~ Chapter Forty-One ~
"Lord Potter, may I introduce Lord Diggory?"
"Lord… Potter-Black," Diggory greeted, raising an eyebrow at the name plate on the door behind Harry. He was standing stiffly in the pose of a formal greeting, tension rolling off of him in waves, and Harry had to swallow thickly before he was able to respond.
"Lord Diggory," his voice was soft, even to his own ears, and he only hoped the trembling of his hands was only his imagination. He deliberately kept his wrist sideways when they clasped arms, greeting the man as an equal despite his higher voting status, but if Winton Diggory thought anything of it, he made no indication. Lord Gamp slipped quietly away, his duties of introduction fulfilled, and not wishing to intrude on the conversation.
Charlie was watching his bondmate closely, ready to step in if it looked the situation was becoming too overwhelming. Movement past the young man caught his eye, however, and he looked up to find half the Council openly watching the exchange, eager to see how it played out.
"Lord Diggory, would you care to come inside? This conversation might be better had away from prying ears… and eyes," he added pointedly. The words finally broke the long stare between Winton and Harry, and as both wizards took in the situation around them, Winton nodded sharply and allowed Harry to clumsily pull the door open for him, sweeping inside without a sideways glance. Harry went inside next, only hesitating a moment, and Arthur turned to follow, but was stopped by his son's hand on his shoulder.
"You need to talk to Gamp, Dad. I don't think Harry realizes quite how dark the Gamp family is, and I know he hasn't really grasped what the fall-out from his bargaining could be. We need to figure out if Gamp is a threat, find out who else Harry spoke to while he was with him, whatever we can to help keep Harry safe and to support him." Arthur bit his lip, glancing uncertainly at the closed door behind which his pseudo-son stood alone, facing demons that no fifteen-year-old should ever have.
…And yet, he recognized the wisdom in Charlie's words.
"Protect him," he told his son, his eyes shining with an uncharacteristic fierceness.
"With my life," Charlie answered calmly. As he turned to follow his bondmate into their rooms and Arthur reluctantly walked away, the Weasley patriarch wondered if Charlie realized he had fallen in love with the raven-haired wizard… and if Harry felt the same.
Only years of work as one of the top magical lawyers gave Winton Diggory the strength to keep the contempt off his face as he found himself standing in silence with only the Potter boy for company. It was a good thing the chamber would prevent him for doing any true harm to the other man; if he had been capable of it, he wasn't sure he would have had the restraint to stop himself. On the other hand, he was a master at playing his advantage and waiting for an opportune moment, and he knew that attacking now, with no real hope of retribution, would only tip his hand. Better, then, to wait… for now.
Amos, his baby brother, and Amos' wife and son had been Winton's only family for over a decade now. He would never have imagined loving another person in the world more than Amos until he held his nephew in his arms for the first time. Cedric may not have been his, not in the same way, but he had loved him as his own child. When he had heard of Cedric's death, it had been the single most agonizing moment of his life. For weeks, he had refused to work, refused to leave the house, may well have stopped eating were it not for his unorthodox trio of house-elves who let him know in no uncertain terms that he would eat and he would survive his heartache; they wouldn't give him any other choice.
And they were right. The pain of his loss had yet to truly leave, and often wondered if it ever would, or even if he wanted it to. Still, he was able to function, push it aside enough to go about his day.
Amos did not seem to be coping nearly so well. Even now, months after his son's death, his baby brother—bright spot of joy and goodness in his life—was a wreck. Gone was the carefree, playfully boastful man, and in his place was a defected, ragged, and bitter character, furious at the world, and at one Harry Potter in particular.
Winton had lost track of the number of times his sister-in-law had floo'd him in a panic, begging him to come over and subdue Amos before he went off on a half-brained, drunken mission to find Potter and make him pay. Winton had called in more than a few favors in his efforts to clean up after his brother's 'incidents' that summer.
