So the struck eagle, stretch’d upon the plain,
No more through rolling clouds to soar again,
View’d his own feather on the fatal dart,
And wing’d the shaft that quiver’d in his heart.

~ Lord Byron

A sheet of parchment spread out on the blotter before him, the writer pulls a feather from the drawer and holds it up in the thin equinoctial light draining through the window in his library. The feather is snow white and plucked by hand, not by magic, from the wing of a black harrier. The writer smiles. He went to some trouble to procure it. It is a conceit, he knows, to desire a white feather from a bird renowned for its blackness, and he usually deprives himself of conceits – among other luxuries. But somehow this one conceit had seemed too perfect to surrender, and if he is careful, which he is these days, then no one but he will ever know of it.

In the dying light of the dying year, the feather seems almost blue. Not the robust cerulean of a robin’s egg, or the azure of a cloudless autumn sky, but the susurrous blue of the insides of oyster shells, their edges worn from knife-sharp to soap-soft by countless tides. The writer never noticed this whisper of colour before – the last time he’d seen this feather was under the white-hot light of a Namibian sun under which everything had seemed as bleached as bone. The call had gone up, and from the rattling branches of a nearby shrub, the harrier had taken flight, like a shred of night in the midst of an eternal day, like a Muggle bin bag caught in the wind. The sun had reflected off the black of its body like a mirror. He’d raised his wand and aimed, the Stupefy striking it at the very instant he saw the brilliant white of its flight feathers, concealed beneath a dark cloak and displayed, like a flag of surrender, too late. It fell without a cry, and he’d approached, the air loud with the sound of his boots and the hot keening of countless locusts. It lay in the dirt, its eyes open and unblinking.

The finest quills are made from feathers plucked from a living bird. He’d learned this fact long ago, but he hadn’t understood why until much later. Not until he’d learned from experience that all things worth having are bought at great costs. When he’d wrenched it out (whoever coined the word “pluck” had never done the act himself), a single drop of blood fell from its tip. The ground on which it fell had never known cold. Never known snow. But in his mind, that is how he remembers it. Blood on snow. Ink on parchment.

* * * *

Scorpius Draconis Eltanin Malfoy read the first book in the Alford Ocamy series over Christmas hols when he was eleven. Well, he didn’t so much “read” it as he devoured it. In three days, nonetheless. No small feat considering it weighed in at more than six hundred pages. When he came downstairs to breakfast on the third day, his face still buried in its pages, his mother sniffed and scrunched up her nose and told him to shower and change his pyjamas. He’d neglected to do more than eat, sleep and read from the moment he’d torn away the stiff silver paper and opened the cover for the first time. Showering and changing had seemed nothing more than a petty intrusion, an unendurable interruption.

“But I’ve nearly finished,” he protested. “Please! Just another couple of hours and then I promise I’ll shower and change and pick up my room and anything else that you want . . .”

“Why on earth would I ask you to pick up your room when we have house-elves?” his mother asked, thoroughly mystified.

Scorpius’s father put down his newspaper and reached for the platter of eggs Benedict.

“Good book?” he asked, still reading a story in the paper folded beside his plate.

“Good? Good doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Scorpius gushed, forgetting to swallow his mouthful of toast in his enthusiasm and spraying the pages with damp crumbs.

“Darling, at the very least, could you please remove your book from your plate?” said his mother, handing him her napkin.

Scorpius took it from her and swabbed distractedly at the vicinity of his mouth. “It’s brilliant, Dad. You should read it. You’d love it!”

“Mmmmm,” was his father’s noncommittal reply. He hadn’t glanced up from his paper, but Scorpius saw his mouth twitch and the corners of his eyes crinkle ever so slightly.

Feeling encouraged, he decided to press his case. “You would, Dad. I know you would.”

“Well, don’t leave me on tenterhooks,” his father said. “What is it about?”

“It’s about . . . It’s about . . .” Scorpius paused. How could he even begin to explain what it was about? It was about everything he’d ever thought or hoped or dreamed or imagined. It was about friendship and courage and loyalty. But it was also about quiet things that, until then, he’d thought only he alone had felt. Things like loneliness and longing and a kind of exulting joy that sometimes licked at the edges of his consciousness with the caress of a flame.

His father looked up at his sudden silence and arched a long, elegant eyebrow.

“Yes?” he prompted.

Scorpius took a deep breath.

“It’s about a boy. A boy named Alford. A Muggle boy. He’s eleven, just like me, and he goes to a special school for gifted Muggles. It’s high in the mountains, and it snows in October, and he studies things like literature and maths and chemistry. He’s got many friends, but his best friend is another boy named Raph. He and Raph met on the aeroplane, which is this big Muggle ship that flies through the sky. Alford saw Raph sitting with a boy whose family his parents didn’t like, but he went over to Raph anyhow because he thought Raph looked like someone he wanted to be friends with. But the other boy was mean, and said that Alford was a bad person, but Alford said, ‘No, I’m not!’ and Raph believed him and they became friends . . .”

“I don’t know,” said his father. “It sounds like a children’s book to me.”

Scorpius could not conceal his chagrin.

“It is, but it’s more than that,” he said, his voice full of entreaty. “It’s not like Orville the Owl or Gus Gusington goes to the World Cup. It’s . . . It’s real.”

“Darling,” said Scorpius’s mother, “it’s a story. A made-up story. It’s not real.”

Maybe it was the fact he hadn’t slept for longer than four hours at a stretch, or maybe it was because Christmas break was almost over and he had to return to school soon, but whatever the reason, Scorpius felt his eyes suddenly brim with tears. He ducked his head, trying to hide them from his father’s steady gaze. But a hic-cupped sob betrayed him.

“I know it’s made-up,” he said fiercely. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not real. To me.”

“Darling . . .” his mother started to say, but then Scorpius felt his father’s hand cover his own where it rested on the table.

“Of course it is,” his father said, effectively silencing his mother.

Surprised by his father’s uncharacteristic tone, Scorpius glanced up, blinking the tears from his lashes. But whatever had transpired between his parents had already come and gone, and both of them wore their smooth masks of customary dispassion. He turned from one to the other, questioningly, but his mother merely smiled softly at him, and his father’s attention had once more returned to the Sunday Prophet beside his plate.

Knowing what was required of him, Scorpius took a deep breath and closed his eyes, imagining one of the mental images his father had taught him to quell his emotions: a fireplace full of glowing embers doused with a pitcher-full of clear cold water. He imagined the hiss and then the sudden puff of steam and finally a silent heap of sodden ash, unignitable now save by the strongest of spells. A spell that only he had the power to say, or – more importantly – not say.

The breath he exhaled was not even the least bit shaky.

“Good boy,” his father murmured without looking up from his paper. But his hand remained on Scorpius’s, and his thumb stroked Scorpius’s knuckles in a slow deliberate way that conveyed his full attention. His full attention and his silent but unwavering pride.

Through the remnants of his tears, Scorpius smiled.

* * * *

Setting aside the feather, the writer reaches into his robes and feels for his belt. Halfway between his groin and his right hip lies the compact sheath in which he keeps his balisong. He unfastens the stiff leather catch and feels the metal slide into his palm, its chill quickly giving way to the blood-heat of his skin. He lifts it above the desktop, flicking his robes closed, and, with an equally effortless movement, opens the folded blade with a snap of his wrist. In the watery light, the titanium-coated steel seems almost black. Only when he turns it slightly can he make out the telltale hint of cobalt, as sultry as a mid-summer night – as sultry, in fact, as the night he’d purchased this same knife from a handsome Filipino in a Tsim Tsui market during his short stint as a Cursebreaker in Hong Kong.

Respectful of its keen blade, the writer sets the knife aside on the padded edge of the desk blotter before reaching once more for the feather. He’d already tempered its shaft in hot water and even hotter sand the night before, and the former transparency of the hollow tip has given way to an opaque pearly white – a white almost as pure and unblemished as the plume itself. Testing it with a gentle pinch of his fingertips, the writer confirms that it is soft and pliant and ready to be cut.

