I've seen worse from equal ratings, but if there's ever a time we're going to push T, it's in here.

19

He could taste the ash this time, as though he'd taken a bite from the earth and inhaled a pure cloud of floo powder. The world was darker. There were more flashes, but they were deader—crueler, horrific—and the screams were gone. But he wasn't alone.

Out there, in the endless expanse, he could feel the pain, the pain of thousands of souls, dead and alive, borne from both sides of the veil; a pain of countless voices fused into one, an agony so exquisite that he could almost taste it, that almost became a part of the soul itself. He was feeling without feeling, seeing without seeing. Fear had seized him entirely, his body as shockingly immobile as if he'd been thrown headfirst into the lake in winter, surrounded by a tomb of ice.

He could feel it. It.

No. This is a nightmare. It isn't real.

DENIAL CHARGES YOUR FEAR. CONQUER IT.

He wanted to scream, but couldn't. He didn't have a mouth here. The flashes—red, green, a stark blue, a gruesome crimson—disoriented him, giving him perspective when physicality didn't exist. The source of the pain and the clarity, he wanted neither and couldn't evade either.

DO NOT FEAR IT. USE IT. YOU WILL SEE THE PATTERN. LOOK.

I will not be controlled. But even the thought was hard enough to get out. If there were something to cling to, it would've been easier. But he had nothing. He had nothing in the darkness. Nothing to hold to, nothing to grab onto. Nothing to root him to who he was.

A chill like fire burned him, ice stabbing his veins, consuming him. He had no howl to release here. He tried anyway. He felt pain behind him. He felt pain everywhere. There was no behind, no everywhere. The flashes turned red, then a blinding green, and settled into a storm of the blue, blue shards that tore into his soul, that lured him, dragging him towards the endless sea of other souls.

No.

YOU ARE AFRAID OF PERFECTION. BUT IT IS YOUR DESTINY. COME.

No, he repeated desperately. I am dreaming. Wake. Up.

COME.

The flashes intensified, pounding his mind, pounding his soul. He cast out, for anything, something, to root him, to ground him, any path out of the chaos. It would have been enough to remember his purpose, or his appearance, or even his name, but everything was blank. Everything in his soul that he reached for, everything except the last memory of warmth, a flash of golden hair, a glimpse of green eyes—

Gasping, Albus' eyes snapped open.

The roof of his four-poster waited for him in the gloom. The full moon in the window was the only light; dawn still hours away. Despite his pained panting, it didn't seem as if he had woken anybody else, the room silent but the sound of his own ragged breath.

His back aflame, his head not much better, he sat up. The shirt he'd worn to bed had soaked through with sweat, into the bedsheets, as well. Each time he slept, it felt more real, every detail growing sharper, and never closer, never any more corporeal. And each time, when he fought his way free of it, it felt like some piece of him had been left behind, shorn from the rest of his mind.

His throat ached. He swung his legs over the side of his bed, reaching for a glass of water on his bedside table. And then he froze.

The bedside table was empty, save for a dagger that he had never seen before in his life.

Gleaming sharply in the moonlight, it looked bone, and no normal creature. Something magical, something dark, something dangerous. It had no guard, only a warping of curvature that separated blade and hilt, and at the tip tapered to a point so sharp Albus didn't doubt it it could stab through solid stone without deformation.

It shouldn't have been there. He hadn't left it there. No one would have let this thing inside of Hogwarts. The sight of it brought fear lurching back into his mind, for reasons that didn't surprise him but also which he couldn't explain. Something about it, in addition to everything obvious, was very, very wrong.

He blinked, and suddenly he was holding it in his hand. He'd grabbed it without realizing.

No, he realized with horror. He had grabbed it without command. Just like the way his feet slid off the bed without his command, just like the way he stood completely against his will.

No!

He tried to move his lips. When that didn't work, he tried to scream. Nothing happened. It wasn't him. It was his dorm, it was his body. But he was a prisoner.

His feet moved. He stepped, while in his mind he screamed a manticore roar, and tried to break free. It was no use. He couldn't even feel whatever trapped him. It was as if there was no trap, just that he had been completely detached from his body. He was helpless. He was terrified. And he was holding a dagger.

His legs carried him to the nearest four-poster, and his mind stopped. He could only watch through foreign eyes that were his own as his free hand rose to part the curtain to one side. Scorpius lay within, the moonlight glinting off his hair, silent and peaceful in slumber.

No…

The curtain was pulled aside. An unbidden step took him closer. The dagger glinted as it began to rise.

No! Albus tried to scream. He howled. He threw his mind at nonexistent walls, desperate to break free. No! Scorpius, wake up! Please, please, please, wake up, stop me! SCORPIUS!

The dagger had reversed in his hand, the crisp point facing downward as it paused above his head, heartlessly suspended as Albus held a breath he didn't have.

SCORPIUS! Wake up! Please! Stop me! No! No, no, no!

In the four-poster, Scorpius' eyes snapped open. They rose, and locked onto Albus' own.

The dagger plunged.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

COME.

His world exploded, a million colors shattering over the sound of an ear-splitting scream that he realized was tearing itself from his own throat, vibrating a skull that was already fractured. He swam in endless chaos for a moment—

Scorpius slapped him again, and clarity slammed back with an icy echo.

He blinked. He was lying on his back in his four-poster. Scorpius was on top of him, restraining him, a look of horror in his best friend's eyes as a hand froze before a third slap could fall.

Albus whimpered. "Scorp-"

"What the fuck is happening, Al?"

His hand, freed from Scorpius' grasp, grasped for his friend's bare chest, where the dagger should have plunged. The skin was pure, unbroken. His head head slid to one-side. There was no dagger on his bedside table, just his usual mess, and a glass of water.

He blinked through watery eyes. "What happened?"

Scorpius released him, but didn't climb off, glaring at him in obvious terror. Evan appeared over his shoulder, looking nearly as worried. "You were freaking the fuck out, Al. You've been screaming and thrashing for minutes. We couldn't wake you."

Albus couldn't catch his breath. "It was… just a dream? You're all right..." He seized Scorpius' arm, squeezing hard to believe it. "You're all right. Oh, fucking Merlin..." He started to cry. He couldn't help it.

"Al..."

Evan stepped closer, but Scorpius shoved him out of the way as he climbed off and took Albus' by the arms. "Get him up." A shocked Evan complied, he and Scorpius taking an arm each and heaving while Albus struggled to get his bearings. Their dormmates were awake, too, peering out from their beds with shock. Albus wasn't even coherent enough to be embarrassed. The tears had stopped as quickly as they'd come, but he could feel the tracks on his face.

He expected them to dump him in the shower, but they made for the staircase. It was a stumbling effort to get him to the Common Room—each of them slipped at least twice—and Albus didn't do much of a job helping them move. He was doing his best to snap himself out of it, but he couldn't help glancing down at Scorpius' chest every few seconds, unable to believe he hadn't rammed a blade into it. It was real. It felt real. It was so real. When he closed his eyes, he could almost see it again. His skull throbbed.

They halted in the Common Room. Scorpius took a massive breath and roared, "OI! GET ME A GIRL DOWN HERE!" as loudly as he possibly could have in the middle of the night.

Head swimming, Albus started counting to ten, determined to root himself, like he had… like he had in the nightmare… That was another thought he had to shake off, as something untoward touched his mind. He shrank away from it, trying to blink his eyes awake again. "Mates, I'm fine, I'm all ri—"

"Shut the fuck up," Scorpius hissed.

From up the staircase to the girls' dormitory came the sounds of activity. A bleary-eyed fourth-year with an oversized robe and bleary eyes trumped into view. "What the hell is going on, Malfoy?"

"Bring Rose do it now," Scorpius snapped in one breath.

Whatever stare he shot the fourth-year, it must have brokered no argument. She scrambled up the staircase far faster than she'd come down. Albus made a few more mumbling attempts to convince them he was all right. Scorpius ignored him outright and Evan deferred; Albus could feel his latter friend trembling himself underneath the arm that Albus was using to prop himself up, evidence enough that his condition was anything but all right.

Rose appeared quickly, looking far more alert than reasonable for the hour. Descending the stairs like a landing hippogriff, the Head Girl barked, "What happened?"

"He needs the Hospital Wing," Scorpius told her. "Now. I'll tell you on the way."

Whether a sign of their growing relationship or the severity of the situation, Rose didn't question it. She took Albus' other arm from Evan and the couple powered him through the portrait hole in their various states of undress. He hadn't even had a chance to put on socks. The stone floor was shockingly cold under his feet as they hustled him along, which actually aided in his battle to bring himself back. From wherever he had gone.

"He had a nightmare," Scorpius muttered to Rose.

They didn't slow, but Rose shot back, "What kind of a nightmare to warrant the Hospital Wing?"

"He was moaning and thrashing for minutes. We couldn't wake him. I had to slap him twice to get him out of it."

Rose hesitated. "Still—"

"No, Rose," Scorpius interrupted. His voice had changed from its previous authority. Albus' best mate sounded scared. "It's not a normal nightmare. This is something else. Something's really wrong."

