Chapter 51: Lives and Deaths (Year 7)
Warning for character deaths (yes, multiple) and some definitely creepy images. As mentioned before, war going on. Bad Things happen. Good Things too, though. Brace yourselves for rapid changes.
Movement from within the orchard brought Charlie's head around. "What—" he started to say, staring at the distant figures of his youngest brother and said brother's girlfriend.
"Eyes front, dragon-boy." Tonks tugged at her husband's robes until he returned his attention to her. "We're supposed to be guarding them, not spying on them."
"But—" Charlie glanced back once more. "She just jumped on him. Out of a tree. What in Merlin's name—"
"Remember the day I jumped on you?" asked Tonks mock-casually, letting her hair shade towards Weasley red. "Not too far from here, as it happens. Somewhere in that direction." She nodded towards the Marauders' Den. "We'd been invited over to celebrate Remus getting custody of Hermione, and you were nervous about something, and so was I…"
Charlie nodded warily. Then his eyes widened. "Wait. No. You don't—you can't mean—they're kids still! They can't possibly—"
"Ron was seventeen in March, and Hermione's that today," Tonks interrupted, flicking Charlie's ear lightly. "They're young, but they're not stupid. And they've grown up hard and fast these last couple of years, what with the war going on. Besides, even without a war, we were pretty sure what we wanted by the time we were their age. Why couldn't they be?"
"Because…" Charlie grumbled under his breath. "Because a lot of reasons that make no sense, really," he said finally, kicking at a loose clod of dirt. "Because I remember getting to hold Ron when he'd just been born, and him sneaking into my bedroom and getting bit by my dragon models when he was three, and trying to fly off the roof with the broom Mum uses to sweep out the kitchen when he was six, and thousands of other things like that." He smiled a little. "Wonder if Mum knows about it yet."
"She probably knew before they did." Tonks cast one fond look over her shoulder and grinned before turning back to Charlie. "So, how about those Cannons?"
Ron was rather proud of himself. He'd managed to get all the words out in the right order, to say everything he'd planned on without stumbling, and even to produce the ring at the proper time, despite the pounding of his heart and the dampness of his palms. Now all he could do was wait.
She's—angry, he finally had the leisure to identify, looking up at the face so well-known and loved. Why would she be—
Even as he watched, Hermione's features underwent an eye-blurring ripple of emotional colors, and her leg swung back over the branch she'd been straddling. Her hands rose to shoulder level, her weight shifted forward, and—
Ron got his arms up just in time to stop Hermione from slamming bodily into him, and even so they both collapsed to the ground, Hermione with her hands planted on his shoulders, Ron with his around her waist.
"Ow," was all he got out before Hermione started shaking him.
"You absolute git!" she half-shouted, though her tone was somewhat spoiled by the laughter lurking on her face and in her tone. "I thought you were breaking up with me!"
"What?" Ron ran back over his little speech in his head and flinched. "Er…oops?"
"Oops." Hermione glared at him, but the corners of her mouth kept twitching upwards. "Oops, he says!"
"So who do I usually check things like essays with, to make sure I'm not saying something I didn't mean?" Ron demanded. "You, that's who! And I couldn't exactly ask you about this one, now could I?"
"That'd certainly be novel." Hermione shook her head, the last of the anger fading from her face with the motion. "'Neenie, would you mind looking over my marriage proposal for me? Oh, and by the way—'"
"Yeah, about that." Ron sat up, releasing Hermione to show her the item he was still holding between two fingers. "Are you going to answer, or just beat me up some more?"
"Well, beating you up is quite a lot of fun." Hermione laughed a little, then sobered, looking up into Ron's face. "Really and truly, Ron?" she asked softly.
"Really and truly, Neenie." Ron reached out for her hand with his free one, finding it exactly where he'd known it would be. "I need you. I want you. And I love you."
"Then…" Hermione drew a deep breath and briefly closed her eyes. "Yes, Ron," she said, opening them to give him the brilliant smile that sent his heart into spirals every time he saw it. "Yes, I will." She held out her left hand, and Ron, hardly daring to breathe, slid the ring into its proper place. "But let's get the war over with first, shall we? And our last year of school? I saw how mad Ginny went, trying to plan her wedding while studying for O.W.L.s, and I haven't the slightest interest in doing the same thing with my N.E.W.T.s!"
"Fair enough. Gives us plenty of time to figure out the guest list and all of that." Ron gave the ring a pat before releasing it. "Care to have it at the Manor Den, once we're settled there?" He tossed the question out carelessly, and watched Hermione go very still, regarding the small, clear stone in its simple setting which now adorned her finger.
