Disclaimer: Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling. The Lord of the Rings belongs to J.R.R. Tolkien. I do not own anything. I am making no profit whatsoever in writing this story. This is an amateur attempt.
Oneshot: A "Black Wizard" future excerpt (alternate universe or not, you can decide).
Summary: It is years and years after the events of The Black Wizard, and in the deep dark of the woods he visits an old friend . . .
A/N: Little Harry and the Mirkwood Adventure will be updated within the next couple of days. In the meantime, here's something else. This is my second future excerpt story for The Black Wizard.
I won't lie. It is angsty, and some of you probably won't like it. I kind of pictured this as an alternate future universe to The Black Wizard (I know, I know, it's confusing. I'm alternate-univsersing my own alternate universe) . . . But I also pictured this story as something that could ultimately happen within that universe. It's really up to the reader's discretion. Thus, this is an almost sequel to the first oneshot "My Lost Gift". It might be a good idea to read it first, although you don't have to.
I do have to warn you that there are some spoilers in here for future chapters of The Black Wizard – quite big ones, in fact. Having said that, I'm still unsure as to when I will update that story. I haven't read it in a very long time, and I know I have many things to edit, redo, correct, rewrite, and become familiar with as it was the very first story I had ever attempted to write and I now cringe at some of the earlier chapters (not least because I had started out writing one genre and changed it to another along the way . . . ah, the folly of youth! I'm thankful that many of you are still willing to read it!)
There's Always a Price for Murder
The broom slowed to an elegant halt.
Its rider — dark and cloaked, pale fingers gently gripping the handle — gracefully unfolded his legs and touched the foliaged ground. His soft boots made an easy dent in the mulch, and in fact they descended quite a few inches into the soil, but this did not discourage him. Tucking the broom under his arm, he left the denser part of the forest behind him and squelched firmly into the glade, undaunted by the constant sinking that came with every step. Only a few metres lay between him and his destination and, because of this reason, he felt no impatience with his predicament. Even if it had been a while since he hadn't had to feel it.
He paused now, remembering; let the guilt wash over him.
He really had waited too long.
The hood of his cloak rose slightly as he rubbed his forehead with a long-fingered hand, for a split moment revealing pained green eyes, before it once more obscured them as his arm fell away, the hood descending gently as if in a breeze. Sighing, he continued on, the ground sucking loudly at his feet when he lifted them.
He had waited too long.
But he was here now. At last. Years later. His last step told him he'd arrived at his destination; both because the ground had suddenly turned hard beneath his feet and because of the cottage that had popped up out of nowhere. He stepped back onto the spongy earth so he could better see what he'd trodden on. His friend changed it to a different one every time he visited, always knowing when he would drop in via their special way of communicating. Full lips rose in a soft smile as he read the message. The bright purple welcome mat proclaimed:
A Strange Animal Lurks Within: It Is Very Fond of Nitwits
He chuckled: it was just like his friend. He knocked twice on the wood door, still covered in a soft green scattering of moss, and waited, letting his eyes rove around, spotting the differences, the changes, and the things that had remained the same. His heart twisted as he saw that there were a lot more changes, reminding him again of how long it had been. The dwelling now sported three arched roofs and two chimneys, all copiously swathed in vines and the occasional spots of moss. The smoke that rose out from the left chimney was purple in colour, so that, at least, hadn't changed, but the colour of the cottage had; it was now an off-white shade, replacing the dark burgundy it had started with.
It seemed the quintessential wizarding cottage. The thick leaves of the trees surrounding it even sagged over the roof like a sort of hat, framing it, darkening it. A small streamlet gushed in an undeviating line on the cottage's right side, disappearing behind the house and some ways beyond into the denser forest. The previous night's rain had lent the whole scene a muddy, sombre look. Glistening drops even hung off the tips of the leaves, the corners of window panes, adding a natural lustre to the roof's surface.
But if a stranger were ever to approach this dwelling — ever to accidentally stumble upon it — they would not be able to spot it at all. There were reasons for this: anti-muggle repelling charms and more complicated disillusionment charms had been put in place years earlier to both protect and hide the inhabitant within, who preferred not to be noticed by the outside world unless he wished to be. He would never have let his friend stay here, alone, if he had been determined to live out a hermit life. Time passed too slowly for that kind of aloneness. Far too slowly. . .
The latch clicked loudly, the door widened a crack. A flash of golden eyes, a crooked nose, before it swung open the whole way.
The two men stared at each other for a long moment, the dual sorrow and bemusement catching both of them as they took in the other's face, as they noted the untouched features, before they stepped forward and embraced tightly. "I've missed you, my boy," the old voice said into his ear, and Harry experienced a surge of guilt so profound that, for exactly one second, he felt as if the old man's words had reached into his chest and tied all his most important valves in a knot.
"I've missed you, too," he whispered back, squeezing a little tighter.
A hand thumped steadily between his shoulder blades, recognising his silent apology and accepting it. The ache in Harry's heart lessened a bit.