His cousin made no reply, but perhaps they quickened their step. It was already a long journey to the Hospital Wing, and Albus as dead weight certainly slowed them down. As it was, he'd finally settled his breathing—but not his heartrate—by the time they finally stumbled inside, Rose having to alohomora the door's lock with some trickery in order to do so.

They dumped him on a bed Scorpius went for Pomfrey, vanishing down the short corridor that led to her personal quarters. They listened, Rose standing next to him with a soft, steadying and comforting hand on his children, as Scorpius shuffled down and offered eight hard knocks on the nurse's door.

What might've been curses reached them before the door was thrown open, followed by a shocked shriek. "Good Merlin, boy! How dare you deign to clothe yourself before knocking on my door! And at this hour!"

"Madam Pomfrey, Albus Potter needs you."

Something that sounded acutely like a body being thrown out of the way occurred down the hallway, and seconds later a shawl-wrapped Madam Pomfrey came hurtling into sight, hair the color of snow tied to one side in a long braid.

"What happened?" she demanded.

Scorpius reappeared, rubbing a spot on his chest. "He was sleeping, and something happened. A nightmare, but more, a seizure, a really bad one. He was thrashing, we couldn't wake him. It's not just a nightmare, I don't know if it's his back… I don't know..."

Pomfrey's wand appeared in his face the second she arrived, and Albus flinched away instinctively. Rose held him steady as grey fog shot from the wand's end and drifted into his skin. Pomfrey wove another inspective web over his back as the first did its work. The first fog surged out of him a moment later—turned black—and drifted back to Pomfrey's wand. She deflected it and watched it turn a flurry of colors in the air before it dissipated.

The nurse's face calculatedly blanked. She waited for the second fog in front of the three tense students, and then deposited her wand and turned to Rose. "Fetch the headmistress. You know the password?" Unquestioning, Rose nodded and left immediately. Madam Pomfrey turned to Scorpius and shook her disgustedly. "And you. For Merlin's sake, boy, find a shirt. Really!"

Scorpius, his mouth hanging open for a moment, blinked and then looked around for clues confusedly, finally making off for the public storeroom, leaving Albus with only the nurse. "Madam Pomfrey, what it is?"

"Hush, Potter," she snapped, pouring things from various bottles on the bedside table together and shoving some amply-disgusting concoction into his hand. "Drink this and hold still. I'll be back with medicine and water. Stay upright. Do not lie down."

And she, too, fled him. It wasn't what they meant, he was sure, but it's what it felt like. Her steps didn't totally recede, and he could hear her bustling in her stores down the corridor again; that didn't keep the quiet from expanding around him until it felt engulfing, again. He drank what the nurse had given him—it tasted as expected—and used the gagging as a calming sequence to bring his heart rate under control. It didn't work very well. The images flooded back to him, from the consuming cold to the unwilling rise to the helpless feeling of the blade in his eyes as it bit into human flesh—

No, he forced. It didn't happen. It wasn't real. And saying the same thing over and over again wasn't making it feel any differently. Perhaps he should have known, after how still the world had been after he'd broken free from his "first" nightmare. Because he had truly broken free of that one, lashing out at whatever bonds held him until he had finally been returned by the thought of—

Shit.

What would she say, when she found out what had happened? What was she going to think about him? He shouldn't have been worried about the impressions that the rest of the castle would take on if they, too, found out, but he still was. Rhysta had already seen him bad; surely another seizing nightmare wouldn't change that. But stabbing Scorpius in a dream had been horrible. What would he be feeling if he had pulled back the curtain on that bed with a dagger in his hand and seen Rhysta sleeping inside, instead…

The thought haunted him until the corridor door yielded to a furious McGonagall, whose ferocious entrance brought Pomfrey scampering from her storeroom. The headmistress, composed and commanding even in robes thrown over nightclothes, marched straight to his bed. "Potter."

"Headmistress."

"Headmistress," Pomfrey greeted.

McGonagall turned to her. "What is it?"

"Malfoy brought him in. Said there were seizures and nightmares."

"What happened, Potter?"

He didn't know what to say. He didn't know where to get started. He took the next cup that Pomfrey forced into his hand and swallowed while he tried to formulate his answer. It tasted marginally better, but didn't help his problems. "I… Headmistress, I don't..."

"I think he was hallucinating, Headmistress." Scorpius had returned. Still shirtless.

McGonagall grunted as she turned to him. "Mr. Malfoy, it escapes me as to why one would depart one's dormitory less than adequately clothed."

Scorpius held up his hands. "Ma'am, I understand, but if you only knew how hard it was to find a damned shirt in this place—"

"Your language, Mr. Malfoy, is not answering my question."

Albus, too, hung on Scorpius' sudden claim. His best mate met and held his eye. Albus was at least grateful that there was no accusation there. Just concern. "His crying out woke me up. When I got to him, he was thrashing around, and moaning and mumbling. It sounded like he was being tortured. So I got up there and tried to wake him up. But I couldn't. I was shaking him. And then… his eyes opened. But he didn't wake up." Albus' breath hitched—he didn't remember—but no one interrupted Scorpius. "He kept going on. He was saying, no, no, no. And he said my name, so I thought he was lucid. But he was just screaming and thrashing. I slapped him, and he finally started coming out of it, but—"

McGonagall pivoted to Pomfrey. Her face hadn't changed, but something was different. "You've examined him?"

"I have," Pomfrey answered professionally. "There is nothing I would call abnormal about him, but… his homeostatic condition is not what I would call consistent with the current setting."

"Explain, please."

Pomfrey wove another web over him, her brow furrowing, and answered, "His internal heating has spiked unnecessarily. Both nonmagical and magical properties. As though his body is trying to raise him from a considerable chill. A considerable chill. But there is no sign that he has been exposed to any such conditions."

McGonagall frowned. "And you would know the cause?"

"I cannot say, Headmistress. I have seen similar cases before in extraordinary circumstance. But not to this severity."

The two women considered one another, a look of familiarity and concern passing between them, before Scorpius cleared his throat. "There's something else."

When he failed to elaborate, McGonagall prodded, "Whenever you're ready, Mr. Malfoy."

Scorpius glanced at Albus for a long moment, and then straightened in his unclothed dignity to face the headmistress. "There was something else… in the Common Room. A feeling. Sorry, I don't really know how to… describe it..."

"Your best effort will do," McGonagall observed with some measure of encouragement.

Scorpius started and stopped a few times, clearly struggling for words, before his eyes finally lit up. "When I was young, my father took me to a circus in Knockturn Alley. Some shady performances." McGonagall raised an eyebrow, but didn't interrupt. "A bloke in it… he'd brought a caged dementor, back when it was illegal to allow them into the populated world. He brought it out so the crowd could feel its effect..." While the others watched, Scorpius closed his eyes and didn't try to disguise a head-to-toe shiver. When he reopened them, he peered at Albus. "Not the dementor itself. But the cold. The hopelessness. It felt like that. In the room, while Al was screaming."

Everything in the room fell still. Albus held his best mate's stare, his mind blanked, unsure what he was going to do with this new information. Unsure what to think. Terrified of what it meant. None of the others seemed to be in much better shape, and the room must've stood still for the better part of a minute.

McGonagall slowly turned to survey him, her eyes grave. "Mr. Potter?"

It was a formless question, neither requiring response nor preceding a larger statement. He met her eyes, stranded in his own mind for a moment, and then told her the truth. "I want to speak to my father."

Knowing what he was asking, knowing that McGonagall knew just as much as he did—if not more—about what his father was busy fighting in the outside world—Albus, he realized, not even knowing if his father was alive or dead in the days since their last correspondence—he waited for whatever her reply would be.

After hardly any pause at all, McGonagall nodded. "I will see what I can do."

He spent hours trying to calm himself further with a concerned Rose and a worried, tight-lipped Scorpius, but Pomfrey shooed them back to the dormitory still some time before dawn, leaving Albus alone with his thoughts in the Hospital Wing.

Before she had departed, he had overheard McGonagall whispering with Madam Pomfrey on the way to the door. "Until I get a response, isolate him from anyone else that visits you."

Pomfrey's reply had been laced with anxiety. "You believe the rest of the castle could become infected from him?"

"It's not what I'm afraid he would do to the castle," McGonagall had replied, a tad uncertainly. "It's what I'm afraid the castle would do to him."

He stewed over that in the prison of his own mind, not knowing what she had meant. Every so often, he would lift his hand and turn it over—afraid that if he asked his body to move, it wouldn't respond, or that he would suddenly find himself standing not of his own volition, or peer over to the hospital bedside to see a gleaming bone dagger…

Dawn came, but it seemed to take far too long. He was exhausted, afraid to sleep. Madam Pomfrey hadn't told him not to, but he knew that something would be waiting for him on the other side. She'd sequestered him on one end of the wing, behind a series of shielding curtains, and checked on him often throughout the night and into the morning—probably twice an hour—but gave him no updates whatsoever. He thought that highly unusual, that she neither knew what was wrong with him nor had a constant fixation on him to figure it out. Everything was unusual, though. Including everything about him.