But before he cuts the first nib, he uses the swedge of the blade to strip the barbs of the plume closest to the tip in order to clear a space for his hand. Watching the tiny white needles drop gently to the blank parchment causes his blood to thrill in his veins in a way he’s not known for many years. He has just taken the first step on a long and painstakingly planned journey from which, he knows, there will be no turning back. It reminds him of the day, years ago now, when he’d bade his world good-bye and boarded a Muggle train for Heathrow airport, plane tickets in his pocket for far-away cities he’d never before visited but had read about in books during the long sleepless nights of the War. Somehow, some way, those strange cities had become more familiar to him during that time than any other place had ever seemed, and by the time the War ended and he left England, he’d felt less like he was leaving than he was going home.

The writer stills his hands and closes his eyes, recalling for a moment the heavy, rocking sway of the car as it streaked past fields and housing estates, intermittent stations appearing now and again – strategically placed reminders that constant motion is not the natural state of human existence, and that stillness is the real reward for a life worth living. As the train slowed on its approach to the cities in its path, he’d glimpsed things he’d never seen before: tiny back gardens with clothes lines strung from wall to wall like sutured wounds; the rear entrances of factories and warehouses where middle-aged women gathered on their breaks to smoke and watch the trains rumble past; the trash strewn embankments and graffiti covered underpasses – the white paint of I still love you, appearing suddenly in the gloom like a subtitle on a foreign Muggle film or a line forgotten by the actors, scrawled in panic by the stage director on a cue card.

I still love you.

The writer opens his eyes, returning his thoughts to the task before him. He’d set himself the goal of a chapter per day, and already the sun is slipping from its highest perch in the bare winter branches.

There will be time – more than enough time – for recollecting later. But for now, he has a job to do.

* * * *

Twelve year-old Albus Severus Potter was recovering from a Quidditch fall when he read the second book in the Alford Ocamy series. He was glad he’d resisted the temptation to read The Dungeon of Doom over Christmas hols because he was certain that it was now the only thing that kept him from dying of boredom and discomfort, and he forced himself to read it slowly instead of gobbling it down as he had the first book. He had to make it last. Who knew how much longer Madam Lannon would insist on keeping him in the hospital wing?

He had to be careful, though. Everyone else at Hogwarts had already read The Dungeon of Doom, and he found himself forced to announce to his visitors that he hadn’t finished yet and didn’t want to be spoiled. For the most part, this forthright approach had worked well, but it had failed to prevent his older brother, James, from blurting out that Alford ended up dying to save Raph when the ceiling of one of the myriad ancient passageways beneath their school had crumbled as the two boys rushed to rescue a classmate who’d been lured into the mysterious underground dungeons by a corrupted professor.

Albus stared at his brother, uncomprehending.

“You can’t be serious,” he said. “How can there be seven books in the series if Alford dies in the second one?”

James just shrugged, reaching for the deluxe holiday box of Chocolate Frogs Albus’s friend Scorpius had brought and popped the struggling critter in his mouth.

“Maybe he comes back as a ghost,” he said, giving Albus, Scorpius, and the ever-present Lily an unappetising glimpse of masticated goop.

“Stop being mean, James!” Lily cried. She turned to Albus. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Alford doesn’t die and neither does Raph. In fact, Raph . . .”

“Will people please stop talking about the book,” Albus groaned, stopping his ears as best he could. “I only have a few more chapters to go.”

“Can we talk about the parts you’ve already read, then?” asked Scorpius.

“Sure, just don’t give anything away,” Albus conceded.

“I loved the part when Alford and Raph helped smuggle the bear cub out of the school,” said Lily. “Even though they knew they might get in trouble, it was still important to them to help their favourite teacher.”

“Although, the teacher was certainly foolish to bring a bear into the school in the first place,” said a voice from the door. The children glanced up to see their friend Rose crossing the room through the rectangles of sunlight that fell from the west-facing windows and turned the otherwise dull wood floor the colour of honey.

“Of course,” said Scorpius, “but the important thing is that once their teacher had brought the cub into the school, Alford and Raph stuck by him and tried to help, rather than turn him into the headmistress. After all, the cub would probably have been killed if anyone had found out about it.”

“I would have helped save the cub,” said Lily.

James yawned and reached for another Chocolate Frog.

“Oi, leave some for me!” Albus yelled at him indignantly.

“Give over,” said James, his mouth yet again full of masticated goop. “I’m sure there are more of these where they came from. Scorpius gets enough money from his parents every week for a hundred boxes of Chocolate Frogs . . .”

“And we don’t?” replied Albus darkly.

Scorpius just shook his head and laughed.

“It’s okay, Al,” he said. “James is right. There are more of these where they came from.”

“That may be true,” said Al, though he continued to glare at his brother. “But it’s the principle of the matter that counts.” He’d just learned that particular turn-of-phrase from his Dad over hols and found it summed up, quite handily, many of his complaints in life. He just hoped he wouldn’t use it so many times that James would take to mocking him for it.

“Have you got to the part with the big football match yet?” asked Rose, pulling a chair away from a nearby bed and insinuating herself between James and the now half-eaten box of Chocolate Frogs.

“Just finished it,” Albus replied. “I was surprised Alford gave up the chance to play centre forward, even if it was so he could play alongside of Raph. He’s never going to be able to score any goals as a defender, even if they are playing the game as wingbacks.”

“But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?” said Scorpius, leaning forward in his chair in the way he always did whenever he was intent on winning an argument. “Scoring goals is less important to Alford than supporting his best mate. After everything that Raph went through with that evil foster family of his over summer break, Alford knew he needed his friends more than ever.”

Albus looked at him sceptically.

“But scoring goals for the team – especially against Clifton Prep – would go a long way toward making Raph feel better. Merlin, those Clifton boys are tossers!”

“But it’s not like there were no goals scored,” said Scorpius, tracing his finger in Albus’s bed sheets as though diagramming a Quidditch – or, more aptly, a Muggle football – play. “Maybe not as many as there would have been if Alford had played centre forward, but that last goal they scored – the winning goal – they scored together . . .”

“My favourite part was when the Clifton captain slipped in the mud,” said James. “Like Al said, those boys are complete tossers.”

“Language.” Madam Lannon’s weary voice drifted for the umpteenth time that afternoon from behind the half-open door to her office.

“Sorry!” the children’s obligingly chorused.

“What’s a ‘tosser’?” Lily whispered, and Albus found, as he laughed along with his friends, that at some point since their arrival that morning, his ribs had stopped aching. He caught Scorpius’s eye and grinned broadly, receiving, without a moment’s hesitation, the very same grin in return.

* * * *

Taking the uncut feather in hand, the writer holds it as though preparing to dip it in an ink well, noting its natural curve and the uncanny way it seems to cleave to his fingers as though it belonged in his hand and nowhere else. The angle of the nib he needs to cut is obvious.

A shiver of purely sensual pleasure courses through his body at the sight of his own skin in proximity to something so fundamentally other – so irrefutably not his. The harrier had produced this thing of beauty from the mysterious processes of its own body. It does not belong to him, and this realisation excites and animates something all-but-forgotten in the writer’s heart. Suddenly, a memory surfaces, so visceral and still so raw that he gasps aloud in the quiet of his library: his hand, youthful and untouched by middle-age, splayed on the milk-white skin of his lover’s chest, so wide and so covetous that his thumb brushes the bruise-coloured flesh of one nipple and the tip of his pinkie finger, the other. Beneath his palm, his lover’s chest rises and falls with an intensity of need that the writer knows only he was capable of eliciting. A wave of awe and gratitude sweeps through him, and he bends to kiss his lover’s mouth, wanting nothing more than to drown. This person beneath him is letting him do this – is letting him nuzzle the sweat-damp hair under his arms, is letting him drink from the oracular wetness of his mouth, is letting him seek sexual pleasure and release against the perfect mystery of his pale, semen-slick belly. Even in the midst of this, their first coupling, the writer had known he’d never be this joyful again. This humbled. This lost in the glorious terrifying ache that is sexual intercourse with the one person you have desired for years and felt you’d never deserve. When he came that first time, he’d covered his lover’s chest and throat with his seed as though his lover’s body were an altar to some heretofore unanswering god who had finally, after countless hours of fervent prayer, relented and allowed this simply to be.

