Poor old Jim's white as a ghost
He's found the answer that we lost
We're all weeping now, weeping because
There ain't nothing we can do to protect you
"O Children" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Here is the start of him:
Harry Potter is born to heights of terrible war and the feel of thread stitching his ways in gold.
Lily Potter arches her back as her son's wail rises to the ceiling, her hands slamming desperately over her face as people rush about her; tumbles to the side, curls tight around her pregnant stomach, and prays.
No one had wanted this child to be born tonight.
"Be brave, Harry, mummy loves you, daddy loves you," Lily Potter whispers; doesn't close her eyes to James' scream, to the slow creak of footsteps up the stairs, to her son's green eyes. Her voice is breathless, but it doesn't falter.
Born as the seventh month dies . . .
(You think she hasn't whispered this before, these apologies and strengths in the place of bedtime stories?
Don't you feel like a fool?)
She loves this boy with all the kindness in her bones, in her blood. It has to be enough. It must be.
The door explodes, wood splinters, and Lily Potter braces herself, plants her feet, dies.
(Lily Potter begged for the life of her child, the history books will say; slicks the words over with scandal; strips the warrior from the woman and the brilliance from the mudblood.
There is no one left to disagree.)
Harry Potter survives.
The Boy Who Lived.
If ever asked about life with Dursley's (no one ever does, you know), all Harry would ever be able to muster as a response was time. The time between the slam of feet above his head as he sleeps, the time curled away in the dark with library books hidden under the mattress, the time when his mind drifts away, goes dark, and takes a while to return.
He goes to classes, runs the numbers in his head to calculate a pattern of ignorance - a facade - and passes every important test he ever faces. Petunia's shrill screams won't stop Harry clawing his way out of the cupboard, out of this house, out of Surrey, full stop. Because the trick to this whole thing - this whole life - is that Harry's smart.
Harry grows up smart, fiercely smart; too smart to burn, to do anything but keep his head down, close his eyes against the rage searing his blood and melting his bones, and just wait, just be patient; just breath, just survive, let it hurt later. I'll be gone soon, I'll be safe soon, it'll be better son, god please.
There's more to all of this, Harry knows to the marrow of his bones; can feel the time ticking down to an explosive reaction.
(Normal wizards feel none of this.)
Dudley's brazen and furious and repulsively spoilt; fails to catch Harry at most turns, and Harry lets himself sink away when Dudley (and his mates) do catch him, lets himself learn where it hurts to be hit, just in case, and then lets it wash off his back; lets his blood whirl down the sink.
The end comes quicker than logically expected.
Hogwarts is a . . . experience. The magic is fascinating, a role was forged just for Harry years ago, and something in his blood surges, fights to the surface, pulls.
It becomes a mantra for Harry, a throb at the back of his head as consistent as his pulse (more so, when that bloody troll shows up on the scene, and he isn't even touching on the apparent gate to hell in his school; think magic, ignore every law of physics he knows) that keeps him grounded.
Snape rages and howls and screams better than Dudley ever has, McGonagall disbelieves him, Dumbledore chuckles and twinkles, the adults pat him on the head and dismiss everything Harry's ever done, and always, though the years, Harry keeps it up.
Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
Ron is loud and bombastic, easily affectionate (a hand clasped to his arm, a thump on his back, alright mate) and as violently protective as he is judgemental. It takes Harry time to work with that, to realise it was turned towards him, Ron's protectiveness; Ron's grins, Ron's sharing, and Ron's sardonically raised eyebrows over Hermione's head.
And Hermione is fierce and opinionated, brilliantly intelligent and prone to stomping over everyone else because no one had ever taught her how friendship works (Don't worry, Harry tells her once, we'll die trying together. Hermione had flushed and scoffed, huffing that's not funny, but her face is soft and a little raw.)
It starts with the troll, with Ron choosing to stand with Harry, and it overpowers him when Hermione and Ron follow him down the trap door, when they sacrifice pieces of themselves (health, knowledge, life) to fight monsters. Later, all Harry can think is oh.
Harry loves them, is the thing; Hermione and Ron, who blink and squint at his slips until he doesn't bother anymore. It feels like he's spent a life time stretched open on the rack, and then finally, something slackens in the wires, and Harry can ease with them.
Ron's never been so tactful; and Hermione doesn't stomp too hard.
It's their first compromise.
His hands are small and pale, fingers long and elegant, palms coarse. There is nothing crusted under his nails from where they had sank into an eye socket. His hands are bloodless, clean.