He spent a lot of time thinking about Rhysta, too. The others would be in class, but he wouldn't. She would notice, of course. She would certainly look for him in the Great Hall at breakfast, and probably think it unusual if he didn't waylay her from behind a statue at least once before first hour. But when she asked Rose where he was in Ancient Runes, Albus didn't know what his cousin would say. He hadn't thought to arrange that before Rose left, and now wished nothing more than that he had asked her to lie him off as violently ill. Not that it would've been any different, he supposed. He just didn't want her to worry, and if she knew anything like the truth, she would be worried…

What if he'd fallen asleep with her in James and Fred's hideaway, and had his fit there? She would've been terrified, probably wouldn't have had the grit to slap him like Scorpius. She would've threatened him until he went to the hospital wing, and likely would have argued logic with Madam Pomfrey until there was some explanation for what was wrong with him. Or would've already been down in the library insisting she could do a better job of researching it than the lifelong medic…

Yes, it was better that she wasn't there and didn't know, Albus admitted, even though his lips twisted into a grin at the thought. He craved her, there. He needed her there. He missed her. But over the course of the sunrise hours he began to wonder if Pomfrey hadn't been right to McGonagall after all. And waiting to hear back from his father—remembering the dagger—he wondered how he could live with even the possibility that his very presence might put Rhysta in danger.

Shortly after significant sunlight had risen over the threshold of the hospital wing windows, the larger corridor doors opened and a familiar, somewhat gangly shuffle entered the hospital wing. Albus sat up, startled. His father was Head Auror, and the world was proverbially burning. When he asked to get in contact, Albus had been expecting a floo conversation at best, an owl with no guarantee of a reply at worst.

He hadn't nearly anticipated the curtains brushing aside to reveal his exhausted father entering his small corner of the wing.

"Dad," he greeted softly, making no secret of his surprise.

Harry Potter looked exhausted. They hadn't seen each other since his return from the accident, Albus realized, but, if possible, the time had taken a worse toll on his father. Already rather thin, he looked to have lost weight. His face had an unexpected gauntness to it, his incomplete beard ungroomed and his hair longer than usual. It was impossible to estimate the last time the man had slept, or the last time he'd changed his clothes.

Nevertheless, a comforting, familiar smile spread over his father's features as they locked eyes. "Hey, Al."

Albus tried to stand, and got no further than one leg on the ground before his father warned him back onto the bed with a Ginny Weasley-stare. He retreated as his father kicked a stool closer to the bed and sat down, observing his son.

Still accepting the unexpected visit, Albus asked, "Did they tell you?"

His father thought about it for a moment. "Professor McGonagall told me what she was witness to last night. She said I should find Scorpius and ask for his account, as well, but I thought that I would come to you first."

"He might be the better witness, Dad," Albus admitted.

"But you were the victim."

Albus didn't like the word. A "victim" implied a perpetrator. If there were any perpetrator, it was him standing over Scorpius, but since only his best mate's dream avatar had been stabbed, that made Albus the victim, as well, it seemed. Anything other than that brought dark possibilities to find, and he didn't want to think of them.

Speaking of. "How are you here? What's going on outside…?"

As he trailed off, his father's face darkened somewhat, and he sighed. Albus anticipated the same old deflection, but his father surprised him again. "There are dark forces at play."

"What dark forces?"

His father hesitated, looking him in the eye, doing the thing where he wondered if he was revealing too much. And then he said, "Even if I knew… I wouldn't tell you."

Albus didn't miss it. He didn't want to believe it. "You… don't know."

Harry Potter took off his glasses, wiping them on his shirt before replacing them. Likely just a stall for time. He carefully met Albus' eye before continuing. "What have you heard?"

"Just what the Prophet says, Dad." He couldn't keep all of the anger out of his voice. "No one else is telling us anything. Purposely, I can see, and I can even understand why, if I try. But don't you think we have the right to know?"

His father contemplated, and then finally nodded. "Yeah, maybe. When I was here," he gestured at the walls and the roof, "I spent a good year or two being angry at people for keeping things from me. Dumbledore, mostly. And it was true that he hid some… pretty important… things from me. But there were also some things he didn't let me know about because he genuinely didn't understand them himself. And he realized that telling me something while revealing that he didn't know the end, especially when I was younger, would possibly make the situation worse."

His father loved pulling Dumbledore-isms out as unbeatable plays in arguments, but Albus saw the value in this one. At the same time. "I get it. But you were also younger than me when all of that happened."

"True," his father conceded. "What I'm trying to say is, letting people know just how much we don't know about what's going on might cause mass panic. Make a bad situation worse."

"But it's that bad, isn't it?" Albus asked, not bothering to disguise his worry. "It's that bad out there. You're fighting something, and you don't know what it is. And..." He found his way to the next conclusion without realizing he had been ignoring it. "...and you're losing."

Harry Potter didn't deny it. "I shouldn't tell you this—in fact, I would probably be discharged and possibly imprisoned if anyone knew I was telling you this..." He seemed to second-guess himself, and Albus let him, but he didn't hesitate once he made up his mind again. "There's something… in the ministry."

"Something?"

His father shook his head. "Something invasive. Something… dark. And very old. It's taken control of things in the Ministry we didn't think controllable. Built factions of witches and wizards we didn't think would turn on us. It's left us uncertain who we can trust. We've… had to abandon the Ministry as our operating post. The government has been offsite for months, which the papers seem to know. But for whatever reason, they haven't revealed that information to the public. Which in itself may be a disturbing sign. The press isn't known for being conscientious."

"People are dying," Albus said.

"We are assessing what we're against. Devising a defense and planning how we can counterattack."

But you're still losing. This entire time. Albus swallowed. "The thing that you're talking about. You're calling it an 'it'. Not a 'they'. Not a person."

His father hesitated for too long. "Like I said, son… we don't know what we're up against."

Albus tried to accept that one, but didn't want to derail his primary line of thought. "Dad, I'm not saying you're not a great parent by being here and everything, but when I asked for you, I pretty much thought you'd blow me off because of… well, obviously, this. You know. Lily and I have hardly heard from you since Christmas, and it's normally you launching up a spark charm to tell us you're still breathing. Like, I'm really grateful you came, but now it's got me asking… because I know… even for me, you wouldn't have just walked away from that… just because I had a seizure… Why did you come?"

Harry Potter almost looked as if he had been caught red-handed in a mistruth. Courtesy of his whipsmart mother, Albus had been privy to many an expression such as the one on his father's face now. Never before had he seen, however, a mix of pride in with the other resigned confession. His father cleared his throat and leaned over his knees. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

"I don't know if it would make sense."

"It doesn't need to make sense, Al. There are a lot of things in the world that I can't fix right now. One thing I can fix is believing everything you say. Merlin knows, if somebody had given me that one fourth year night, we might've changed a whole hell of a lot. If we can do that for you, I'm going to do it."

Albus didn't know what to say. His mum was stern and kind beyond understanding, but his father listened well. That had always been what set his parents apart in his mind, if not to the world. His mother would listen until she thought what you were saying was rubbish, and then tell you how it should actually be. His father listened until you ran out of things to say.

There were things that he had been silently compiling in the back of his head. Things that didn't make sense. His father didn't need sense, and Albus didn't have it to give. He could only unravel his stacked thoughts out loud.

"The nightmares started after my head got beat in. They didn't make sense. They didn't have forms. I was in places, to begin with, I think. I can't really remember some of the first ones, but they happened so often. It looked like a disaster. Sometimes there was fire, sometimes it was already ash. Screams everywhere. I used to think it was just some setting, and I couldn't figure out why I kept coming back to it. I knew it had something to do with my head, because it only ever happened after I got hit, but the things that I saw in the dreams had never happened in reality. It wasn't always things. Sometimes it was feelings. It didn't make sense to me.

"I have 'em, still. It hasn't always been every night, but they come often. They're bad. Real bad. When I'm there, I can feel other people. Their feelings. They're in such pain. They're suffering. And I can't do anything to fix it. I can't move. Most of the time, I don't even have a body. And there are lights. Sometimes it looks like duels, but then some of it's like lightning and none of makes sense.

"And, then..." Albus trailed off, partly because he was worried how the next part would sound, partly because he was worried what the next part could mean. Eerily aware of the words his father had used minutes before, he continued, "I feel like… there's something else there in the dream." He waited for questions. His father asked none, only waiting with an attentive expression. "Something talking to me, something trying to control me. Or maybe not control. But seduce. It's trying to seduce me. And the more I resist, the more it tries.

"Last night, I was having a nightmare like that. Everything wasn't really clear. It was all lights and colors and feeling and pain. And I thought I woke up, but I was still dreaming without realizing it." He struggled not to tremble with the memory. "I dreamed that I wasn't in control of what I was doing. I dreamed that I hurt Scorp really bad." He forced himself to meet his father's eyes. "And then they finally got me to wake up. And Scorp says I was in a seizure the whole time, and I only snapped out of it right when I woke up from the second dream. And I don't know what's wrong with me, Dad."

