Author's Note: M rated chapter for descriptions of the crime scene.


Chapter 2 ~ The Long Night

"There is a power in nature that man has ignored. And the result has been heartache and pain."
― Anasazi Foundation


Dead Zones


Harry really needed better ways to spend his hangovers.

He seriously fucking did.

Crouching down in the setting desert sun, hardened green eyes rested on a torn off strip of flapping fabric, and a dark, forgotten corner of Harry's mind, where his innocence had presumably gone to hide, screamed.

His skull throbbed, and the bastard alcohol-induced gremlin running amuck inside his skull grabbed a pick axe and slammed it into his frontal lobe in a compassionate attempt to mercy kill him from the inside out.

It didn't work.

Pity.

Maggots swarmed over the child's plastic-y looking flesh, what had once been pale tissue now stained orange-yellow with sulfuric breakdown of hemoglobin. The effect turned the child's skin into a verifiable rainbow of horrors layered under a torn up jean coat.

Well look at that, he had retained something closely approximating 'scientific knowledge'. Somewhere Hermione was having a stroke.

Still…he studied the corpse with a critical eye. He'd been to a body farm in Texas a few years back, the experience…helpful for his line of work. Nothing like seeing a slew of bare assed corpses thrown to the elements behind barbed wire fences and left in varying states of decay to give a bloke an up close and smelly personal experience.

Truth was, he'd spent a good fortnight there, and it'd been invaluable in improving his 'time of death' reconstructions. Harry'd even taken the liberty of 'donating' a corpse from a 'family member' to contribute to the cause. True, the only blood that corpse and him actually had in common was the plethora of it Harry'd gotten on himself when he'd cornered the sociopathic fuck in that back alley and made liberal use of cutting curses, but a couple of confounding charms and one well-forged death certificate later and the curator of the Body Farm wasn't exactly asking any questions.

He'd caught the rogue wizard, an ex-Death Eater sympathizer, hiding out in the States like the coward he was and killing Muggles for sport. Now John Doe Number Eight was happily rotting in a pair of ass-less chaps – Harry's idea to add some levity to the mirthless place – beneath the remorseless Texan sun.

At least in death the bastard would help Muggle authorities learn how to identify bodies better.

He'd rather like to add Lucius Malfoy to that collection.

As it was, like a good former lapdog he'd sent Kingsley a letter recommending the creation of a body farm for his former team, the wizard receptive, but as usual the Ministry had axed the Auror department's formal request, dismissing the possibility that anything coming from Muggles could be helpful. Ever.

Voldemort might be rotting and Ministry propaganda spouting touchy-feely-embrace-your-favorite-Muggle rhetoric, but in the end they were still all a bunch of racist fucks.

A maggot crawled along that dead child's lower lip, it swollen with its recent purging, and that innocent part of Harry's brain screamed again.

Had Hermione been around to hear his thoughts, she might have been moved to literal fucking tears. Woman was always fretting over what she called his 'dangerously desensitized' state of existence, after all. She'd have been thrilled to know that a scrap of humanity, any scrap of real empathetic humanity survived. Granted his was slowly cannibalizing his neurons and the physical capability to smile, feeding on scraps of hope and bleeding the few good memories he had left like a dementor succubi scavenging his soul, but what the hell, it was there. It'd just been irrevocably mutated into something closely approximating an inferi.

No wonder she'd stopped inviting him to dinner parties.

Harry scrubbed a hand over his face, and dragged his mind back to the here and now.

He was in the middle of the desert in the middle of winter with a witch who was less than happy to see him, a Tribal cop that wasn't exactly talkative, and an asshole of a raven prone to periodically dive bombing him.

Oh yeah, and it was biting cold. He was freezing his ass off, but for now he grit his teeth and bared it.

When Harry'd first traveled to this nook of the world, he'd been surprised; he'd always associated deserts with sweltering heat that could kill you just by looking at it the wrong way, but he'd been wrong. Seriously wrong. The desert was simply dry, getting little in the way of precipitation, with dry streams and even drier washes. They weren't even always sandy. Half the time they were covered in packed dirt and rock, layered in thin sheets of frost, and death by hypothermia was a real damn concern as soon as the sun settled.

Deserts were deserts regardless of temperature, and right now this was a seriously fucking cold one.

The bodies showed it.

Most were damn near mummified, rather than ate down to the bone by carrion and legless larvae, the way a lay person might assume. Hell, it was a marvel any of the bugs had survived at all. Some had, of course, because maggots were hardy little bastards and the fresher corpses verifiable buffets, but overall death and decay didn't happen the way most people thought it did. It happened in stages, and Harry didn't need some laboratory hack to tell him that these corpses were all in varying ones.

So what the fuck did that actually mean?

They'd all died at different times.

They'd been murdered at different times.

Then they'd been dumped here to rot.

Whatever was going on here…it had been happening for a very long time.

The hair on the back of Harry's neck stood up, goosebumps prickling his skin. They had a serial killer on their hands.

"So it's a dumping ground." He silently congratulated himself on sounding so emotionless, when a child's putrefying eyes stared vacantly through him. Where there had once been irises were now only gushy chunks of pecked out flesh, the corneas bathed in a milky white cast, as if the kid had suffered from cataracts before they'd died.

But Harry knew better; it was just what happened when the birds and rats and maggots didn't finish eating them.

The kid's skeletal framework lay limp on the ground, discarded like an unloved toy to bake in the sun, and as he knelt there, balanced carefully on the balls of his feet so as not to disturb the scene, a slow burning fury infiltrated Harry's veins and moved through him like a toxin. He hadn't felt this level of hate in awhile, but the sheer and undiluted rage enveloped his entire being like the warmth of an old friend's hug.

But there would be no hugs for him today. Certainly not from Luna.

He could feel her presence behind him, the flaxen haired witch silent, as quiet as the dead they were here to see.

Whoever'd done this would meet the business end of his wand. Of that, he vowed.

"These…" he hesitated, because based on the attire he'd have presumed they had all been women, but from the state of decay there was no possible way to be sure. Not for all of them. Not without analysis, and he wasn't willing to disturb the scene yet to do so. "These people, "he settled on, "are all in different states of decay. That one could have been here a year or more, but this one," his eyes settled onto the dead child, and an upwelling of emotion surged inside, blooming like toxic algae, "she hasn't been here long."

"That was my initial assessment as well," Huritt agreed. "Whomever, or whatever has done this, has been at it for some time."