"Yes," said his fiancée again after a few moments, lifting her eyes once more to his. They blazed with a fierce and fiery glee, one Ron hadn't realized how much he'd missed seeing in her since the late spring of this year. "Yes, I'd like that very much." Her lips curled back in a predator's smile. "Ginger Malfoys. Malfoy-bloods, at any rate. I wouldn't take that name if you begged me on bended knee." The smile softened. "Now, Weasley, on the other hand…"
"Got that," said Ron, holding up her right hand, which he still had cupped in his left. "What d'you want me to do with it?"
Hermione blinked once, then started to laugh. "Ron, you're horrible!"
"Learned from the best." In default of any specific instructions, Ron lifted the hand to his lips and kissed it once, then used it to tug its owner closer to him, until they were sitting comfortably side by side with their backs against the tree, his arm tucked around her. "It looks good on you," he added, seeing the way Hermione's gaze kept sliding back towards the ring.
"Thank you." Hermione chuckled. "Patting yourself on the back a bit, there, aren't you? Or did you have help picking it out?"
"Sort of." Ron waited until she turned to look at him. "Mr. Moony gave it to me. It was his mum's."
Hermione's eyes widened once more, and she laid a finger reverently on the stone before pausing in that pose. "Why would he do that?" she asked, her attention still seemingly all on the ring but an undercurrent of something dangerous trickling into her voice. "When did he even have a chance?"
Grateful she couldn't see him swallow, Ron took a moment to compose his thoughts and get his words in order. This could make or break things just as much as the actual question—have to get it right, or I'll be paying for years…
"I went and asked him, a while back, if he thought this would be a good idea," he said at last. "Not just today, not just here, but doing this at all. Because I knew I wanted it, and I was pretty sure what you would say, but we're not just ourselves, are we? There's other people around both of us, other people we love and don't want to hurt. Families and friends, and even more than that. The Pride, for both of us, and the Pack for you. Especially your Pack-parents." He laid his hand, palm up, at the edge of Hermione's vision. "I wanted to find out if they thought this could work. You and me, for life. Because what you have with them is pretty special and important, and the last thing I'd ever want is to hurt that or mess it up."
"And what if Moony had said no?" Hermione turned her head to look at him, her expression cool and challenging. "What if he had told you that he didn't think I was old enough, or that you were, or maybe that you weren't good enough for me?"
"Do you mean what I'd've wanted to do, or what I'd really have done?" Ron countered, and saw the quick leap of laughter in her eyes. "Or both?"
"Both. In that order." Hermione covered his hand with hers. "Since the question didn't come up, so it's purely an academic problem now."
"I'd have wanted to tell him to go to hell, and try and convince you to elope with me today," Ron said frankly. "But I probably wouldn't have. Either part, in that case, because if I said something like that to him he'd know better than to let me near you afterwards, and because you wouldn't do that to your Pack."
"Oh, I don't know." Hermione giggled. "If Moony tried to keep me away from you, I might. But then, if you were still the way you used to be, rushing into everything without so much as taking a single breath to think about it…"
"Then he'd be right to tell me no, or not yet. But I still hope I'd be smart enough not to say anything about it to his face." Ron let the fingers of his free hand weave themselves into Hermione's soft and tangled hair, and enjoyed the humming warmth through his blood when she nuzzled her head against him in response. "What I would have done, if he'd said I shouldn't…I don't know. Begged, maybe. Or asked him what I'd have to do to change his mind. But none of that happened. He said it sounded like a pretty good idea to him, and gave me his mum's ring when I said I didn't have one yet, because he thought you'd like that best." The enormity of the act, and the simplicity with which it had been accomplished, turned his breath choppy and stole the words from his mouth. "And now you're really…I mean, we're actually…"
Disentangling her hand from their clasp, Hermione reached up to cup his face, turning it towards her. "I love you, Ron Weasley," she said. "And once the war is over, and we've finished school, the entire world is going to know it. As much of it as we care to invite to the Manor Den, that is." Her eyes drifted, refocusing far away and sad. "Though there'll always be the people who should have come, and can't. George, and Luna, and Fox…" Her lips worked. "I wish we had some way to tell them about this."
"Me, too." Ron drew her close to offer his shoulder, as she had done for him more than once already in this war, and caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye. He looked up, squinting a bit to make out the form riding the wind currents above them. Then he smiled.
"Neenie," he said, nudging her and pointing. "I think they may know already."
Hermione lifted her eyes to follow the line of his hand, and drew in a long breath of joy.
High overhead, a soft-pinioned snowy owl circled on the updrafts of a breezy autumn day.
Evanie Pettigrew turned restlessly on her bed, trying to find a position in which she could lie comfortably. The fourteenth of September had come and gone, and she was now nearly a week overdue.
"I can't blame you for not wanting to come out, baby," she murmured towards her child, "but this is getting ridiculous. Your father and I would like to meet you, you know—"
A sudden stab of pain through her midsection made her gasp, cutting off her words.