The men drew apart after a while and Harry was both stunned — and, perhaps, thankful? — at seeing the wetness on his friend's face. He was equally stunned upon realising his own face depicted the same.
"A couple of little girls, we are." He reached up to wipe his face with his sleeve; in the corner of his eye noticing his friend do the same with the end of his long, long beard.
"I think, in this case, it is acceptable to let a few tears escape. It has been a very long time."
"Much, much longer for you."
The knowledge pained, and Harry closed his eyes tight at the sorrow in his friend's voice. Sorrow for him.
Albus moved aside and gestured for Harry to come in, which he did, gratefully. "I expected you a month ago —" Harry reflexively winced at that, even though he had been waiting for the rebuke "— I even used my lamentable culinary skills and attempted to make some Treacle Tart the muggle way. It went remarkably badly. You should have seen me. Flour everywhere, and I nearly ruined my best set of robes. Let me take your broom and cloak."
Harry handed them over, watching as Albus propped his Nimbus against the wall beside the door and hooked his cloak on a protruding nail, bent with age. Below where his cloak now hung rested a small basket, padded with soft blankets. Harry's brows rose in surprise. Does Albus have a pet? It warmed his heart to know his mentor wasn't living alone in this old wood. Not that he had ever been really alone, with or without a pet . . .
". . . reason for the wait."
Harry blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"I asked whether there was a reason you waited. I received your message one month ago. Tea?"
Albus led him into the small living room off to the side and through the arched entry, his robes (ostentatiously loud as always) swayed across the stone floors, picking up no dust. Staring at those robes, Harry was reminded once again of his old friend's orientation, and this remembrance surprised him. It should not have. The world had changed back on Earth. Relations of that sort were an accepted part of the norm now; a no more expected occurrence than the morning's post.
He took the offered seat by the fire: a plump, cushion-filled chintz armchair that his bottom sank in to. Looking about the room, Harry decided it was distinctly muggle-ish, yet, at the same time a little wrong. Not ordinary. As if a wizard had decided to blend in amongst muggles but hadn't quite got it right. He didn't think that had happened here, with Albus; his old friend was just eccentric that way.
The drawing room had, of course, changed since the last time he had visited.
Pots hung on hooks from the ceiling, out from which sprouted bright, red-gold roses, where before there had been nothing. The rug under him was a magic carpet, undulating against his soles every time he shifted over it, then retreating, despondent-like, when he scuffed his boots against it in retaliation. The snow globe on the tatty windowsill was clearly a crystal ball, though what Albus needed with a crystal ball escaped him. There was only one distinctly magical entity in the entire room, and that was crackling away ardently in the grate. It cast a lavender blush on the surrounds, throwing over everything a warmly pleasant atmosphere. It wasn't intrusive; rather a thin, almost dusky layer of purple glow pervaded. It matched Albus's affectations, at least.
"I'm sorry about that, Albus," Harry said, nose focused on the pot of delicious smelling stew hooked over the flames. It was already bubbling, which meant Albus had put it on a few minutes earlier, but it hadn't started to sing yet. "I had to visit Aragorn first. You know he has my old wand. I guess I got caught up in — well, they wouldn't let me leave until I'd been given a proper feast. And we had to wait for the others. I felt I owed it to them, since the last time I'd visited was on Dari's first begetting day. I'd planned to come here first and then visit them after, but . . ." he trailed off, uncomfortable. He felt as if he was excusing himself, and that was unpardonable. Albus didn't deserve that.
He focused his gaze on his friend, who moved swiftly about the room, unencumbered by his great age. He paused to select a bronze kettle from the mantelpiece. This he placed over the fire, charming it so that it would stay afloat. "I suspect young Eldarion was glad to finally meet his Godfather," he said.
Harry nodded. "He was ecstatic." In truth, the young boy had not left him alone for nearly the whole month. It had been a while since he had experienced that sort of adoration (Albus wasn't the only one who had lived a somewhat solitary life), but Eldarion's eyes held a kind of quiet pleasure when he looked at Harry, and that the wizard could tolerate, even enjoy. Eldarion was family, besides, and Harry had always valued family greatly. But what Harry could not tell Albus was that he had stayed in Minas Tirith partly out of guilt as well.
He had neglected Eldarion. He'd had his reasons: he had started a family of his own, and when his wife had died and his children had grown to maturity and sired babies, and when those babies became adults and had children of their own, Harry had stayed behind, not wanting to miss a bit of it. The consequences of his decision meant that he had had to wilfully forget, rather, wilfully try to forget, his friends and family in Middle-Earth, but it had been a decision — no matter that it had left a foul aftertaste in his heart — that he had stuck with. Until now.
He would never regret marrying, having children, but if he had known then what he knew now about himself . . . perhaps things would have turned out differently. Perhaps he would never have had the will to put himself through the heartache.