A single, brown-white larvae undulated its way out of the child's pupil, smushy as curdled milk.

Harry threw up a little in his mouth. "This scene hasn't been processed," he managed roughly. Rooting around in his pocket, he unearthed a handkerchief and pressed it over his mouth and nose. The scent of peppermint immediately calmed his tossing stomach. "Why?"

"The women were only found the day before last."

Staring at the dead, the bloat and decay and mottled colors on the leathering skins emitting the sickly sweet stench of rotting meat, it took him a genuine moment to process that.

He'd left a homicide scene sit unguarded, without any form of securing, when the perpetrator could easily have come back at any point to alter it. Only someone in law enforcement or forensics could grasp how fucking horrifying that was.

"You let them sit," Harry repeated, dumbfounded, "for two full days? You made no attempt to secure the scene? I got that right?

Hunter seemed entirely unconcerned. "This far into the backcountry there was little cause for concern. No one would stumble upon it by accident. This is not an urban setting, Harry Potter."

Harry fought back a fierce wave of irritation. Had this man been an Auror he'd have been placed on administrative leave for leaving a scene like that. Rural setting or not.

Harry hissed a frustrated breath. "It's pretty obvious that whomever did this comes back. A lot. Ever occur to you that middle-of-nowhere or not, that they could have come back to alter the scene? It's an opportunity to catch them. Did you even leave anyone here to protect the site in case whomever dumped them came back?"

Silence.

Then a huff of breath.

"No."

Right. Based on this little conversation, Harry just knew he and Huritt Hunter were going to be the best of friends. The absolute fucking best.

His teeth ground hard enough to grind enamel. "Not one for many words, are you?"

"Nope." This time the man popped the p.

Harry calmed himself with soothing thoughts of adding Huritt's body to the pile. "Alright," he said with remarkable calm given the situation and gross incompetence, "walk me through this. Luna's not one for being friendly with imbeciles, so I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. What exactly possessed you to leave it like that?"

Strangely Huritt Hunter did not look annoyed.

No.

He looked seriously fucking amused.

"You mean asides from the discovery being made outside of radio distance, no cell phone coverage, and my only option for securing the scene being leaving Lightfoot, a woman, alone here?"

It was a gut punch. Shit. Harry really hated when someone he was hating on had a point. "Yes," he gritted out, "asides from that. Not to mention you waited for me before doing anything. Surely once you got back in radio contact, you could have sent someone ahead rather than leaving Luna's ass armed on the grassy knoll."

Neither Luna nor Hunter deigned to laugh; Harry really hated being surrounded by people with no sense of humor.

At least that fucking raven cackled.

Harry sighed. "Seriously," he added, forcing his gaze in Luna's general direction and ignoring the gut punch that was, "when in the hell did you become a verifiable Badge Man? Last time I checked sniping wasn't on the Hogwarts curriculum."

Luna's carefully crafted features furrowed, as if confused, and Harry really regretted picking up that American history book.

Then again, that history professor had been rather hot, and that history book had gotten him far. Few years back, it'd gotten him a no-strings-attached form of semi-regular sexual release with a hot brunette, right when he'd most needed to forget, so he reckoned he couldn't regret it that much. Though that woman had been a bit too into his glasses…

While Harry took that mental trip down memory lane, Huritt had been busy drilling silent, thoughtful holes into him. The man's mouth had stretched into a long, thin line, as if thinking something over.

Then he apparently came to a decision.

"I made the decision to ensure minimal disturbance occurred," he told, as if speaking to a child. "This land is sacred. Our community is small. Given the unique challenges presented in reaching this location, if I had commandeered additional deputies to stand guard it would have taken them away from their families and general policing duties for days at a time."

Oh good, he was answering his question finally. Harry idly wondered if he expected a cookie.

Hunter carried on. "Had I done so, we would have had to request outside assistance from neighboring magical communities to fill the gaps, and while we have the ability through our intergovernmental agreements to do so, that requires lengthy requisition forms and the provision of an explanation as to why assistance is being requested. It would not have been long before word got out about what we'd found here, and you and I both know that people as a species are attracted to the morbid. Every able bodied, disrespectful magical tourist within apparation distance would have shown up to illegally enter our lands in stark defiance of our sovereign status, and given the fact that this is a dead zone, we would have been dealing with accidental splinchings of the most severe nature in a wilderness setting. When those wizards invariably attempted to use magic to tend to their wounds, well…" And at this his lips curled just a bit. "I believe you've already experienced just how hospitable this zone is to magic. By the time we discovered those bodies, they would have been dead for some time, assuming we found them at all. The last thing we need is a Ministry inquiry into the disappearance of one of its citizens on our lands. So no, Harry Potter, we did not leave someone behind to tend the scene. Our council of elders were not about to allow it to become a circus."

It was the most Harry had heard the man talk.

The Tribal Officer merely folded his large arms over his chest, black gaze remaining hard on him. "Were there any more questions," he asked blandly, "about holes in my policing duties?"

Fabulous. Now he'd gone and offended the locals. Unfortunately Harry just didn't have it in him to give a shit. "You asked for my help," he offered. "Part of that is asking questions, so I have a full picture of what transpired."

Huritt grunted, and it sounded distinctly like it wasn't me who asked for your help.

Well shit.

He felt Luna's presence behind him like a palpable force. She'd been remarkably silent during the exchange. Hell, she hadn't even answered his goading about her shooting at him.

This time Harry avoided her gaze like the plague, remaining crouched right where he was. He'd take a pile of decomposing corpses over having to face her any day. So much for Gryffindor courage.

"Understood," he grated, voice rough with inhaled dust. "Given how remote this site is, how'd you come across them in the first place?"

"Lightfoot came across whilst taking soil samples."

Lightfoot. Harry ignored how hearing her called by a different name affected him. He also ignored how Luna failed to answer for herself.

"Right…" the word was drawn out, as he sought a way to more 'politely' ask for specifics about how the hell she'd found it in the middle of the desert, without sounding like he was accusing her of mass homicide. "Even so, this isn't exactly an easy spot to reach," he started tentatively. Tension tightened his chest. "They could have been out here for years and gone undetected. The odds of discovery weren't exactly in your favor. Luna, was there something-"

Huritt spared him.

"Lightfoot has been residing here for the past year. She knows the area as well as any of our people. It was inevitable she would cross paths eventually." There was a pause, a faint note of chastisement in the man's tone. "Though it is my understanding that she got turned around when she found this particular site."