He waited for his father's reply, utterly afraid of what it might be. His father rubbed at his mouth for a while, in deep thought, clearly trying not to appear too concerned at the same time. At length, the man asked, "In the dream, when you weren't in control… you're sure it was you? Not merely you in someone else's perspective?"

"It was me," Albus affirmed. "It couldn't have been anyone else."

His father thought longer. "When I was your age, maybe a little younger, something similar happened to me."

"How?"

"My connection with Voldemort," his father explained. "Our link through the sacrifice that my mum made, that bonded us. The first time was accidental—he didn't intend it—and I was just an observer. But the second time, he knew what I was afraid to see, and he used it to lure me into a trap."

Albus tried to understand. "You think someone's making me see things?"

"Someone, something, no, I'm not sure I do," Harry Potter answered, in a thoroughly confusing manner. "I'm not sure it's the same. Because you know it was you. It could've been a bad dream, these all could be side effects of your injury that were unpredictable and only have the downside of ruining your night's sleep."

"Or it might not be." It wasn't him trying to convince his father. He could see it in the older, identical eyes that sat on the stool a few feet away. Harry Potter nodded. "And you came here." The next pieces fell into place without needing more nods, partially because Albus had been fearing them all along. "Because you think this might have to do with what's going on out there."

"I came here because it was the only way I could ensure the welfare of my son," his father corrected, gently but with unmistakable sternness. "I don't know what's out there, and I don't know what's in here. If they told me you scraped your knee, I'd figure you'd be fine. But today in places very close that I'd thought perfectly safe, dangerous things are taking place because I, among many others, didn't pay close enough attention. And if the terrible things happening to you are in any way related to what's happening out there, I will not let you face them alone."

It was a little difficult to keep it together. Even from his dad, Albus couldn't say he had quite expected this much understanding. He wondered if there had ever been a time where Harry Potter had been sitting on a bed in this hospital wing wishing someone would sit next to him and tell him that he was believed and wouldn't be alone. Probably in a situation with far higher stakes than this.

"Dad, I don't know what's wrong with me."

His father crossed his arms. "Professor McGonagall concurs. And as far as she can tell and I myself can tell, you're not in danger or a danger to anyone around you. Not waking danger, at least. Your hauntings are the primary symptom. If we deal with those, maybe things will begin to alleviate themselves."

It didn't sound promising. Albus didn't know what he had been expecting. "What if it has to do with the outside world?"

"If so," his father replied, after some thought, "I don't see why it would be affecting you. Especially not here. Perhaps you're… hearing… something from the inside."

That sounded more than ominous. "That could mean I'm compromised."

His father watched him carefully, mulling. "Then… I could pull you from school. I could take you home."

Among things Albus had not been expecting, not that. "And what?"

"We see how we can deal with the nightmares," his father answered, clearly unsatisfied with his own idea. "We stay open to the possibilities and what we can do with them. We work together, to figure out what's going on and how we can fix it. How we can make it better."

Albus thought of himself in his parents' home, lying on the couch with his twisted back. Away from his friends. Away from his classes. Away from his future. "I'm seventeen, Dad. Pull me out of school… I'm an adult. I'm not a child to be shielded."

"I don't think of it as shielding, Al," his father said, "but I know you're an adult. That's why I'm not going to do it unless it's your decision."

Away from Rhysta. "No."

His father watched him.

Albus almost shrugged, almost just told the truth, but shook himself. "If there's a safe place, it's gotta be here, right? I can fight this. I can fight it from here. It can't be worse than dealing with it at home. And I have to finish my exams. I don't… I don't have anything I used to have waiting for me anymore, Dad. If I don't finish my tests, I've got no future at all, anymore."

"I understand," his father told him. "And if you're comfortable with it, I'm okay with keeping you here. But if you change your mind..." Another hesitation. "...if you call for me again, I can't guarantee that I'll be able to come."

Which in many ways told Albus just how lucky he was that his father was there, at all. "I'll find a way to get better."

"Together," his father repeated. He nodded his agreement, and his father visibly relaxed a little. "That doesn't mean don't call for me. If you need me, I will do anything in my power to be here."

Albus nodded. "I know, Dad. I didn't expect you to come today. But… I'm really grateful you did."

His father smiled, the kind of smile that would make him feel safe when he was hardly able to stand, reaching up for the man's arms to lift him high above the world, a world which had now partially torn him apart and lay as they spoke on the outside partially burning. Today, now, it couldn't convey the same safety. But it didn't distract from the unbridled warmth all the Potter children knew their father had for them. If he couldn't have anything else, Albus was grateful for it.

The mood shattered when the curtains to his hideaway were thrown aside and Madam Pomfrey bustled in. The stool legs screeched horribly as his father snapped to a standing position. Madam Pomfrey froze when she caught a sight of him, and then delivered one of the shrewdest glares Albus had ever seen in her life.

"Potter."

His father was standing at attention. Albus had seen his father more informal while shaking hands with the minister of magic. "Madam Pomfrey."

She scoffed as if being addressed offended her, then glanced at Albus—unfairly, he felt—as if it were his fault. "I have to tell you, I've spent an unhealthy amount of the time in the last twenty-five years overjoyed not to have to march in here because of you."

His father opened and closed his mouth. "That… also makes me grateful."

"Grateful," she harrumphed, turning her back on him with various inaudible grumbles and marched to Albus' bedside. The liquid in the cup she handed Albus was green this time. "Drink up. Tell me how your spine feels."

"A little looser," he answered, eyeing the cup. "Madam Pomfrey, how many more of these am I going to need?"

"The more you complain about it, the more you drink," she snapped, all but tipping the cup into his unwilling throat. A facial expression temporarily screwed his father's face into either a grin or a grimace behind Pomfrey's back, but it vanished quickly.

"Feeling much better," he croaked, handing her the empty cup and glancing around for a bedpan.

"Good. The dosage increases as the symptoms abate." He worked hard not to whimper as she made for the exit, eying his father on the way past. "My responsibility is to students, Mr. Potter. Take care not to stub a toe on your way out."

"Yes, ma'am," his father acknowledged, going so far as to bow his head in respect. He stayed that way until the curtains had settled for several seconds, and then very visibly sighed in relief.

"Wow," Albus muttered. "Not just us."

"Shut up," his father snapped. "If your mother hears of this, I'm giving your inheritance to Lily. If she knew another woman scared me more than she does, I'm dead."

"I'm mum to Mum," Albus promised, thinking James would be a far better repository for such information.

"All right." His father glanced at his watch, and then up at Albus again. "You're good with this?"

"Yeah, Dad."

They shared another silent exchange, and then his father nodded. "All right. I'll tell McGonagall that we talked it out. She trusts me, so she'll know that she can trust your decision, too. But if anything happens—"

"Yeah, I know," Albus acknowledged. "I know, Dad."

"Fine. I think I'll go try to embarrass your sister, while I'm here."

"Charms to Transfiguration in fifteen minutes," Albus told him with a wink.

Harry Potter grinned and leaned over to squeeze his shoulder. Albus patted the hand as it made to retreat, and his father nodded once more to himself before he turned to curtains.

For the second time, they were thrown open intrusively. This time, the intruder was Rhysta.

Albus froze, locking widening eyes with her immediately. Her mouth opened to make a clearly angry remark, but before it could get out she had pivoted and realized that she stood two paces away from Harry Potter.

A Harry Potter with raised eyebrows. "Ah. Hello."

Rhysta's eyes augmented to plate-size almost instantly. "Mr. Potter!"

"You must be Rhystara Malfoy," his father greeted with a smile.

How he knew that, Albus had no clue, but the way her eyes shot at him almost accusingly seemed rather unfair before they darted back to his father. "Yes, sir."

"Surprised we haven't met before," his father replied. "Scorpius is always at our place, after all. I've heard him mention you a few times. All good things. Heard some..." His father slowly glanced at Albus appraisingly. "...less pleasant things..." He turned back to Rhysta. Smirking like he'd solved a puzzle. "...from my son, and I can see that they were all false."

"Probably not all, sir," she answered quickly, her face pale, even for being a Malfoy. Like a leprechaun caught in Gringotts.

"Well, certainly enough of them," her father said with another smile, stepping aside so that she could walk past him. "I'm afraid I'll have to leave you to it, then. All these hospital beds make me uneasy." He glanced at Albus. "I can never seem to get out of one without my wife coming to yell at me first."

"Father," Albus pleaded.

Harry Potter inclined his head towards Rhysta. "A pleasure meeting you, Ms. Malfoy."

"You, as well, sir," Rhysta breathed.

Once her back was turned, Albus' father met his eye and raised an eyebrow.

"Shut up," Albus hissed.

Harry Potter grinned as he ducked underneath the curtain. Leaving Albus with the person he both wanted to see most and least in the world.