Little had he known at the time just how quickly – and how mercilessly – that same god would take back all that he had bestowed. But for a short time, the writer had known happiness. Happiness and, after a lifetime of war, peace.

* * * *

Ginevra Molly Weasley-Potter found herself frowning as she read the last page in the third book in the Alford Ocamy series and wondered at her own consternation. Certainly, it had nothing to do with the book itself. Like its predecessors, it was well-written and thoughtful and brimming with suitable life lessons for young adults. And certainly it did not contain themes that she believed her three children were incapable of handling – quite the opposite, in fact. This book, even more than the other two, had focused on the vital necessity of friendship and the message that abandoning a loved one out of cowardice was a nigh-but-unforgivable sin. These were sentiments she shared with the series’ anonymous author. Why then had reading it left her feeling so deeply unsettled, as though some pillar in the foundation of her life had been shaken?

In this book, the most adult-themed thus far, the eponymous Alford Ocamy and his friend Raph Troyert had learned both that Alford’s father was in collusion with the evil Fascists, who were slowly, but relentlessly, rising to power, and that Raph’s own dead parents had expressed in a recently-discovered letter their last wish that Raph be trained as a fighter for the Resistance. For much of the book, it had appeared that these best of friends would be destined to meet on opposite sides of a line drawn years ago by the generation that proceeded them. Indeed, Alford had gone so far as to be inducted into the Fascist leader’s youth militia. But in the last chapter, following a climatic argument that had brought tears to Ginny’s eyes, Alford had broken with his father and escaped from his family’s manor house to meet Raph and the other young resistance fighters in the Forbidding Forest. Upon seeing him, Raph had run to his friend and wrapped him in a hug. His words had been the last words of the book: “I knew you’d come back,” Raph whispered into Alford’s hair. “They said you wouldn’t, but I knew that you would.”

Ginny pushed herself up off the sofa and wandered into the kitchen, setting the kettle to boil with an absent-minded flick of her wand. Perhaps her emotions were a result of the story’s undeniably poignant turn. Or perhaps they were the result of the memories that had come flooding back – memories of both her and her brother’s abandonment of Harry during the War. Out of his own fears and frustrations, Ron had left his best friend and his future wife to face danger alone. Yes, he’d eventually gone back (a crucial fact!), but nonetheless, he had abandoned them. Whenever she thought of it, the shame burned in Ginny’s blood as though it were something genetic she shared with her brother.

And what of her? Was she any less guilty? Certainly, Harry had ended their relationship and set off without her, but wasn’t it nonetheless true that she had let him? She could have fought, could have argued, could have railed and screamed and cried till he’d relented. After all, was he not her future husband? The future father of their children? The love of her life? But yet she’d let him walk away. Let him face death alone without her . . .

With the steaming cup cradled in her hands, Ginny slipped into a chair at the little breakfast table by the window overlooking the garden. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, but still the leaden sky refused to snow. There was something about the prospect of a snowless Christmas that made her throat seize up anew. Merlin, but she was feeling melancholy these days! Perhaps that is why a book (a children’s book, for Demeter’s sake!) had left her feeling so strangely vulnerable. She pressed her hands tighter around her tea cup and inhaled the fragrance of rosehips. It reminded her of summer, and she allowed herself to close her eyes and picture the cottage they’d leased in the west of Ireland – the warm sand in the hidden cove and the fine mist that settled over the world some days and wrapped them all in a gauzy grey blanket. She’d drank cups and cups of this self-same tea during that month, and with its smell in her nostrils and her eyes closed, she could still picture Harry’s tall frame folded into one of the old armchairs by the fire, his reading glasses slipping down his nose and his regular pair lying before him on the coffee table, their lens reflecting the light of the smouldering peat fire. And there was Hermione in the chair across from him, reading some Muggle novel or another, her face looking both completely focused and completely content at the same time. Nearby, Albus and the Malfoy boy sat, their bony newly-adolescent elbows propped on the table before them, intent on yet another endless chess game. And from the bedrooms overhead came the sound of James’ wireless and the occasional cheers of James, Lily and Hugo as one of their teams scored another goal or knocked the other team’s players from their brooms. Outside, rain pattered softly against the windowpanes, and somewhere in the distance, a sheep dog barked, steering its charges away from the edge of some precipitous – and, in the fog, unseeable – drop to the sea.

It had been a quiet and a peaceful time, and they’d all but managed to forget the distant but nonetheless troubling drumbeat of news from London. The Prophet’s daily whisperings of disappearing ministry officials and covert Auror activities underscoring the urgency of the Firecalls coming in for both Harry and Hermione at increasing intervals . . .

Suddenly, as though Ginny’s thoughts had summoned her, Hermione’s face appeared in the kitchen grate.

“Hi there,” she said wearily.

“Hi,” said Ginny. “Everything all right?”

Hermione’s head bobbed in a way that suggested she’d just shrugged her shoulders. Ginny couldn’t be sure, but regardless, her silence spoke loud enough.

“Rose and Hugo are fine,” she said. “They can stay here this evening. And I’ll make sure Ron has a plate of something when he comes by to fetch them.”

“Thanks,” Hermione replied rather listlessly. “Harry told me to tell you he’s running late.”

“I figured when I saw it was you and not him.”

“He’s been tied up in debriefing sessions all afternoon.”

Ginny merely nodded.

“I think he’ll be finished by this evening, though,” Hermione added quickly. “Hopefully neither of us will have to work on Christmas Eve.”

Ginny forced herself to smile, but she knew it was wan. “I’ve been baking,” she said after the silence between them had stretched too thin.

Hermione drew a deep breath, and her eyes drifted shut for a moment.

“Mmmm. I can tell. Gingerbread. It smells absolutely lovely.”

The two friends were silent for another long moment, and Ginny felt the increasingly familiar sense that something – somewhere – was deeply wrong and that others were trying to protect her from any knowledge of it. She wanted to force Hermione to speak, to tell her why it was that Harry came home these days with worry etched into the creases of his brow, and why Hermione had been too distracted to remember their annual day-before-Christmas-Eve shopping trip to Diagon Alley. After all, they’d been going faithfully every year since Voldemort’s defeat, even during the years before Ginny and Harry had started dating again and even when one or both of them had been in the late stages of pregnancy and had been forced to visit every public loo between Ollivander’s and Eeylop’s at least twice . . .

“Well, listen, I’d better be going,” said Hermione. “Thank you for taking Hugo and Rosie. I hope they’re not too much bother . . .”

“You know they’re not,” Ginny replied rather too sharply.

Hermione sighed. “I know that, of course. I’m sorry, Gin.”

“No worries,” she replied. That was one of the many phrases she’d fallen in love with while they’d all been in Galway. God love him. Sláinte. No worries. “Oh,” she said brightly, not wanting to end their conversation on a dreary note. “I finally finished The Inmate from Île du Diable. You can borrow it if you want.”

Hermione laughed the first real laugh Ginny had heard from her in days.

“Like I need to borrow it! Do you know that I ended up buying four copies? One each for the kids and one for me and Ron both because I knew we’d end up killing one another if we were forced to share like we did last year.”

Ginny laughed, thankful that at least one thing was going to be the same this year – Boxing Day would be spent, by children and adults alike, lounging around the fireplace with mugs of tea, eggnog and cocoa at their elbows and noses buried in the latest Alford Ocamy book. Impulsively, she reached out as though Hermione were there in the room with her and not just a fiery illusion.

“Be careful, you,” she said, suddenly feeling the tears she’d sensed before spring up and clench her throat shut like a vice. “And tell my husband to be careful, too.”