There might, she realized with the few bits of her mind not devoted to holding back a scream, be a reason why her daughter was so unwilling to be born.
In the library, Peter dropped the stack of books he was shelving as his wedding ring cooled perceptibly on his finger.
"What in the world?" Lucius appeared at the opening between the two bookshelves as though he'd been conjured there, looking irritated, though whether at the noise or at the disrespectful treatment afforded to the books littering the floor around his feet Peter couldn't tell. "Are you ill?"
Starwing peered around her master's side, and her eyes widened. "Yes," she said before Peter could respond, speaking with certainty. "Yes. Ill." One small hand spread wide and planted itself against Lucius's shoulder, pushing him a step or two to one side. "Go."
"What in Merlin's name—" Lucius began, staring at the girl.
"No." Starwing shook her finger under Lucius's aristocratic nose, glaring daggers at him. "You, quiet." She turned her attention towards Peter. "You," she said imperiously, gesturing towards the library door. "Go."
Lucius looked from one of them to the other, then shrugged his shoulders. "You heard her, Wormtail," he said. "Be on your way. Though you and I, young lady," he added in a low tone as Peter hurried past, "are going to have a serious talk…"
Peter's last glimpse of the library, as he shut the door behind him, was of Starwing sticking out her tongue at Lucius. Even with his all-encompassing fear, it made him smile weakly, and he wished he could have seen it under other circumstances.
When Evanie isn't in danger for her life.
Dropping into Wormtail's form, he darted into one of his own personal shortcuts, scurrying upwards and crosswise through the walls, forcing himself to stay alert for possible booby-traps. If he fell prey to some vindictive scheme of his fellow Death Eaters, there would be no one left to save his wife and daughter.
There may not be any way you can save them now, his fear whispered at the back of his mind. What if you've been found out? Your little love nest pulled apart, your lady handed over to someone who can "appreciate her properly", your baby girl passed along to someone like Alecto Carrow, with all her plans for the future of the wizarding race…
Wormtail bared his small, sharp teeth and bounded over one of the gaps he'd purposely left in his walkway, in case anyone thought to send an Imperius-controlled animal in here after him. You'll have to fight me first, he vowed silently. And you'll never see me coming—I know how to strike from behind, no one better…
At last, he squeezed out of the final tunnel and into his own rooms. Evanie lay on the bed, her eyes closed, breathing in short gasps. Sight, sound, scent, all reported her alone, but Wormtail's nose twitched as he caught the sharp, metallic smell of blood.
She doesn't look hurt, though—could it be…
A new fear assailed him, and he leapt upwards into his human form, hurrying to her side and going to one knee as her eyes wavered open. "I'm here, love," he said, catching her groping hand in his. "What is it? What's happened?"
"The baby." Even speaking seemed to cost Evanie terrible effort, as her fingers squeezed tighter on Peter's with every word. "Something's wrong—a tearing pain, and a burning, and she's barely moved since it began—"
"Don't panic." Peter knew he was speaking as much to himself as to his wife, but a bit of the fear faded from Evanie's face as she heard him say the words, and he stroked her sweat-damp hair out of her eyes, bending to kiss her. "I'm here now. She's going to be all right. Do you trust me?"
"Yes." Evanie smiled a little, then winced. "Oh, God—"
"Lie still if you can." Peter reached under the pillow and extracted Evanie's potion piece, turning the cartridges until he found the one with the white patch on it. "Here, drink some of this. It will help. Weren't you going to call your house-elf friends when things started?"
"Yes, but…" Evanie obediently swallowed a sip of the healing potion, and exhaled in relief. "There. Yes, I was, but they're only used to ordinary births, and this—oh!" It was almost a shriek, as her free hand fisted tight and her other closed crushingly around Peter's. "It's getting worse, Peter, something's wrong—"
A loud crack behind him had Peter whipping around, his wand in his hand, his heart pounding even faster than it had been. I know I placed Anti-Apparition on these rooms, if it's been broken we're all as good as dead already—
"Easy, now," said the fair young man standing a few paces back, raising his hands with supple grace. "We're friends."
The red-haired young woman who'd arrived with him didn't bother speaking, instead hurrying across the room to the bed and Evanie, whose eyes had widened at the new arrivals. "Amanda?" she breathed, reaching up. "But I thought—"
"You need help," said the young woman, smiling down at her. "We've come to help you. Move, please," she added to Peter, drawing her wand. "I know something of Healing, and you would only be in the way."
Numbly, Peter backed away as ordered, and the gray smoke of a Privacy Spell fell between him and his wife. What is going on—
He looked back at the young man who stood at his ease, half a smile on his slender face, and recognized some of the answer in the features of that same face.
"Beauvoi," he said, pushing disbelief aside as best he could. "Dafydd Beauvoi."