Maggots had clearly crawled into Harry's stomach, given the entire organ squirmed.

He twisted around, and it took a lot to keep his voice steady. "You've been out here alone?"

Luna stood there, a mere silhouette in the setting sun. The brim of her hat dipped as she nodded.

Hackles rose deep inside him. "You've been alone," he repeated slowly, "in the desert, where someone or something has been killing and dumping the bodies of women for a year?"

Again, there was that wordless response.

A slow rising horror was in him. The rising urge to grab and shake some sense into her reared up. He opened his mouth to say…he didn't know, but all that came out was a hoarse croak. "Where-where have you been living?"

To get here hadn't been easy. There'd been double digit miles of hiking; he'd lost count after twelve. Magical means of transportation did not work thanks to the oh-so-friendly dead zone welcome, and given the number of steep slopes he'd had to scramble down and then back up - the landscape had an annoying habit of dropping down into shallow gullies without notice - he doubted that even Muggle four wheeling vehicles could make it out here without flipping and crushing the driver in an organy-mess.

Harry looked at her directly, and hoped to god that the next words out of her mouth were about the Four Seasons hotel he'd somehow missed across the way.

"My tent," she said simply. The sun had sunk low in the sky, and silvery eyes peered out from beneath the brim of her hat, as if confused by the question.

Right. Harry wasn't sure what he was more shocked by: the fact that there were multiple dead women discarded like household trash in a near unreachable area, or the fact that Luna was now a wandering vagrant. "Why so far out?"

This time Luna didn't answer.

Huritt did.

"Research. This particular Dead Zone has been of interest to our Tribe. Lightfoot has been kind enough to assist."

Harry shot him an extra special look. "Pretty sure Luna can answer for herself."

Huritt huffed, as if amused.

Harry wasn't. He turned back to her, holding Luna's gaze just a second too long.

The witch averted her face, looking anywhere but at him. He didn't miss how her hand lifted to cover her nose, shrinking from the foul odor the cold wind blew her way, undeniable upset on her face.

It didn't take a genius to guess the problem, something Huritt had clearly cottoned on to quicker than him.

Harry reached into his pocket and grabbed the other kerchief pre-soaked in peppermint. Wordlessly he wadded it up into a ball and tossed it to her. Luna caught it, a fleeting look of surprise in her eyes. The blue fabric dangled from between her fingers, fluttering in the wind, and Harry lifted his own back up to his face in silent indication of what she should do with it.

Slowly she mimicked him, and instantly her expression relaxed as the calming scent hit her.

"Old Auror trick," he explained. "Calms the stomach. Relieves nausea and masks odors all in one go."

That strange glint never left her eyes, as if she couldn't fathom why he was being nice.

He supposed he couldn't blame her.

As if to add insult to injury, the copious amounts of drugs he'd swallowed dryly began to wear off, his hand giving a few sharp, violent throbs to remind him of its existence. Grand.

"If I may, I rather believe Lightfoot is…struggling with this," Hunter interceded. "She does not have the same experience at such…scenes as we do. That is why I have been answering for her."

Harry had a few words for where Hunter could shove his chivalry, but wisely kept silent. He just remained in that awkward position, crouched on the ground, head twisted to peer over his shoulder to study her.

He waited until she gave a small nod, and for a second just a second he almost smiled.

"She's tougher than she looks, Huritt," he said proudly.

And she was. She really fucking was.

Uncomfortable as ever with compliments, Luna's eyes flickered away from him to rest on the women. Her eyes swept over them silently, and Harry's swept over her.

And there it was; that same calm acceptance, mingling with overwhelming sadness he'd seen in her eyes at Neville's funeral.

She turned abruptly on her heel, walking away, dust scattering beneath the tread of her boots.

Harry watched her go with a certain kind of longing, but lucky for him his expression was covered with a damn rag. Small wins.

He turned back to Hunter, all business. "So she's doing research for the Tribe. Why'd you need an outsider to help with that?"

Based on the little – emphasis on little – that Huritt Hunter had shared, his tribe did not sound particularly endeared to outsiders, so it was little wonder that Harry sounded skeptical. He also didn't give a flying fuck if that was prying. Luna had been living out here, alone, in clear danger whether she realized it or not, and there was a dead little girl not a meter in front of the toes of his rawhide boots. He'd need a better grasp on the Tribe's governmental dynamics if he was going to get anywhere.

And given that Luna was living out here, he was highly motivated to get somewhere.

To Huritt's credit, his shackles weren't easily raised. "Had you ever attempted to recruit an agreeable party in possession of a complete magical education, willing to expend their precious youth assisting non-majs in such a hostile environment," he paused meaningfully, "in terrain, climate and superstition, and who was also unafraid of potential backlash from their respective home Ministry for abiding by our laws and not their own prejudicial ones, then you would learn that volunteers do not come out of the woodwork."

Well shit. Hunter wasn't exactly wrong. He couldn't imagine the Ministry of Magic would be thrilled to hear Luna had been working with non-maj's on a magical problem. In fact, if he wasn't very much mistaken, that might put her on the wrong side of the law when she returned home.

That caused a whole new wave of nausea to sweep him.

In the aftermath of Voldemort, there'd been hope that things would change, that things would get better.

That hadn't happened.

The law was still the law. Secrecy Statutes, if anything, had been bolstered rather than weakened. The last war had left one too many dead Muggles laying about and too many questions from Muggle police and the Prime Minister. About the only improvement was that blatant prejudice against Muggleborns had weakened. But Muggles themselves, or creatures? They still had many of the same problems that they'd had before. Hell, it was a prime reason he and Ron hadn't seen Hermione properly in a long, long time. She'd been running herself ragged for years trying to fix systemic issues that might never be fixed.

They all had their demons to battle. Hermione just tackled hers head on with caffeine and eighty hour work weeks.

Harry released a tense breath and got back to the task at hand. "Okay. So that explains why you had to look outside your Tribe for help. If your stats are anything like the rest of the world, can't imagine you had a terribly large number of witches and wizards in your numbers to begin with."

The Tribal Officer grunted agreement. "You misunderstand me, Harry Potter. Lightfoot may have begun outside of our Tribe. That is no longer the case."

It took him a second.

He ran things over in his head, because there were only so many ways that someone born outside a Tribe could join a Tribe. But the way Luna relaxed instantly around Huritt Hunter, the way the man was overly comfortable speaking for her, the few subtle touches he'd witnessed on their trek here…

There'd been a point when Huritt had taken the rifle, carrying it for her, the two comfortably sharing water from the same nalgene.