Not that he could blame Amos. Harry Potter had stolen the glory of Hogwarts' Triwizard Champion, working with his pal Skeeter to make it out as though he were the sole representative of the great school of magic. He was attention-seeking and glory-hungry, known for leaping into danger throughout his years at Hogwarts, his face constantly splashed across headlines. He was a cheat, making up his own rules in the first task by bringing a broom in unauthorized and tricking the judges into a sympathy vote during the second. Then in the maze, reaching the cup hadn't been enough for him; he had dragged Cedric with him on some half-arsed scheme to go after Lord Voldemort and paint himself as the hero of the wizarding world all over again—The Boy Who Always Just Barely Managed Not To Die.
At least, that was the picture Winton had painted in his mind based on his brother's descriptions. Unfortunately, the thoughtful, passionate young man had fought valiantly and brilliantly, if he were inclined to admit his true opinions, during the debates that day. He had gone so far as to strike a deal with Lord Gamp, one of the most powerful wizards in the room, even despite his personal loyalties to Winton himself. Which is why it had seemed so important, against his better judgment, to get an introduction with the boy.
Now, standing alone with him while the silence pressed down and threatened to suffocate him, he felt nothing but the keen loss of his nephew, and a cold sense of defeat.
"I don't know why I'm here." He admitted quietly, surprised at himself for speaking the words out loud. He looked to the young teen, expecting a snarky reply, but saw only compassion, and a deep sorrow in his eyes—an emotion that no one his age should even recognize, much less experience.
"You wanted to meet me," Harry answered carefully, the shy uncertainty in his voice making him sound like the nervous schoolboy he was for the first time that day. Cedric was just a boy, too, Winton reminded himself stubbornly, carefully hardening his heart before he could begin to feel sympathy towards the other man.
"Funny, isn't it? That I should feel the need to meet the man who led my nephew to his death?" Guilt warred with a twisted sense of satisfaction as he saw sharp pain flash in the young wizard's eyes.
"Lord Diggory, I… I can't tell you how terribly sorry I am. I never… I didn't…" He shook his head, mouth snapping shut, clearly fighting down a powerful swell of emotions. Winton watched, curious despite himself, as the beautiful snake he had glimpsed earlier slid once more from beneath the small Lord's robes and began hissing quietly in his ear, the boy settling slowly as though actually able to understand the serpent's verse. "If there is anything, anything I can do to… I know I can never make up for your loss, but if I can ease your pain in even some small way…"
Somewhere in the back of his mind, warning bells were sounding, and the little voice that Winton had shoved back into that often-ignored corner was urging him to pay attention to the raw aching in the boy's voice, but when he spoke, it was from a different line of thoughts; the part of him that desperately needed to know what his nephew had gone through on that last night of his life; the part that desperately needed answers.
"Anything?" He asked dangerously. To Harry's credit, he never hesitated before nodding his ascent. "Then show me what happened the night Cedric died."
"I… how?" Harry asked softly, his lip caught nervously between his teeth.
As Winton described the partial Legillemens all magical lawyers were required to master before being certified, Harry grew completely still, and his eyes dropped down to a spot at his feet, resolutely staying there as the words washed over him.
"…won't be able to 'read your mind,' per se. More so your emotions, your feelings, occasionally broken fragments of thoughts as they pertain to your most fundamental instincts and urges. The clearest part will be the dialogue. That will play like a radio in the background of any splices of images that I manage to pull forward. In all honesty, it is difficult to see any memory very clearly in a wizard so young, but I would assume this would be a… particularly potent memory. And I'll take what I can get." He paused to eye Harry disdainfully from head to toe. "That is what you can do for me, Lord Potter. You can give me permission to enter your mind and witness my nephew's final moments."
If any part of Winton felt guilty for asking for something so personal and so potentially wounding, it was completely overridden by an intense desire to see his nephew, even in this way, just one more time, and to finally understand what had made him follow this small, foolish wizard to his death.
"You have my permission," a small voice whispered solemnly, and Winton looked up into piercing green eyes, startled at such quick agreement.
"Lord Potter, you need to be sure…"
"Lord Diggory, I consent to your use of partial legillemens to view my memories of your nephew on his final day." His voice was still so soft, but there was a trace of steel behind his words that Winton hadn't noticed before. He silently raised his wand, noting the flash of panic in the boy's eyes before it flickered away and was replaced with a blank expectancy. He was either very brave, or very stupid.
