Chapter Five: "I'm not going to let him take you too."
The trouble with happiness is that it is fleeting. Sadness, depression, melancholy, these are all states that are not so readily convinced to step aside. Once one takes hold it is so much harder to be free of it. Grappling with depression is like entering a battle you're almost certain to lose. Ruining a smile, destroying happiness, that could be done with a word or the cruellest of actions. Two sisters, miles apart and divided by worlds they could not enter, were fixating on the same possible truth. That happiness was, tragically, just a stop gap to the only certainty life had to offer. Grief, heartache and loss were always just around the corner.
One sat counting the seconds away until her own ruin, the other desperately trying to think of a way out of her increasingly bleak reality. Astoria had always seen them as two sides of the same coin. Where her sister was doubtful, scornful and resentful of everyone and everything that existed, she embraced the sheer joy of life knowing that it could slip through her fingers. Their father's death had forced them down different paths, but now?
Now she just wanted to have her sister back. It had been months since they'd seen each other, since they'd even spoken. No letters, not even a hastily scribbled note. It was too dangerous. They were, after all, being watched by more than just the Malfoys. Although, their near constant presence continued to make Astoria uneasy. Every time they sat down for meals and welcomed the Death Eaters into their home, Astoria would look to the seat her sister so regularly occupied with disdain and frustration. She was privy to the eye rolls and the silent seething that everyone else seemed to miss. Whenever Draco would say something obnoxious she imagined Daphne's gritted teeth and soul-destroying glare. It was one of the few things that got her through.
But even that wasn't enough sometimes. He had taken to escorting her back to her room and trying to engage her in conversation. The manor was not huge but the walk was long enough to be draining. Even for Astoria, who rather liked to try and see the good in everything she could.
"Do you actually want this?" Astoria finally asked as one night Draco led her out of the drawing room and towards the stairs. "Or is it just some game to you?"
She had expected a snide remark, perhaps even a brag about how much he was saving her family from her sister's ruin. What she had not been anticipating was the sigh that slipped from his pale lips, nor the furtive glance back at the room where their parents exchanged double conversations and unsaid meanings.
"We're all playing a game," Draco said sullenly.
"Then why play?" She was intrigued more than anything else. Draco oddly fascinated her. There were times when he was nothing more than a Lucius Malfoy clone. Corrupt, bereft of joy, power hungry and insipid. Then there were others, when his father was spouting bigoted drivel to try and impress Astoria's mother, that he would look… sad. Like he was just as trapped as she was with no way out. They could only move forwards and hope that the other side was better than the now they found themselves in.
"Why does anyone? To arrive at the end of the board with more than I started with."
"Is that it? Is that all that matters to you? Money and power."
"My family —"
"Think about something other than them, for like more than a minute. If you can?" Before he could object, she hastily added. "Just imagine for a second that you can have anything, anything at all. No games, no tricks, just whatever you want right there in front of you. What would it be?"
They had stopped at the top of the stairs, Draco's pale eyes glancing back at the doors they had just left and listening to the quiet laughter which only came from rich people at social gatherings.
"Just once, I'd like him to say he was proud of me." Before Astoria could say anything he'd turned away and strode along the corridor, forcing her to jog slightly to keep up.
"Wow, okay, actual truth. There was me thinking you'd say something dumb like a new broom or a really pointy hat." Draco didn't answer. "I think Daphne was the same with mum for a while. You know, with the whole approval thing. I think she missed it 'cause mum kind of preferred me. That must be hard. For you, I mean, not for her."
"I'd rather be a disappointment than a disgrace," Draco bit back, refusing to look at her. "You must hate her. She's ruined your family, your life for a pathetic excuse of a man like Potter," Draco seethed, "or do you think that the Greengrass name will count for anything now? I'd hate her, if I were you."
He turned left, approaching Astoria's room more quickly than he usually did. He probably regretted the brief moment of clarity, the one thing he'd ever said to her that wasn't an insult or a lie. Astoria was many things, but she wasn't an idiot. That was bait. He was trying to get a rise out of her, well, she wasn't going to let him. For all intents and purposes she loathed her sister. That was the line and she was going to stick to it as best she could.
"Yeah, it's not great. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm glad I don't speak to her after what she's done. I'm just not good at hating though," it would be too unbelievable to make herself out to be this twisted and bitter soul. Even Draco, with his many faults and failings wasn't blind, he'd seen the chirpy, smiling Astoria she let the world know existed for three years. They'd spoken, once or twice, once he'd been funny and kind. The other a total waste of time and rather mean. She suspected he was somewhere between the two, or perhaps he was both all at once.