Harry's stomach plummeted, and that familiar green monster leapt to life in him.

Luna was with Hunter.

Harry didn't want to know, but asked anyway. He asked by shooting the man a questioning look.

"Lightfoot is…special to me. She was adopted, formally, into our Tribe," the man answered, catching on. "She is one of us in all the ways that matter."

He felt hollow, because that didn't answer what he actually wanted to know. "Oh," he managed, a bit hoarse. "Didn't realize you lot did that anymore."

Huritt smiled like a hawk. "We don't."

The tension roared like lightning, his heart pounding like a jackhammer. "Oh."

"Oh indeed."

Harry didn't have an answer, but it seemed apparent enough. Not wanting to think on it for a second more he let the throbbing of his bandaged hand distract, and turned his attention back to the bodies, only this time he let his gaze drift past that of the child's and onto the others.

Then he let everything else fade away as he looked, really looked at it.

Cracked, dried ground stretched out in front of him. Moisture had been leached from the landscape, uneven cracks stretching across the dirt in square-shaped patterns, the impacted mud soft beneath his feet. The corpses themselves lay scattered over several yards, no rhyme or reason to how they'd been dumped. Harry knew from experience that could simply be how they'd been placed, or predation or the elements could have moved them. He doubted it was the latter. There were no signs of predation that he could see beyond the markings common from bird's sharp beaks, and those were not enough to physically move a body. Had larger game been present, torn off pieces of flesh and bones would be scattered over a much larger distance.

No. Someone had tossed them here, one on top of the other in some cases, while others lay sprawled out, alone.

They looked rather lonely.

Harry rose up from his crouch, his aching muscles protesting. He ignored them, like usual, and mentally flipped off the little bastard in his head banging conga drums. That little migraine inducing fuck probably wanted more alcohol in exchange for silence, or ibuprofen, and given he wasn't exactly in possession of either it was just going to have to pipe down until he was done.

Rag still clutched securely over his face, he noted other things a lay person might miss. The stages of decomposition, for starts. At a glance, only one of the bodies – the child - appeared to be in the stage of initial decay, where the cells began to self-digest, bacteria proliferating. Rigor and algor mortis were both things of the past for them – they' been dead over 72 hours - and whatever flies had been nearby had clearly already landed, laid eggs, the larvae hatching.

Maggots squirmed over the child's arm in the hundreds. Unsurprising. Flies could lay upwards of 250-300 eggs at a time. It took only 24 hours for them to hatch. The larvae could effectively devour sixty percent of a body within 70 days, if left un-accosted. Though given the cold, the direct sunlight of the body's position…he doubted these would survive long.

Harry wagered the child had been dead for between four and eight days, give or take.

He forced himself to look. He looked not because he wanted to, but because this child, these people had been alive, had dreams and ambitions, and – if they were lucky - perhaps had families and friends that had loved them. They deserved justice.

Harry sucked in a deep breath through the peppermint cloth. Two others were bloating, the dead skin swelling with accumulated gases from the bacterial activity. In those bodies the breakdown of organs has occurred, spilling fluids into the still intact cavities and sending the flesh swelling until they appeared unnaturally plump, like an air compressor had been shoved into an inconvenient orifice and then turned on, swelling them like balloons. Bloated marbling had occurred, and an array of chemical knowledge about precisely how and why the flesh turned that particular yellow-orange in this stage squirmed inside his skull with horrific detail.

A fourth was purging. The bloated tissues had burst, the dark, discolored fluids leaking out around the body. The stench from this one was ungodly, Harry turning away after assessing what he could.

Five others had been fully skeltonised, their skin unnaturally shiny and stretched tight, the blackened flesh clinging to bones as if wearing shiny latex suits and skullcaps.

The rest were mummified. The desert sun had leached the remaining flesh of fluids, it collapsing down around the skeletal remains in these corpses, as if all air had been forcibly sucked out and the skin turned to leather. Seeing that made him uncomfortably shift inside his own leather boots, the rising urge to burn them when he returned rising.

The most remarkable thing was that there was not an obvious cause of death on any one of them.

No.

Just the stench of bitter almonds, like cyanide, or dark magic.

"I've seen enough for tonight," Harry grated, eyes flicking to the horizon. The setting sun barely peaked out, and within an hour's time they'd need to get their torches out. "I counted fourteen. I can't be certain without actually removing them for inspection, but based on the number of outfits," gods just saying it he felt like he was overhearing fourteen year old girls in the form of Pavarti and Lavender gushing in the common room, "and the number of skulls, I'd say it's a fair assumption."

"Fourteen by my count as well," Huritt affirmed.

Harry cast the man a glance, and from the reverent way he gazed upon the dead, he disliked the man a little less. "Set up near here, and spend the night?"

The Tribal Officer acknowledged this with a nod.

He seemed pensive, Harry not missing the reason why. "What about Luna?"

"I am not certain I approve of Lightfoot being near here. It is bad for the spirit. But…it is necessary. I would not wish to leave her alone in this place, merely to satisfy my desire to keep her from further distress."

"Luna's tougher than she looks," Harry countered again, though he got it. If the options were exposing Luna to a macabre sight she'd already seen, or leaving Luna to camp on her own, far enough out into the desert that she couldn't see it, then she'd be vulnerable to whatever it was that had done this in the first place.

Right now, for all Harry knew, the fucking desert had killed them.

"You smelled it," Huritt stated, "didn't you?"

"Smelled what?"

The man's dark eyes studied him, near black irises nearly as dark as his pupils. The sight was unnerving. "She'd said you had gotten into researching dark magic, that you'd investigated cases all over the world. That you were the one to catch the warlock in the Peruvian Springs killings. Was she mistaken?"

Harry was caught off guard. "Luna kept tabs on me?"

Hunter's expression was hard to read, but if hard pressed, Harry would have described it as 'calling him a dumbass.' "Checking in time and again on an old friend is in keeping with her personality. A shame you did not do the same."

It was a gut punch. "Look-"

"Now is not the time for that."

Unfortunately he was right.

Harry swallowed it back down. "If you're asking if I can smell dark magic, the answer is yes." He cast an assessing look at the man, suspicion rising. "You can smell it." It wasn't a question. "Yet you said you're a non-maj. How?"

Huritt seemed to think long and hard about how to answer that.

"It is my understanding that very few, even of your own kind, are able to physically smell the taint."