Winton closed his eyes and breathed carefully through the familiar yank in his gut, blinking his eyes open moments later and forcing himself to ignore the pounding, spinning feeling in his head. He must be more worn out than he had imagined, for even when he was first learning the skill he couldn't remember reacting so potently to the magic.
…then, out of the darkness, fuzzy half-images emerged only to fade away again moments later. The sound lingered longer, creating overlap between each individual splice of memory, and under all of it was a flow of raw emotions and desperate thoughts. Everything blended and swirled together, and Winton felt himself powerfully sucked in with a force he had never encountered before.
…a whistle blew, and Harry looked to the side at Cedric as they entered the eerie silence of the maze. Trepidation…
…a fork in the path. This time, the two wizards locked eyes. 'See you.' Harry's voice. He turned towards the left path. Hesitation. Alone…
…movement behind—gripping fear—wand out and spin to attack, but- Cedric. Concern. 'Hagrid's Blast-Ended Skrewts! They're enormous, I only just got away!' Cedric's voice. Looking for wounds, ready to help, but Cedric's gone; diving down another path. Quiet. Anxious…
…confusion. Alone. Running along the path alone, then-! 'What are you doing? What the hell d'you think you're doing?' Cedric? Panic! Helphelphelp. 'Crucio!' Krum's voice. Heart stops—panic. Running now. FindCedricfindCedricfindCedric… screams, horrifying screams… try to burn the hedge, doesn't work—claw through. Struggle, scratches, pain—ignore it. FindCedricfindCedrichelphelphelp… CEDRIC! Twitching-jerking-screaming. Krum! Fury. 'Stupefy!' Can't recognize the rage in your own voice. Your voice? His voice? My voice?
Somewhere in the back of his mind, the part of him still anchored in reality, Lord Diggory was scared of the power of the mental link he had forged with Potter. He should pull back, this wasn't safe, but he couldn't leave Cedric, couldn't leave him, and as his emotions merged with Harry's once more he let himself sink, experiencing the memory fully as though it was his own.
…Krum down, Cedric—breathing. Panting, twitching, but alive. Relief. Grab him, need to feel him being alive. 'Are you alright?' 'Yeah… I don't believe it… he crept up behind me… I heard him, I turned around, and he had his wand on me…' Standing, shaking but standing. Convince Cedric to send up sparks for Krum. Safe, we're safe, then- go on? Go on, split off, alone, that's what Cedric wants. Alone. Another fork in the road, another separation. Alone…
…The Cup! Unexpected joy. Relief. Pride…? There's someone there! Cedric dashes out. Sprinting, I'll never catch him, just stand there, watch him take the C—no. No! On the next path, coming right at him, huge spider! They'll collide! Warn, help! 'Cedric! On you left!' Too late. Cedric dodges, but he's down, he's on the ground and his wand went flying and that—thing—is over him, on him- Run. Helphelphelp. Spells, magic, terror, PAIN, leg torn open, more magic, then- Over. Cedric. They check each other—alive. Spider done. The Cup! Cedric's there. 'Take it, then. Go on, take it. You're there.' No grudge, no jealousy. Not now. Not when we're alive. Over. But- Cedric doesn't move. Staring. At me, at the Cup, at me, at the Cup… longing… But- 'You take it. You should win. That's twice you've saved my neck in here.' Argue. Anger and pain. Just take it! But- won't. Won't take it. Comes to help me. Gratitude. Disbelief. Humbled. Honorfriendshiprespectgratitude—not alone. 'Both of us.' 'What?' 'We'll take it at the same time. It's still a Hogwarts victory. We'll tie for it.' 'You... you sure?' 'Yeah. Yeah… we've helped each other out, haven't we? We both got here. Let's just take it together.' Grinning. Pride. Trusttogetherfriendship—not alone. 'You're on, come here.' Leg on fire, but Cedric helps me reach the Cup. 'On three, right? One – two – three-!' PULL…
…Painlegpain. Ground. Portkey? Portkey. Graves—eerie silence—feel watched. Cedric nervous… me too. Wands out. Someone coming. Cautious… PAIN! Scar—pain—scar—Voldemort! Agony. Wand falls, I fall, pain. Run Cedric! Get back to the Cup! 'Kill the spare.' NOOOOO! 'Avada Kadavra!' Green light. Cedric, Spread-eagled. Cedric, not moving. Cedric, dead. Dead. Dead. Grief…