Of losing his wife. Of first watching the shock, then the acceptance, then the worry, then the loss of self-worth, then, finally, the bitterness — of watching the bitterness consume her year after year, of watching it grow worse every time she took a glimpse at his face. He should have left when he had first spotted the signs, but he had been selfish. She'd died with a permanent frown on her face, hating him, forcing him to hate her in return for never being able to accept his circumstance, for never being able to accept that it had not been his fault, that he hadn't known . . . but even the bitter relationship with his wife and its even more sour end had not damaged him as much as what had happened to their eldest son. Holding Sirius in his arms as he lay dying, hit from the back by a stray curse . . . eighty-seven-years old, almost an old man, while he . . .
A prickle of hotness stabbed at his eyeballs and he quickly blinked back the impending tears. No, it was no good to think of the past in that way. His son's death had affected him so completely, so profoundly, that he'd known he would never be the same again. He'd lasted twelve more years on Earth, but in the end, he hadn't even been able to watch his own great-grandchildren as they'd finally surpassed the age where —
"My poor boy," came the whisper, and Harry slammed up his mental blocks so hard his head whirled with dizziness.
"You had no right to do that," he hissed out through gritted teeth, clutching his head to try and stop the spinning.
"There isn't much else to do here besides practise Legilimency. You were miserable, and you were vulnerable, and I wanted to know why. Forgive this old man his idiosyncrasies; you know what he is like." A pause. "I had no idea, Harry, just how awful your life had been these past many years. If I had known the last time you'd visited . . . I'm so sorry you had to go through all of that."
A cup was thrust in front of his nose and Harry gulped down the potion in it. The spinning abated instantly, but the aftertaste that had no business being anywhere else except in the sludge at the bottom of a pond remained. "It wasn't awful," he said, lifting his gaze to the other wizard, who'd taken the chair opposite. He dropped it down at the pity in the other man's eyes. "The first twenty or so years were wonderful, everything I could have hoped for. But the rest . . ." His eyelids shuttered. "It wasn't terribly pleasant, I'll grant you, and there were times when I just wanted to lie down and let the world pass over me, but I knew I could never do it with my family there."
"So you decided to come here at last."
Harry glared at him. "I love my family. The happiest times of my life were when I was with them."
"I don't doubt it." Albus searched his face, and Harry couldn't tell what he found there. "But it is too much loss for one single man, Harry."
"That's why I'm here." He would go back to visit later, of course. The progress of time halted on Earth until he decided to return. He never did manage to find out why it was precisely his presence (or lack of presence) that so effected the laws of time, space, and magic. He only knew that it made him irritable and hopeful all at the same time. Maybe staying in Middle-Earth would help ease the heaviness in his heart, he'd reasoned, when he had first decided to come back to live here permanently. If he lived in Middle-Earth for a long while his family would still be alive, unchanged, by the time he went back. It would be almost as if they, too, suffered his affliction. Almost. That would have to hold him for now.
"So what have you been up to since I'd last visited?"
Albus acknowledged the changing of subjects as he did most things: with a smile. "I've been up to much of the same. The woods never change and I enjoy a very peaceful life. If ever I become lonely I take a trip to the hamlets and cities, or visit some land mark or other."
Harry bit his lip. "Of course."
"I visited your friends only last month."
"So you have been keeping an eye on them."
"You did ask me to." Albus waved his wand and conjured two teacups. Another wave bought the whistling kettle away from the fire. "Two lumps?"
Harry was soon huddling over the gigantic teacup, letting the warmth penetrate the palms of his hands. "What do you think of Eldarion?"
"He shall make a great king someday."
Harry smiled. "I believe so as well." Then he frowned, monetarily perplexed. "If you visit them, then why was my Godson so fascinated with magic?"
"I said I visited them, Harry. I never said I told them who I was. Or rather, Aragorn and I decided not to tell Eldarion until he met you. I disguise myself as an old Ranger friend of Aragorn's when I go to Gondor, and — much to my private amusement — I rather enjoy pottering about the market stalls, smoking their foul pipe-weed and sharing with the children stories about my life in the wilds." He raised his cup and sipped a little, gold-eyes narrowing. "The time of magic and wizards has left these shores. The remaining elves will soon follow. Better not to provoke already dwindling legends."
"Fat chance of that. I charmed that portrait of me in the Hall of Heroes years ago!"
Albus chuckled. "I did see that. Frightened the parlour maid out of her wits when you winked at her. She was in hysterics before I finally managed to calm her down."
"All because of a wink?" He couldn't believe the silliness of some women. "Most muggles would think something like that a trick of the light."
Raising his brows innocently, Albus stared at the ceiling, his lip twitching. "Ah yes, but she'd been carrying a tray of the king's special Dorwinion wine at the time. Broke four jugs."
Harry coughed into his tea.
"I believe your friend Legolas had gifted Aragorn with a few barrels worth. I hexed her with a calming spell. It was the only thing I could do on such short notice."