Dumbledore halts when he speaks; looks briefly, fleetingly surprised; and then simply sad. "No, my boy, there is nothing wrong with you."
Lie, Harry thinks; knows.
(Harry is eleven years old.
Harry is a murderer.)
After their second year, dozens of people flock over to the Gryffindor table to apologise.
"You made a mistake," Harry says, tilts his head, blinks. Smiles slow and easy. "That's okay," he tells the Hufflepuff (who hadn't introduced himself, presumably so Harry can't enact some horrible revenge) passively. "I forgive you."
There's nothing that interests him in grudges and explosive rage.
For some reason, the blonde boy looks unnerved when he leaves.
"Bloody git," Ron scoffs. I'm your best mate, Ron had explained when the first had come crawling over to them, and Harry had been unsettled by the redhead's hostile sneering. And I think you're bloody mental forgiving them.
We're all mad here, Harry had assured him. Ron hadn't gotten it, but he'd grinned anyway.
"Sorry git," Harry corrects; because he's feeling pedantic, because he wants Ron to roll his eyes. "Nick'll be jealous."
(He doesn't make himself shrink back when Ron scowls, and Harry doesn't know what to do with that, with any of this, with the warmth crawling across his back and heating his face at Ron's defensiveness.)
Hermione stares at him across the table, and starts when she realises Harry's caught her. "It's just . . ." Hermione hesitates. "Your forgiveness is scary, Harry."
Harry can't imagine what look crosses his face before Ron snorts, mouth full of food. "And bloody undeserved!"
He waits until everyone else has gone to sleep, until the dorm room is so dark he can barely see the back of Ron's orange t-shirt. "Is it?"
Ron is silent for a very long time before his slow, hesitant voice creeps out from the darkness. "Yeah, yeah, it is a bit, mate."
Harry closes his eyes to Tom Riddle's face, to his outstretched hand, crossing over Ginny's still form like an artefact of faith; a hand on a bible, fingers crossed under the table, as he offers Harry his life. "Are you scared of me?"
There is no hesitance now. "No."
This is what Dumbledore sends his defender! A songbird and an old hat! Do you feel brave, Harry Potter? Do you feel safe now?
No, Harry thinks as the Basilisk venom darkens his vision, and Ginny wakes up, and Death sings softly, sweetly into his ear, like the mother he only remembers the end of.
Harry takes Ancient Runes in Third Year.
Between the unexplainable shivers Harry begins to feel around her (wrong, something within him murmurs, wrong) and her mental time table, it takes him two weeks to realise Hermione has a time turner. It takes him two weeks to believe it, to believe that Hermione knows his tricks, knew about the voices when the Chamber of Secrets was open, makes him tea every morning, and lets him fuss over her tie because it bothers him, for some reason, and she didn't tell him –
("I promised Professor McGonagall – "
"I didn't know you needed to promise me.")
Destiny draws Harry up the stairs into the divination classroom, a book left behind and Ron's exhausted expression, and blood roars in Harry's ears as a prophecy is cast, fate is spun and loaded against his head like a gun. Harry lies and smiles and flees the room with Ron's book clutched to his chest like a bible.
Not yet, he thinks frantically in the corridors, feeling his bones creaking and straining in time with the windows. Not yet. Not yet. Be patient.
Over the years, the settle becomes slower, more grudging, and Harry promises soon.
Harry grows up tall, Ron thickens with muscle and grows with height, and Hermione mellows, fierce, hungry desire to be the best relaxing in time with Harry's inclination to lie. He's still fantastic at it, spinning a tale so fast belief is the only option.
It works for them.
Their scales coil throughout the school, a chain of distant people they knew, and the three of them circling each other, light-footed and fet-tongued. Silver-tongued, Harry thinks only once. Harry's crown is golden, Ron's temper is brash, and Hermione fills her bones with facts.
Pined into place by the arms of a stone statue, Harry writhes as Voldemort whispers in a low, intimate voice, they're all hopeful fools, those who believe you can defeat me, Harry, when you yourself have so much potential to become one like me and slams his eyes to the truth blazing across his vision, the fleeting chances and hungry rage scattered through his childhood; the resentment.
(How you resemble me, Tom Riddle had whispered in an echoing chamber.)
High kings and steward knights; a monster returned, children frightened, and a golden prince stricken dead, labelled a pawn. Kill the spare.
"You are not a bad person, Harry," Sirius tells him in the prison of his childhood, the man's conviction quiet and strong.