She stood at the foot of his bed, staring at him. He wasn't sure what to say. He should've spent some of the hours he'd been brooding trying to come up with what he would if this eventuality happened. For some reason, her storming into the hospital wing while he was still incapacitated had never occurred to him, and he was now paying the price. Truthfully, up until this moment, Albus hadn't realized their relationship progressed to the angrily-marching-into-the-hospital-wing-to-lecture stage. That had been his oversight, he saw, and he would presently be paying the price.

Years of observing his parents had taught him that there were no good ways to open such a conversation. Just bad and worse ways. Worse may have wrung along the lines of "I told you he'd like you", so he opted for bad. "Seeing you makes it a little better."

"You weren't going to tell me."

"Er… how'd you know I was here?"

"I had to sneak it out of Rose," she snapped, "because I had to sneak around the fact that I'm seeing you, and there was no easy way to ask where the fuck you were when you weren't at breakfast or grabbing me behind a pillar or in damned Ancient Runes." Albus tried and failed to appreciate how accurately he'd anticipated her expectations. "And since I know that you'd come to class with four broken limbs if you had to, I figured that you must be in the hospital wing close to death. So imagine me having to sit through an hour-and-a-half lecture desperate to race down here."

When she put it that way, it was a lot worse than his previous worst-case scenario. Something he also should have learned from observing his parents. "I'm sorry."

"Were you going to tell me?"

"I'm sorry, look," he said, then hesitated. "They didn't tell you what happened, right?"

"Who's they?"

"Rose and Scorp."

"Obviously not."

Treading on the back of a sleeping chimaera, Albus took a deep breath to steel himself. "I didn't have any chance to tell you. I didn't have any chance to get a message to you. They dragged me here against my will, and McGonagall and Pomfrey won't let me leave, for now."

"McGonagall?" Rhysta observed, with unhidden worry in her voice. "McGonagall's involved?"

Albus glanced away. "I don't know if it's as serious as she needs to—"

"Albus." It was an unmistakable warning, doubled down by the hard iron in her eyes. "Do not lie to me. Don't tell me it's not serious. Just tell me why you're here. Tell me what happened."

He stared at her. "I'm afraid to."

"Why?" she replied. Worry clouded her features. "How can it be that bad? You're in the hospital wing, not St. Mungo's."

"It's not because it's… critical," he amended. She noticed his choice of word, he saw. "It's because..."

Softly, she said, "You think it'll affect how I feel about you?"

"Not really," he answered, trying to put together the words he meant to say. "I'm afraid… that telling you is going to make me confront something I don't want to confront."

She glared back incredulously. "And what's that?"

He used his invested steel to admit, "That it may be dangerous to be around me."

For how often she complained that he could read her thoughts, she still managed to surprise him all of the time, whether she knew it or not. In this moment, he expected her to demand an explanation, or snap a snarky comeback, or tell him it was foolish to think anything about him could possibly be dangerous. Instead, she shook her head like she couldn't understand him. Each time she spoke, her voice seemed a little softer. "Why would it matter?"

He gaped, unprepared.

She moved forward, sliding onto the bed at his side, close enough that their legs brushed against one another. Close enough to smell the vanilla scent of her hair, close enough to count her eyelashes. It wasn't fair to attack him like this—with sensuality and beauty—not in his condition.

"Why would it matter? Do you think I care?"

"Why do you think I wouldn't care if you were in danger?" he countered.

She shook her head. "What danger am I in by being with you?"

"It's a long story."

"Does it look like I'm going anywhere?"

"Yeah. Advanced Muggle Studies. You never skip class."

Closing her eyes, she raked fingers through her hair. "For the love of Merlin, Al, why the fuck do you think I'm here? You think it's because I got sick of talking about combustion engines and particle physics? I'm here because you're in the hospital wing and no one will tell me why and I'm losing my mind over it. Now tell me before I start thinking about how hard it's going to be to make up a lecture in my spare time."

He had no recourse. She didn't see his fears and she wouldn't see or understand them unless he told her everything. So he did. Starting with the nightmares that she knew he had but on which he'd never gone into detail. He told her everything, pretty much how he'd told his father, how they'd been getting progressively worse, how he had recently begun to feel like he was becoming a part of the pain behind them, all the way up to last night's shocking change.

His eyes were deliberately directed away from hers as he talked about harming Scorpius in his dream, helplessly desperate and unable to control his own body, waking up in shock to find that what had felt and seemed so real had just been another dream, despite the tickle in his palm where his dream self had clutched the dagger. He even told her how much raw fear he'd seen in his dream Scorpius' eyes in the split second they had opened before the dagger fell.

Afraid he would see that same fear in her eyes, he looked everywhere but at her as he ran out of things to say. "My dad… didn't know what was wrong with me. But he came because he was concerned that there might be something sinister. And I don't know what to think about myself. I'm still in shock. It all felt so real. And now I'm scared of even closing my eyes."

He realized he finished his tale without much closure, but he didn't know what else to say. Expressing himself, as she knew, had never been his strong suit. So all he could do was wait quietly. If not for the feeling of her thigh against his, he might not have even known if she was still there.

But the waiting became too much. The uncertainty became too much. Just the agonizing silence became too much. The Gryffindor started to override the fear, and finally he was strong enough to turn his head and meet her eye.

She was crying, silently, tears rolling down her cheeks unbridled, dripping onto her hands. There was such pain in her eyes that Albus jumped and started checking for injuries. His hands shot out unconsciously to touch her arms, to check a pulse, anything.

Both of her hands caught his—softly—and held onto them. Something else unexpected. Yeah, admittedly, he should have doubted that she would shove him away after her earlier outburst, after all their confessed secrets and shared moments. Their feelings should have been worth more than that, more running at the first description of danger. But this wasn't like most red flags, was it? Usually, your significant other didn't have a fused spine and demons abounding.

When he reached up to wipe away some of her tears, she whispered, "Why didn't you ever tell me they were that bad?"

His nightmares. Albus wondered why not, too. He shrugged. "I… never really thought about them too much when… they never really seemed that bad when… when I was with you."

"You thick bastard."

He nodded. "I have been called that before."

She chortled, which turned into a sob and she ducked her head against his shoulder, struggling to control her breathing. His luck was very cyclical today. Begin with a vivid dream of murdering his best mate, receive a pleasant visit from his father, admit that he failed to tell Rhysta something rather serious, wind up with Rhysta in his arms anyway. Like some bipolar Felix Felicis.

"You could have told me this," she muttered into his shirt, which—sweat-soaked as it had been during the nightmare sequence—couldn't have smelled good. "You can tell me this. I'm not afraid of it."

"I am."

She raised her head to look him in the eye. "Why?"

He swallowed, brushing another tear aside, tempted to kiss the rest away. "Because once you know… that's the point when I need to start worrying about it. When I start worrying about it..." He consolidated his thoughts. "Ever since I calmed down, Rhys, the only thing that I've thought about is what if it was you and not Scorp. What if it was you that I hurt."

"You didn't hurt anyone," she replied. "It was just a dream."

"Yeah, what if it wasn't?"

She cupped him by the cheek, forcing his eyes back to her when he tried to look away. "It was a dream."

"I can't make you feel how real it felt to me," he told her sincerely, their eyes only inches apart. "I felt everything. I felt the dagger in my hand, I felt it enter his chest. What if it was something else? What if it was a premonition, what if… I don't know."

She shook her head vehemently. "You're just making wild conjectures."

He bit his lip, fixing her with open eyes. "What if you became a predator Animagus, but every time you transformed, you lost control of yourself. And then you stopped being able to control when you transformed. What if your parents were around, what if Scorp were around?"

"That's entirely different."

"It's not—"

"We're talking about you and me—"

"Fine," he breathed, heavily. "What if it was me?"

For once, he thought he'd rendered her speechless. A few breaths passed, all of them whispering against his lips. "I would do whatever I had to do to control it."

He exhaled. "I can't control this, Rhys."

"And it's also just a dream. And even if it weren't, we would find a way to make it better."

He thought about laughing, but decided that would make a bad situation worse. "And in the meantime? Are you willing to risk it while you wait for that way? I'm not willing to risk it. I'm not willing to risk you."

She shook her head. "Albus, I would rather be with you on the run for my life than be without you anywhere else."

He couldn't help himself. "I would give anything for a time-turner right now, so I could send that quote back twelve months in time. To see the look on your face—"

"And when you continue to regress to your prior idiocy," she added, leaving a great pause as her breath slightly hitched, "then I'll know that you feel that way, too."

After working for hours to get his heart rate back to normal, it was almost disappointing to feel it accelerate again. Almost.

It was a short-lived moment of concession. With far more tranquility than he could have displayed, Rhysta unwound herself from him and shifted a foot more distant. Before he could ask what she was doing, bustling steps preceded the curtains being wrenched aside again, and Madam Pomfrey—laden with not one, but, are you bloody Merlin kidding me, two cups of green gruel—stalking in to behold the two students before her with a look that made Albus empathize with his father.

"Potters," she grumbled. "Why is it always Potters. I'm quite used to expelling a Malfoy from Potter's bedside, but this is the first it's been you, young miss! No visitors! Out! Go!"