The two friends laughed, raised their teacups, and clinked them together. It was something that Harry had not been able to do in a long time: enjoy himself, that is. And it had been ages, it seemed, since he had last laughed so strongly. Yes, he had made the right decision in coming back.
"Oh!" said Albus, jumping up from his seat. "Lunch is ready." Indeed, the pot had started to sing very lightly. It would soon become louder if left on the fire.
As Albus went about the business of removing the pot and summoning some bowls and spoons, Harry forced the furniture off to the side and conjured a table in its place. They amused themselves for a while, crashing the plates together and reforming them, lengthening the table, levitating it, dropping it, until finally deciding to eat outside.
"It took me a few weeks to get all the details correct," said Albus, as they strode towards the summerhouse, the pot of stew, bowls and utensils bobbing before them as if on water. "See the raspberries growing about? Charmed, of course, to last all seasons. There is nothing I like better than sitting down with a good book, a cup of tea, and my raspberries. It's a pity you didn't come yesterday, when the ground wasn't so muddy. It is very beautiful and peaceful."
Even now, with the mud and mulch and small branches littering the ground from the previous night's storm, Harry could see what Albus meant. The streamlet was a little larger near this part of the house, and his friend had even inserted a small windmill contraption on its edge. The garden was truly something to behold. Plants from all seasons framed the back of the cottage, blooming with colour, despite the weather. Enormous jasmine hedges dotted the ground beyond the summerhouse. And the focal point, the summerhouse itself, stood in the middle of all this: a roman structure, hard and cold with stone columns, on top of which sat a domed roof, also made of stone. Cream-flowered, dark green vines had completely taken it over, but not in an untasteful way. The raspberry bushes blushed starkly against the cold white of the building.
"Lovely," he whispered. Though he could not get the image out of his mind, of Albus sitting here alone.
They ended up eating in relative silence, though the atmosphere wasn't awkward. His old Headmaster had always been, for the most part, quietly erudite, and also tended, with his very presence, to lend comfort and peace to any situation. Perhaps this was what provided the solace in which he now found himself? It could also have been the surrounds, the natural scents, which were getting harder to come by in the ecological world back home . . .
A breeze rustled the nearby jasmine hedges bringing with it their sweet perfume, stirring his own hair into his eyes; the unsullied smells of wet grass, of wet bark; the clean, fresh fragrance of water wafting from the gushing streamlet in delicate sprays every time it hit a particular stone; the rich odours of thick stew — vegetable with a touch of mint. An odd combination but wholly Albus and no less delicious — remained hot thanks to an earlier applied warming charm on the pot, and both men helped themselves to several scoops throughout the half-hour period. Minas Tirith was three hours away by broom and even longer when travelling by Animagus, so he had been hungry. Although, to his stomach's increased consternation, Harry knew it would become hungry again soon anyway. Vegetables were not very filling, but what had he expected at Albus's? His friend ate no meat and hadn't since before Harry had finished Hogwarts. Since before Helm's Deep and the accident.
But the meal appeased his stomach for now, settling down comfortably. Albus, after banishing the pot and bowls back to the kitchen, conjured some tea in a delicate china pot with equally matching teacups. Long, wrinkled fingers distributed the sugar-cubes accordingly and reached out of the window to pluck the raspberries growing about the summerhouse's perimeter. After summoning a stream of water to settle into a small bowl (it jumped out of the streamlet in a thin connected line), he washed the raspberries with delicate care before carefully stacking them on a plate in a pyramidical structure that could in no way be construed as simple. His last act was to dust the fruit very lightly in a layer of sugar.
Harry watched all this with a bemused smile.
Albus looked up with a matching grin. "Doing little things like this give me great pleasure, Harry." That familiar twinkle was even more pronounced now with his golden eyes. "Just going about the process of performing everything the long way, the muggle way, is very relaxing. I have had to learn to extend my time. To suspend my actions. To do everything the round about way. Normally I would walk to the stream and gather water by hand, but I confess today is a special occasion and I can allow myself exemption from muggle tasks." He popped a raspberry into his mouth. "It is more challenging for you, I know. You have not the advantage that I have. You don't have a Fawkes."
He paused now, as if trying to figure out how best to state his next sentence so that it didn't offend. Harry wanted it to. He wanted someone to tell him that the choice he had made was the right one or the wrong one. He wanted Albus to tell him. He hadn't known he'd wanted all that, and it frightened him.
"You have a family," Albus continued, voice soft and filled with the weight of wisdom. "And while in most ways they can be the greatest joy you will ever know, in other ways they are also your greatest sorrow, because of what you now are . . .
". . .Do not despair, Harry."
For some reason that seemed, suddenly, to be the most heart-rending thing Harry had ever heard. His chest squeezed tight, his eyes blurred hotly. Please, please no, he begged. Anything but this. I've been through it all. Not with him. Not with Albus. Don't want to bring it up again.
"Let it out, Harry. Let it out to someone who understands."
Harry pinched shut his eyes with a forefinger and thumb; it stopped, thank Merlin, his onslaught of tears. "You just said yourself that even you don't know what it's like to be me," he said slowly.