"Your understanding's correct," Harry confirmed. It was well-documented that dark magic left a stench, and similar to how only certain people could smell cyanide, the same went for the dark arts. There was a reason that Mad Eye Moody had been so successful at hunting down dark wizards; he had literally sniffed them out. "Though that doesn't explain how you smelled it."

And it didn't, because equally well-documented was the inability of Muggles to sense it.

Hunter smirked. "My mother always said I had a fine nose."

"Cryptic?"

"Yes."

Just like that he was back to disliking the man.

Harry had questions, lots of them, but for now they remained unasked, because for all his questions about Huritt Hunter, there was one he didn't have; while the bodies reeked of bitter almond, Huritt Hunter did not.

The women lay there in wait, Harry equal parts frustrated and saddened by their fate. Rage would come later, when he was hunting. For now, there was nothing further he could do. Not without magic. Not till morning.

It was getting rapidly dark.

Huritt bowed his head, brim of his hat shielding his eyes from the last flares of light. "All the earth is a "grave," he said deeply, as if in prayer, "and naught escapes it."

Not knowing what else to do, Harry dipped his own head.

They remained in silence there for some time, a lone asshole raven cawing in the distance.


Dead Zones


Two hours later, a small fire crackled within a hastily created ring of desert rocks. According to Huritt, it was to keep the sparks somewhat contained, as fires were a real concern, even this time of year. Harry had half a mind to ask how given the near plant-less landscape, but on second glance there were enough scattered low lying shrubs and cacti to probably warrant some degree of caution.

Some of those – the dead ones - had been used for kindling.

Enthusiastic kindling.

Luna had seemed to enjoy crushing the dried out and dead cactus remains just a little too much, kicking them apart with gusto, and as she broke the remnants of a shrub in half with the heel of her boot, smashing them repeatedly, Harry couldn't help but wonder if she was imagining his head in its place.

She tossed them into the fire pit just a bit harder than necessary, and he figured that answered that.

It burned, casting eerie orange shadows in the night.

The flames were low and the warmth minimal, but the scent of burning prickly pears was strangely welcome. The gooey substance in the blackened fruits burned for a surprisingly long time, and Luna had gathered a rather impressive pile of the dead, spikey fruits alongside her. Every so often, when the fire looked like it was about to flicker out, she'd wrinkle her nose and toss another one in. The interesting part was the way she tossed them, picking the desiccated fruits up between two fingers, carefully avoiding the 'spikey bits'. Then those pale eyes of her would narrow in silent contemplation, as she decided precisely where to throw it within the ring of fire. From the serious look shadowing her delicate features, one would think the 'where' of it was a matter of scientific importance.

Knowing Luna it probably was.

Then again, if Harry actually knew Luna at all this wouldn't be so awkward.

The entire time they'd been there, she hadn't once looked at him, but he sure as hell had looked at her. He didn't stare outright, he wasn't quite that obvious or pathetic, but every glance in her direction felt like an invisible force had struck him square in the gut.

There'd been a time where the idea of Luna not wanting to speak, to look his way, would have seemed unfathomable.

It was his fucking fault.

Luna has repurposed a rock into an improvised seat. Harry had to admit that – given the available selection – she'd chosen better than him. The top of hers was angled and just a little less jagged than the surrounding ones, whereas his uncomfortably jabbed him in the ass.

He contemplated moving to sit on the ground, but knew from experience how quickly the cold could seep into his body without a barrier. Without magic and with only a piss poor fire for warmth, he wasn't exactly eager to help hypothermia on its way. It was insidious enough without any help from him.

At some point Huritt had gotten up, telling them he'd take first watch. Luna's head had darted up, her eyes unreadable.

Huritt's, however, had not been. His had met Luna's with a subtle smile, gaze softening to something warm and reassuring. There was fondness and familiarity and something else that had Harry's stomach drop.

The two stared at each other in silence for several seconds, nonverbal communication at a level Harry couldn't hope to replicate.

He instantly wanted to punch something.

Mainly Huritt.

Then again his hand was still completely and totally fucked.

Huffing a breath, Harry tampered that murderous urge down. Then he gave the man a stiff nod. "I'll take second shift in that case." Truth be told, he was not sure if he'd rather stay right where he was, here by Luna, or if he'd rather take first watch – or all the watches – so he could leave and avoid the uncomfortable silence.

But hey, he hadn't punched Huritt, so he silently congratulated himself on another step towards emotional maturity or whatever trite shit Hermione harped on about whenever he got into one of his semi-annual brawls. Progress. Maybe that night in county lockup had done him some good.

Hunter turned a calculating gaze on him, the sort that came from a man who saw much and missed little.

Then the man looked Harry straight in the eye and titled his head pointedly in Luna's direction. A second later he'd adjusted his hat, setting off into the dark.

The bastard didn't even bring his torch.

"He does that."

Harry's head jerked towards her, and though Luna was clearly speaking to him now, her eyes remained firmly fixed out into the night, in the direction Huritt had just gone.

"He is rather big," she explained, as if reading his thoughts, "on staying as natural as possible."

In his pounding skull, the last vestiges of his hangover clung to life, and hearing that Hunter was rather 'big' sounded inexplicably dirty.

Luna said it as if that explained what she meant, which it didn't. At all.

Harry managed to get out a single word. "Natural?"

Her head dipped with a small smile, as if terribly amused, and for a second he really did wonder if she'd been talking about the size of his dick. "Yes Harry, natural. He prefers to let his eyes adjust to the dark, rather than using artificial means." The fire crackled, smoke coiling up and disappearing into the thick night. "It takes considerably longer, a few hours usually, and he cannot look at the fire when he does, so he has a habit of wandering off. We probably won't see him until morning."

Harry's eyes snapped in the direction Huritt had walked. A silhouette could barely be seen, heading down the crest of the butte. They'd set up camp atop it, far enough away from the bodies that – if the killer returned – they would not be in immediate danger, but they would be able to see, hear, and possibly catch the bastard.

Not to mention there was something to be said for having the high ground.

Watching Huritt pick his way down the dusty slope. "Take it the rattlers don't bother him?" he remarked dryly.

"Not everyone has to talk to snakes, to get along with them, Harry."

Harry just snorted, unrepentant. "Touché. Still wouldn't want to be him if he accidentally steps on one."

"His tactic is rather logical," Luna pressed, and fuck if she didn't sound slightly chastising. "If whatever did that to those women comes back, they'll see only us, up here, because of the fire. If he does not have a headlamp on, he may escape its notice long enough to do something about it."