"Well spotted, sir." The young man bowed, his antique robes rippling with the movement. "And you know, or have heard of, my lady Amanda already. As she said, we've come to help, as much as we can. But." His gray eyes darkened in sympathy. "I fear it may not be enough. A burning pain, and a tearing, in a woman about to give birth…such signs are not good." He drew out a chair from the table and pushed it towards Peter. "You should prepare yourself. I am sorry to tell you this, but it is very likely that this day your Evanie will die."
A curious sensation of being split into two distinct halves swept across Peter. One part of him, near the back of his mind, curled itself into a small, compact ball and began to mutter furiously in clear and rapid thought. The other, further forward, seemed barely able to think at all without tremendous effort.
"The baby?" he asked thickly, his lips numb. "Will she—"
"The child may well live, but it is too soon to know with any certainty." Dafydd motioned towards the chair. "Please, sit. You will do no good to anyone if you collapse."
Stiffly, Peter groped for the chair, and had to swallow against a surge of loathing as his eyes fell on his silver hand. This is my fault—if I'd kept my mouth shut when I first saw her, or made her go back when I still had the chance, or if I'd just made better choices altogether—
"Will you tell me your thoughts?" asked Dafydd, sitting down sideways on the other chair and leaning against its back. "I can see they trouble you, and I would like to help you, if I can."
"Why?" Peter looked away from the too-knowing gray eyes, staring at one of the floorstones instead. "What have I ever done for you?"
Dafydd chuckled. "You might be surprised. And in any case, not all of life is about payment and repayment. Some gifts are given freely." His voice softened. "Gifts such as love."
"Some gifts are given foolishly." Peter hunched his shoulders. "Why she ever decided to love someone like me—I curse everything I care for, she should have known better—"
"Perhaps she should, but she did not. And love is subject to remarkably little decision. But you have your ideas backward, my friend." Dafydd's tone of calm certainty brought Peter's attention back to his face, with its pointed, patrician features and its faint marking under one eye, as though a dagger meant for an overhand strike had caught him with its tip there long ago. "You think that you have shortened your lady's life by loving her. But I tell you now that my lady has Looked beyond this world, and in every timeline she could See where you made a different choice, whether you spurned lovely Evanie and sent her away, or whether you never met her at all, she lived in sorrow and died in pain, and her death came upon her sooner than this day."
"Sooner?" Peter stared uncomprehendingly at the other man. "But that doesn't make any sense—"
It does if the Lestranges had claimed her the day she was first captured, instead of you, the back portion of his mind spoke up, unbidden. Or if you'd forced her to go back to her old life to "keep her safe", and they'd gone out and found her the way she was afraid they would. Even if she'd never been captured at all, the Muggle world isn't the safest place to be anymore, is it? How do you know she wouldn't have died in a raid, or been bitten by one of their half-tame werewolves, or snatched for some of Alecto's mad plans about breeding?
"If I'd never been—who I am, though," he answered both Dafydd and himself, flexing the fingers of his right hand with their silver gleam, then brushing them across his left forearm. "If I'd never done what I did. Never betrayed my only friends in the world, and killed twelve innocent people to try to cover it up, and brought a power-hungry maniac back to life—"
"So why did you?" Dafydd might have been making light conversation at an evening party. "Can you tell me?"
"Because I was afraid." The words seemed too large for his mouth, and left Peter momentarily lightheaded when he'd spoken them. He wasn't sure he'd ever said them aloud before, not even to Evanie, though he was certain she somehow knew it. "I was afraid for my life. And look where it's brought me. Year after year of—existing. Barely living at all." An unwilling laugh broke from him. "Some times worse than others, of course. And some, as little as I deserve it, better. And now…"
The back of his mind chose this moment to spread its conclusions before him, and Peter nodded slowly as he took it in. "Now, it's over," he said, feeling the weight of his decision settle across his shoulders. "If Evanie dies, so will I."
"So certain?" Dafydd tapped his fingers against the top rail of the chair. "You have no magical link between your life and hers, such as an old friend of yours shares with his wife."
"She's my balance. My sanity." Dimly Peter wondered where all his fear had gone, why this moment brought him nothing but a sense of purpose and a vast, strange relief. "I have to be the perfect Death Eater every second I'm outside these rooms, and the only way I can do that any longer is to know she's here for me to come back to. If she's gone…" He shook his head. "I don't have the strength to carry on without her. I'd do something stupid, accidentally, on purpose, it doesn't matter—I'd be found out, and the Dark Lord would have my every secret out of me before he was done. And I know things now that other people's lives depend on."
"So you do." Dafydd's gaze flickered for an instant across his left hand, ornamented with a plain band of gold, before he returned his attention to Peter. "You could seek asylum, if you wished. Take the child and go to some stronghold of the Light. You have been helpful, and she is helpless. They would take you in."
