and made a show of examining it, but said nothing.

"You don't seem surprised," James noted.

Harry glanced sharply at his father. "Just trying to keep a stiff upper lip," he replied guardedly.

James nodded slowly. "The healers tell me you were suffering from magical fatigue. They seem to think you must have used some serious accidental magic." His gaze was that of a raptor.

"Well, I was stabbed," Harry pointed out. "It was rather painful. I do remember that bit."

James' eyes softened momentarily, but he reverted to his Auror expression quickly. "Too bad your uncles absconded. You won't be able to do a blood test."

"No, I suppose not."

James bored a hole into Harry's eyes with his stare until Harry had to look away with a gulp. James leaned forward and spoke in a low voice despite the privacy spell.

"You know, I've half a mind to pour a vial of veritaserum down your gullet."

Harry laughed tremulously, unable to hold it in. "Why don't you, then?" he choked out, his hands fisting the sheets.

James took a deep breath and released it. "I don't know," he answered quietly, looking out the window, perhaps for the same reason Harry had. "I don't know…" His voice was sad, lost, and some inner struggle was narrated on his face.

Harry closed his eyes and hated himself for not being the son his father wanted. The distance between them was so painful. He wanted his father to wrap him in one of those strong, warm embraces, and tell him that everything was going to be all right. For a moment, he even considered confessing everything. But that would put an end to his freedom—an end to windy, starlit nights spent climbing towers; an end to wrestling with the sea and with souls; an end to bargaining with murderers and thieves for secret knowledge. Harry drew a tremulous breath, and knew that no matter how much he might crave his father's trust again, he could never be the sort of son who was worthy of it.

There was a long silence in which neither Potter knew what to say to the other.

"The paper said some of the dementors might have left," Harry recalled at last. "Are you still using the rest, then?"

James nodded. "It's true, a hundred or so have disappeared. I've never agreed with the use of dementors, but the Minister is ultimately in charge of the way Azkaban is run, and he insists that we can still trust them."

"You can't," Harry warned sharply. "They attacked me."

James searched his son's face. "Nevertheless, it's their island as much as ours. You'll never get the Ministry to admit it, but unless we pack the prison with patronuses, there's no way to get rid of them. We'd sooner move the prison."

"They can be killed. All you have to do is combine a cutting curse with a patronus." Harry's stomach fluttered in anxiety at revealing this information, but he had to try. "I don't think you can do it with a wand; it's not Ministry-approved magic, but…it's not hard."

James' face grew ominous. "You're talking about dark magic."

"No, not dark magic—wild magic. Free magic."

"Dark magic."

"No!"

James leapt to his feet and paced agitatedly, rubbing his already messy black curls into a wild mane. "Gods, Harry! Do you know how it would look if it were discovered that you, that you of all people, have been studying dark magic?"

"Then don't tell anyone! Kill the bloody things yourself! Only, do it! You have to, they're dangerous—they could turn on you at any time, like they did on me. Listen to me, they're not mindless beasts like you think they are."

"You can't know that."

Harry made a pained noise. The last thing he wanted to do was confess this, but feared for his father's safety, and his own. The cultist guards had been dealt with, but the dementors remained free.

"I do know. I've—spoken with them. I can understand them. They're intelligent, and they follow an agenda of their own." Harry was too afraid to meet his father's eyes during this confession, but after a moment of frozen silence, he finally ventured a glance.

James was staring at his son in frozen horror, as though he'd never seen him before in his life.

"Dad, please…" Harry tried.

"Stop," James said vehemently, turning away and holding up a hand. "I don't want to know. Whatever you've done, whatever you are"—he shuddered. "I can't…I just can't."

Harry bit his lower lip and battled the rising tide of tears in his eyes.

James straightened his wire-rimmed glasses, and went to the curtain. "You'll have to speak to another Auror soon, so I suggest you get your story straight—for your own sake, if not mine."

Harry's throat was too choked up to speak another word, so he watched his father leave in silence.

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

April 14, 1991

Ottery St. Catchpole

Dear Harry,

Luna and I are writing to see if you're all right. We read in the paper about what happened. Are you all right? Luna wants to know when you can visit. She insisted I enclose a special tea for you made of powdered troll callus, to toughen you up. I'm not sure I'd drink it if I were you, but I watched her make it, and I reckon it won't kill you, at least.

Hope you feel better soon.

Yours truly,

Neville and Luna

P.S. – Do you know anyone called Stubby? Luna wants you to bring him round for tea soon.