With a mumbled apology, Rhysta rose, pretending like Madam Pomfrey couldn't see the dried tear tracks on her face, and quietly walked past. She glanced back before the curtain obscured her, sharing a long last glance with Albus that was full of meaning. Full of promise. Full of determination.

He forced himself not to think of her while drinking the gruel, but couldn't think of anything else for the rest of the day.

After three or four concoctions too many, Madam Pomfrey was ready to release him by noon—he suspected it came so soon because she had never been able to strictly diagnose any real issue with him. His father had told McGonagall he was no issue, and it appeared that was good enough for the headmistress. Albus didn't think it was good enough for himself; despite Madam Pomfrey's allowance, he requested permission to return to Gryffindor Tower for the remainder of the days' classes. A headache worsening by the hour wasn't the only reason why.

Scorpius came to check on him at lunch; he showed up in the tower to see how he was, just as grave-faced as when he'd hauled Albus to the hospital wing ten hours prior. It was a tough message for Albus to convey prone in his four-poster while battling a migraine, and Scorpius wasn't taking it too well.

"They have no bloody clue," he repeated, when Albus had weakly relayed the general consensus of opinions from the medical wing. "Not even your father. Merlin. Doesn't anybody know things anymore. Rose could have this solved if she had five spare minutes in the library."

"I'm sure she slipped those in between courses," Albus responded, "and you know it, too. She'd be here if she knew. What's there to know. Nightmares, they all say."

"Bloody nightmares, I felt it," Scorpius snapped. He stalked around the dorm, glaring at the walls as if they were crouched to attack him. "It was here."

"You don't know what it is."

"I don't bloody need to know, I felt it."

"Did the others?"

His best mate scowled at him as though he were obstructing common sense. "Of course not, because that's the way of things, isn't it? Doesn't matter. McGonagall should see reason, I wouldn't just make something up like this, about you. Bloody nightmares. A dragon has nightmares and can burn a whole—" Scorpius stopped himself before finishing the thought. Albus controlled his face, anxious to keep the shriveling dread in his chest from opening into his expression. "Why'd they confine you up here, then, if they're not going to help you?"

"I asked for it."

Scorpius jerked from his pacing to glare at him. "Why?"

He didn't want to answer. A surge of feeling — cold bone in his palm, a burst of red as a glimmering point struck soft purchase — struck him, and he visibly recoiled on his bed. The shiver pushed him back into his covers, where he huddled for a moment before throwing them off, ashamed of himself, and stood to pace himself. "I don't feel right, either."

"Why would you, a ghost could be here and I couldn't tell the difference. The least they could do was give you some tonic—"

An involuntary gag. "At this point, if Madam Pomfrey offered me pumpkin juice I'd refuse it."

Scorpius hesitated drastically before finding his next words. "What your dad said. About this being connected to the outside world…"

Albus tensed, waiting for the accusation to fly, despite everything he and Scorpius had been through. Something natural to him — how horrifying that he had to make such distinctions — unwound in his chest as the guilt of the night unveiled its roots to his consciousness at last: he was the enemy here. It was his hand that had harmed his best friend, by dream or not. Whatever other force at play, his had been the hand that brought the suffering. For all of its magical protections, Hogwarts had done nothing to prevent that. And now he was just waiting for the eyes which met his, from the medical witch to his best mate, to turn cloudy with incrimination. With accusation. With fear.

Across the room, though staring stiffly, Scorpius' eyes were only angry. Not at him. "What could it possibly be to get at Hogwarts?"

"A better question for Rose."

"Yeah, but I'm asking you. You're the only one here."

Albus shook his head. Some of the day's dead, thought-soaked hours had been spent pondering that exact question. "If something was actually here…"

"It was."

Albus shrugged. But he didn't doubt his friend for a second. "Hogwarts isn't an impenetrable shield. No place is. There are always ways in."

Scorpius turned away. "I should tell Rhysta about this."

While they had not yet partaken, Albus imagined that while brilliant at strategy, Rhystara Malfoy would be absolute rubbish at exploding snap by way of an utter inability to prolong deception. He was far too quick to snap, "I doubt she'd have found anything. If she were to, you know, know about it." Fuck.

"She's fine with you now, she'd help."

"Mate," Albus stressed. "Just please don't." It's the last thing I need, on top of everything else. He was reminded of her words in the hospital wing; if they two weren't a secret, she would have been at his bedside far earlier. If Scorpius knew now, he would never let me near her again. A voice entirely his own told him that just saying that to himself was more than ample evidence to suggest that he should never let himself near her again without Scorpius' intervention. That thought had been creeping in the masses all day, and he had yet to face it. Cowardly as it was, his lionheart failed him now. It was not something he could bring himself to ponder.

This shame played itself out while Scorpius sighed in frustration and then glanced around checking for a clock. "Eat something, mate, you look like you're about to faint."

"Not hungry."

Rose would have argued. Rhysta would have done him more bodily harm before backing down. Albus was grateful it was just Scorpius now. Furious eyes regarded him, but didn't push further. "Come down to dinner, at least."

"I'll try."

He did. He made it down eventually, working very hard not to flinch as he journeyed down seven floors at twilight, wracked by unnerving suspicion, visions dancing behind his waking vision, senseless fears seizing him. Twice he flinched when the staircases moved, something so familiar that he normally struggled to notice it at all. Students were milling about more frantically than usual, some leaving dinner early to hurry to the libraries for exam study; others hurrying down after having delayed the meal to squeeze in some extra charm practice. He avoided their eyes and forced a smile when greeted, struggling not to start and not remembering a single face in his singular quest to get to the Great Hall without losing his mind. His head wasn't hurting, he only realized halfway down, and hadn't since he had left the hospital wing. It was not a reassuring thought.

In the Great Hall, things were normal enough. Rose pulled him gently by the arm to the seat next to her, her hand lingering with naked concern on her expression. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," he lied.

Scorpius clearly didn't buy it, across the way, but said nothing. Dominique was absent, and Evan looked exhausted, regarding him carefully but also remaining silent; not out of discomfort, it seemed, but worry. Albus didn't know what to think, or what they were thinking. He reached for food and focused on the art of chewing what he didn't desire.

"Your father was here today," Rose told him. "Lily told me he stopped in."

"As it may not surprise you to learn, I was the reason for that," Albus quirked. "No, he doesn't know what caused it." He glanced around. "Where is Lily?"

"Might be up looking for you. She was in a frightful state worrying about you earlier, and tried to get up this afternoon. Her coursework is getting to her, she had a rough day."

He temporarily buried his face in a hand, but came up for air before anyone could get more worried than they already were. Lily evidently wasn't the only one having class issues. It wasn't first dinner call, but the tables were at best half-full, and the chatter considerably subdued. Summoning courage, Albus let his eyes drift over to the Slytherin table, expecting at any moment to be pierced by a gaze he didn't feel but wouldn't expect to be anywhere else.

But she wasn't there. He scanned the table twice and didn't catch sight of any blonde hair. He became aware of Rose's stare and knew she would know where he was looking — and probably what he was looking for — and so once again interested himself in disinteresting food before she could voice questions. Relief mixed with need in his chest; it should be a good thing that she wasn't there, couldn't see him, wouldn't tempt him to flee to her in the crowded hall, consequences and secrets be damned. The quiet thoughts in the back of his mind were right, after all: the best place for her now was as far away from him as possible, and if he cared about her at all that would be the place he should be trying to put her.

Ice slid down his spine.

"Mate, you all right?" Evan snapped, leaning across the table. "You're white as bone."

Albus snapped an expression — any expression, he wasn't paying much attention — onto his face and started shoveling food into his mouth. It tasted like ash. He had felt the blood rush from his face as if driven by a summoning charm elsewhere, hardly before Evan had started. They would keep at him if he didn't start talking. "Where's Dominique, then?"

And they got into talking about her newfound studying habits, life finally getting the better of her, it seemed, while Albus wrestled to keep his emotions in check, hidden from the few of his friends and family. He participated in the conversation, but he wasn't there. They still sent him hooded glances every few moments, reminders that they were still concerned, that no one had forgotten what had happened to him that morning. It was becoming a familiar feeling, these slinking glances, but not even his frustration with those could distract him fully from the storm which had taken his mind. A calm storm, made of nothing but excuses for both sides and a ticking clock, harder to swallow than an entire mountain of ash.

She didn't appear by the end of supper. That was most likely fortunate; he wasn't ready, never would be, and had no idea how to change any of that before he would have to. His mind had taken on a clarity absent on his way down to the Great Hall, and he was able to climb silently beside his friends as they made their way back to the tower, the Common Room. While Rose and Scorpius tucked themselves and their textbooks into one corner of the Common Room and Evan settled with notes in another, he excused himself by way of exhaustion, and they let him go with their oblivious concern.

Sequestered in his own agonizing acknowledgment of the inevitable, he fell into his bed with the echo of a ticking clock in his head, staring at the ceiling of his four-poster half-undressed, wondering how he would be able to bring himself to do it. I've done a lot of difficult things in my life, he started with, to try to convince himself. This is no different.