"Sure. A Muggle's going to single-handedly stop something that killed that many women with dark magi-"

He stopped cold, because Luna was finally looking at him. Her warm breath misted in front of her nose, her silvery eyes flashing with an anger Harry wouldn't have expected. There was hurt and upset and something unidentifiable coalescing in those familiar irises, but when she spoke her voice was anything but friendly.

It was practically glacial.

"I would think you of all people would know not to underestimate someone based on their bloodline." She paused, voice growing quieter. "Or what other people think of them."

"I'm sorry." His response was immediate, and actually meant. Hell, had Hermione been there she'd have slapped him. "But even you have to admit that having a Muggle go up against something of unidentified dark magical origins is one hell of a bad idea."

Fire crackled, reflecting in Luna's near-translucent eyes. She was quiet for an unnaturally long time, a peculiar expression on her face. "Yes," she admitted, "but I think even you have to admit, Harry, that Huritt is not your average man."

The blood in his veins practically burned.

Her eyes darted away, and Harry took a deep breath.

Fucking Huritt.

Those worms were back in his stomach, churning and devouring his innards. It was jealousy, pure and simple. There was no denying it, but like hell was he letting her know it still existed.

"So…you said its?" he tried, offering the words like an olive branch. "That he could escape its notice? Not his or hers or theirs?"

If there was one thing he remembered acutely, it was that wording with Luna mattered. Words had power, importance. Hell, her and Neville's first fight as a couple had ended with the two of them drinking in a curtained off pub cozy, utilizing drunken legilimency on Neville so they could dissect each and every uttered word exactly as they'd been uttered.

They'd gotten absolutely nowhere, of course. The enigma that was Luna Lovegood was perhaps best left wild and untamed, not meant to be understood.

Tom, that merciful bastard, hadn't kicked them out at closing. He'd also not let them drunkenly apparate, on the grounds that he was not – absolutely not – going to clean their splinched appendages off his floor again. He'd instead tossed them into his only remaining room for the night, where they'd passed out in the rather small bed, and that had been how Luna and Ron had found them the next morning.

Snuggling.

Gods he missed that glorious son of a bitch.

Luna was frowning slightly. "Yes," she said slowly. "Unless you have cause to believe it was a witch or wizard who hurt them?"

The memory of that little girl's smushy eye socket assaulted him, his stomach instantly roiling. Any good feelings he'd had scattered like salt in the wind. "We don't." A bad taste was in his mouth. "Don't like to make assumptions until I have all the facts, but I didn't see anything to make me think a creature did this."

"Mmm," she hummed skeptically, "but you didn't see anything to say one didn't."

He'd nearly forgotten how contrary Luna could be. He'd once found it delightful, taking drinks with her and Neville, watching her eyes dance over her butterbeer with that spirally straw she absolutely insisted on bringing everywhere, bantering back and forth about whatever strange concept his and Neville's latest case had revealed.

Luna always had enjoyed playing devil's advocate, proffering impossible seeming solutions to equally impossible seeming cases. The thing was, more often than not she'd been right.

It was actually unbelievably annoying.

The Ravenclaw always had been far more logical, far more observant than people gave her credit for, and the way she viewed the world, delightfully refusing to have a black and white mentality on what existed and what did not, on what was and wasn't possible, had allowed her to ponder potentialities that a strictly logical mind like Hermione's would have never been able to consider.

She'd have made one hell of an Auror, and both he and Neville had told her that. Repeatedly.

She'd laughed in their damn faces and sipped more butterbeer out of that infuriating straw, and the way her tongue had flicked out to lick the lingering froth had made him actively jealous of what Neville got to go home to.

Back then it'd been one hell of a shock when Kingsley had paired him with Neville Longbottom instead of Ron, right out of Auror Academy. The thing of it was, Kingsley had been right. He and Ron had been almost too close to be effective case solvers. Sure, they could fight together, wands blazing, but their ways of thinking were far too similar to cover a problem from all angles. Being an Auror wasn't just about dueling; it was about piecing together crimes without knowledge of the precipitating events, then tracking down the elusive perpetrators to bring them to justice. He and Ron? Had they been partnered, there'd have been a heightened likelihood they'd miss something, both overlooking the same seemingly unimportant fact that might let a criminal go free, and Kingsley couldn't allow it.

He and Neville though? They'd never had that problem. Neither had Ron and Dean, at least…once Ron had gotten over trying to kill him in increasingly creative ways for dating his sister.

He'd tried, rather admirably, to make a rogue harpy attack look like an accident once. Ginny had put her own brother in the literal hospital over that spat. The bat boogies had been just a bit too exuberant for a simple 'finite' to work.

He and Neville had just sat back and laughed.

The thought of Neville pierced his heart like a spear. It still fucking hurt.

The fire sharply cracked, and Harry dragged his attention back to the here and now, his mouth inexplicably dry. "You're right," he admitted. "Though I' m not familiar with any creature that leaves a residue of dark magic like the one down there."

"I never said I was talking about a creature, Harry." And the way her eyes peered off into the distance, past the flickering flames burning dead cactus, sent an unsettling shiver straight down to his soul.

He hadn't forgotten the way that unseen entity had attacked.

"You think it's the land?"

She pursed her lips thoughtfully, just the way she used to do. "No," she murmured, "if anything the land is protecting us."

He snorted. "Oh yes, it seemed real friendly earlier."

Her reply was instant. "Don't insult the land, Harry. It can hear you."

Another one of those unsettling chills slid up his spine, and that was when he first realized the problem.

Out here, in the wilderness, it was completely, utterly silent. There were no sounds. No insects. No animals. There was only the crackling of the barely warm fire, and the distant, hollow howl of the wind.

And Luna had been living out amidst it.

That bothered him a lot more than he cared to admit.

It also gave him some seriously concerning clues about how the dead zone operated. By now they should be hearing something in the night: the scuttling of desert mice, the howl of coyotes, something. Despite that, there'd been maggots on the child's body, but not nearly as many as there should have been. But the raven, regrettably, hadn't exactly dropped dead either.

The Dead Zone did not suck life away, but it certainly didn't encourage its presence.

As if summoned by his thoughts, there was a caw in the night, a strangely loud flutter of wings breaking the silence as the beaked asshole in question dropped down between he and Luna. That feathered asshole ruffled itself, puffing its primaries out, clacked its beak threateningly in his direction, before it turned and flat out nuzzled Luna's knee highs.

Luna absently reached down and scratched it gently on the head.