Hermione nodded, too solemnly to be comforting, before vanishing without a reply.

* * * *

The knife is so sharp that it bites into the shaft of the feather without the aid of either pressure or magic. Gravity alone is sufficient, and the writer finds himself wondering at the lack of resistance, at the surprising ease of creation. A friend of his – an amateur sculptor who, despite his pureblood heritage, swears to the superiority of the hammer and chisel over the wand – told him once how it felt to shape hard stone into the likeness of living muscle. Matter and the spirit are not so dissimilar, he’d said. Both long to be shaped into something greater – something . . . necessary. The writer had laughed at the time, swirling his whisky and watching it catch and spin the refracted light of the cut-glass tumbler. Really, artists said the most pompous things! But nonetheless, the remark had stayed with him, and he’d found himself recalling it at odd moments. Rather like this one, as he carefully guides the blade on a journey that seems more preordained than deliberate.

But then again, how much in life is truly random? Had anything that he’d done been a product of his free will or had it all been fate? Had he merely gone along for the ride, swept up like an insect in a viscous thread of resin and carried on a slow journey toward eternity?

. . . both long to be shaped into something greater . . .

. . . something necessary.

The writer holds the newly-cut nib to the light and presses his finger against the slit at its tip, forked like a snake’s tongue, imagining the drop of ebony ink that will rest there like a primordial, pre-verbal wish that may yet manifest in words, but is just as likely to speak through action. Through the hot-bunched, nerved-flecked muscular slide of a punch or the bird’s eye twitch of a wand flick. Or, even more eloquently, the sudden anticipatory flood of saliva that fills the mouth in the split second before the tongue reaches out to taste a lover’s kiss. To taste the shape of words like always and forever and don’t go.

How he’d longed for everything those words had promised, and how he’d rued, ever since, his silence in reply.

* * * *

By the time she finished reading the fourth Alford Ocamy book, Hermione Granger-Weasley had a pretty good idea who the series’ anonymous author was. She’d suspected ever since the revelation in the third book regarding Alford’s father and his allegiance to the leader of the fascist Nationalist Party, but she hadn’t been sure until the second-to-last chapter of Alford Ocamy and the Medal of Gold.

The hefty six hundred-page tome still resting like a cat in her lap, Hermione closed the cover and removed her reading glasses. Slowly, she grew aware of the quiet around her – nothing but the tick of a clock and the soothing rumble of Harry and Ginny’s Muggle refrigerator. It must be after three o’clock. Even James had turned off his wireless and gone to sleep. Her mind had been so full of the story that she’d failed to notice as, one by one, each room in the Weasley-Potters’ rambling farmhouse had slipped into silence. For a second, she was certain she heard voices, and her ears strained to catch the sound of girlish giggles from Lily’s corner bedroom or the heavy footsteps of one of the men as they made their way to the loo. But the sound did not come again, and Hermione was left with the unsettling feeling that she’d overheard ghosts – ghosts or the tentative whispers of Alford and Raph as they lay facing each other in Alford’s vast feather bed and made plans of escape and promises of forever.

Hermione sighed and rubbed her eyes, feeling more than just the usual sense of bereavement that she always felt after finishing a good book. For four days, she’d been able to lose herself in the story and ignore, for a time, the ever-growing reverberations of war. It would not be long now. Aurors had been assassinated. A top ministry official’s family had been kidnapped and held for ransom. Any week now, a declaration would issue, and the world as they knew it would, once again, come crashing down. And just as they had, their children would have to learn the bitter taste of fear and sacrifice and loss.

Opening her eyes, Hermione reached down and traced the gold-leaf lettering. Anonymous. Yes, perhaps he thought he was. But not to her. She’d come to know him too well, come to know the haunted look in his eyes whenever she had occasion to visit his posh offices just off Brompton Road. The first time she’d seen him, after he’d returned from Istanbul and started his consulting firm, she’d thought it was guilt. But then he’d asked one question. Just a simple question uttered with feigned insouciance, but it had caused something in her mind to slip into place with an all but audible click.

And Harry Potter? How is he?

Suddenly, she’d been transported, as though by the spin of a Time-Turner, back to the end of their final year at Hogwarts. That miraculous year that very nearly hadn’t happened at all – and for those who’d not survived the War, never had . . .

Hogwarts had reopened the September after Voldemort’s defeat, and they had returned, although not as sorted students relegated to separate houses and dormitories and Quidditch teams. Too much had been destroyed to make that same mistake again. Neither the physical castle itself, half-destroyed as it had been, nor the fragile new alliances of the older students who had fought in the War would permit it. Instead, the school’s governors had decided to house all students who were seventeen or older in Hogsmeade. For some, Hermione was sure, it was this decision that had persuaded them to return at all, given the memories so many bore of the final battle and blood-stained halls. The town’s inns had become impromptu dormitories, and everyone had drawn names from a caldron to see who their roommate would be. And that was how Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy had ended up sharing the small, blue-papered dormer bedroom above the Hog’s Head for which the only entrance was a trapdoor in the floor. At the time, it had struck everyone, except them of course, as hilariously funny.

The fall had passed like a whirlwind. The only concrete memories she retained were like snapshots in a Muggle photo album: Ron with autumn leaves in his hair; Dean sitting at the bar in the Three Broomsticks with his pastels scattered around him like shards of a rainbow; Harry leaning back in his chair precariously far, and laughing as he told yet another story in the Rooming With Malfoy saga. In retrospect, of course, she’d searched her memory for clues, and there had been some. There’d been the fact that by the end of September, Harry and Malfoy had started playing Quidditch one-on-one nearly every day. And then by the end of October, Malfoy, who always began his Saturday nights in the pub sitting with the Slytherins, started ending his evenings sitting next to Harry at the Gryffindor table. And then came the evening in November, when all the Hogsmeaders (as they came to be called by the rest of the student body) were walking back to their rooms after a late dinner, and Malfoy had slipped his arm through Harry’s and kissed his cheek rakishly.

Walk me home, darling? he’d drawled, while Harry blushed crimson in the light of his Lumos. But then Malfoy had winked and smirked, and everyone laughed heartily because, Merlin, the very thought of Harry and Malfoy as a couple was completely outrageous.

But after the holidays, something had changed. The one-on-one Quidditch games did not resume. Both Harry and Malfoy stopped going with their friends to the pub, and when they did, Malfoy never came to their table anymore. Harry stopped telling Malfoy stories and, even more tellingly, stopped laughing when anyone else did as well – an occurrence which, itself, ceased abruptly when, one evening in February, Harry rose from his chair so suddenly that it crashed to the floor in his haste to seize Justin Finch-Fletchley’s collar and shake him into silence after he’d suggested Malfoy hadn’t come out that night because he was afraid of the dark.

The prat’s a fucking coward, isn’t he . . . was all Justin had managed before the look on Harry’s face had sucked the breath out of him as surely as any Dementor.

In hindsight, it was obvious what had happened, but she’d been so caught up in end-of-term exams and falling in love that she’d failed to notice the moment when Harry must have fallen, too. It must have been right before Christmas hols. Something about the imminent return to their separate lives must have sparked that first conversation, that first confession, that first kiss. Certainly, Harry had been careful to maintain boundaries between himself and Ginny while he was at the Burrow over break. At the time, Hermione had assumed it was out of respect for Ginny’s parents and maybe even Ron, but in hindsight, it was clear that his restraint ran far deeper. It was almost as though he and Ginny had become two repelling magnets: whenever she entered a room, he would find an excuse to leave it. Hermione had thought at the time that it was because he wanted her too much. Later, she knew, it was because he wanted Malfoy too much.