The more time went on, he was beginning to realize how his life before really hadn't been that difficult. At all. It had never been hard to aim a quaffle. It had never been hard to roll a broomstick. Hexing grindylows, cracking jokes with his mates; those things all came second nature. He'd gone through most of his life at a jogging sprint, charging towards his destiny without having to expend more effort than he was willing. Hard work was different from difficulty. Hard work only took desire.

But things had gotten very difficult lately. A lifetime's achievements before him, dashed by one too many knocks to the head. Finding the energy to sleep, the stamina to wake up, to drag himself through classes feeling the eyes on him, knowing who he was and what he had been, what he would never be again and what he had left. Self-loathing, self-pity, self-righteous shame.

Stumbling his way to Rhysta. Feeling his heart shake when he saw her smile. Feeling his heart break to know that she was destined for great things, and his greatest focus would be rising in the morning without a haunting nightmare of murdering his best friends. A few listless months, weeks, to make him forget for a while about what he'd lost in favor of what he'd found, a trade he was more and more willing to admit he would have made willingly if he had only known.

So what would a good wizard do? What would Dumbledore do? What would Harry Potter do? What would Albus Potter do?

His dormmates made their way in gradually, one-by-one in varying states of fatigue as the night wore on, cursing under their breath at work, their stress tangibly adding to the chord of agony hovering in the room as though manually levitated by a charm. Scorpius arrived last, later than Albus could have predicted, long after the snores from elsewhere had already begun. He listened to his best mate climb into bed, still able to feel the dagger in his palm, and closed his eyes in misery. She would kill him. He probably deserved it.

He was afraid to sleep. Not that he would've been able to. When Scorpius had stilled long enough for Albus to be confident he sat up in bed and drew back the curtains on his four-poster. Leaning against the post at the foot of his bed, he faced the window separated his bed from Scorpius'. One of its panes was wide open, showing the castle wall and the lake, glittering in the distance. The full moon was a few days gone, though out of sight; its brilliant light illuminated the wall, its reflection sharply stark on the face of the lake. A beautiful sight. A bit of peace in the cold. He wondered if this is how it had looked the night before the battle all those years ago, when what was supposed to be the last dark war finally ended.

His father had seen that war. His father had been that war. His father had come to him today as his father, not an Auror; but even Harry Potter hadn't been able to tell him that he was going to be all right, that the world wasn't entrenched in a new battle with evil. He never would have been able to call Albus safe from it — a hard lesson that, that the truest dangers leave no safe places — but it was more telling to the youngest Potter son that no one could even tell him if he was out of danger. They claimed he wasn't a danger himself. It was hard to know their confidence, when they could only observe. And all that he could tell them had come from his own head, his own mind. He had no more proof than that.

There were darker questions, deeper questions. They all came back to blonde hair and brown eyes, and stabbing fears at the memory of screams and ash and consequences. Head and back be damned, it was rage inside him now. Rage at everything happening, inside of him and outside of Hogwarts, and whatever linked them. Whatever made him fear himself, and for everyone around him. Perhaps he should've taken his father's offer and left school.

And done what? Gone gallivanting with the Ministry trying to save the world? A right laugh, a scolding, and another pat on the head as they send me home. With a broken head and a broken back, and a faded nothingness sinking into exactly that in the background. Because the world didn't care about him now unless he was the danger himself. Only one person would. And it was the person whose heart he would have to break in order to protect it.

A motion at the window startled him, and he jerked to attention so sharply his back nearly seized and he hitched a tight breath as shadows coalesced against the moonlit wall.

A creature alighted on the window frame. Backlit by the night, at first only the silhouette was visible, wings folding against a feathered body. Albus relaxed when he realized it was an owl, and then sharply tensed again when the head turned to one side to outline a beak too long and sharp for an owl.

It was a hawk, a large one, standing tall and elegant on hind legs. Shifting on the threshold, more moonlight fell over its body, revealing magnificent colors, light golden feathers falling from the crown of its head down its back, dark ivory wings spread out and folded majestically over a powerful pale body built of agility and poise. The light glittered off one of its eyes which was fixed to the room, a large pupil yet somehow knowing scanning the interior of the 7th Year Gryffindor boys dormitory.

Without warning, it hopped off of the windowsill onto his bedside table, stirring Albus from his transfixed state into one of blooming alarm. Before he could move, it… stepped… from the beside table and glided to the floor with a calm stretch of its wings. Once on the ground, it settled once more, the shades of its feathers even more stark and incredible against the dull dormitory carpet.

Then it turned to regard him, both eyes managing to fix on him at the same time, and he froze.

Then it began to change.

Had he known what he was seeing at first, fear would have gripped him, but it was too fast for that. The feathers receded, shortening before his very eyes as the body started growing. The strong chest and shoulders faded, the lithe features contracting even more so. The beak retreated, replaced by the birth of lips as the eyes joined to the skull and grew oblong, never once losing their color, as the body grew taller and taller, while the golden mane across the back of the creatures head turned smooth, straight and silky as it separated from the base of the back and fell weightlessly over one shoulder.

Until the hawk was gone, and it was only Rhysta standing in front of him.

He would have stood there gaping forever, for a whole number of horrifying reasons. She wore no expression, an empty glare of anything from contempt to regard to demand, completely unexplained, her brother sleeping less than an arm's length away. A charm cast by no wand well over him, spellbound by the completely unexpected appearance, a sight which struck him speechless in a way nothing else could.

"Fuck," he whispered at last.

Her head turned to the side, without her eyes leaving his. Her wand appeared in her hand, and for a moment he thought she would use it on him. "Muffliato," she whispered in turn, the device directed in the direction of Scorpius' four-poster. At least one of them had the presence of mind.

She repeated the spell once for each bed in the room. Then she stepped forward, shoved him further onto his bed, and in a move that he had absolutely no idea how to feel about, climbed on after him, drawing the curtains of his four-poster bed shut behind her.

Some things had a way of continually rocking one's world. Albus was beginning to grow tired of them, or at least preferred he could rest in between their arrivals. Scurrying to lean against his headboard, aware that an ache was threatening to split his spine, he came to rest with a gulp, relieved that short of following him all the way she stopped halfway after him, her legs folded underneath her, her expression hardly unchanged from when it regarded him. That wasn't great; it allowed him to notice that all she was wearing was a thin shift, her arms smooth as the night itself, her legs bare below the thigh, toes cold where they brushed against his.

He might have been a danger to the wizarding world at large, but he didn't think that warranted such torture.

"Rhys," he muttered. Somehow he managed to convey his shock and awe at what he had just witnessed. "Rhys…"

Finally, her mask cracked, the slightest grin curving her lips. "Bet you didn't expect that, huh."

It was all he could do to keep form cursing again. "How did you… I mean… Merlin, how did you even… I thought it took… months before you could… I thought there were procedures, things that you could only do so often…"

She licked her lips in the dark. "I made the potion the day after you took me to the rooftop." She nodded to the window. "It stormed the night of the full moon. I was lucky." He didn't know exactly what that meant, but she didn't give him a chance to ask. "I've been practicing hard. I only got it for the first time last night, and then I found out about… I wanted to show you before anyone else could see…"

Her receding voice, his wavering heart, the pain of all he'd realized this night; it sank into him, sobering and allaying him at once. "Rhys, why are you here? There's… Merlin, Scorpius is right there…"

"You weren't at lunch," she muttered, as if it was obvious. "You weren't at dinner—"

"I was, actually. You weren't."

She blinked. "Well, then you came after I left. Because I was out in the skies trying to figure out which one of these bloody towers belongs to Gryffindor and taking great pains not to be found while I waited for it to be late enough."

"Late enough for what, to come here? You still didn't say why."

For the first time, she glanced away, and was silent for a spell. In the intimacy of his four-poster, he suddenly could hear nothing but the easy inhale and exhale of her breath, hardly an arm's length away. He had never known Muffliato to work two ways, but everything in this moment, to him, was her, as he waited with his own bated breath for her next words.

"I don't know what to do," she admitted finally. "Madam Pomfrey can't tell me anything, you don't know, nobody knows, and I couldn't find anything. You just say you're afraid of your nightmares." She shrugged, the flesh of her shoulders bright as it lifted ever briefly into the reflection of moonlight. "Fine. If I can't do anything about it, then I guess I just can't leave you alone with them, then."

He blinked at her, and she returned the gesture.

Eventually, he came to grips with the situation. "You must be joking." She raised an eyebrow. He backtracked, stumbling. "No, that's… not what I meant. It's just… why? How?"

As if he hadn't been taunted enough, she glanced down at herself and then back up at him.

It was all he could do not to scoff. "I'm serious, Scorpius is right there."

"Why are you so thick?" she hissed, without needing to feign any of the disgust in her voice. "You're so handsome but you're so thick."

"Rhysta," he whispered. The night came back to him, the shock from her appearance wearing off in spurts, leaving the aches that had preceded her coming back to bear in full force. "Rhys. You can't be here."