"Ah," Harry grumbled, "so it doesn't attack everyone."

"Hassun," she said the name fondly, using the sort of tone girls ordinarily reserved for cute puppies and kittens, "is not in the habit of attacking anyone. Now are you? You good little koga."

Clearly that last bit was meant for the raven.

The raven – he swore to fucking god – purred.

Luna just cooed some more.

Harry stared at the exchange in abject shock. "Koga?" he repeated dumbly.

"Means raven, or crow."

"In what language?"

"Quite a few, actually."

This entire day had been surreal, and now here he was, around Luna-freaking-Lovegood, watching her converse with a homicidal bird.

Harry rubbed at his ear, the peck still stinging.

They were silent for awhile, the little feathered asshole eventually settling down by Luna's feet and fluffing out its feathers, basking in the limited warmth available.

He thought about laying down and catching some sleep. He did. That would also mean leaving Luna alone. Alone with the raven, who he definitely didn't trust.

The decision to stay didn't make the situation any less uncomfortable.

The silence was stretching.

Harry huffed a breath, smacking his hands together for warmth. Luna, to her credit, didn't seem to feel the penetrating chill at all. She sat there, looking like an ethereal nymph in the night, completely serene.

It was no surprise that he wound up watching her.

Luna s leaned forward onto her knees, that braid of hers having snuck over her shoulder. Firelight danced across her features, lending them a warm cast, her skin as smooth and perfect as it'd been even back in Hogwarts.

Luna'd come a long way from their school days of overly long hair, protuberant eyes, and strange attire. Now her hair was shorter, no longer hanging down to her waist, but instead resting just past her shoulders, the tip of her braid barely past her collarbone. With age it had darkened to a dirty blonde; no longer quite so flaxen, so untainted, as if the world had dirtied it and her just a bit, and Harry couldn't help but think that the darker color suited her well. That jacket and its worn leather lent her a rugged air he'd bet no one, not even himself, would have ever associated with the witch they'd known back home, but between that, the concerningly sharp claw dangling so casually from around her neck, and the braided wristlet made of straps of leather hanging loosely from around her wrist, a feather dangling off, she looked like she'd stepped off an old jeep, freshly back from a prolonged expedition searching for crumpled horn snorkacks.

It suited her.

Gods did it suit her.

It was rather obvious he was looking her over, and equally obvious how she studiously avoided looking at him.

Ultimately it was little surprise that he broke the penetrating gap first.

"This is awkward."

There was a pause, Luna wetting her lips. They parted, then closed, as if she were very much having trouble deciding what to say. Finally they parted again, her voice extremely quiet. "It doesn't have to be."

"Ah, so we'll just skip over my awkward apology about sneaking out without saying goodbye, then not saying hi for several years then?"

At that the casual motion of her fingers stilled upon the raven's head, and her entire form stiffened.

Yeah, Hermione had been right; he really didn't have any form of tact.

His tongue flicked out over his dry lips. "Didn't see the point in dancing around it. Unless of course you'd just rather pretend it didn't happen, because really, could get on board."

Luna had gone unnaturally still, those silvery eyes of hers studying the flames.

"Is that what you want?" she questioned quietly.

"Do you?" he countered.

She raised her head and there, in the firelight, she gave him a look he couldn't decipher, and that sent a shiver down his spine. Shadows and swaths of orange-white light flickered over her features, something hesitant and uncertain in her eyes.

All of a sudden she looked rather young.

"I understand, Harry," she murmured hesitantly. "There's nothing to talk about."

And though she had spoken with undeniable understanding, his gaze remained firm on hers, green on blue, and for once Luna didn't look away.

"Actually," he grated, voice hoarser than he recalled, "I think there is."

Luna flinched, and it was like a claw to the stomach. "No," she repeated, "there isn't."

Harry felt sick, nauseous for a whole new reason, and he mentally cursed Huritt for leaving his ass here with hers. He should have taken first watch. Hell, he should have taken all the watches. Then they wouldn't have started to talk.

"Look Luna, if you'd rather I leave-"

"I invited you here, didn't I?"

She made it all sound so simple, but he didn't miss the way her voice shook.

"Yeah," he managed, wetting his lips. The cold attacked them, chapping them instantly. "About that…why me? You could have asked any investigator. It's not like you don't know a plethora of Aurors."

Regret was instant. Yeah, the witch sitting before him knew a lot of Aurors. She'd buried one.

Luna's eyes sparkled, as if something wet was within them, and gods he hated himself. Despite this, her lips never trembled, and by the time she managed to speak she had schooled her voice into something calm and collected. "Because, Harry, you're the best." She took a small breath, as if steeling herself, as if whatever she was about to say, as if the mere words would cost her something. "And despite the fact that you no longer want to see me, that we're no longer friends, I care about these people, they're my family, and we needed someone like you."

And just like that he understood.

It was like a physical blow to the chest. Until that moment Harry hadn't thought there was a part of him left to break.

There was.

She kept going.

"There's dark magic here, when there usually isn't," she pressed. "If anyone can figure out why, it's you."

And the confidence in her voice, that gentle trace of fucking hope and the heartbreaking way she looked at him…it left him winded. "Luna…" he breathed, and fuck if he didn't sound off.

She sucked in a shaken breath, shaking her head, that braid of hers flopping around with a life of its own. "It's alright, Harr-"

"No," he practically growled, "actually it isn't."

The raven lifted its head at that, fixing him with a beady-eyed, menacing look that Harry well and fully ignored. A piece of prickly pear cracked in the fire, the flames dipping dangerously low, but neither one made a move to fix it.

It took him a full minute of negotiations with his throat, but eventually he forced it to vibrate. "Luna, do you seriously think that I didn't want to see you? That we're not friends? That I'm not-"

His voice broke off.

Those perfect lips of her parted in undeniable confusion, her irises like storm clouds, and he realized in that moment that he was about to do something undeniably stupid.

"What you said before, earlier today, about not being sure I'd have shown if I'd known it was you." He held her eyes with raw intensity, willing her on a molecular level to understand. "I would have come. If I'd known it was you, I would have come."

His bandaged hand gave a hard throb, and Harry watched her with a tightly controlled expression, so when she sucked in a breath, looking away, he wasn't surprised.

"I find you confusing, Harry Potter."

"Can't fault you there. Have it on good authority I'm a bit of an ass."

Her eyes shot up, a fleeting flash of exasperation there.

He didn't give her a chance to say a single solitary thing.