"You learn," Draco said stiffly.
"I don't know, it seems a shame. Why hate someone? It's giving them your time. They live rent free in your head, taking up all your thoughts and frustrations, eventually they're all you can think about. If you really disliked them, really don't want anything to do with them, not thinking about them is worse."
"And do you think about her?"
"Only now you've asked," Astoria said, forcing a smile that she hoped wasn't too insincere. "I have another question, if you don't mind?" He inclined his head, clearly as desperate as she normally was to leave their night-time walks. "Do you actually have a say, in any of this? Or are they going to make you try and, you know." The thought still made her skin crawl, but less because of who it was and more because the choice was being stripped from her.
And with that he turned on his heel and retreated to the drawing room, leaving a puzzled Astoria in his wake.
Across the country and deep within the depths of another house altogether, her sister was also confused. Not over Draco Malfoy or his intentions, for Daphne Greengrass had no idea her sister was being offered to Draco like the House Elf of a recently deceased relative. No, she was confused about how the hell she was going to break the reality of his life to Harry and what exactly they were going to say.
Of course, Harry himself had no idea what was going on. He was hurriedly throwing his things into his trunk, finally getting ready to be free of Privet Drive. With Daphne no longer around, what passed for his family essentially ignored him as he trundled the majority of his worldly possessions down the stairs. Hedwig hooted happily from her cage and only moments later there was a knock at the door.
"I'll get it," Harry called to the kitchen. Uncle Vernon grunted loudly and Harry heard the volume of the TV be increased.
"Wotcher," beamed Tonks, who was wearing her mousy hair half-up, half-down that morning. Lupin, who was wearing a very battered suit and who looked more tired than usual, managed a half-smile. Mad-Eye, a bowler hat drawn low over his magical eye stood at the far end of the driveway.
"Be quick about it, Potter," Mad-Eye snarled, as Harry, not bothering to say goodbye to the Dursleys, dragged his trunk through the front door and shut it behind him. "We've not got all day."
"He's just grumpy 'cause we're moving you now," Tonks explained in a hushed whisper when they had made it down the road. "He wanted you to fly like last time, but You Know Who's been keeping a low profile."
"Dumbledore was originally going to fetch you," Lupin added, "but he's been called away on urgent business."
"What kind of business?" Harry asked, excitedly. He'd barely even heard mention of Dumbledore's name all summer and when he did it came with glares and furtive glances from the others.
"Order stuff," Tonks shrugged, "we're not even sure. Just said he'd be back in a few days and asked us to get you to London."
They rounded the corner and headed down the road until they arrived at a small collection of out of the way garages. They were greeted by a horrible canary yellow car parked on the side of the road. It was small, far too small for all of them to squeeze inside comfortably. Tonks grinned at all of them, apparently proud of the fact that she'd selected such an obnoxious vehicle known to mankind. But then, this was the same woman who chose bright coloured hair on a daily basis.
"You'll be driving in this," Lupin explained, taking Harry's trunk and broom and loading it into the car. Across the street, another car engine roared into life. A sleek, very expensive Audi with tinted windows that would have made Uncle Vernon explode with jealousy. "That's Kingsely. He'll be taking Mad-Eye and up there," he gestured to the low hanging cloud. "Are Bill and Fleur, they'll be covering us from the sky."
"If we get killed," Mad-Eye began, in his usual matter-of-fact tone.
"None of us'll get killed, Mad-Eye," said Tonks, rolling her eyes as she took Hedwig from Harry's arms and stowed her away in the back seat of the canary car.
"You're to carry on," Mad-Eye continued, without missing a beat. "You've got your broom and the cloak, so if you have to, fly ahead. You know where you're going this time, so you won't need us to show you the way. And here, take this," he shoved his hip-flask into Harry's now empty hands.
Clearly without a choice, Harry took a sip of the truly disgusting liquid. He knew the feeling all too well and hunched over the car. Bile swam up his throat, his skin stretched and his bones cracked and then someone else's reflection was looking back at him from the window he'd been leaning against. They were a little shorter than he was, with grey hair and leathery skin. Sunken eyes widening in shock as Harry stared into his new, seventy-year-old face.
"Now quick, get in." Moody growled, snatching back his Polyjuice Potion and shoving Harry gruffly towards the car. Harry, his body suddenly much slower than he was used to, gingerly clambered into the passenger seat next to Tonks, who grinned at him.
"Always thought you were too young for your years," Tonks joked, before the car spluttered into life. "It does that."
"Are we not waiting for the others?"