"But I am the best choice of all. I have, at least, some inkling. Even your friend Legolas cannot help you as much as I. Elves are born to immortality. We are not. We should never have been."
"Yes, but at least you can cope with it better than I," Harry said, voice trembling around the edges. "You have Fawkes, as you said. I just have me." He covered his mouth to prevent crying out as the painful memories attacked him once more. "I should never have gone back to Earth, either. If I had known then how the energy would change me, how travelling all the time between the two dimensions would change me . . ." he choked without wanting to. "I wish I could have grown old with my wife, with my children, with my grandchildren, with their —" A sudden loud, walloping noise caused him to start violently and only until he registered the pain in his hand did he realise he had slammed it against the table in utter frustration.
"Oh, my boy. What you have endured. . ."
Harry laughed bitterly. "Give me Voldemort any day, I guess. But you know, my life — it's everything to me, yes, but what I haven't done here . . ."
"What do you want me to say?" Albus arched his fingers together on the table, such a reminiscently familiar gesture that Harry had the absurd urge to laugh. "Do you want me to be angry with you? Castigate you for not visiting, when you knew that I could not? I could never be so selfish."
"I was the selfish one."
"You made the right choice. You stayed with your family."
And that was exactly what Harry had needed to hear, though he hadn't known it until now.
He had made the right choice and, even though the hurt was so strong as to take his breath away, as to make his lungs feel as if they would collapse if he used them just one more time, he had made it. A choice. And he had stuck with it. And it was exactly what he had needed, even though both his mind and his heart had protested all the while.
The choice had been made without his consciously acknowledging it. Here, in fact, in Albus's cottage in front of his little purple fire, fifteen years ago. Time had, certainly, passed slower and longer for him on Earth, but he chose not to dwell on that distressing fact.
They had been having tea, reminiscing about old times, and he had kept his gaze on Albus's unchanged face as it crinkled merrily with laughter — knowing right then how lucky he was that even one of his old friends would still be with him when all the others were long gone — when it had struck him: the longer he stayed in Middle-Earth, the more he didn't want to go back.
Why should he want to?
Why should he want to go back and face his miserable, already bitter wife? To watch his children age? To watch Ron and Hermione and Teddy age? When instead, for a few years, he could stay here with Albus and Aragorn and Legolas and Eldarion and Gimli, where he didn't have to worry about all those around him aging and dying — not for a long time, at least. He could always go back to his family and find them exactly the same as they were when he'd left.
But it was this last thought, this last clear thought, that had decided for him.
It was exactly for this reason that he couldn't stay with his friends, couldn't stay in Middle-Earth. He would be tempted to overstay. Forever. He would be tempted to run away from all of the problems that had just seemed to accumulate so much over the years. For the first time in his life, Harry had wanted to be selfish. He'd wanted to do something only for himself.
And it had scared him.
So, he had stopped visiting his friends, stopped keeping contact in order to stay with his family. In order to be there for them, watch them live out their lives and grow old, no matter how painful it would be for him to witness.
"I wanted to come and visit again, I truly did," he said quietly to Albus sometime later, the slight breeze an uncomfortable insult against his wet face. "But every time I'd think to leave I would feel as if I were betraying my wife. As if, by going, I would lessen the bitterness I should be feeling right along with her. That I deserved to be feeling." The table was cold stone under his palm. "She may have regretted making me feel that way sometimes, at least I always hoped she did, but in the end I kept wishing the wizarding world had such a thing as divorce."
Albus said, "You loved your children too much," and Harry was grateful for the respite.
That night the men sat in Albus's extensive library, the orange glow from the fire flickering merrily along the leather-bound volumes. Harry had given Albus his presents earlier that afternoon (a barrel of Sherbet Lemons that should last him the next ten years if he ate at least one every day, several long letters, and a set of brand new robes complete with dragon-hide boots — Albus required nothing else and would not have accepted it had Harry brought more), and was watching with an expression of astonishment at just many sweets the old man could put away, when Albus finally summoned enough nerve to ask him what he'd obviously been stewing over all afternoon.
"How are the others?"
Harry told him without hesitation. The "others" had been his rocks when he'd found life too difficult sometimes. They were the only constants, besides his children and Teddy, that had actually mattered to him. They had been the real reason he'd stayed. So Harry told Albus; and he told him, not with regret, but with pride. He told him how Hermione had made history by becoming the first ever muggleborn Minster for Magic twenty years ago and was still going strong, though she'd mentioned to him recently that she planned to retire (her muggle, democratic upbringing was partly the reason, Harry knew, as she could have stayed in Office for as long as the Ministry never became sick of her — and Harry had told her that would never happen; they loved her too much); how Ron had been Head of Magical Law Enforcement but had retired to better give Hermione his support; how Draco Malfoy was now inducted into the Department of Mysteries, as one of the Heads or as an underling Harry wasn't in a position to know; how Minerva was still the Headmistress of Hogwarts at nearly two centuries old and had spent that time deploying a new school legislation that was finally, and after a lot of bureaucratic debating, approved. First by the Wizengamot, then by the Ministry's Department of Magical Affairs – there would be no more Houses. Rather, students were assigned to dormitories by random selection; how Snape had become famous for inventing a sort of cure for lycanthropy that was more beneficial than the wolfsbane potion, but less effective than a complete cure.