…Fury. Despair. Disgust. Horror. Alonealonealone. Lord Voldemort standing before a ring of death eaters. Duel? Wormtail. Fury. He takes my wand, it lies at Cedric's feet. Cedric… dead. Anguish, but no tears. Not here, not now. Duel, yes. Going to die. Die like Cedric. But with pride, bravery… no obeying Voldemort. Honor, for Cedric…
…Voldemort, locked wand-to-wand. Fear, but- His this time. Screams of pain. Again, His. A smoky hand from his wand, an arm, torso… Cedric. 'Hold on, Harry.' More smoky limbs. The old muggle… Bertha Jorkins… Dad! Mum… Love. Yearning. Grief. 'Harry…' Cedric's voice. 'Take my body back, will you? Take my body back to my parents…' NOW! Running, shouts, Cup there, but- No. Cedric. Fear. Hand closed on a wrist. Too heavy, can't move him—can't leave him. Think! 'Accio!' Cup! PULL…
…Air knocked out of lungs as the Cup sends us crashing to the ground. Sound everywhere. So loud. Cling to Cedric. Cedric, cold, still, dead. Adrenaline fades. Sorrow. Guilt. Pain, everywhere pain. And then- 'My boy!' Heart-wrenching wails, and Cedric is taken from me, taken from my arms, want to fight, but- Cedric's father, holding him, rocking him, mourning him… my fault. Cedric dead, all my fault… All my fault…
Winton was flung from the memory, ears ringing and head throbbing dully from the abrupt break in the legillemens link as a powerful expelliarmus knocked him off his feet. He ended up sprawled on the ground, breathing heavily, wand gone from his hand, and tears streaming steadily down his face. As he caught his breath, he finally began to take in the scene around him.
Charlie Potter was standing before him, body braced for battle and wand pointed at his heart, Winton's own wand caught in his other hand. Harry was behind him, head cradled in one palm and the other braced shakily on the wall. He was panting and leaning heavily, but—physically, at least—he seemed unharmed. Satisfied that his alarmingly potent legillemens would have no lasting effects, Winton finally pulled himself up off the ground and faced the fuming red-head.
"My wand please, sir?" He was proud that his voice held steady, despite the fact that he could feel the itchy lines on his face where tear tracks were drying up.
"Fuck you, what the hell did you do to my bondmate?!" Charlie shouted advancing on him until his wand was just barely pressed against the center of Winton's neck.
"Partial legillemens. Lord Potter consented to the procedure, I assure you." Charlie looked no less enraged, but neither did he start casting hexes. He glanced sideways to the wizard in question, but the young man hadn't moved yet from his position.
"Harry?" There was a long silence, but Harry finally spoke, head still lowered into his hand.
"It's okay Char. He wanted to see… he needed to know what happened to Cedric. He deserved to know. He didn't do anything to me against my will. It's okay, I promise." The red-head lowered his wand as Harry spoke, but one look at his face told Lord Diggory that the action had very little to do with letting him off the hook, and far more to do with concern for Harry. In fact, the worry and tension radiating off of Charlie as he gazed at his bondmate was nearly palpable.
Winton didn't blame him. The emotions he had experienced following the broken trails of memory through Harry's perspective were raw and genuine, and incredibly powerful after so much time had passed. Trying to connect this guilt-ridden young man—who had shown more honor and loyalty to his nephew than could ever have been asked of him—with the reckless, selfish, glory-hungry fool that Amos had led him to imagine was too much for Winton; with his mind and stomach already rebelling against the vivid images of Cedric's death and Amos weeping over his son's body, he was overwhelmed with the urge to flee.
In three quick steps he was at the door out into the chamber, gripping the handle as he cast a quick charm to conceal the evidence of his tears. He hesitated before leaving, however, unable to stop himself from looking back at the young Lord, still standing so motionless and so small on the other side of the room. Winton turned from the door and bowed low.
"Thank you, Lord Potter." He waited until the young wizard raised his head and met his eyes before nodding sharply and finally slipping out the door.