"And then what?" Peter pulled his sleeve back, hissing as the tips of his silver fingers burned coldly across the Dark Mark branded into his skin. "Lead him straight to his favorite enemies? Give him a puppet he can control within their doors, or let him see through my eyes and learn their secrets? Don't tell me he couldn't do that, any of it. I'm sure he could if he tried."
"Oh, he could indeed do all of that through the Mark you bear, if his power were not blocked from it by a greater one." Dafydd rubbed his own left forearm, his eyes grave. "He could even use it to strip the magic from your soul to strengthen himself, and kill you most unpleasantly in the process. But I digress from your point, and find myself forced to agree with it. If you cannot stay, and you will not go, only one route remains open to you."
"I'll have to make him angry." Peter got to his feet and began to pace, flexing the fingers of his left hand absently. "Furiously angry, enough that he forgets to think, that he simply wants me dead. If he has even a second to think about it, he'll realize what I must have been up to—once a traitor, always a traitor, after all—and he'll keep me alive to question me. Which is what I'm trying to avoid." He rubbed his thumb along the abnormally cool curve of his wedding ring, thinking over the things which angered Lord Voldemort above all others.
"I should destroy something," he decided aloud after several moments' thought. "Something important to him, something he counts on. If I knew the proper spells for it, I'd go after that nasty snake Inferius of his, but I don't, and I won't exactly have a chance to do any research—" He stopped even as the word passed his lips. "Oh," he said softly, beginning to smile as he turned back to face Dafydd. "I've got it, and it's perfect."
"I see you have thought of what I was prepared to suggest." Dafydd's tone had warmed into humor, matching Peter's own bizarre sense of lightheartedness, and he was resting his chin atop his rail-propped arm, the fingers of his other hand pleating patterns in the fabric of his robes. "May I ask perhaps an impertinent question?"
"Go ahead." Peter spread his hands wide. "I've got nothing left to hide."
"You caused deaths." The words were spoken with quiet deliberation, neither blaming nor absolving but stating facts. "Some directly, at your own hand and wand, others indirectly, by betraying information given to you in confidence. Do you regret those actions, those deaths? Are you sorry for them?"
"For all the good it does." Peter grimaced, glancing towards the unmoving grayness of the Privacy Spell. "How Evanie can love me, knowing what she does, I've never understood."
"The heart of a woman is one of the greatest mysteries of the world. But we are speaking just now of the heart of a man. Your heart, Peter Pettigrew." Dafydd's relaxed pose hadn't changed, but Peter had the sense that the other man could have met an attack from any direction without a trace of warning. "Do you feel remorse for betraying James Potter and Lily Evans to their deaths, for allowing their son Harry to be trapped in a prophesied future, for killing twelve innocent people in such a way that Sirius Black would be blamed for their deaths and for yours?"
"Why does it matter?" Peter turned to look out the window, surprised in some distant corner of his mind that the afternoon was still sunny and warm. This conversation belonged to a cold and rainy night, or an evening thick with a stinking, smoke-filled fog. "I did what I did, and I can't go back and fix it, nothing can do that—"
"Then you have nothing to lose," Dafydd interrupted calmly, "by answering the question."
Peter laid his left hand against the cold stone of the wall, and for the first time in more years than he wanted to count allowed certain faces to rise fully from his memory. "Every day," he whispered, seeing again the gleam of James's eyes as he snagged the Quaffle from the air, the swing of Lily's hair while she swooped her wand through a complex charm motion, the lines of Sirius's face when he threw back his head to laugh. "Every hour, every minute, every breath I take. I was supposed to be a Gryffindor, brave and strong and noble, and instead I fell apart the first time I was ever tried. And James and Lily died for it, and so did all those people on the street that day—Sirius, Remus, Aletha, Harry, all of them suffered because of me—"
Suddenly furious, he wheeled to face Dafydd. "Why are you asking me this now?" he demanded, jabbing a hand towards the Privacy Spell. "When it can't possibly matter anymore, when the last good thing in my life is about to be taken away from me? Why bother finding out whether I feel or don't feel remorse? Being sorry doesn't change things, don't you understand that? It doesn't change things!"
"It changes you." Dafydd got smoothly to his feet. "But I understand your anger, and our time grows short. So I will ask you only one more question. If you were offered forgiveness for what you did, would you take it? No quibbles about possibility, please," he added with a slight smile as Peter opened his mouth to make this very point. "If it could be offered, and it were, would you accept? Could you allow it? Though think before you answer," he continued without pausing. "Think of what you have done this last year and more, with your lady at your side, and what you will do today, and why. But set that aside for now." He motioned towards the Privacy Spell. "It is time."