It's a bag of gold gallons pressed into a spy's hand after the DA's first meeting and Harry's senses that buy them time. There is no Dumbledore's Army; Harry teaches too many turn coats for that. Umbridge doesn't find out about the DA for a month and doesn't catch them for an extra five. His tongue comes in handy, then; creates a weave, a web.
"There's a rule forbidding after school clubs?"
Umbridge titters, sweet as poison. "Are you pretending you don't know?"
"It's exam year, and I'm so busy memorising the book you're teaching us from, I can barely see what's in front of my face. I tripped in the corridor just now. You shouldn't feel bad," Harry says, voice softening with sincerity. It isn't hard to fake. He is extremely grateful for the excuse not to read any of the educational decrees.
"About not catching me?" Harry continues, widening his green eyes in confusion. "Well, I assume that's why you had cast a spell at me." His voice dips with faint doubt, faint question; all just shy of overplayed.
(The Dursleys taught him these throughout those starving, hungry years; how to make a undertone shine bright enough for their minds, how to hide and why that was always, always needed.)
He's letting her know he has her.
There is no one to fight for Harry but himself. But if enough people found out about the blood quill, about Umbridge 'cursing' a student and that their children could be next? The Ministry controls the papers, but that was little to a parents' protectiveness.
Harry sees Umbridge following his train of thought; it's slow, but self-preservation is a good motivator, and Harry paved the way with enough hints.
". . . quite, Mister Potter. But I'm afraid your actions are still against school regulations."
Dumbledore is toppled by flimsy rumours and resentful fear; the DA is dismantled; and Harry's blood stains sheets and sheets of paper until his head clouds over with blood loss. It sends Harry out of the castle and walking, steps slow and meandering across the grounds until he can think. Ravens crow as Harry circles the lake, stoops to drag his fingertips across the surface, watches the ripples.
Closes his eyes.
Hears the flutter of wings, dark against the white sky, resists the temptation to strike them down and scatter them; make them move nevermore.
His magic is close to the surface, closer than ever, a sparking fuse. It's in his blood, and singing through his bones, and tempting him to slacken fully, to run wild into the dark, but he stills his hand, cautious.
Thinks: not yet.
Luna finds him there, limbs and hair glowing an eternal white under the full moon. She sinks beside him, little hand joining his, circling his. Harry lets her, finding her skin as smooth as the water, colourless and clear. Truthful. Lie-less.
"Omens, omens," says Harry, high and lyrical; unafraid of this girl who had called him as mad as she and met his eyes, set his blood to a musical form. "So many omens."
Luna's hair brushes his bare forearm, a soft tickle of sensation, as she leans forward and peers into the lake like it's deeper than it is. Her voice is high and light and other. "It's strange for a raven."
"Is that what it is?"
"It's rude to call them it, Harry," Luna tells him breezily, but she's smiling at him with eyes the colour of stardust, and Harry thinks, distantly, that she's beautiful. "But it's rude for them to lie, too."
It's in Luna, too.
Harry understands, suddenly, why most think her mad. It's easy for a mind to tangle like this; what he knows, and what half of him senses; what never quite reaches his conscious mind.
Harry has never liked ravens.
"What's the lie?"
"What isn't?" Luna counters, very nearly direct, and Harry very nearly understands, then. Shadows and smoke aligning, thick and dark, yet through the corners, light shines.
There is golden thread under his skin, stitching him together after every spray of blood, and it burns through the shadows. This is what you are, and that is what everyone else is; this is the feel of destiny steeling his bones, that is freedom in motion.
This is what he has; this is what he never shall.
The moon is full, and they're stricken with sanity that feels like madness. A half-curl of Luna's hair brushes his face, colourless water drips from her bloodless hands, and Harry kisses her, tastes oranges, and skin, and almost the blood beneath it. Luna turns into him, sinks in close, and Harry doesn't bite, doesn't let himself taste the differences under their skin.
(He'll understand none of this in the morning.)
The thing about growing up rough and small and scared, about knowing the twists and turns of all that, is that it makes you desperate to stop it from ever happening again.
Harry isn't a hero, you see.
He just isn't a Dursley, either.
The prophecy makes him want to scream.
For the first time in his life, Harry hurts deeply enough to do just that, to scream and rage and smash and hammer on Dumbledore's office door.
I don't want to feel anything, Harry says roughly, rabidly, desperately. The words feel as though they have been ripped from him; he feels wrecked and ruined and stained.
The spoils no one's ever really wanted, who kills the few people who do.