It was late when Arthur finally returned to the Potter-Black-Weasley rooms. He had done what Charlie asked as best he could, but knew that at the heart of things, he was no diplomat, and, if he was honest with himself, wasn't sure how much help he could be. Amelia had caught his attention as he was on his way back, and he had ended up having dinner and a long talk with her and Madame Longbottom. All he wanted now was to check on his boys and fall into bed.
He checked the first bedroom, but saw a cozy pair of muggle pajamas lain out on the bed and a stack of muggle studies books on the bedside table, so assumed the chamber had meant this room for himself. Gazing longingly at the enormous, lavish four-poster, he pulled himself away from the room, reminding himself that as soon as he made sure Harry and Charlie were tucked away safely in the remaining two rooms, he could go right to bed.
…Which is why he was so disheartened to find the second room empty. Not knowing quite where to go from there, he opened the door to the third room more for something to do while he mulled over the issue than anything else.
Arthur stopped dead in his tracks. Charlie was propped up against a small mound of pillows at the head of the bed, Harry laying half-next to him, half-across him, chest-to-chest so that in his sleep Harry was hugging his bondmate around the torso. Both young men were clad only in pajama pants, the comforter scrunched to the bottom of the bed so that it covered only their bare feet, their combined body heat keeping their upper bodies warm enough without any blankets. Charlie's eyes were half-lidded as he ran a hand absently up and down the smooth skin of Harry's back.
Not knowing what else to do, Arthur cleared his throat quietly and watched as his son immediately froze, his entire body stiffening before he raised his head and met Arthur's gaze with guarded eyes. Both men were silent for a few moments, then Charlie started to shift as though trying to slide off the bed from under Harry, and Arthur made a split-second decision.
"Don't get up, Charlie, it's alright. Hang on." He walked quickly to the other room, gathered the extra pillows and blankets off the bed, and returned as fast as possible, relieved to see that, while far from relaxed, Charlie hadn't moved from his place on the bed. Arthur walked over hesitantly and lay the extra bedding at the foot of the bed. "In case either of you gets cold later; the room will likely cool down once it senses that the two of you are too warm right now."
"Dad, it's not… we're…" Arthur held up a hand to stop whatever nervous explanation Charlie had come up with.
"You're married son, you don't need to explain yourself to me." He could feel Charlie still eyeing him uncertainly, but looked instead to the young man dozing peacefully in the red-head's arms. "Sirius told me he hasn't been sleeping. Rest will be good for him." Charlie nodded slowly and finally started to relax back into the pillows, pulling his bondmate more snugly into his arms.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you…" Arthur shook his head and interrupted before Charlie could finish his apology.
"It's late, Charlie. Let's not talk about this tonight. Get some sleep. I'll see you in the morning." He gave his son a weak smile, then quietly left the room.
Harry stood stiffly from his chair when the council broke for lunch the following day. He had a headache from a combination of stress and grinding his teeth too hard in an effort to keep from screaming at the rest of the Council. Malfoy kept shooting twisted little grins his way, making Harry's stomach twist into knots. On top of it all, Ana was scolding him for nearly losing control of his temper (and his magic). Twice.
And they were losing.
Harry, it turned out, was not the only one who had asked Hermione for help. When Arthur's proposed law on requiring time in Azkaban for 'muggle-bating' came up first thing in the morning, the red-head nervously pulled out a small stack of notecards in Hermione's familiar scrawl and quietly made his case. The facts were there, the statistics relevant and possibly even convincing—had they been delivered more passionately. Watching council members lose interest and tune him out one by one, Harry wished he would have known this was Arthur's approach ahead of time and stolen half the cards; anyone who went to school with the bushy-haired witch would know that, while brilliant, she did not know how to keep an audience. By the time Arthur got to his final, most powerful points, Harry could see that the few people still listening were the few who would have voted along with Arthur regardless. Harry did what damage control he could when it was his turn to speak, but while there were more votes than Arthur had pulled in the past, it wasn't enough to alter the law.