Even as Peter looked towards the bed, the smoke around it dissipated. Evanie lay where she had, very pale and still, but now her arm curved protectively around a small, blanket-wrapped bundle lying by her side. Amanda stood by the bedside, her green eyes filled with sadness, her hand beckoning him closer.
"She is very weak, but you have some time yet," she said softly when Peter was close enough to hear her words. "And your daughter will live. We can place her in the house-elves' care for now, and ensure that she finds a loving family once the war is over…"
"Yes. If you would." Peter swallowed all his questions, all his confusion, and instead turned to his wife, going once more to his knees beside the bed. "Evanie," he said quietly, touching her chilled hand. "I'm here, love."
Eyelids fluttered, then lifted. "Peter," Evanie breathed, and managed a smile, turning her head painfully to focus on the dark-haired child who lay beside her. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Let me see." Peter gave his daughter a careful examination, surprised by how quickly his heart rose when the tiny mouth twitched as he placed a kiss on it with a fingertip, when the miniscule fingers closed tight around one of his larger ones. "Yes, I think she is," he said when he was finished. "But then, with such a lovely mother, what else could she be?"
"Flatterer." Evanie sighed. "Peter, I'm s—"
"Hush," Peter interrupted, placing the same finger across his wife's lips that he had used to touch his daughter's. "No apologies for things you can't help."
"Same to you." Evanie smiled again, and squeezed his hand weakly when he took hers. "I love you so much. No regrets?"
"Not about you." Peter leaned in to lay a kiss on her lips, feather-light. "Never about you. I only wish…"
"I know. So do I." Evanie's eyes slid shut, as though she no longer had the strength to hold them open. "Stay with me?" she whispered in a thread of a voice.
"I will. I am." Peter lifted their conjoined hands to her cheek, and discovered he was weeping only when his vision blurred. "Don't be afraid."
"How can I?" Evanie managed the faintest of smiles. "You're here."
Her chest rose and fell, once, twice, three times, and did not rise again.
"Don't go far, love," Peter murmured. "I won't be long."
For a few moments, he sat with his wife and daughter, and mourned for the dream of what might have been. Then, lifting Evanie's lax hand and kissing it, he laid it down on her chest, and took his child into his arms.
"Your name is Annette Selene," he told her, cherishing how impossibly light she felt in his grasp, how her face wrinkled up at the sound of his voice. "Whoever your mummy and daddy turn out to be, they're going to be lucky people to have such a beautiful little girl for their very own, and they're going to take the best care of you." He looked up at Amanda, and at Dafydd as the other wizard came to stand beside his wife. "And she doesn't need to know where she comes from," he said challengingly. "Her mother's name and who she was, yes, but there's no need to tell anyone about me. It's better that way."
"It would also be wrong," said Dafydd before Amanda could speak, his voice low but burning fiercely hot. "Children should always know the names of those who loved them and made sacrifices for them. It will not be public knowledge if you do not wish it so, but the child herself will know your name when she grows old enough, and honor you for doing right."
"As we do." Amanda curtsied deeply. "And in token of that honor, I offer you a gift. You may ask me any question you like, and I will answer it as fully as I may." She smiled, her lips curving in secret satisfaction. "Which can, in some cases, be very full indeed."
"Well." Peter swayed back and forth where he stood, treasuring the tiny life within his grasp, so soon to belong to another but for these few precious moments, all his. "There is one thing I've always wanted to know. It might even be useful for what I intend to do next…"
Lucius strolled into one of the lesser drawing rooms where three or four other Death Eaters were taking their ease, Starwing stalking behind him with a decidedly petulant expression on her face. "A small difference of opinion," he explained to his colleagues, "over the proper treatment of the hired help. Her will occasionally attempts to reassert itself, and always at the most trying of times."
With a disdainful sniff, Starwing plopped herself down on a chair in the corner, pulling off her cloak as she did so. Lucius waited until she was well engrossed in sewing yet another black ribbon onto it, then drew up a chair for himself and joined the conversation taking place, a discussion of whether it would be better to revoke the Statute of Secrecy and take over the Muggle world openly or to maintain the status quo and conduct a series of silent terror campaigns. The proponents of each side were making their points with vigor, and Lucius was just about to add his own say when the first muffled fwoomp drifted in through the window.
"What the—" Sandy-haired Connor Barton, closest to the window, got to his feet, staring at the expanse of grass outside. "Is that Wormta—"
He squawked in surprise and terror as a blazing comet of parchment shot through the window and struck him full in the face, sending the other Death Eaters leaping up with shouts of alarm. Lucius beckoned to Starwing, and the two of them left the room at a run, bursting out one of the side doors just in time to see Peter Pettigrew tossing a final armful of familiar-looking scrolls onto the enormous bonfire he'd lit in the middle of one of Malfoy Manor's somewhat overgrown lawns.