But you do, Dumbledore says, quiet and regretful but utterly pitiless. You're so human, you love so deeply, Harry, that Voldemort couldn't withstand your mind a moment longer.
Harry's legs go out slowly from under him, like the collapse of a civilization. What is it? What's the cause of all this?
When Dumbledore's silence trails off into words, Harry finally understands what it means to be cursed.
It starts slow.
A tremble through his body, increasing and increasing, until Harry laughs, eyes burning a sickly shade of green, and slams his head back into the door.
Oh, me, he says, of course.
Here is something no one will ever think to say to Harry:
You're a child. Damn the prophecy. You don't have to do this.
Have you ever just been afraid? Neville asks Harry amongst the chaos of their Sixth year, amongst Ron and Hermione's grudge war, Dumbledore's attempts to pretty up the blood Harry's been drenched in for so long it will never wash clean.
The other boy's voice is low and quiet in many ways, and Harry lets his head loll back against his bed posts, slants Neville a look, and Neville elaborates.
He keeps coming after you, You-Know-Who. Neville licks his lips, uncertain; still faintly shy. It's a question he's been carrying for a while. Aren't you afraid?
This has been chasing me for a long time, Harry says pragmatically because Neville fought with him, writhed under Bellatrix's curse, and came out of the other side brave enough for the truth of things.
Harry feeds Dumbledore his worst memories, consoling words catching and splintering in his mouth. Ron is poisoned. Katie Bell hangs in the sky and comes close to death on the ground.
(They are sixteen.
They are unprepared for this.)
Fred loses an ear. Moody dies. Luna stays. Harry runs, Ron and Hermione at his flank.
The Death Eaters chase them across England and further still. They run through the whole world, heads sunk low, eyes alert as they watch the doors and the buildings and each other's backs; and the fear never ever dulls, just lingers and sears and flares in the pit of their guts, down their spines, filling their bones. They run through Russia and America and China, just snatches of colours and unlicensed portkeys, until their feet are bleeding, until they're starving, half-crazed and scraped over raw with desperation, and Harry rolls his eyes up to a grey sky, back to an alley way's wall as his heart races, and he says, "Let them catch us."
Hermione goes white, and Ron's gasps for air from all the running, from fear of the Death Eaters just miles in their shadows, hitch abruptly. It echoes like a gunshot in his ears.
Harry looks at everything but them as he says again: "Let them catch us."
"Harry, you're talking about murder," Hermione whispers, voice sharp with shock, with horror.
"At the rate we're going, it'll be murder one way or the other," Harry counters blackly; meets her eyes across the allay way. It is raining. Water drips between them, a sheet of droplets between them, hitting the pavement and bouncing.
"We're supposed to be better than them!" Her voice whips out, silver and blinding.
"Moody always used to say trying to be better than them got mum's brothers killed," Ron says quietly, slowly and distantly, and Hermione falls silent.
Hermione lays the traps; and Ron chooses the route; and Harry kills the most, a well-aimed blasting curse here, a spray of scarlet blood there.
None of them ever forgets the sickening thunk of bone when the skull splits and blood stains the dirt.
(They are seventeen.
They are all murderers.)
They're three days away from Godric's Hollow when someone catches them.
Harry can still taste the laugh of a monster in his mouth as he murders his parents; can still see Lily Potter, desperate and fierce and a woman, there, as much a mother. Hermione can still feel the blood of the two boys' she loves splatter across her face. Ron snatches up Harry's wand before Hermione's curse can hit it, because it's Harry's. Harry wants to cry when he sees the remains of Ron's hand, the two missing fingers, because it's Ron's.
It's fine, Ron mutters, flushes and turns his scowl away when the black depth of horror in Hermione's eyes. Bit like George's ear, and he's managing alright.
Harry thinks of stares and stricken eyes and the scar marking him as a boy meant to murdered, and doesn't let himself look; doesn't get the chance. They've lingered for too long; and Harry snaps awake in the middle of the night to a flash of blinding red hair, wand coming to hand, hand never coming to his head when a long leg whips out and knocks him back into a sea of dreams.
Harry wakes up in a chair and for one sickening moment, his heart stutters, and he thinks about Voldemort, about Ron and Hermione. But there is steel binding his wrists and ankles and no magic anywhere. A bruise forms and throbs at his temple, reminding him of dirt in his mouth and blood on his skin; of staring across an alleyway at his two best friends and knowing he's about to stain them, of rolling over and closing his eyes as Hermione cries and Ron learns to bite down on his fierce emotions as Harry had done years before.