"No, they'll be there." Tonks reassured him as she adjusted her seat. "Right. Seatbelt? Wand? Both buttocks?" She winked, clearly remembering the last time she'd rescued him from Number Four. "C'mon then. Let's go."
The car kangarooed off the line, jerking horribly as Tonks' clearly rusty driving took them out of Surrey and onto the motorway. After a while, she told Harry to fish out a CD from the glove compartment and they were soon listening to what were clearly her favourite Queen songs, given that she couldn't hit any of the notes and got some of the words wrong with unjustified confidence.
Harry, who had never been in the front seat of a car before, happily watched as the other motorists whizzed by and kept an eye out for the black Audi, which shot past them as soon as they pulled onto the motorway. No doubt to try and make anyone watching think that it was the car holding Harry.
After over an hour of Tonks' terrible singing, coupled with some rather lurid stories about Sirius' time at Hogwarts, much to Harry's amusement, they arrived at Grimmauld Place. The Audi was parked at the street before and Lupin was already stood waiting, keeping watch. When he nodded to them, Tonks leapt from the canary car and helped Harry with his things. Giving him a hug when he'd climbed the steps to Number Twelve and disappearing with everybody else when a very haggard looking Sirius opened the door.
It was not the sight he'd been expecting, nor was it the one he'd wanted. Sirius remained silent and gestured for Harry to follow him into the now familiar gloom of his ancestral home. The portrait of his mother lay quiet but it was creepy how they crept through the house, Sirius barely able to look at him.
"Leave your stuff there," he whispered, pointing to the foot of the stairs.
"Just do it," Sirius snapped, "then this way."
"What's going on?"
Sirius didn't answer until they descended into the kitchen. Harry was amazed to see Ron, Hermione and Daphne all gathered around the table. None of them smiled. There were no hugs, no screams of his name, not even a begrudging 'hello'. They all just stared at him. It was like walking into his own funeral.
"You might want to sit down," Sirius said, clearly stalling for time. No-one argued. The seconds blitzed by. Time was behaving very strangely. The morning had flown by, as Harry had packed, wanting nothing more than to be at Grimmauld Place., but now he was actually here The seconds elongated themselves into what felt like hours.
"Really?" He asked, finally finding his voice.
"Yeah, here. I'll get you some tea," Sirius busied himself in the kitchen, not even bothering to summon Kreacher.
"Harry," Hermione began, when no-one else said anything. "We, er…"
"There's something you should know, mate."
"Something not good."
Harry looked from Hermione, to Ron, to Sirius' bustling back and finally to Daphne. This was too weird. For the first time since they had known each other, Harry felt as though none of them could bring themselves to look into his face. What horrors did they expect to find there? It was just him. Couldn't they even look at him?
"You remember St. Mungo's, not that you'd forget. Of course you wouldn't. Well, they found something. Something they weren't expecting to." Daphne started.
"We've known for a while, a few weeks, maybe?" Ron continued.
"Something like that." Daphne concluded.
"They found out why you've been having these visions. Why only you get them, why nobody else has ever experienced anything like it before. And, well, it's not easy. Oh, Harry."
The rest of what Hermione was about to say was drowned out by a small sob. "What?"
His heart was racing now. He could feel his cheeks flushing. If they knew something, if they really knew, how bad could it be? What could be so bad that it warranted this? Only Daphne met his gaze now, her blue eyes emptier than he had ever seen them. This was wrong. A great ball seemed to be gathering in the pit of his stomach.
"The night Voldemort," Ron flinched, clearly too ill at ease to control it but Daphne continued, "the night he killed your parents, a part of his soul split. Harry, I'm really sorry. I wish there was an easier way to tell you this. Look, when he 'died," she used the term as loosely as possible, "that part of him latched onto the only living thing in the room. You."
"You're joking, right?"
"'Fraid not," Sirius said, finally joining in as he set the mug on the table before Harry. None of them moved. He wasn't even sure he breathed. They just waited. Watched and waited. He blinked. Frowned. Tried to focus on what they'd just said and then, when he couldn't, he blinked again.
"No," he finally heard himself say very, very slowly. It was like he was watching himself say it from far above. High, high above. This could not be right. But the longer the notion sunk in, the more things started to make sense. The snakes for one thing. The visions. How he didn't see, he felt what Voldemort was feeling. It was emotional. Like a living, breathing connection. He looked down at his hands, which after about an hour in the car had returned to his own.
"Harry, I'm sorry." That was Daphne, there were tears in even her eyes now.