"My notes." Lucius's hands fisted by his sides, and an observer (of which there were now quite a few, as the flames and the shouting were drawing Death Eaters from all over the house) might have noted his lips drawing back in the snarl of the predator for its insolent prey. "Every spell, every potion, every plan for an amulet or talisman, which I have spent these last three months looking up and compiling, except for those few I had already handed over to Severus…"
Starwing tugged her master's sleeve and pointed. Lord Voldemort himself had materialized silently several feet from the enormous fire, with Severus Snape by his side. Lucius closed the distance between them swiftly, genuflecting briefly when the Dark Lord's red eyes fell upon him. "My lord," he said, rising. "I had no idea…"
"Later," Voldemort cut him off, staring coldly at the fire and raising his voice to carry. "Let us see what our ridiculous little rat has to say for himself."
"Not too much, my lord," Wormtail called from his place by the fire, the scorn in his words as withering as the flames he'd started. "Only a prediction. A little story, about how you'll live forever. We all know you want to, and I'm here to tell you that you will." He laughed aloud, drawing his wand from inside his robes. "But perhaps you won't like what you see…"
He flung the brittle rod of chestnut onto the fire, and the flames erupted in a geyser, forming themselves, high above his head, into the figures of children, boys and girls a bit too young for Hogwarts. Dressed warmly, as though for late fall or early winter, they trundled a wheelbarrow down an invisible street, laughing and chattering amongst themselves.
Sprawled in the barrow lay a grotesque mockery of humanity, a figure made from straw-stuffed robes with a squashy turnip for a head and limp parsnips for hands, the robes themselves smeared with dirt and slime. Slits had been cut into the turnip for eyes and a mouth, but no attempt at a nose or hair had been made.
The eldest of the group, a sturdy girl who had the wheelbarrow's shafts in her hands, nodded towards the front, and two of the smaller children, twins by their appearance, skipped forward, holding out their hands in supplication. "Knut for the voldy!" they piped together. "Knut for the moldy voldy!"
Gasps of shock and outrage rippled through the crowd of Death Eaters as the fiery figures vanished. Severus frowned, still looking at the place where the children's faces had been. Lucius growled under his breath, and Starwing hissed and hunched her shoulders as though she were mantling her wings. Lord Voldemort himself reacted not at all, unless it were to narrow his eyes even further than usual.
"There's your immortality, my lord," said Wormtail, his eyes gleaming feverishly in the light of the fire as it began to burn down. "As a rotting, stinking nuisance, and a figure of fun for children."
An instant later, no one stood beside the flames at all. A naked pink tail whisked into the tall grass and was gone, the smallest of ripples indicating a flight towards the trees at the edge of the property.
"My lord," said Lucius, his voice half-choked with rage. "May I?"
Lord Voldemort turned to see what was meant, and saw the white owl called Starwing balanced on her master's wrist, her wings already spread and her eyes, like his, mad with hunger for the hunt.
"Do it," the Dark Lord commanded.
Leaning back, Lucius whipped his arm through a powerful thrust, flinging Starwing high into the reddening afternoon sky, before her own strong wings beat the air to lift her higher still. The tiny ripple in the grass moved ever further from the house, as the flames burned lower in the circle Wormtail had cleared for them—Starwing floated silently above the watching Death Eaters, circling tightly on the updraft from the fire before settling into a long glide outward—
Almost faster than eye could follow, she stooped, plummeting to earth with her wings and talons outstretched. The white-feathered head whipped down, the sharp black beak struck savagely—
The lifeless form of the human Peter Pettigrew exploded out of that of Wormtail the rat, less than twenty yards from the treeline. A moment later, the girl called Starwing got to her feet beside him and spat blood into the grass, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.
Her face held not a trace of expression.
"So end all traitors," remarked Lord Voldemort, and turned to Lucius. "How long to reproduce what was destroyed?"
"Six weeks, working alone. Which I intend to do." Lucius bared his teeth briefly towards the flames. "Clearly taking an assistant has drawbacks which outweigh the benefits."
"I somehow doubt you knew he was so unstable as this when you requested him." The Dark Lord regarded the bonfire for a moment. "Have the most important items ready in a month."
"My lord." Lucius knelt fully this time, and rose only when Lord Voldemort had Disapparated. Severus Snape remained behind, looking closely at Lucius, even as most of the other Death Eaters, deciding the show was over, began to find their own ways indoors. At last the two men faced one another in the red and golden light of evening, Starwing picking her way back through the grass towards them, the hem of her robes held daintily clear of stems and flowers.
"You play a dangerous game," said Snape at last.
"How kind of you to notice." Lucius held out a handkerchief to Starwing, who accepted it and blotted the last few traces of blood from her lips. "But then, you know me, Severus." He smiled lazily. "I've always been rather fond of danger. Come along, Starwing—bath and fresh clothes for you, my dear, as soon as Echo can manage them…"
With one glance over his shoulder at the crumpled body which had been Peter Pettigrew, Snape followed the two inside, and closed the door firmly against the night.