But Harry's notion about being tracked down and arrested by the police is rendered dubious when the door opens, and a woman walks into the room in a black body suit. She is beautiful in a classical way, all white skin and blue eyes and hair redder than blood.
Nothing at all like Luna's dirty blonde hair and wide silver eyes, the big, open sincerity that has always, always hit Harry somewhere low and left him faintly scattered.
"You're not police," Harry says politely, tilts his head, thinks oh, that's their move. She is beautiful, and he is young, and they really don't know him at all.
"I'm Natasha." She smiles, and Harry sees warmth that's too soft, too morally compromised, to be anything but a lie from someone who moves as she does, as though used to flowing from dance into battle; as though she's been hunted and the hunter in so many turns that she'll never scrub the reflex clean. "I work for SHIELD. It's a government organisation. You and your friends were caught on a CTV camera." Something flashes across his face, and Natasha tilts her head, birdlike, too kind. "They're safe; they're in another room. If you cooperate, I'll take you to them."
Natasha doesn't say where or when; and Harry respects her enough not to obfuscate stupidity.
He knows when and where.
It isn't enough to stop relief from unknotting his muscles because Harry does believe her in that, that they want his and Ron's and Hermione's cooperation, even if it's a desire born from malice or fear or a desperate grasp for power.
But they saw, they hadn't been careful, running through the world and then what they had done, what secret lies in Natasha's eyes. Blood on his face, the sickening crack of bone, and something leeches the life from Harry's bones, drains all of him away.
"Cooperate? While you're arresting us? How do you even plan to hold us?"
"We don't plan to arrest you."
"Then what do you want?" His voice lapses into a strange calm. "You say you're the government, and you saw what we can do, you saw what we did."
"We saw you being chased around the globe by an organisation of adults," Natasha counters calmly. "All of who have DNA found at several unsolved murder scenes, some from the last year and some from sixteen years ago, all of this activity seems to have stopped around the time your mother's death certificate was filed. There is no record of your father having ever existed until his burial. All record of you and Hermione Granger vanishes after your eleventh birthdays. Your other friend is a ghost. We know the three of you are running from someone."
Harry's mouth is dry, mind almost lulled into a haze by her smooth voice. It isn't shock, because Harry has grown accustomed to strangers knowing about him, about his parents and his life, and it isn't fear, it simply isn't. His mind spins back to the CTV camera, the recording that could reveal the magical world, and Natasha's hair in the tent, Natasha's presence in the warded tent. "How did you even find us?"
"It was difficult," Natasha allows. "There were police reports of three teenagers staggering away from a house in Godric's Hollow. Once our men started to get turned away from a certain area, we became suspicious. With enough distance, we were able to pick up heat signatures."
"And then they sent you."
"And then they sent me."
There is nothing in Natasha Romanov's eyes, and Harry Potter looks at her, understands what kind of conditioning needed for someone to step into the blank terror and rejection the muggle-repelling ward inflicts and keep walking because that's your role, that's who you're needed to become, and sometimes being needed is the only way to survive.
When I was eleven years old, Harry thinks and sees reflected in the abyss of her eyes, I killed someone, and my headmaster rewarded me for it.
(When I was eleven years old, I was ready to die for two whole world, and no one ever told me to stop.)
"The man I work for thinks there's a place for you here," Natasha tells him, too clever not to use this to her advantage. "I was in a situation like yours once. I was a lot worse than you. I did some bad things to some bad people, worse things to good people. SHIELD has a lot to offer you; protection, freedom . . . a chance."
There's little true heart in this, but there's something beneath the words, if only a sense of irony, that calls to Harry, because, he thinks, this is how Natasha does honesty – coldly, artfully, all minuscule gesture and paradoxical insincerity. There is a chance here, not unconditional, but real and solid and offered.
And, for one wild dizzy moment, Harry feels the possibility vibrating through of bones - of passing this off, of sinking behind the solid weight of these people who tracked them down and didn't kill them, of bleeding secrets for an illusion of safety that can never last. Harry just wants someone to try.
So few people offer Harry choices, chance, possibilities.
But Harry knows the rules, has learned them through his entire life, and guns are nothing to destiny; love is nothing to death; hope is not for little scarred boys.
. . . neither can live while the other survives . . .
"This might be the last time anyone ever offers you this," cautions Natasha, clear and low enough to flow with his thoughts; a gentle lull.
"This," Harry murmurs to his past, to his present, to his future as well as Natasha, and something rough broils in his voice, something raw and laughing, because he just has to, "Has been chasing me for the longest of time."