But they were discreet, Harry and Malfoy. More discreet than one could imagine of two randy eighteen year-old boys, and she doubted she would have ever known but for that night she’d stayed late at the castle to help Madam Pince rearrange the Magical Theory section. It was in early April, one of those nights that seems perfectly balanced between winter and spring. There was still snow on the ground, but the road had been tramped to mud, leaving a dark ribbon winding through the trees, and the air was soft and stirring. The brightness of the moon had made a Lumos unnecessary, and she’d walked slowly, enjoying the solitude and the quiet and the sense of a world on the verge of reawakening. She’d come to the sharp curve in the road just before the lights of the town became visible through the trees, when she’d heard a voice she would recognise anywhere.

Draco, stop for a second. Please, stop!

To this day, Hermione still couldn’t say for sure why instead of calling out to Harry and signalling her presence, she’d chosen instead to cast a Disillusionment charm and shrink against the trunk of an enormous beech tree. Perhaps she’d already guessed the true nature of his relationship to Malfoy and she wanted to test it, or perhaps she was embarrassed that she’d overheard even a small part of what appeared to be a very emotional conversation. But whatever the reason, she chose to hide and watch as the two boys circled one another in the middle of the muddy road like prize fighters in a ring.

What does it matter if I stop or not? Malfoy had replied, his voice not at all as it usually sounded, so much so that Hermione actually doubted her eyes for a second. Perhaps this was some other tall, thin boy with blond hair? It’s not like I can get away from you. We share a fucking bed, after all!

Is that what you want? To get away from me?

Harry’s voice sounded so forlorn that she’d had to clench her fists and sink her fingernails in her palms to keep herself from running to his side.

Draco had laughed bitterly in reply.

What do you think? he’d said caustically.

I don’t know, Harry replied. I don’t know, Draco, and that’s the problem.

Even in the scant light and the hundreds of shadows cast by dancing leafless branches, Hermione had been able to see the heaving of Malfoy’s chest. He reminded her of a deer she’d once seen when she was young, chased down and pinned by dogs, its eyes rolling white with fear.

What do you want me to say? he cried. What do you want me to do? Isn’t everything I’ve said and done already enough?

Harry, too, must have heard something he’d never heard before in Malfoy’s voice, because suddenly he was pulling Malfoy against his chest and wrapping his arms around Malfoy’s back.

Don’t go, he said fiercely. Don’t leave me.

But I can’t . . . Draco’s voice was muffled against Harry’s neck, but Hermione could still hear how broken it sounded, how lost. I can’t stay here. I can’t bear the way they look at me. You don’t know what it’s like . . .

But don’t you see? It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks except for me. I’m the only one who should matter, Draco, and I know what kind of person you are. God. Look at me, Draco! Stepping back slightly, Harry seized Malfoy’s chin and forced it up. If you leave, it will kill me.

And what if staying will kill me? Draco had asked, almost, but not quite, defiantly.

Teenage boys, Hermione thought when she’d had occasion to recall their words over the intervening years. Melodramatic teenage boys. But seeing Malfoy again for the first time, more than a decade later, and hearing in his cool professional voice that unmistakable tremor . . . Yes, she’d realised then. He’d never recovered from his own self-inflicted wound.

And neither had Harry, in whose eyes she’d seen a light fade and die as he’d sat on his bed the day of their graduation ceremony and watched Malfoy pack. Climbing the stairs, Hermione had glimpsed him through the partially-open trapdoor and watched for a moment as tears tracked their way silently down Harry’s cheeks, and then softly she’d turned and gone back down, signalling to Ron and his parents that Harry wasn’t there yet and perhaps he’d stopped off for a pint on his way back from the castle.

She’d never spoken to anyone of what she’d seen. On either occasion. Because the very next day, Malfoy had left England, and Harry had returned, after a time, to being Ron’s best mate and Ginny’s boyfriend. And Hermione’s guilty secret.

Slowly, she traced the letters one last time.

Anonymous.

But for how long?

* * * *

A well-cut nib on a properly-tempered quill should last for at least ten pages. The writer tests the strength of the tip by tracing it along the lines and plains of his palm. Head. Heart. Life. All too deeply etched to be alterable by ink or even blood. Will. Logic. Vitality. All readable in the thumb alone. Strength. Perseverance. Moral courage.

Child of the moonlight, the dark-eyed gypsy had said, holding his hand in both of hers where she squatted by a fire made out of old wagon wheels, clad in men’s boots and skirts that bunched indecently around her waist. Child of the wind. You are fleet of foot and always running. You seek something you’ve already found. You flee something you needn’t fear. You will live longer than all who love you. Longer, in fact, than you can bear.

But of course by then, he’d already known that.

The writer flexed his hand open and closed, watching as his wedding ring flashed in the lantern light. He had told his wife not to expect him for dinner. They’d eaten a late lunch in London after leaving Kings Cross, although he’d hardly tasted a bite. It had been hard enough saying good-bye to his son without having caught a glimpse of . . .

The writer sighed and closed his eyes. How, after all this time, could it rush back like that? Like the tide returning to the pools it had forsaken – this feeling of desperate exhilarating inarticulate desire? It was ridiculous! He is a man on the brink of middle-age. A husband. A father. A member of the Wizengamot and the International Confederation of Wizards. A titled aristocrat, an expert renown in his field. A success story by every measure and a living rebuke to all who had doubted him, all who had once tried to make him eat his shame like mud. He owed no one an apology any longer. No one, that is, except, perhaps, himself.

And, of course, Harry.

Harry.

His beautiful dark-haired, flushed-cheeked, sea-glass-eyed, pale-skinned Harry. His beautiful fierce vulnerable generous Harry, who’d given away everything and asked for only one thing in return.

Stay with me.

One thing, and even that had been too much to ask of a coward and a slave. You can put a title before the name and a degree after it, but you cannot change the essence of the man who bears them. Cannot change lead to gold. Cannot keep something you do not deserve. Not, at least, while God’s still watching.

* * * *

Harry James Potter finished the fifth book in the Alford Ocamy series the day after war was declared and found himself, not quite inexplicably, thinking of Draco Malfoy.

Slowly, carefully, he closed the cover and set the book on the coffee table still littered with empty mugs and candy cane wrappers and food encrusted plates. Around him sat everyone in the world that should matter to him – his wife and children and friends and family – their noses buried in their own copies of The Society of the Serpent. When Harry stood to announce he was going out for a walk, they were all so engrossed that no one bothered to look up, though he did receive a few grunted acknowledgments.

It was almost funny, really, that the only person he wanted to be with right then was Draco. No, not funny. Hilarious in the sort of way that all ironic things were fundamentally hilarious.

Haphazardly, the blood pounding suddenly in his veins, Harry went to his and Ginny’s bedroom and pulled on a Weasley jumper and hat and scarf and mismatched gloves. To hell with how he looked. All he wanted was to feel something other than this hot surge of knowing – and beneath it, an even hotter surge of anger, which could, at any moment, turn into betrayal and loss. Two feelings that had always had a home in Harry’s heart but never so much as they did after that year in the room with two beds transfigured into one and wallpaper the colour of a robin’s egg . . .

Fumbling at the latch for a moment (one of the gloves must surely belong to Ron because it was at least two sizes too big), Harry opened the door to the garden shed and held out his hand.

Accio Harry’s broom,” he whispered and felt the satisfying smack of solid wood against his palm. And then, because he didn’t really want to be discovered by whoever it was who’d tried to kill him last week, he cast a quick Disillusionment charm. It was true that he was feeling rash, but not so rash that he wanted Ginny to have to spend New Year’s Eve identifying his body at St. Mungo’s.

The sky was slate grey, and the air around him was full of listless drifting flakes, the kind that fell only when it was too cold and raw for a proper snow storm. In the mood he was in, Harry could almost imagine some weather god measuring out each miserly pinch and releasing it on the wind like a rationing of salt during wartime. Squinting in the direction from which the sun shone weakly like a lantern with a low-trimmed wick, he leaned against his broom and wished for speed. Only when the world was streaking by him like the view from the window of a train at full-throttle did he allow himself to think.

Why had he dreamed again last night of Draco Malfoy? Why now? Now, when it was long past too late?