"That's why I came in the middle of the night, you dolt," she replied. "At least you were awake. I can't imagine how you would react if you woke up while I was sneaking into your—"

"That's… not what I mean," he stumbled. Of all the things he'd ever said in his life, all the decisions he'd made that he thought difficult. All the care placed into quidditch trial interviews, picking his words carefully in front of Scorpius' parents, treading around testy subjects of adolescence with Grandma Weasley; none of them were as tricky or impossible for him to get out as these words. "I mean you can't be around me. It's too dangerous."

She actually rolled her eyes. With one hand lodged on his shoulder to steady herself, she shifted to unfold and reposition her legs, closing half the distance between them in the process. "Yeah, yeah, we were already over this in—"

He caught her wrist in one hand and halted her by his other hand on her hip with the other. That placement was a bad idea for the electric shock that surged through his body at the contact, but he met her almost-startled eyes with a steady glare and a straight face of his own. "I mean it."

"I don't care what you mean," she answered. "If you think I'm going to be scared of a bad dream—"

"For the love of Merlin, Rhysta," he snapped, "of all people, I thought that at least you would take me seriously!"

The force of his words landed, stilling them. Muffliato had apparently done its job; nothing in the room stirred, not even her, for several long moments. She eventually closed her surprised mouth and then said, "I do."

"Then why aren't you listening to me?"

"I am listening. And I understand what you're saying, and it's not rubbish. Maybe there is something wrong, maybe something is a real danger with what's happening to you." She shook his hand off of her wrist to place it on his shoulder. She left the hand on her hip there. "The rubbish part is that the place I should be for you is anywhere else other than next to you."

He closed his eyes and let his head sag against the headboard. Everything ached. To his exceeding unfortune, everything. "Don't make me do this."

"Do what? Gonna dump me so as to save me?" Startled, he opened his eyes and met her contemptuous glare. She nodded. "Yeah, I thought you might go for that. Didn't think you'd pull out that one so fast, but there's only one way you'd think once you thought long enough. Which is your problem anyway, too little thinking or not enough. So you either don't get to the right conclusion or go way too far. Stupid git."

"Enough," he barked. He reached for her other hip to try to push her off. "I'm serious about this."

She didn't budge. "I don't care, I'm not going to let you."

"You can't stop me from breaking up with you."

"Sure I can," she replied, sounding entirely nonplussed. "You wouldn't need an excuse as elaborate as this if you meant it, and you're not so cruel as to use something as serious as this to pull it off if you were really planning it. You don't want to break up with me, you're just scared."

"You're Merlin-damned right I am," he growled, continuing his efforts to push her off of him. He managed to slide her to one side enough to sit up and face her on his own. "Do you have any idea what would it would mean if something happened to you because of me?"

"You'd probably feel awful and want to die and all that." She leaned closer, so he could see the venom in her eyes. "I. Don't. Care."

"How Slytherin."

"Exactly," she retorted. "I don't have to think about the emotions of what might happen, I'm only thinking about what should happen. And the fact is that here you are and here I am, and I don't care what happens to me, only that if the nightmares do come and I can't be there for you, then there's no good for me to do at all." If only slightly, he heard her voice soften. "I can't help you, Albus, if I'm not with you."

He swallowed. "I care more about you being safe than I do about that."

"I know, but luckily, I don't."

"I'm serious. It's through."

"Sure."

"We're done."

"Fine."

"Then why are you still here?" he hissed, so sharply that he thought he actually meant it for a second, and was only just able to catch himself from snatching the words back.

She fell silent, but her face didn't imply that she had taken it any more seriously than he. "Because I know you. I know who you are, and I know how you feel. You can't just turn that off, and I know you don't want to."

"Who says I can't?"

She had the audacity to sneer at him. "You can't stop feeling it any more than you can start it. You can't just say 'I hate you' to make it happen. People can't suddenly say 'I love you' and it becomes so."

"Are you sure?" he whispered, painfully seriously. "Should we try that and see what happens?"

It seemed that he finally managed to startle her. Her eyes widened marginally and her lips closed, her throat rising and falling with a swallow. He tasted the air, watching the flutter of her cheeks as she drew a soft breath, so easily lost in the contour of her face, in the golden wash of her hair, in her dark, endless eyes.

"I don't care what happens to me, Albus," she said, at length. "Any more than you care what happens to you. The only thing that I care about is that we do it together. Whatever."

"Now, today," he replied. "And tomorrow, when the nightmares come? When my back gets worse? When Scorpius finds out? When we have to face the world, and it's just the crippled boy and the hawk girl?"

She tightened her expression. "Yes, even then."

He kept expecting her to fight. To break down in anger and shout at him like she had a thousand times before. She thwarted him again — which was the true fight he should have expected, that she kept mastering, his ultimate foil at every turn — by sighing and falling onto her side on the opposite side of the bed. Fingers curled softly in the shirt of his pajamas, she dragged until his back forced him to give in, falling to lie next to her, their faces inches apart on the pillows, eyes locked by the twice-reflected moonlight.

Hands perched under her head to regard him, she sighed. "Just a few months ago, if you tried to push me away, I would have spat on you and turned on my heel. Now I know a little better. That would just give you what you want: to be so miserable as to justify your own self-righteousness. That's not going to work anymore, Albus. Not on me."

"What if you are in danger?" he whispered. "And what if it is my fault that you could get hurt?"

"Who cares, Albus," she muttered, as though weary of saying it. "Who cares. Once we leave this place, everything is danger, don't you know that? Danger from creatures, danger from spells, danger from growing old alone… everything and anything can do us harm, that's what life is. That's why we have friends, that's why he have family, to face the danger with us. Not stand beside us in spite of it."

He shifted on the bed uncomfortably, his words failing him. His emotions failing him. Since the morning, he had been too terrified to realize his own exhaustion, but now it was here, washing over him. By virtue of who she was, he could very well gather that what she was saying was correct, but that didn't make it any less difficult or tiresome to try to digest. Her words couldn't allay his fears. Couldn't keep him from the instinct to push her as far away from him as possible. Where nothing inside of his head could get to her. It wasn't going to work, he realized reluctantly. The harder you push Rhystara Malfoy, the heavier she'll give it back. A hard-learned lesson, six years in the making.

But he would go down fighting, at least. He lifted himself on an elbow to hover over her. No one's glare could smolder like hers, but he tried. "And your grand plan was to fly through a window at midnight and crawl into my bed, and think that would prevent me from throwing you out of it?"

"I don't think throwing me out of your bed is what you have in mind right now."

He froze on an elbow, petrified by her sly grin. He was halfway to warning her that now wasn't the time to be teasing him when her left leg bent upwards, brushing the outside of his hip with bare thigh. He shivered and nearly recoiled, warring with himself. It got worse when she reached up to run a finger along one of his collarbones, as innocently as she could, circumstances considering.

"Still want to get rid of me?"

With great deliberation, he chose his next words slowly and carefully. "If you're only doing this to me now to taunt me, then yes."

The grin vanished, her fingertips still against the skin on his chest, which presently burned hot underneath her touch. She met his eyes, her shadowy face pale by the curtained window light. "I'm not taunting you."

"Whether you know you are or not, you are."

He watched her swallow, and then she slid her hand from his chest to his collar. The other hand joining, she used both to half-pull, half-guide him until he was forced to plant a fist into his mattress either side of her to keep himself from falling on top of her. His body was throbbing, from the raging heartbeat in his head to the hips that she hugged with her knees.

"I'm not afraid of how I feel about you, Albus, not anymore," she whispered just before their lips met.

A conflagration of heat and need slid over him as he felt nothing but a need to bring her closer. His fingers fumbled at the edge of her shift, losing his patience, losing his manners, needing to feel warm flesh underneath. He found the hem as her fingers buried themselves in his hair, and everything started to become a blur, him forgetting everything; the nightmares, the night, their location. Everything except for what was Rhysta, as they moved ever closer even though there was nothing left between them.

Then she arched up into him, and his body jerked without conscious command. His spine twisted and he had to stymie the cry of pain as he lunged off of her to kill his agony. She gasped in surprise as she realized what she'd done, looking up at him in horror as he breathed deeply to kill the pain.

Hovering over her, his chest heaving for more reason than one, fury seized him again. Fury he'd been trying to kill, for what felt like an eternity. Even this. I can't even have this.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Shut up," she replied. With kindness.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, bowing his head. His back had locked up, and ached. He had to crawl off of her, taking deep breaths to ease out the discomfort. He was afraid to look her in the eye, afraid to see the disappointment there; or worse, if it was anything else. "I… I'm just fucking broken."

"Albus," she murmured, and the way she said it, he couldn't help himself from meeting her gaze. He didn't expect to find what was there. "You're anything but broken."

He scoffed, as lightly as he could. "I can't even…"

She sat up slowly, and pulled at the strings holding up her shift, and he forgot how to speak. Her hands moving to his waist, she swung a knee over until she knelt either side of his hips, and eased him onto his back as she doffed his shirt in a single neat motion.

Everything started getting hot as she leaned over him, her fingers entwining with his. "That's the together part. You don't always have to be the strong one."