Understanding never crosses across Natasha's face, but neither does surprise when Harry rolls his neck and disappears -
Within minutes, Ron and Hermione meet Harry back in the Forest of Dean, a bag of their things slung over Ron's shoulder. He had stunned the guards and cloaked himself, slipping away unnoticed. Ron has five brothers and one sister: No one thinks about that.
(You think they haven't planned for something like this before, their capture and escape and five minutes, just five minutes, anymore and run, don't wait, just run?
Don't you feel like a fool?)
There is a pinch of worry between Hermione's eyebrows, but she says nothing until they are running again and gasps out a question somewhere between Yorkshire and London, "What are we going to do abou - "
"Find some way to hide our heat signatures," Harry says, breathless, because he's told them all he knows, of course he has.
Ron groans. "One thing at a time, Hermione, we'll worry about the muggles after the wizard lot are done trying to do us in, alright?"
Ron's hand is in better shape than before, than their fumbling attempts at healing and dizzy panic had managed, but Hermione's eyes still flicker and darken, dismayed.
There are a lot of things they don't talk about.
And there is no time to think.
Hogwarts is split open and evil creeps in; children (babies, just babies) are tortured for their blood, for their defiance; and there is nothing Harry can do about it. The three of them soldier through starving days and cramped nights, listening to the swaying tree branches and trying to convince themselves that they're too young to kill. (Harry catches Ron curling his fingers sometimes, the stubs ugly and raw, and he has to close his eyes and remember how to breathe.)
They grow together like tree branches, and they grow hard like wolves, like worst things still.
The war rages: the battle destroys; and Snape bleeds silver memories all over Harry's hands.
Harry rises from the memories with a sharp inhale, knuckles whitening, elbows braced on the basin. His stomach roils, blood searing with sickly heat, and Harry hates –
Rage screams and blazes red across his vision, magic boiling to the surface, and a few of the remaining trophies from before Dumbledore's death begin to whirl so fast the silver melts and drips slowly to the stone floor: blood by any other name.
It's never been about him, has it? Because if Harry walks to his death, if Harry is carrying a part of Voldemort inside of his skull, then –
Neville, Neville has to kill him.
It's Neville; it's always been Neville; and Harry is –
Harry is a Horcruax. Harry is an expendable lamb, the brave sacrifice, the carrier and the shield, absorbing every hit so the real Chosen One can grow up; can grow into himself and into war -
Harry's rage breaks open, a breath hisses between his teeth, and he exhales painfully, grip loosening on the basin. The whirling trophies slow and stop.
He wishes, suddenly and sharply and desperately, that he had thrown himself at Natasha's feet, because no one has ever asked him to stop, no one has ever even tried -
- because it has always been Neville, because Harry is just a soldier, running the track for him and killing dozens for him and bearing the weight of thousands of life so Neville can get the job done; so Neville can survive the war and have a life, have a chance.
If Harry could wash Sirius' blood from his hands, if Harry could forget Dumbledore's drugged pleas for mercy, if Harry could forget the prophecy that brought his parents to their graves and unsee Fred's head cradled in his mother's hands as George sank into himself . . .
"I'm afraid," Harry admits, quiet in the silence.
He gets up and walks to his death.
This is important:
The Ministry of Magic falls.
Harry Potter falls.
Before Dumbledore, there is a woman. Harry wakes to fog and smoke and a hand in his hair, a thumb over his forehead.
"You're a brave boy," a voice murmurs, cool and reflective like the surface of a pond but with the timeless power of the ocean, "but just that. Not yet more than that."
"Isn't like I'm ever getting any older," Harry tells her, arch.
He should flinch when something shifts at his side, warm and large and strong; impatient. A muzzle sniffs at his ear, and stars pinwheel across Harry's vision, flashing and burning brightly, powerfully.
Soon, the wolf – the wolf thinks, and on reflex, Harry says, "Not yet."
The woman – Hel, Harry thinks - winds her fingers deeply through Harry's hair. "Your path stretches further still. I pray you are swift to let it settle within you, young one." Hel's voice remains calm; the wolf whines; and her tone gentles. "I pray, also, that you are brave as one like us must need to be. Braver still."
Hair brushes his face, a mouth presses to his forehead, and words bloom within the black of his mind like roses, a stark flare of colour; Lokison, Hel whispers to his being, to something deeper even than that, You'll understand upon waking.
And, as though her words are another prophecy stitching his movements in gold thread, Harry begins to.
You're a liar, Harry says to Dumbledore before his heart beats again, but that's okay, so am I.