"He could not believe it, at first, because the answer had been staring him right in the face all along. Hermione mentioned something about muggle anti-venom for snakes. And Snape just got this look . . . In the end he managed to make werewolf anti-venom from werewolf blood, but it only works within forty eight hours after being bitten otherwise there's no chance."
Albus wipe a lone tear from the corner of his eye. "Ah, dear Severus. I am so very glad to hear that he is doing so well. As I recall, you told me that he was still in disgrace the last time you visited."
"Well, there's always a price for murder, isn't there?"
"Yes, and I'm paying for it. Though I very much enjoy this life of solitude; I suspect that I shan't ever become bored with it."
Of course not. Albus was never really alone. "They excused him fairly quickly after he invented the cure, and once I stepped in and said my part, well . . ." Harry shrugged a little, broad shoulders shifting under dark silk robes. "There wasn't much anybody could do. He never taught again, though."
"As you said: there's always a price for murder."
How true that was. And Albus had orchestrated the whole thing — to the point where even Harry, Ron, and Hermione had thought him dead, only to find out that he had been helping them all along from the sidelines. Severus Snape hadn't killed him. Albus was immortal. Albus had merged with Fawkes that fateful day at Helm's Deep; two minds sharing one body. A few years after the war had ended he had left to Middle Earth to live out the rest of his immortality in peace, as Fawkes' essence allowed him. And it would have been too risky to stay. Too risky even for one such as Albus. Now only Harry, Ron, Hermione, Malfoy, Minerva, and Snape knew that Albus was alive and living in an entirely different world.
At the bequest of Albus they had told Malfoy very early on, absolving the boy of any guilt he had been feeling for inadvertently contributing to the Headmaster's 'death'. He had been sworn to an Unbreakable Vow, and, even though it had taken many years, he and Harry had become friends. At least, they tolerated each other; it being as close to friendship as the two men could get.
But Harry still could not get over just how ironic Albus's immortality was. It was what he had wanted all along, from the time he had been gadding about with Grindelwald, yet now he — well, Harry wasn't sure if Albus didn't want it. He certainly looked content with life. More so than Harry. He had taken to immortality like white to rice, but Harry didn't think he ever would. He wasn't cut out for it. His greatest wish in life was to die in some quiet, forgotten place when all of his friends and family were long dead and their corpses long turned to dust, so that he could forget mourning them and die himself.
That was never going to happen.
And he only depressed himself thinking about it.
He decided to change the subject. "When was the last time you had a visitor, Albus?" he said, glancing about the very muggle-esque room and thinking back on how the main drawing room was displayed. "I only ask because you seemed to have hidden most of your magical odds and ends."
"Oh, a few years now." Albus straightened the collar around his neck so that it stood stiffly, and drew a deep breath. "A group of Elves travelling to the West stopped by for a night, oh, three-and-a-half years ago I should say. You know our magic doesn't work quite as well with them sometimes."
Harry smiled faintly. "I'd forgotten."
"They could see the cottage, not perfectly mind you, although they told me they would not have stopped at all had they not noticed the smoke. They were too polite to mention it, but their faces told it all: they were shocked at my fire, frightened of Mist, and I'm afraid by the time morning came just wishing to politely get of out of here. They accepted the basket I'd packed for them, though I would be stretching the truth if I told you I think they ate any of it." The men chuckled in sync. "I'm always prepared now for surprise visits. When I heard your knock at the door I quickly hid most of my magical artefacts. I wasn't sure whether you were another Elf, or one of those elusive Blue Wizards I'd heard so much about."
"Blue wizards? I'm sure they've gone to Valinor by now."
"I would have liked to have met them in any case," said Albus, stroking his beard. "I was ever so disappointed that I missed Mithrandir by three weeks."
Harry had been here to see him off. Gandalf and the hobbits and Galadriel and Elrond. He blinked quickly. He didn't want to think about it.
He quickly downed his third cup of tea that day to avoid having to look at his friend.
He choked when the liquid went down the wrong pipe.
Strong fingers, smudged brown, bits of grass clinging to wet skin, dug into the soil to grasp the herb's roots. They felt around until, encountering the small bulb within the rich earth, they pulled decisively. Harry brushed off the excess dirt by shaking the plant firmly into the air, watching the wind first snatch then scatter it playfully some ways away. He set the root in the basket hanging from his forearm, before once more reaching for another.