'Malfoy's Law' was next, and Harry very nearly squirmed in his seat with all eyes on him. Personally, he thought the law was bogus and would have liked nothing more than to see it obliterated (He and Charlie couldn't be punished after-the-fact, so they had nothing to worry about). However, he and Ron had talked about it, and the red-head made a fair point: Harry was going to paint himself as quite the hypocrite if he voted to disband the very law he had used to bond with Charlie. They had decided the best he could do was abstain from voting, if that were possible, and when it came time to vote Harry was amused to see that the flames turned a sunny yellow, making the voting colors identical to muggle stoplights. His amusement was short-lived, however. Seeing the young Lord abstaining seemed to give permission to others to refrain from making a decision on a law which, in their minds, was a risky vote either way: lose a loophole they themselves might need at some point, or show the public that they were intentionally supporting a law clearly designed for death-eaters, even if no one would say so outright. For the first time in the history of the High Council, 'Abstain' won out as majority vote, and thus the law remained unchanged. At least the excited muttering had covered Harry's groan of frustration. Malfoy had nearly glowed with delight.
The third vote had come very close to losing Harry his barely-maintained hold on his emotions, and the most frustrating part was that only Charlie seemed to understand. Sphynx's were currently outlawed as magical pets, but the amendment proposed would remove them from the restricted list. When Harry had talked it over at headquarters, Sirius, Ron, and the twins had all agreed that while Harry could argue that they were too dangerous to be pets, he couldn't afford to argue that they were too intelligent to be pets, as he wanted. The twins had tried to explain as patiently as possible through Harry's anger that the wizarding world simply wasn't ready for that kind of respect for magical creatures, and if Harry was truly committed to building connections in the Council, he couldn't afford to ostracize himself like that. Harry had shot back that if he wanted to have any self-respect, he couldn't afford to argue that a Sphynx, who would only attack if their territory was encroached on by force, was dangerous. He had been impressed with the intellect, patience, and grace of the Sphynx he had met in the maze. She had calmly allowed him the option of not answering her riddle and simply walking away. She had the right to protect her own space, just as any witch or wizard would feel entitled to. The thought of one degraded to pet-status churned his stomach, yes, but not because he felt them to be dangerous. Unfortunately, the others had made a very convincing argument. Besides, the vote on dragon reserves would be right after—how could he ask Charlie to vote as though a Sphynx was a dangerous creature and then in the next moment attempt to defend his dragons to the entire Council? In the end, Harry and Charlie's best option was to vote to keep the law the same but not defend their reasoning. Without Harry arguing for their cause, however, there was no one passionate about their side, and the proposal was granted in a landslide vote.
While the rest of the Council retired to their rooms for the trays of food that would be awaiting them, Harry walked over to a corner of the chambers to stand with his palms pressed flat against the stone wall, watching the water cascading over his hands and wrists. He sensed, more than heard, his bondmate approach him.
"You can't win them all, Harry," Charlie spoke gently.
"Apparently I can't win any of them," Harry snapped back bitterly. He knew he was being immature, but he hadn't asked to be followed over to the corner, and he just needed a moment alone to collect himself.
Charlie didn't answer immediately, and when he finally did several minutes later, Harry could hear the hurt that was hidden in the light tone.
"I'm sorry you feel that way. Dad brought lunch out to the table; everyone else cleared out and we thought you might enjoy the open space." Harry heard his footsteps fading behind him and sighed, dropping his arms down to his sides, his hands mysteriously dry once again as soon as they left the wall. He closed his eyes and counted slowly to ten before turning around to face the room. Charlie was sitting hunched over at the table, picking at his food. Arthur sat beside him, quietly sipping a cup of tea and jotting down more notes on a long scroll of parchment that he would deliver to Dumbledore once the meeting ended. He glanced up when Harry approached, and after a quick glance at Charlie, levitated his things in front of him and quietly left for their rooms, leaving the two bondmates alone. Charlie didn't react beyond sliding a tray towards Harry, not even lifting his head to look at him, and Harry felt his stomach churn with guilt. He had been pushing Charlie away all morning as his frustration grew, and he knew he owed the other man an explanation.
"Can I sit down?" He asked uncertainly, even more discouraged when all he got in return was an indifferent shrug. He sighed. "I'm sorry Charlie, I know I'm being an arse." The red-head still didn't answer, but he did at least look up to meet Harry's eyes. "Lord Diggory took me back through my memories of the final task last night, every moment I saw Cedric from the time the starting whistle blew to watching his dad crying over his b-body." Harry stumbled over the last word, and paused to collect himself before continuing. He saw that Charlie was now biting his lip in concern, but Harry pushed on. "Then I slept in your arms all night, and it was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I didn't think of Cedric once all night, and woke up smiling, feeling completely carefree. I…" Harry shook his head, a look of pain and guilt settling over his face. "Who does that Char? Who relives the memory of a friend's death and then sleeps peacefully? How could I just… forget about him like that, even if it was just for a little while?"