Harry wakes up to the damp smell of soil, the call of birds up in the skies, and Hagrid's anguished howls as the Death Eaters roar, as Voldemort rises too, as Mrs Malfoy leans down into him and makes a choice.
Lokison, Harry remembers and engraves into his bones, Lokison.
There's a world where things run smoothly, where Voldemort tucks his soul pieces in obvious places, and three school children bare few scars at all.
It isn't this world.
Fate has never been kind to those of Liesmith blood.
It takes hours to find all of the bodies.
Some of them are in the dungeons; some of them are months old, some of them are children.
Harry carries the body of an eleven year old girl up the stairs, her face blue and bloated and terrified; battered and bruised; greasy unwashed blonde hair trailing over his arm. Her nose is almost flattened, baby-soft skin mangled horrifically, and he closes her eyes with trembling fingers. (His robe is wrapped around the first, the kindness expired.)
Professor McGonagall looks at them for a long moment. "Put her down there, Mister Potter."
Hermione stares at Harry with dead eyes; Luna's strange, birdlike voice has trailed into silence; and Ron bends over his brother's corpse like a cage of meat and bone.
All of their hands are stained with blood.
. . . and he closes her eyes with trembling fingers, and thinks I can fix this . . .
It's a kindness.
"Don't ever do that to us again, Harry," Hermione says. "We understand why - we understand you - but - "
Harry circles her hand with his, pale on pale, blood on blood. Softens.
"It's finally over then," Ron tells him.
Harry flashes his teeth, eyelids low. Understands.
"You're never meant to find him, you know." Luna smiles, gentle as a ghost, and Harry looks beyond the silver of her eyes, the tarnished gold of her hair, and listens.
Here is the thing:
The Ministry of Magic falls.
Dumbledore is dead.
Harry Potter rises.
(Harry Potter is tired.)
The three of them do as they're expected to for weeks. They bow their heads at funerals and stare outwards, tearless, so young, so very brave. They testifiy at trials, shake greedy hands, and pretend that Ron doesn't cry for his immortal, laughing brother until the knuckles in his mutilated hand glow white, that Hermione doesn't need to take a breath, take one of their hands, before stepping outside, that Harry doesn't need them close, at his back and to his side and simply close, easy to grab; easy to save.
(He will never be rid of him, Voldemort, Tom Riddle, the monster's fingerprints sprawling and staining his whole life, his blood.)
Death Eaters go to prison, Death Eaters lose their souls, and Harry gives Draco Malfoy and his mother (them only) a choice, a hope, a chance. Why? Draco Malfoy demands, eyes terrified and desperate and unscarred, comparitively. You lied, says Harry, remembers Malfoy's choked little murmur at the manor, and the easy give of the other man's fingers when Harry lunged for his wand. I'm tired of this, says Harry. Winning, says Malfoy and means something else entirely.
("Do you feel seventeen?" the scholar asks.
"I don't feel seventeen," the knight echoes her words. He doesn't remember the taste of his own.
The king says nothing at all.)
They are gone by morning.
Where are we going? Hermione asks after she checks them into a hotel with Harry's money. (There is no tent, less danger, but the same terror sticks to them.) No one can answer her. She sighs, flickers her eyes over Harry, all tired fondness and lingering bossiness. Hermione hates the lack of a plan, the freefall they've been in for the last year, and Harry would do better for her, if he could; for them both. The tension between Ron, who rolls his eyes, and Hermione has softened and unfurled. Just tell me when we're close?
They drift as though they had never been close. Hermione teaches Ron the proper definition for muggle things, Ron discovers a love for planes not unlike his fondness for flying, and Harry lets Ron throw darts at a map to choose and lets Hermione fuss over hotels and plans.
But Harry isn't surprised to roll awake the next morning, to breath in the scent of Ron's bedroom in the burrow, and taste ashes in the air, ozone in the back of his throat, self-destruction and change in the air. Instinct makes him think of Natasha, her red hair and the offer in the air. And then he thinks of Hel's warning: Your path stretches further still.
"We're close, I think," Harry tells Hermione over breakfast, and Ron stops chewing briefly in surprise. "Or we're about to be caught."
"That's more bloody like it," Ron scoffs. He rolls his eyes, but his fingers twitch only fleetingly, longing for the skin and bone missing. People stare at his mangled hand often, more than Harry's scar, and they don't talk about it, they understand, best mates since they were just eleven years old: so long ago.
As Harry expected, Natasha approaches him on a crowded street, and she is so quiet that Harry almost curses her on reflex.