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

April 17, 1991

Venice, Italy

Dear Harry,

I'm so sorry to break this to you via letter, instead of at your bedside as I would much prefer, but I'm afraid that this is for the best. I am taking an extended vacation from Britain. Events of late have put your godfather in a precarious position. I'm sure you understand what I mean. With security measures soon to increase throughout wizarding Britain, it's better that those of us who have been tarred with a dark brush make ourselves scarce.

I hope you will continue to write to me often, until time and the fates allow our paths to cross once more.

All my love,

Remus

P.S. – Take care of your father, Harry. He does love you, very much, even if he has trouble showing it.

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

FREDERICK SPURLING, IN MEMORIAM

Frederick Spurling, 94, known to his friends as "Freddie", died last evening at his home in Chiswick. Spurling, a sixty-two year veteran of the Committee for the Disposal of Dangerous Creatures, suffered from a weak heart, and passed away after a massive heart attack.

Readers may recall that Spurling was the sole survivor of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures after Sirius Black's horrific attack on the Ministry of Magic in 1980. After witnessing Black's initial attacks, Spurling rushed to the Atrium in an attempt to thwart the horde of slavering werewolves Black had unleashed there. Spurling's efforts undoubtedly saved many, and he will forever be remembered by those whose lives he touched. He was awarded the Order of Merlin, Third Class, for his heroic actions.

A small, private memorial will be held next week, and any members of the public who wish to send their condolences to the family are urged to make a donation to the Dark Creatures Survivors Fund.

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

20 April, 1582 A.E.

Malfoy Manor, Wiltshire

Dearest Cousin,

I write in hopes that you are making a speedy recovery from your recent ordeal. It must have been terrifying. Please do write and let me know how you are getting along. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Two recent houseguests of mine also send you their love and sincerest gratitude. They wish you to know that they are very much enjoying and making full use of the lovely cloaks that you gifted to them. A fine cloak makes travelling seem as easy as flying, I always say.

Draco is getting excited about the upcoming year at Hogwarts, and wants to know whether you would like to meet for ice cream or some such at Diagon Alley when you do your school shopping. Perhaps you would also like to see some of your family? It is so regrettable that we are cousins and have yet to meet. Please let me know if this is agreeable, so that we can make arrangements.

With Much Love,

Narcissa Black Malfoy

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

DEMENTORS POSTED AT DIAGON, HOGWARTS

In a bold move last evening, the Ministry of Magic announced that dementors will be posted in key areas throughout wizarding Britain. This strategy comes in response to the escape from Azkaban of convicted Death Eaters Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange, and the suspected at-large status of Sirius Black, Barty Crouch, Jr., and Bellatrix Lestrange, and serves to explain the absence from Azkaban of a large number of the creatures.

Dementor guards will be posted at Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, Hogwarts, the Ministry, St. Mungo's, and other key magical locations that provide potential targets for the Death Eaters. Citizens are asked to extend the same respect to the dementors that they would to any other representative of the Ministry.

See page 4 for commentary on the safety of using dementors…

See page 5 for instructions on casting a patronus charm…

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

May 5, 1582 A.E.

Durmstrang Institute for Magical Learning

Scandinavia

Dear Mr Potter,

In response to your letter of April 30, Headmaster Karkaroff has personally reviewed your application and is pleased to extend you an invitation for enrolment at Durmstrang for the upcoming school year. Per your status as a half-blood, continued enrolment thereafter will be contingent upon maintenance of passing grades in all courses and completion of the first-year seminars 'Wizarding Etiquette', 'Wizarding Governance', and 'Wizarding Ethics'.

Please find enclosed your acceptance form, which requires your magical signature and the magical signature of your legal guardian. Once we have received your acceptance, further instructions will be issued in regard to preparing for the upcoming school year.

The staff of Durmstrang very much looks forward to meeting you and working with you in future.

Yours Truly,

Ulrik Winther

Lieutenant Headmaster

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

May 13, 1582 A.E.

Durmstrang Institute for Magical Learning

Scandinavia

Dear Mr Potter,

In response to your letter of May 8, I regret to inform you that although Durmstrang exists outside the boundaries of any magical nation, we do recognize and enforce the laws of each student's home nation as regards legal guardianship of that student. As your guardian has not granted permission for you to attend Durmstrang, we must regretfully comply with his wishes.

We do hope that you will consider us again at this time next year.

Yours Truly,

Ulrik Winther

Lieutenant Headmaster

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

SCANDAL IN HOUSE BLACK

Members of high wizarding society were shocked last week to learn that Lucretia Black Prewett, 67, of London, and current head of the family Black following Arcturus Black's tragic Erumpent hunting accident earlier this year, has been admitted to the Janus Thickey Ward at St. Mungo's. Prewett apparently has been suffering for some time under the delusion that she is, in fact, Helga Hufflepuff. This reporter was unable to secure an interview with Prewett—or Lady Hufflepuff, as she now prefers—but reliable sources have it that she has taken to knitting and speaking with a Welsh accent.