They were gardening, Albus and he, in the depths of the forest where the best herbs grew. Some were local, such as Kingsfoil. Others, such as mugwort, wolfsbane or asphodel, Albus had introduced into the soil long ago — the better to make more effective potions. It was the middle of spring and the best time to harvest most ingredients. It would be Harry's task to later dry them out, pickle them, soak them, spray them, press them, and all number of other different ways there were to store potion ingredients so that they each produced different results when used. It was Albus's job to collect beetle shells, frog hearts, bat eyes and all the rest of it, which the dark-haired saviour could not help with as he had no clue as to the best place to find them, or how to go about storing them.
It had been ten and a half months since he had arrived at his old Headmaster's cottage and already he could feel a pattern forming; but the productivity of his current lifestyle was, to his ever increasing surprise, not only agreeable to him, but also somewhat charming — he wasn't stuck in a rut, as he had feared he would be when he'd first started living with Albus. Nor, as he had dreaded, did he go about his daily chores with monotony akin only to standing in the presence of a boring professor. Over time, what had become commonplace, now felt affable. Safe.
It might have taken him almost a year, but he, at last, was cured of his depression. At the time he hadn't known he'd been depressed, and only Albus's at times invasive interference could help him. It hadn't been anything truly heartrending that had penetrated his thick walls either, but rather, it seemed the fault of Albus's oftimes subtle questioning that didn't seem to lead anywhere but was still very intrusive, only it never appeared that way at the time.
It had only been a month after he'd first arrived when Albus had finally made his move . . .
In the round, fruit-scented summerhouse the two wizards were debating as to whether they should visit Minas Tirith for the Mid-Winter Festival and Banquet. Should they wear robes if they decided to go or common garb? And what would they bring in the way of presents? A lull entered the conversation while they both pondered the answers, and that was when Albus made his announcement.
"What of you, Harry? Surely your vast experience on Earth can contribute something useful to the conversation? I'm sure you've done a lot of things I haven't, not least because you have a younger, er, exterior, to amble about in. Adding the extra years you have spent on Earth and subtracting those I have spent here, I should say you're almost as old as me now."
"Not quite that old yet," Harry said dryly, but inside his mind went blank at the unexpectedness of his friend's statement. It had come out of nowhere, and he had promised himself that he wouldn't think on his past that much, if at all, for the duration of his stay in Middle-Earth. But he couldn't help but think of it now, with Albus's reference to "years".
"You've told me of our friends, sometimes meaningless details — I would have done better without knowing about Mr Weasley's unfortunate rash problem in that rather delicate area, thank you — but I would very much like to know what you have been up to, Harry."
Nothing, really. Nothing very interesting at any rate. At least after the first twenty years. Then he'd had to quit his job at the Ministry and find some quiet residence in which to live, although it hadn't stayed quiet for very long.
He had spent much of his life in seclusion and had taken aging potions when going out in public. Only those dear to him had known about his 'problem'. And of course his wife had known. Certainly he'd had slips: inevitable in a life such as his; incidents where over-zealous photographers hid in his shrubs and snapped pictures of him gardening or letting out the Kneazle, but luckily his second son had grown up by that point and the public had assumed that Albus, who'd looked very much as he had at that age, was the culprit. Still, the son of Harry Potter was at least second page news, if not first page, and the incidents had been trying on the psyches of both Harry and his wife. Especially his wife, who was only just starting to commence on her life long quest of resentment and alcohol-induced rage.
But it was in his children's older years when things had taken a nasty turn and The Prophet had unleashed a photograph of him — then supposedly seventy-two — looking no older than twenty-one. Some reporter had breached his wards, used the password that only those who new his secret could have divulged, and taken a picture of Harry playing Quidditch with his adult grandchildren. He'd worn his old team uniform from Hogwarts that had his last name blazoned across the back, and there could have been no mistaking the identity of the person. Especially as, in the photo, he'd dived to chase the suddenly terrified intruder off the grounds, swearing something stupid with his wand aloft, green eyes blazing in fury and lightening-bolt scar clear for all to see.
EXPERIMENTAL POTION GONE WRONG had been the subsequent headline after Harry had talked with the press, an emergency store of aging potion in the pocket of his robes just in case the one he'd consumed earlier somehow wore off. He hadn't trusted his wife not to have meddled with it, as she'd been the one to tell the reporter their password out of a moment of drunken spite.
". . . took a few weeks to wear off," had been his first quote in the interview.
". . . nearly blew up my eyebrows," he'd joked.
Then things had turned serious. "I don't appreciate the breach in privacy at all. Not so much for myself as for my family".
". . . unprofessional and malicious behaviour on part of the media" . . .
". . . this is the last straw" . . .
". . . I will be taking this matter up with the Wizengamot, you can be sure" . . .
And, lastly, sweetly, in a response to a question about why the Ministry need be involved if it had been his wife's fault to begin with:
"Mrs Potter wasn't in her right mind when she owled The Daily Prophet editor with the correct access to our wards, I'm afraid. Menopause settling in early, don't you know. Poor dear's had to drink all sorts of nasty concoctions."