The wizard sat alone in the calf-high grass, watching the stars come out overhead. He was sure it ought to bother him more than it did that the body of a man lay nearby, but a body couldn't hurt anyone.
Especially not when it used to be mine.
He chuckled a little at the idea, and continued to watch as the sky darkened moment by moment, revealing star after twinkling star. It wasn't something he'd spent much time doing in recent years, though he could recall evenings with his friends in school, atop the Astronomy Tower or, daringly, up some of the taller trees in the Forbidden Forest.
When it wasn't full moon, and we weren't out romping through those trees all night long…
"Good times," remarked a voice, and another figure sat down beside him, revealing itself, in the dim light of the stars, to be a man about his own age, messy-haired and bespectacled. "Never appreciate them while we've got them, do we?"
"No, we never do." Peter Pettigrew leaned back on his hands, both now made of the same material, though 'flesh' was no longer a word which could be used to describe them. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
"Why not?" James Potter shrugged. "I'm dead, you're dead…"
"I'm the reason you're dead."
"One of the reasons," James corrected, holding up a finger. "And didn't you just get done saying you were sorry for it, a couple hours ago?"
"That doesn't change it." Peter looked away. "That doesn't change any of it."
"You're right," said James lightly. "But then, neither does anything else, does it?"
"No." Peter brushed a finger back and forth through the stems of grass. "It doesn't."
They sat in silence for a little while.
"Funny thing about hate and anger and all of those things," said James when the last few sparks of red had died away from the western horizon. "They hurt the person who's feeling them more than they ever do the person they're supposedly all about. Did you know that?"
"No." A suspicion began to creep through Peter's mind. "Prongs, what are you doing here?"
James grinned. "What do you think?"
"You can't be—" Resolutely, Peter stopped himself. "You don't mean it," he finished instead.
"Merlin's bones, you have grown up some. Used to be you'd fall for that one every time." James snickered. "'You can't be serious!' 'Of course I'm not Sirius, he's over there…'" He sighed a little, sobering. "Wormtail, we could sit here all night talking about who's to blame and by how much and what we all deserve or don't. Or we could get right down to what I actually came here to say. What's your pleasure?"
"Go ahead." Peter sat up straighter, twining his hands together in his lap to keep them from shaking. "I'm listening."
"I'm proud of you." James smiled at the startled expression Peter wasn't quite able to repress. "No, I mean it. I'm proud of you. You figured it out, Peter. Straightened out your priorities and balanced what you did wrong, as best as you could. No, don't argue with me," he cut off Peter's half-formed protest. "You got me and Lily killed, and killed a load of other people, trying to save your own life way back when. But just now, you deliberately got yourself killed so Moldy Voldy, and I should add I've not laughed that hard in years, wouldn't have the chance to pick your brain and use that information to kill yet another load of people, including some we both would far rather stayed alive a while longer. Yes?"
"Yes," Peter acknowledged, "but—"
"No buts." James shook his head. "That's called getting it right, Peter. Even if you did do it mostly because you had nothing left to lose. There's still fourteen people, at the very least, who would have died tonight if you'd made any other decision." He cocked his head to one side. "I'd have to say that puts you dead even. Pun slightly intended. So." Getting to his feet, he held out his hand. "You going to come?"
"If you were offered forgiveness for what you did, would you take it?" Dafydd Beauvoi's voice rang inside Peter's head as he stared, for some fraction of forever, at the hand so impossibly extended to him. "Could you allow it?"
"Yes," he said at last to both questions, and laid his hand in James's. "Yes, I will."
"All right!" Grinning, James hoisted Peter to his feet and engulfed him in a rough hug. "Come on, then. Let's go home." A gesture cleared away some of the fog that had swirled in around them, revealing two feminine figures waiting patiently nearby, one with red hair, the other with brown. "All of us."
From a window without a light, she watched, as the two souls met and embraced at the edge of the forest, as their companions closed in behind them from both directions, as the whole collection vanished in a flare of invisible brilliance.
"Goodbye," she whispered, and blew them a kiss, leaving behind a smear of warm red on her fingertips.
Yes, I do enjoy messing with your heads. You should know that by now. And to anyone who's playing spot the reference, remember when Luna was all panicked over tasting blood, back in Facing Danger? Yeah…
There is dinner waiting for me in the other room, so I will make this short. Please review—it's the only way I know you're still reading. Please consider visiting my website and reading my blog, Anne's Randomness, or liking me on Facebook, or following me on Twitter @AnneBWalsh—all of these help encourage me to write more, and incidentally keep you updated with what I'm already writing. Thanks very much, and more as soon as I can manage it!
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