"No, don't say sorry, sorry's what you say when there's nothing you can do." The emptiness inside him was quickly being replaced by white hot fury. Not at them, but at this. At everything his life had led to. Every fight, every breath, hadn't been his. It had been shared, shared with the one man he hated more than anyone else. He'd have laughed if it wasn't so objectively, grotesquely vile. "There is something we can do, right?"
"We think there is," Daphne answered, "we're trying."
"And will it work?"
"We don't know." At least she was honest.
"Right, brilliant. Of course. Why would you?" The laugh that forced itself from him was devoid of any emotion other than sheer, raw anger. He wasn't aware of getting to his feet, but suddenly he was pacing. "Why would we? Huh? I mean that's always it, isn't it? Go on, Harry, do this, you might die but why not? Give it a go.
"It's not fair! But why would it be? Because it's always the same, isn't it? It's always me, why can't it be someone else?"
His words echoed around the stone kitchen, reverberating off the walls, giving his fury a life of its own. Somewhere something exploded. Hermione shrieked. Sirius swore loudly and recoiled, but Harry was only dimly aware of what was going on. Alongside all the other noises, a cool, cold laugh was filling his eardrums. His mother's screams. She'd died for nothing. Died to give him life. He felt his heart racing in his chest, but it wasn't his heart anymore. Suddenly every beat, every breath, was Voldemort's too. Every moment he lived, Voldemort could live on too.
"Do I have to die?" The question came long before his brain had consciously asked it. "Well?" He snapped when no-one answered.
"No, I'm not going to let that happen." Daphne was on her feet now, tears trickling slowly down her face as she looked at him. Looking at her, it was like something pulling at him. An anchor, a great weight not letting him draft away completely. She reached out and for a moment, just a moment, he wanted to pull away. Too angry, too furious to let anyone, anyone at all in. But the longer he looked, the longer he let himself feel something other than sheer, unadulterated rage, the more he felt his breathing slow. The more his heart stopped pounding in his ears. The more of him came back.
"None of us are, mate." Ron added, joining Daphne.
"But you just said —"
"If it doesn't work, we find something else. And if that doesn't work either, then something different."
"But if this thing doesn't die —"
"It'll die," Daphne promised, her voice cold. "I'm just not letting it take you with it."
"And if you can't?"
"Voldemort already took my father from me," Daphne said softly, taking his hand, her thumb gently rubbing over his palm. "I'm not going to let him take you too."
It was all too much. He just wanted to stop. For once, why couldn't he just stop? The memories of mere weeks ago, even days ago, flooded his brain. He wanted to go back there. Wanted to be living without this, without knowing what else lived because he did. Every breath felt like a lie. Every moment tainted. Every heartbeat empty.
"And if you think I'm done with you, you've got another thing coming." Sirius said, speaking for almost the first time.
"Us too," Hermione hiccupped. Ron was by her side, his arm wrapped around her.
"Yeah, no way you're getting away from us that easy."
"Guys, listen —"
"No, you listen to us," Daphne said firmly, squeezing his hands so tightly he could feel her nails digging into him. "We're going to fix it, we are. Whatever it takes. We've got a plan, we're doing something and when you're ready, when this has all sunk in, we'll tell you. But right now — Harry look at me," she gently pulled his face towards her. She was so close he could feel her breath on his skin and see each tear track marring her beautiful face. "Right now, just know we're here. We are never, ever, going anywhere."
He wanted to object, wanted to list the many impossible reasons why this wouldn't work. Why it might not and why deep down he doubted it ever would. There was only one way out he could see, the same way it had started. One life for another. But as the words formed on his lips, they died almost instantly. They knew everything he knew. Knew how unlikely it was, how impossible it should be. Yet they were still fighting, still desperately trying to figure out a solution. If they weren't going to give up, then why couldn't he?
"Take your time," Sirius said gently, "we'll be here when you're ready."
Harry felt himself nodding. There wasn't a lot else he could do. His mind was still desperately scrambling to process everything he'd just heard. Anger was slowly being replaced with a dull sort of dread. He wanted to stop. Wanted to just let it happen. After everything, why couldn't it? Hadn't he fought enough?
"Thanks. Really. I mean it. All of you." He let his hands fall from Daphne's grip. "If it's alright I'm gonna…" he trailed off but they all knew what he was going to say. So why say it? As the door was swinging shut behind him, he heard Sirius say quietly "let him go." He didn't need to look back to know who had tried to follow him.
He let his feet guide him to the room he and Ron had shared last summer and sank into bed, not even bothering to take off his shoes. All the questions of fairness and what they were going to do faded from his mind, leaving him with just the raw facts. No bias, no way out, no getting around it. Just the truth. Finally and for once. The truth. As long as he carried on living, Voldemort would too. He wondered if he knew. If the self-proclaimed Dark Lord had any idea.