Suburban Kent offered little in the way of challenges, so Harry made a wide lazy turn in the lowering twilight and pointed his broom towards the west. It had been years since he’d done anything like this, but the low hanging bridges and narrow gaps between the buildings in London’s financial district seemed to call his name just as seductively as they had when he was eighteen. For a moment, time seemed to melt like wax, and Harry felt strength and recklessness course through his body in equal measure. It was not unlike the way that making love to Draco had made him feel.

Catch me if you can, Potter!

If Harry had been reckless on their midnight flights, Draco had been suicidal. Several times, Harry had watched in suspended horror as Draco’s elbow or thigh grazed the corner of a building. And one night, Harry had to swallow a mouthful of bile as he’d watched Draco, flying at least eighty miles per hour, duck only a split second before his pale hair, swept free from his dark cloak, disappeared into the gloom beneath one of the yawning cast-iron spans of Southwark bridge.

Are you trying to kill yourself? he’d demanded when he caught up and signalled that he wanted to land on the nearby roof of a free-standing tenement just east of Charing Cross. Draco had alighted as though nothing in the world was amiss, but Harry had been breathless and furious, his limbs twitching with adrenaline and rage. Draco’s eyes glittered temerariously as he leaned into Harry for a kiss, and his lips were as cold as the night around them.

Ugh, he’d said, withdrawing to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. You taste like sick, Potter.

Harry had no memory of what happened next. Had he turned away, embarrassed? Or had he grabbed Draco and forced a second kiss – forced the bloody prat to feel, to know, to taste what he did to Harry? Taste the terror and the need that he inspired with the mere fact of his presence and the corresponding knowledge of what losing him now, after the fucking epiphany that was Draco in his arms, would do to Harry.

For the life of him, Harry could not recall. But whatever he’d done, it clearly hadn’t been enough.

Slowly, the quilt-square fields and gardens gave way to snaking veins of red and white car lights, and then suddenly the sight of London opened beneath him like some strange twilight blooming flower. Clutching the handle of his broom, Harry fell into a spiralling spinning nosedive, stopping only when he tasted fear in the back of his throat mingling with the acrid smog. It reminded him again of the kiss he’d given Draco, their boots crunching on gravel and broken glass, on the roof of an abandoned tenement in the wake of another war. It had been early May, Harry still recalled. Early May in a long cold spring, which, he’d imagined at the time, could surly never give way to summer. But it had. And shortly thereafter, Draco had left him.

“How do you know?” Alford asked, sure that his eyes held all of the fear and awe that he felt.

“How do you know what?” Raph replied.

“When you fall in love,” Alford said.

“Oh, I think you just know,” Raph answered.

And after that, Alford fell silent because he realised then that he did know, had known, in fact, since the day they’d first met.

“Have you ever fallen in love?” he breathed into the dark beside him where he knew his best friend lay on the edge of sleep.

“Yes,” said Raph. “And I’m still falling.”

It was only then, in a cold canvass tent on the eve of war, that Alford knew what he must do.

“Did it have to get all mushy and gay?” James had cried, slamming the cover shut, but everyone else had glared at him, and he’d stalked off to find his wireless. He was seventeen and terrified of the war that loomed in his future like a summer storm on the horizon. He reminded Harry forcibly in that moment of James’s uncle, which in turn reminded Harry of the night Ron had left another tent, in another war. The vertigo he’d felt as fact and fiction and past and present collapsed around him like a telescope was almost intoxicating. Across the warm, fire-lit room, Draco’s son sat leaning against Albus with his head on Albus’s shoulder, and the two boys unconsciously turned the pages of their books in unison.

Whoever the series’ anonymous author was, he had uncanny insight and perhaps more than a bit of the Seer’s gift.

With the last of the day draining like a wound from the colourless sky, Harry turned back towards the east. Back towards home. The memories of Draco had ceased to burn and instead lay like warm hands on his heart, cupping a fragile flame. They had survived, and so would their children. Something deep inside him knew it was true. In the same way he’d known, even at the time, that at the last possible instant, Draco would duck and fly free of the bridge’s shadows even as they trailed through his pale hair like fingers, loathe, in the end to let him go.

* * * *

Recollecting having his palm read recalls to the writer’s mind another prophecy. He rises from his chair and moves around his desk with quiet reverent steps. He hasn’t seen it in more than a decade. He hasn’t needed to. The engraving is burned into his memory like a brand. But it seems important now to have it beside him as he starts to write.

The rune is locked in a charmed box. Nothing fancy or ornate. Nothing that might attract the wandering eye of a visitor or the curiosity of a child. Just a plain hand-wrought wooden box. Gently, he removes it from the shelf where it has sat for all these years, ever since he’d returned to Wiltshire with his family after the end of his four-year term as a Blood Hex specialist for the Turkish Ministry of Magic. There’s a fine film of dust dimming its sheen. Even the house-elves are forbidden to touch it.

Not even his wife knows it exists. Especially not his wife.

For countless generations, just before the births of their sole sons and heirs, his pureblood family’s patriarchs have consulted the same ancient school of magi. It is a simple process, consuming, all told, no more than an hour. The new father, after washing his hands and feet and hair, sits cross-legged on a mat of fresh reeds and sips an almost flavourless tea. Finally, after the clay cup is empty, the pupils leave their master, and the father and the magus are left alone together in the room. Neither speaks, but the magus hands the father a leather pouch and gestures with his hand for the father to empty it on the mat between them. Inside are two dozen or so clay tabs, no larger than a man’s thumb print. On each one is engraved a single rune – one rune for one attribute. There is beauty, and there is wealth. There is loyalty, and there is power, and there is temperance, and there is mercy. There is wisdom and judiciousness and strength and courage and pride. In the split second that the writer became aware of them each, one by one, he was aware of the one his own father must have chosen. Pride. And in the very same instant he knew, without a shadow of a doubt the rune he would chose for his son.

Love.

He would give the child he had sired, still growing in his wife’s belly, the gift of love.

Would it alter your choice, the magus said, his voice creaking and old like a seldom-used door, if I told you that your choice will spell the end of your family’s ancient dynasty?

Without hesitation, he had answered.

No.

* * * *

Scorpius Draconis Eltanin Malfoy was sixteen when he read the sixth book in the Alford Ocamy series, and like all the others before it, he would have devoured it in a single sitting but for the fact that he had to share his copy with Albus Potter. Albus’s family had been forced to evacuate so quickly, he’d had no chance to grab his own copy before the Incendios of the masked soldiers of Vainamoinen’s Scourge had razed his childhood home to the ground.

Stretching out on his thin lumpy mattress, Scorpius counted the squares between the wire meshing in the bunk above him where Lily and Rose lay sleeping, feet-to-head and head-to-feet. They’d transfigured everything they could into beds, including their trunks, and now their clothes lay in heaps on the floor. But still there hadn’t been enough to go around, so the girls and smaller boys had been forced to share. Gently, so as not wake the sleepers above him, Scorpius turned to lie on his side.

“Have you got to the part where Alford and Raph break into the museum and find the Egyptian artefacts?” he whispered across to where Albus lay, bathed in the candle-soft light of his Lumos.

“Almost. They’re just now leaving the presidential palace in a rickshaw.”

“What’s a rickshaw?” whispered Hugo from the bunk above Albus that he shared with a third-year Ravenclaw.

“It’s like this bicycle-carriage sort of thing,” Albus replied distractedly. “Merlin, I can’t believe Duchess Trixiebelle thought she’d be able to turn Alford against Raph! Where has she been for the past five books?”

“Well, she’s quite mad, isn’t she?” came the voice of the little Ravenclaw boy. “Hey, Hughie. Budge over, will you? You’re hogging the mattress.”

“Hush,” said Scorpius. “Lily and Rose are asleep.”

Albus lay the book against his chest for a moment and tipped his head back to glance up at his sister and cousin.

“Good,” he whispered. “After what happened to them this morning, they need their rest.” He turned his glance to fall on Scorpius. “I never did thank you properly,” he mouthed. “For saving them, I mean.”