That had been his way of showing revenge (the first and only time he had ever retaliated in such an extreme manner), for which his wife had thrown a fit when she'd found out. They had lived in different houses from then on, though they would visit each other occasionally. Harry never blamed his wife, was in fact more inclined to think it her due, but he had finally had enough of her theatrics and all the guilt she'd forced him to feel, always making sure to remind him it was his fault, his youth, that she'd turned out the way she did, that he'd ruined her life. He never did manage to understand just why she'd hated him so, so much. It wasn't as if wizards aged as muggles did. At seventy years she'd looked more like forty. Only a few greys lined her red hair and she took care of that with a good dose of Mummsey's Magical Mask for Manes every once in a while. Of course the drinking couldn't have helped, and Harry had to admit that she did look older than she should have. Perhaps forty-five instead of forty.
She'd died three years later, and Harry had never forgiven himself for not trying harder to bridge that very wide gap between them. He should have tried harder, reassured her more often, told her how beautiful she'd been to him, but it seemed as if he had done all that and it had gone underappreciated. There had been nothing he could do, in any case. She was gone and he'd been left feeling as if his very presence had contributed to her death.
In his older years Harry had developed something of a reputation as a reclusive gentleman in the eyes of the public, stuck at home with his books and his whiskey and his ten thousand mastiffs. In reality Harry had spent his days trying to make sense of his life now that he had so much of it. He'd decided to tour the world, magic-carpeting across the Sahara, an anonymous figure amongst a dozen other wizarding tourists. He'd visited as many cities on Earth as he could, and one even farther.
It had become a popular pastime for wizards to holiday on the moon via portkey. Only one wizarding city existed there, founded by wizarding Dubai's conglomerate elite and approved by the magical governments of the world. Looking down on Earth from out of the window of his hotel had been a feeling akin only to travelling between dimensions. He had not been as impressed with the experience as his family. Rather, it had only served to remind him of the people he'd cut himself off from. His grandchildren had called him an old stuff, and he couldn't deny them this, but from then on he'd had to pretend to enjoy his experiences on the moon, of which there had been many. The lessons for "Learning to swim in zero gravity" he'd found pointless, as he did the other range of zero gravity activities. Mining for moon dust (a rare ingredient used only for the wolfsbane potion and Severus's Lycanulve Draught) was only slightly better as he had been doing something constructive.
More time passed, yet Harry had remained ever stagnant. Inevitably, a 'Dark Lord' came and went, this time a no more threatening entity than the average Death Eater, but it had been to him that Harry had lost Sirius. They'd blasted 'Lord Grunumord' apart together but Sirius, by that point a seasoned Auror and famous in his own right, had already been hit and was dying. He'd been hailed as the victor. Harry wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
The soft voice broke him from his thoughts. "Yes, Albus?"
"Why don't you take a nap?"
"It's the middle of the afternoon."
"Still, why don't you take a nap? You look like you can use it."
"You've been clutching that root for the past five minutes. Are you all right?"
That soft voice had a way of breaking him out of dazes. Harry put the root in the basket. "Yes, I'm fine." He looked down into his basket, surprised to find that it was full already. "I've think I've picked enough. I'll take this inside."
"Take a nap while your there," said Albus.
Harry grinned. "You always say that to me."
"It helps to while away the hours."
Yes. It did.
A short while later Harry lay in bed, staring up at his warm, burgundy ceiling.
Albus's strategy for helping him had been simple: get him to think about his life. He'd never wanted to before, preferring to forget or forcing himself not to think about all the 'bad' things that had happened. Harry had to concentrate instead on all the 'good' things, the natural things, the every day things that made living all the more better, all the more to be grateful for.
Harry thought about Sirius's wide grin and outgoing nature, drawing people to him as naturally as bees were drawn pollen; walking on the moon's surface and feeling the fine particles of dust thinner than caster sugar beneath the soles of his bare feet, the way the stars still twinkled the same, no matter if he was on Earth, the moon, or in another dimension; the birth of his children; Christmas parties and the almost unbearable amount of joyful noise; flying for no other reason than to feel the wind rush over his sleek body and beneath his wings, to feel it dance into the sensitive skin where flesh met talon and sending pleasurable tingling throughout his body, to feel it blow into his eyes and know that in this form the wind pressure could never make them water . . . those were the things he had loved the most; it was as he'd thought of them over the last ten or so months that he knew he'd lived a full life, even though it might not have seemed that way at the time.
There had been tragedy, yes, and bitterness and resentment and guilt, but there had also been joy, and love, and friendship, and the feeling that even though he was now immortal, he would live on in another way: through the relationships he had made, through the experiences he'd endured, and through his friends and family.
Harry would not wait centuries to visit them. He could live contently in two worlds. He would go tomorrow. He would stay for a little, then come back. Then back he would go again, picking up Time where he'd left it.
And when all his family on Earth passed on . . . well, he had another world to live in. A world where there were other decisions to make. Other paths to choose.
Other places to sail.