"Harry, you can't be miserable forever. You really think Cedric would have wanted that?"
"I'll never know, will I? He's dead!"
"But you're not!" Harry blinked, taken aback by the sudden forcefulness in his bondmate's voice and the hands gently shaking his shoulders as though trying to literally knock some sense into him. "You're right Harry, you get to live and Cedric does not. So why are you wasting it? Stop dragging yourself down every time you start feeling whole and healthy." Charlie's expression was a mix of compassion and frustration, and for whatever reason was doing far more to get through to Harry than the tender sympathy he had been receiving from everyone else.
"I know it's not my fault he's dead, Char. Honest. In a weird way, going through the memories so vividly last night actually helped me start believing that. But it also reminded me of what an amazing wizard he was, and made me think of all the good things the world will miss out on because he's gone. I hear what you're saying, that my life is precious and I should be grateful, I know, but… I want my life to mean something. Something more than just not dieing as a baby. I spent all week researching and planning and I thought—I don't know, I guess I thought I would come here and make all these great changes and make the wizarding world a better place. That probably sounds really dumb." He looked down at the floor, a soft blush on his cheeks. Their lunch sat forgotten on the table.
"Not dumb at all, Harry. But change like that won't happen because of one Council meeting. I know this morning was frustrating. But you can't let the disappointments overwhelm you. You accomplished something incredible yesterday; for the first time ever muggle-borns have the chance to make it onto the Wizengamot. That's huge, Harry, I mean that."
"If any of them actually make it on," Harry couldn't help but answer pessimistically, though his voice was losing most of its bitter quality.
"If nothing else, I'd love to see someone try and stop Hermione Granger from making it onto the Wizengamot now once she's of age," Charlie answered slyly, and actually managed to pull a grin from the younger man, even if it was small and fleeting.
"Good point." The grin slipped away, and he looked at Charlie with sudden gravity. "None of that was what I wanted to apologize for, though. I shouldn't be taking my feelings out on you. It's not fair. Don't argue with me on this, Char."
"Wasn't going to argue, I completely agree that it wasn't fair of you." Harry flinched a little at the matter-of-fact answer, but then felt Charlie knocking shoulders with him good-naturedly before he took Harry's hand in his own and twined their fingers together. "I forgive you." Harry looked at their joined hands, then up at the gentle smile on the rough dragon tamer's face, and was suddenly overcome with gratitude and joy that he was bonded for life to this wonderful man. He dropped Charlie's hand only to wrap both arms around him and press their lips together, not caring that they were in the middle of the High Council Chambers, not caring that Mr. Weasley could walk out at any moment, just kissing his bondmate until the man was breathless and beaming at him.
He felt the slightest scrape of stubble as he turned his head and brushed his lips along Charlie's strong jaw, heard the tiniest catch in the taller man's breath when Harry let his teeth scrape over the sensitive skin just below the red-head's ear. Then there were calloused hands sliding into his hair and his face was pulled forward, eager mouth covering his own once more and tongues slid forward to twine together in a playful fight for dominance.
Finally, when his breathing was becoming labored and the front of his pants began feeling uncomfortably snug, Harry pulled back. He smiled, just a hint of curve to his lips, and gently tucked a lose strand of red head back behind Charlie's ear. He allowed his fingers to slide down over a tan cheek to brush lightly where a loving nip had left the side of his lower lip just noticeably red and swollen.
"I'm not going to take you for granted," Harry promised fiercely, pressing a hand warmly against the dragon skin jacket that covered the place where Charlie's heart was beating rapidly. Before the older man had even cleared the dazed expression off his well-snogged face, a bell chimed through the chamber, and Harry quickly began organizing his notes and snatched a pair of apples off the food trays just before they faded away, handing the larger of the two to Charlie. "Time to focus, Char. We have dragons to protect."