“No thanks required,” Scorpius said, smiling softly at his friend.

“I mean it, though,” said Albus. “That took some serious balls, going back there like that.”

“Well, you know me,” said Scorpius. “Hung like Quaffles.”

Albus snorted and went back to his reading. “I’m almost done with this chapter,” he said.

“No worries,” said Scorpius.

Albus smiled, but as Scorpius lay watching his profile, a tear slid from the corner of his eye and dropped on to the cloak beneath his head that he’d bunched up into a pillow.

“My mum used to say that all the time,” Albus said. “No worries. I think she picked it up that month we spent in Ireland. Before the war.”

“I know,” said Scorpius. “That’s where I got it from. Your mum, I mean.”

Not waiting to be invited or ask permission, Scorpius got up and crossed the narrow space between his bed and Albus’s.

“Shift your arse,” he said fondly.

Albus lay aside the book and shoved over to the other side of the narrow bed.

“Is this when we cuddle like Alford and Raph?” he asked, turning to Scorpius when he lay down beside him and whispered a quiet Nox.

“I don’t know,” Scorpius replied. “But I reckon if we’re going to, it’s now or never.”

Albus turned wide green eyes to his, but the nervous laughter Scorpius saw there for an instant vanished when their gazes met.

“Fuck,” Albus breathed. “This is it. We’re going to die, aren’t we?”

“I don’t know,” Scorpius said again. He’d never lied to Albus before, and he wasn’t going to start now.

“But that’s what you think, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” he said yet again. “I don’t know any more than you do, Al. I haven’t seen my parents either since we all were separated at Kings Cross. Like you, I don’t know if they’re alive or dead. But I do know, it’s only a matter of time before . . .”

“Before they find us and kill us. Scorpius, if my Dad were still alive, he would have been here by now.”

“Shhh, you don’t know that. He could be alive but imprisoned somewhere. Just because he hasn’t found us, doesn’t mean he’s dead.”

“And James? Where’s James?”

Gently, Scorpius pulled his best friend into his arms as the panic Albus had worked so hard to keep at bay seized him in trembling hitching sobs.

“Everything. Everything’s gone. Oh God. What are we going to do? We’re just kids?” he wept. “We’re just kids.”

Running his hands up and down Albus’s back, Scorpius whispered to him, “So were Alford and Raph.”

Hot with the violence of his tears, Albus curled into his friend’s embrace. “But . . . but they’re not real,” he sobbed. “It’s just a story. They’re not real!”

With sudden conviction, Scorpius seized Albus’s chin and lifted it until they were eye to eye.

“They are to me,” he said fiercely. “They are to us.” And just like that, without any further preamble, he did the one thing he’d been dying to do for years. He kissed Albus Potter square on the mouth.

“You’re Raph, and I’m Alford,” he said. “And I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Do you hear me? I promise you, Al. They’ll have to kill me first. I am not going to let anything happen to you.”

“Scorpius?” Albus whispered into his neck.

“Yes?”

“Stay with me?”

Scorpius breathed deeply the hot salty familiar scent of Albus’s neck and wondered how, after all this time, Albus could expect anything different.

“Of course,” he replied. “You didn’t even have to ask.”

The two boys lay in each other’s arms as, one by one, throughout the cavern, wands winked out as the children who’d survived the wreck of the Hogwarts Express fell asleep, and even those who’d thought they were too big to share a bed crawled in beside their friends and acquaintances and enemies alike. Because, really, what were schoolyard rivalries in the face of the kind of hatred their true enemies wielded? Outside, the New Year’s wind howled and wailed, and the snow piled up against the trunks of trees, but inside, hands clutched hands, and breath mingled, and hearts fell into steady counterpoint. Somewhere in the dark, not far away, Scorpius listened as a girl sang to her friend a Muggle hymn he’d once heard Rose and Hugo’s mother hum while baking gingerbread in the Weasley-Potter’s warm clay-tiled kitchen. It seemed now a lifetime ago. Perhaps it was.

When I was a child, small and wee, My sad-eyed mother said to me . . .

Beneath him, one of his arms tingled uncomfortably, but the other lay wrapped around Albus’s shoulders, and Albus was kissing his throat and murmuring words Scorpius was sure one time he’d imagined in a dream. Or read in a book.

Listen in the quiet of the snowy morn For that lovely sound that’s so forlorn, Because every time the church bell rings, It means another angel’s got his wings.

Wriggling deeper into the warmth emanating from the body beside him and closing his eyes, Scorpius found himself remembering his father as he’d seen him on the day just before Christmas, in robes of palest oyster-shell blue, standing by the window in his library, a broken quill in his hand. Glittering like ice, cold and handsome and proud. A shard of winter impervious to the entreaties of the fire in the hearth behind him. And he whispered a prayer into Albus’s raven-black hair to whatever god whose job it is to hear the prayers of boys for their fathers: Make sure he knows, he whispered. Make sure that he knows that I did it for love.

That I did it for love, and that I was not afraid.

* * * *

The rune on its unremarkable clay tab resting on the parchment before him, the writer dips his quill in ink and begins to write.

Outside, night falls swiftly like a hunting bird of prey. Every autumn for seven years, he has spent his days in this room writing a children’s tale. This is the final chapter in the final book. When it is completed, he has no idea what he will do next. He’s never thought past this moment. Not since that day, seventeen years ago, when he turned the clay tab over that he’d chosen for his son and saw on its back the numbers “one” and “seven.” The same age he, himself, had been when he’d decided it was better to live as Voldemort’s slave than it was to die and be free. The same age he’d been when any right he might ever come to possess in Harry’s love had withered like frost-stricken fruit before it even had the chance to ripen.

As it’d turned out, seventeen was not too young to die.

But try as he may, he cannot bring himself to regret surviving. Not when surviving had meant tasting Harry’s laughter on his tongue, or watching the stars turn into streamers of light as he and Harry flew beneath them, young and reckless and free. Not when surviving had meant holding his infant son in his arms and watching him grow into a young man, who, even though he’d died just weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday, everyone agreed had lived a life worth living.

Two days ago, as the writer had packed for his pending move to Ulaanbaatar, he’d discovered a box not unlike the one in which he’d kept his son’s rune, and after several attempts he’d managed to spell it open. Inside, he’d been unsurprised to discover another clay tab. Pride, it had read, and he’d pondered for a long time to whom it might belong. Him? His father? His father’s father? How long had this peculiar self-inflicted curse run in his family? But upon turning it over, he had known at once. The rune belonged to him. The number on the back was just too great. No one but he could have been condemned to a life so long because no one as proud as he would surrender willingly to something so mundane and so merciful as death.

Before him, the snow-white parchment slowly fills with black-inked words just as outside, the black-limbed trees slowly disappear beneath parchment-white garlands of snow. Christmas is coming and with it the anniversaries of his wife’s and son’s deaths. Not for the first time in his life, he is completely alone, and with his solitude, the necessity of anonymity has diminished to the point of inconsequence.

With a final flourish of his quill, the writer signs his name.

* * * *

Harry James Potter sits surrounded by his children and a pile of half-opened Christmas gifts, staring at the name on the seventh and final book in the Alford Ocamy series. Slowly, with a throat suddenly constricted and dry, he swallows and opens the front cover.

To Scorpius, with love and pride, from your devoted father. May you rest in peace.

Still open to the inscription page, he wordlessly passes the book to his middle son whose only, and eloquent, response is to press his fingertips to the page as though somewhere beneath the ink and parchment beats a pulse that only he can feel. It has been a year shadowed by grief and loss. First Ginny and Hugo. Then later, just before the end, Hermione. And, of course, as if Albus’s eyes could ever let him forget, there had been that graceful quiet gentle boy. Scorpius. Draco’s son. Who had died to save Harry’s own.