Perhaps even more shocking than this tragic fate is the identity of the person responsible for admitting Mrs Prewett to St Mungo's—her very own daughter, Electra Black. Older readers may recall that before Lucretia Black became a Prewett, she conceived a child, Electra, with her second cousin, Alphard Black. Whereas Lucretia married well and became a society matron, Alphard raised their child alone and was later disowned by his family. At the tender age of 16, Electra Black disappeared amidst a storm of unsavoury rumours regarding her relationship with Rogerick Lestrange, elder brother of Death Eaters Rodolphus and Rabastan. Rogerick also disappeared shortly afterward, and most assumed Electra had perished at Rogerick's hand—until today.

Electra Black has been spotted several times in recent days in and around St Mungo's, the Ministry, and Gringotts, and she confirmed when questioned by a reporter that she had indeed assumed the mantle of the Black family head. She declined to comment, however, when asked where she had been for three decades and what had become of Rogerick. According to Ministry records, the current heir to the Black fortune is now Narcissa Black Malfoy, with heir-in-waiting Andromeda Black Tonks.

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore

(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock,

Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)

Dear Mr Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on September 1. We await your owl by no later than July 31.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall,

Deputy Headmistress

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

As Harry darted and dodged through the crowds packing Diagon Alley, he tried to keep his father's head of messy, tufted hair in sight. At 6'4", James' head bobbed well above most others, but Harry was distracted by shopping bags walloping him and shoppers elbowing and shouldering past him.

James had received a hefty bonus, ostensibly for agreeing to be the next Wizenwarden, but in truth as recompense for the incident with Harry. In spite of this, Harry had still ended up with used books ("No one needs new ones; it's a waste of money") and robes that skimmed the floor ("I won't have a bonus like this next year"). Harry didn't mind, though. On the contrary, he was overjoyed that his father was even speaking to him again.

As Harry wended through the crowd, he recognized a familiar, chilly sensation, and swivelled to scan the area. The dementor hovered several feet above the throng, at the corner of Diagon and Minim Alleys, and the sight of the hateful being made Harry hiss through his teeth. Bouncing on his tiptoes, Harry could make out his father's head passing Flourish & Blotts, a block ahead, and that made his decision for him.

The dark-haired boy ducked into an alleyway across the street from the dementor. He had been practicing, and it was little burden, now, to scale the brick wall of the building while maintaining his invisibility. Four stories up, Harry crouched, aligning his shot. He didn't think the spell he intended to use would hurt humans, but he didn't want to test that theory.

Preparations complete, Harry focused on happy thoughts of his mother—smiling green eyes, swirling red hair—and shot a cutting curse through them. An arc of silver, trailing wisps of energy, flew from his hand and struck the dementor, slicing its head in half cleanly.

Screams and shouts from the crowd erupted as Harry jumped to the floor of the alleyway, landing on a cushioning charm with only a slight jolting sensation. He quickly re-entered the crowd, still invisible. He should make his way away from the scene of his crime, he knew, but curiosity nudged him closer to where the black-robed wraith had fallen.

"I saw it!" a young witch, probably a student of Hogwarts, exclaimed, as Harry shouldered past the last few rows of gawkers. "I'm telling you, it fell right there!"

"Then where is it?" a woman, probably the young witch's mother, demanded. She gestured angrily to the empty patch of cobblestones which was already beginning to close up like water rushes to fill a void.

Harry caught his breath and raked the street all around them with his eyes. Gone—how? He searched the faces of the onlookers.

Abruptly Harry's stomach dropped with a lurch, and his heart leapt up into his throat. Not two metres away, across the rapidly closing circle, she stood. He knew those deep-set black eyes, that pink, bow-shaped mouth, the glossy black waves of hair. Yet it was not the woman's face that filled Harry with dread and terror. If her face had been all that he recognized, he should have been quite pleased, really. It was her soul that frightened him.

The soul was of the usual size, and nothing about it suggested anything amiss. Except for the fact that, twined throughout the pulsing orb of light, ran strands of the same soul that had been emblazoned on Harry's nightmares.

Electra Black—and threaded through her soul, the soul of the goddess, Echidna.

Harry was invisible, yet, somehow, she met his gaze. The woman, Harry's grandmother, smiled widely at him with a knowing, amused glint in her eye. Then she turned and disappeared into the crowd.

─-─-─-─-─o─-─-─-─-─

CONTINUED in Music from a Farther Room