"I didn't expect you to be in America."
"Sorta wanted you to find me," Harry tells her. Tilts his head. Smile politely. "What do you need from me?"
"Your cooperation." Natasha's hair stirrs in the wind, a bleeding red that could trigger Harry, on any other day. She studies him with those clear, sharp eyes. "The crime rate in great Britian has gone down noticably over the last few months. I take it you won."
For one dizzying moment, the traffic roars in Harry's ears like the screams of battle, the roars of giants, and Hagrid's grief-stricken cries as Harry braces himself, plants his feet, dies. His arms strain under the weight of a dead little girl as he climbs the stairs and lays her beside a grave of dozens of others and thinks about how excited she must have been, a muggleborn, to think of magic and wands and happily ever afters. It had taken him twenty minutes to scrub Professor Snape's blood from under his nails.
"I died," Harry tells Natasha, on that crowded street, and sees her understand him perfectly, coldly, bloodlessly.
"SHIELD recently came across an incredibly dangerous man. I can't go into detail, but he is a magic user, and we could use your expertise in containing him. I promise we won't ask you to put yourself in any danger." Natasha pauses for the briefest of moments; a waver, by any other person. "I'm asking for your cooperation," she says.
(This is important, she will never say.)
Partly because he likes her, partly because they healed Ron's hand and offered Harry a choice, he says, "Okay."
When Natasha leaves, Ron and Hermione duck out from under the invisibility cloak, and as it is New York, no one blinks. "Are we actually gonna help them with this bloke?" Ron asks worriedly, and Hermione's brows are pinched tightly together, and Harry says, "Yes."
The next night, Natasha finds him again, and Harry follows her, Ron and Hermione at his side. The war has scattered their pieces and left none to remain, only the hope of their twisted, cut-off ends melting together and tying the three of them close.
There is a ship in the sky that makes Ron's eyes pop and fills Harry and Hermione both with a sense of ringing disbelief. Natasha introduces them to a black man with one-eye, Nick Fury, and disappears. By the time Natasha returns, by the time Nick Fury has finished debriefing them and passively aggressively bitching about their easy escape last year to which Harry can only smile in response to, there is one cell filled, and his mind is on fire, blood crackling within his veins, however impossible that sounds.
Liesmith, Harry thinks, a strange calm lulling through his mind in contrast to the thrill in his blood. He is several miles beyond panic, will never purge terror from his bones, and has never been naive enough, unscarred enough, to hope so.
"I'll need to see him," Harry tells Fury, who scowls at him mistrustfully, and his friends, who settle beside him, silently questioning, silently concerned, because they know, because he had given them all of him over the years; between sprays of blood and battles.
After a moment, Fury nods curtly, threatens, "We'll be watching", and has someone take him to the cell.
("You're never meant to find him, you know." Luna smiles, gentle as a ghost, and Harry thinks he is done with meant to.)
Loki is in a cage of transparent glass, tall and white-skinned, dark-haired and wild-eyed; snarling and grasping so close to the surface. Power steams off him in waves, fierce and immense, as tangible as a hand, large and coarse, wrapped around Harry's neck: a threat in the basest of ways.
One of them feels a sickening crack of recognition.
It isn't Loki, who watches Harry with wolfish eyes.
"Are they truly so desperate as to employ children and send them to test me?" Loki asks, head canted, voice smooth and low and thrilling. There is no magic within the room but Loki's, there is nothing caging the myth but thick glass and the kinds of things that force someone into becoming a monster.
With a flick of his wand, Harry could free him.
He knows those eyes in running so far his - their - feet bleed and saying, let them catch us. In graveyards, in chambers, in forests. Across the potions classroom and across Harry's blood-splattered hands. Lost boys, beaten wild and chased down and scared as much as twisted.
"Won't you speak, little mage?" Loki trills, something ugly rising to the surface of his eyes when Harry does not. Too used to being ignored to take it lightly, too mad to fully disguise it. But Harry thinks he is curious, too, in the very worst of ways. Loki's coat whips at his legs like a tiger's tail, agitated. "Who are you to ignore me?"
Now, says Hel, an acknowledgement, as water roars in Harry's ears and Fenrir howls through his bones, through their shared blood.
"Oh," Harry Potter, who was supposed to die at seventeen, who was supposed to be so many things, monster by birth and hero by assignment, says. "I'm no one."
(Here is the thing:
There are boys who watch the end of things.
There are boys who become tired.
There are boys who become monsters.
There are no Boys-Who-Lived.)