In the book, Alford and Raph survive the war in their world still as close as they’ve ever been. Most days, that is far more than Harry can imagine himself and Draco doing. But then again, maybe that’s the true purpose of a story – to guide us like a star in the fog as we stumble along, half-blind in the darkness. To comfort us and to remind us that, despite how it might seem at times, we are not alone.

Alone.

The word sinks like a stone in the well of Harry’s mind. Although he has lost his wife, Harry still has his children. Draco has no one. Everyone he has ever loved has died before him. Everyone, that is, except Harry. If indeed he’d ever loved Harry to begin with . . .

Suddenly, unbidden, a memory surfaces: A boys’ bedroom strewn with books and shoes and soiled Quidditch gear. The blind snapped up and tightly rolled on the single dormer window because one of them had been too hasty in trying to open it. An astronomy chart pinned to the wall with only three tacks, its right corner curling upward as though in an effort to distance itself from the gaudy blue wallpaper underneath. A lamp with its shade skew. Two rumpled and unmade beds. A fish bowl with a single solitary goldfish that someone (not them) had won at a Muggle fair. An Arithmancy textbook draped over the arm of a ratty clothes-covered settee tucked beneath the eaves. Outside, the stars shine bright and sharp, bathing the wood floor in an unearthly glow and casting shadows through the leafless branches. The faint halo around the moon whispers of snow, and frost garnishes the windowpanes. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

Draco is sitting in his chair, with his back to his desk, pulling off his boots. Harry is watching him. They haven’t spoken since leaving the holiday party in Anthony and Seamus’s room at the Broomsticks. They’re both still wearing the artificial evergreen garlands that Lavender had forced on everyone the second they walked in, throwing them around their necks and using them like reins to tug them in for a kiss beneath the mistletoe. It had reminded Harry of Cho, which in turn had reminded him of Ginny, which in turn had reminded him of the looming visit to the Burrow, which in turn had reminded him that, really, the only person he wanted to be with on the cusp of the first year in the world without Voldemort was Draco.

Are you going to turn on the lamp, Potter, or are we going to keep sitting here in the dark?

Unlike it had for the first few weeks of term, Draco’s voice no longer grated on Harry’s last nerve. Quite the opposite, in fact. Over the past couple of months, Harry had come to hear the undercurrent of humour in Draco’s taunts, the faint teasing challenge, and it had dawned on him that more than laughing at him, Draco’s voice invited Harry to laugh with him. In fact, nearly everything about Draco was coming to strike Harry as an invitation. An invitation to skip DADA and go flying instead. An invitation to transfigure Ernie’s book bag into a Vietnamese potbellied pig. An invitation to buy a bottle of Firewhisky and drink it by the lake from paper cups on the last sunny day before exams when they should have been revising. An invitation to laugh again. An invitation to forgive. An invitation to live in the future instead of the past, and an invitation to cross the room in three strides, lift Draco’s chin and kiss him softly sweetly fearlessly on the mouth. And just like that, the final line on the continuum from roommate to friend to lover was irrevocably erased.

Does this mean you won’t be shagging the Weaslette over hols? Draco whispers when Harry’s back starts to hurt from bending over, and he pulls away wetly from their kiss.

I never shagged Ginny, he finds himself saying as he goes to sit on his bed and lean against the headboard, his legs spread and knees bent slightly in his own invitation. An invitation that Draco clearly has no trouble interpreting because suddenly he’s crawling up the bed towards Harry and settling between Harry’s thighs with a lazy brazen roll of his hips.

Good, he says and leans in for another kiss. It may come as somewhat of a surprise, but I can get very stroppy when I’m jealous.

Harry laughs against Draco’s mouth because, well, learning that Draco’s possessive and grabby and presumptuous beyond all belief really isn’t a surprise. Feeling his courage return in the face of Draco’s implicit demands, Harry decides to push his luck.

Perhaps if I were to receive an early Christmas present it would . . . harden my resolve, he says, allowing his hips to surge upward against Draco’s. Harry scarcely blushes at his own forwardness. Above him, Draco’s teeth gleam in the winter moonlight as he grins, but his voice when he speaks is breathless.

Take that horrid jumper off.

All night, they make love. Not fucking, not penetration. Not yet, at least. Harry’s afraid of the potential for pain and mess and embarrassment, and he suspects Draco is too. Which isn’t to say he’s afraid of touching Draco there. Far from it. He finds himself touching Draco everywhere: the soft skin behind his ears and between his toes; the part in the pale hair on his head and the ticklish hollow under the equally pale hair beneath his arms; the crepe paper flesh of his eyelids and the vaguely reptilian flesh of his ankles and elbows; the tendons in his neck and throat and the backs of his knees; the faint furrows between his ribs; the quivering, wet-streaked belly, as though a snail had crawled up and down his abdomen, leaving glistening moonlit trails in its wake; and last but not least, the heat of his cock, flushed shockingly dark against the pallor of his thighs; the oddly hairless skin of his scrotum, and behind it, the sweet smooth swell of his arse and the warm cleft, soft and reminiscent of the shape of a summer-ripened peach in Harry’s hands. It is there, in fact, that Harry finds his hands and tongue stray most often, again and again, as he seeks entrance to Draco’s body, access to something so essentially Draco that when Harry finds it at last all boundaries will cease to exist and they will melt into each other like two Muggle crayons left on a radiator. God, how he wants it! This merging. This rocking, swaying, breath-stealing merging. Each time he comes close, he finds himself orgasming and wishing, in some distant half-articulate place in his brain, that he could somehow keep himself from coming and thereby push through that final boundary of pleasure to wrap himself like an ivy skein, like one of Jupiter’s oil-slick coloured rings, around Draco’s core. Around his heart. So that one day, when they’re old, Harry will find himself woven throughout the warp and weft of Draco’s existence as though they were a watercolour painting on which someone has accidentally spilled a cup of tea. The blues and the greens and the greys swirling together, rendered all the more beautiful for their mingling.

Not once, in the wake of that night, at least not until June when Draco had finally managed to hammer it into his thick skull that he was leaving and never coming back, had Harry ever imagined that he could be thinking of Draco at forty-four and picturing him untouched and uncherished. Unloved and unlooked-after.

Alone.

Harry’s eyes fall shut as the word’s two syllables echo hollowly in his heart.

Pushing himself off the couch, Harry walks to the hearth. He has heard that Draco has sold his consulting business and is moving to a city so distant that, if the earth were in fact flat, it would teeter on the very brink like a Galleon balanced on the edge of a table. Mongolia, was it? Harry couldn’t be sure, but he wouldn’t be surprised if that were correct. Draco had always longed for faraway places. Once Harry had seen a Muggle documentary on television, about migratory cranes. Someone had strapped a tiny movie camera to one of the birds and somehow (miraculously!) retrieved it. The footage was all of mottled blue and green, a distant glimpse of the earth from a great height, with even the largest cities nothing but grey smudges, half-obscured by the smoke of factories or lit-up at night, their lights looking like nothing so much as the scattered embers of an abandoned campfire. Every now and then, one could catch a glimpse of the tip of the bird’s snow-white wing, and Harry had been reminded of Draco. Later that night he’d dreamt of their room above the Hog’s Head, except instead of its steeply sloping eaves, there had been no ceiling at all. Only the sky, stabbed through with starlight. He and Draco lay together in the single bed they’d transfigured for themselves that first night and looked up through the branches at the sky as though the bed and the whole room itself were nothing but a crane’s nest. Harry woke in the morning with feathers clutched in his hand as though he’d grabbed after a bird in flight and realised, following a moment of vertigo, that his down pillow must have burst sometime during the night.

Draco, he finds himself thinking. You can stop flying now.

Or, at the very least, this time, take me with you.

Smiling at James, Albus and Lily in turn, Harry turns and thrusts his head into the fire. Calling out as he does, the name his fingers had traced, just minutes before, on the cover of the season’s runaway best-seller, Alford Ocamy and the Hallows of Death.

“Draco Malfoy,” he calls into the roaring flames. “It’s me. Raph.”

fin

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