Probably not. It was an accident. A cruel twist of fate, just another joke the world seemed ready to play on him. The coolness of the pillow was a welcome connection to the world he suddenly felt so disconnected from. It would have been easier if they told him this was it. Done, goodbye. The idea of hope, of clinging to a possible way out in the face of everything felt somehow worse.
At least he'd had summer. At least there had been some normality. A tiny sliver of it. A snapshot onto what his life could have been. Cinema dates, being caught in the rain without magic and hiding in a bus shelter until they could go home. Picnics with Ron and Tracey. Bowling with the insanely good Hermione. His birthday. Sirius. And Daphne. Whatever memory his brain flitted to in those moments she was always there. Her smile, her warmth, her wit.
And she'd known all that time. How long had she said, weeks? She'd known and not said. Not said and given him the best summer of his life. If last year he'd been angry for Ron and Hermione keeping him in the dark because of Dumbledore's order, then this year he was oddly grateful. She'd given him a life free from Voldemort, free from the Dursleys and even free from a world that wanted to ogle at him like an animal in a zoo.
How she'd done it, how they'd all managed it, he had no idea. If his heart was broken now then theirs', theirs' must've shattered every time they saw him.
He was dragged from his reverie by a knock at the door and Sirius' gaunt face peering through the crack to the outside world.
"Thought I'd come see how you are," he explained, "mind if I come in?"
"It's your house," Harry shrugged, forcing himself into a sitting position as his godfather perched on the edge of Ron's bed.
"How are you holding up?"
"Not great, you?"
"About the same," Sirius answered dully, his forearms pressed against his thighs as he looked at Harry. "It's not great. You know, how you're feeling, wondering why you? Why not someone else and just the emptiness of it all. I felt like that for a long time."
"How did you cope?"
"I found something to live for. Not healthy, I'll grant you, and if it hadn't been for you I'd have killed the damned rat, but it was something. Sitting in that cell, day after day, I began to wish they'd just kiss me and get it over with. The waiting was the worst part. It was death or lose my soul. That was it. When I finally saw Peter after all those years…" he trailed off, almost wistfully. "They couldn't take it from me. It wasn't a positive emotion. Revenge. But it gave me purpose.
"I know it's not easy," he continued, when Harry remained silent. "I'll be honest, I didn't want to tell you. The others, they thought you deserved to know. Me?" He blew out a sigh that caused his long hair to dangle even more in front of his eyes. "I knew what living with something like this is like. I couldn't give that to you too."
"So why did you?"
"Because they were right, because sometimes doing the right thing is so much harder than doing the wrong. I love you, Harry. We all do. We're going to get through this."
He only realised he was crying when the tear hit his hand. He brushed it away, shooting an apologetic look at Sirius, but there were tears in his eyes too.
"Want my advice? Focus on the fact we've got something," Sirius ploughed on, sniffing slightly as he did so. His jaw clenched and his eyes shining in the gloom. "And that none of us are going to stop until it works."
"What actually is the plan?"
"Well, Hagrid's going to be hunting down a rare magical creature, I forget the name of the damned thing. We need its heart string, a bit of your blood — so at least that bit's not too hard — and then some ritual."
"Simple as that?"
"Well, it's designed to move a horcrux, that's what they call a fragmented bit of a dark wizard's soul, to another container. They're not meant to be attached to a living thing. You could put it in your shoe, or in a box."
"Or a diary," Harry added, a piece of the jigsaw clicking into place.
"Dumbledore mentioned that damned thing too. Merlin only knows how many more there are. A nutjob like Voldemort wouldn't just stick to one, would he?"
"Probably not." There were going to be others. Of course there were. Voldemort was obsessed with living forever. He couldn't face death, couldn't embrace the fact that at some point they all died. That was why he'd shown Harry all of his friends dead, it wasn't just to try and show him that love was meaningless because deep down it was Voldemort's biggest fear too. That's why he hoped it would work, but it had already done a number on him.
"So when this is gone," Harry said, tapping his head. "We find the rest and we destroy them, yeah?"
"Sounds good to me," Sirius grinned before getting to his feet. "Now, you ready?"
The half open door loomed before him. On the other side? Pain. Loss. Love. In here, he could hide away from it all. In here, he could just accept that some vile thing lived because of him and would always live if he did. In here, he could loathe it, loathe himself and despise what Voldemort had made of his life. In here, life was easier but so, so much emptier.
"Yeah, I'm ready."