"I'm your friend," he informed forcefully. "A piss poor one, but I am. Not going to blame you if you're not mine anymore."

Luna looked at him, translucent orbs studying him carefully. She looked at him for a full minute, maybe two, maybe three. Harry honestly lost count beyond forcibly reminding himself to breathe. It was long enough to have made anyone else uncomfortable under her scrutiny, but Harry just grimaced, expression tight as he waited for whatever verdict she felt like dealing.

He now knew what it was like to hang on someone else's words.

"Friendship," she said finally, "is a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexuality or familial relations."

"Typical Ravenclaw. Things get uncomfortable, turn to the literal dictionary."

She shot him an uncertain look, trails of smoke coiling up from the dying flames to drift past her features, and Harry knew without question that more than fire could burn him.

Harry's heart flung itself against his ribcage. Fuck.

"Alright," he ground out, choosing his next words carefully, "maybe not friend. But given how I left things, sure as fuck didn't think I had a right to presume more."

Now his heart jackhammered against his ribs, but hey, at least he had a nice, Luna-induced cardiac arrest to look forward to.

She looked away, a small crease furrowing her brow. The wind kicked up, sending red dust scattering and strands of dirty blonde hair dancing. She squinted to keep it out of her eyes, determinedly avoiding his gaze, but when she spoke she practically whispered. "Presume more..." she repeated. "Is that-is that what you wanted?"

The sound he let out was so bitter and loud in comparison it was a wonder the raven didn't haul off and peck him to death then and there.

"Given how long it took me to pin you to something, what do you think?"

Her breath sucked in, audible and shaken, and he hated himself just a touch more. Really, the self-loathing meter had already practically broken, so that was impressive.

"No." She said it strongly and firm. "No, you don't get to just show up here and-"

"Technically, I was invited."

She hissed at him. Actually hissed. It was such an un-Luna-like thing to do that his eyebrows actually shot up, his lips traitorously twitching. Her eyes fractionally widened as realization struck, and smacking a hand over her own mouth she looked almost surprised.

Together they sat there, on their uncomfortable and cold rocks, staring at one another, and despite the circumstance both of their mouths twitched.

Harry determinedly held her gaze, silently injecting as much meaning into it as possible.

Luna slowly lowered her hand away from her face, it falling to rest on her thigh, and he did his damn best to not let his eyes linger on the way her jeans clung to her. She appeared to be thinking, and he owed her enough to not ogle her while she reminded herself that he was an asshole of epic proportions.

Naturally that didn't take long.

"If that's true," she said finally, "then why'd you stay away? Was it-was I really that-" She broke off, for a fleeting moment looking upset, insecure. Then she sucked in a breath, steeling herself, and any trace of emotion was gone.

A cold stone had already dropped in his stomach.

"You were perfect," he assured. "Fuck Luna, you were…" To his fucking horror his voice broke off, a gravelly grind in the night. Gritting his teeth, he tried again. "You were too fucking perfect for me to be around. I wasn't going to drag you into my mess too."

Her lips parted soundlessly, then closed, the witch gnawing worriedly on her lower lip.

But he wasn't done.

"Every day, every single day I thought about you," he growled rigidly, eyes dark and bitter and smoldering. "So don't for a second try to think that me being an unbelievable ass had something to do with a defect in you."

And if he sounded angry, he sure as fuck wasn't about to apologize.

The Luna from years ago might have taken that at face value, understood he was damaged goods, hummed something whimsical and let it go.

Not her.

Her head snapped up so quick her braid actually bounced, and her eyebrows furrowed over her blue, blue, blue eyes. "So why-"

"I got your boyfriend killed, Luna. Then I took advantage of you at his fucking funeral. Why do you think?" And his heart thumped, threatening to stop.

The words had been cold and raw and worst of all true. Destruction, chaos, violence and death had orbited around him all his life, and it boded poorly for the people closest to him.

Luna sat there, a spark of light in the dark night, and looked at him, something unreadable still in her eyes, but when she spoke she practically whispered. "You stayed away because of me?"

"Yes."

"Because you thought I-"

"Was I wrong?" he challenged.

Her eyes dropped, a distressed cloud shadowing her features. It was like she was processing new and unexpected information, and wasn't certain how to feel. Harry just sat there and watched, the scent of desert sage strong in his nostrils, and in the far distance he could see the flashing of lightning from a distant, brewing storm.

The wind was picking up.

Fire reflected off Luna's long lashes framing her remarkable eyes, and the flickering flames sent her irises dancing in a way that was so beautiful it was practically heart stopping.

"I don't regret it," he stressed. "Not for a second."

Harry wanted to grab her and show her exactly how much he didn't regret it. Every nerve in his body screamed at him to get up, cross that meter and a half space, yank her off that stupidly flat rock and finally touch her. He longed for the feel of her skin on his, but that had never been his right.

But like hell would he let her sit there for one more second and think that this entire time he'd regretted it.

He'd had no idea she'd thought that.

Luna was doing that thing where she frowned prettily while thinking.

"That's why you think I'm upset?" she probed softly, picking up another one of those red, spikey fruits from the pile and rolling it between her fingers. "Because you think you took advantage of me, when I was vulnerable."

"Dead on observation skills, as usual," he congratulated dryly. "Told you, you'd have made one hell of an Auror."

She simply shook her head. "That's not why."

The fruit's spine caught beneath one of her nails, the witch hissing a breath. A tiny pinprick of blood welled up, and she tossed the fruit into the fire, it landing with a dull thud.

Harry's mouth had gone inexplicably dry. "Oh? You sure about that, Lunes? Because really, seem to recall they weren't even done throwing dirt on his damn grave; Neville wasn't even fully in the ground before I was fucking you. I cheated on my girlfriend who was in the fucking hospital. Know I've done some crass things in my life, but screwing you when you were grieving? That was low even for me."

Pale eyes tore away from the fire, an unbearably understanding look reflected within, but her words pierced like iron. "You were grieving too, Harry." A piece of flyaway hair fell in front of her eyes, but she never blinked. "Perhaps more than most."

He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. No good would come from telling her she was out of her damn mind.

Luna had no such qualms. "You're a right bastard, you know that? I ought to slather you in prickly pear and leave you for the coyotes."

"If it helps."

She hissed again, and he quirked an eyebrow. "Coyotes, Luna? Not a heliopath or an umgublar slashkilter?"

Her eyes imperceptively narrowed. "You're making fun of me."

"Never. Quite the opposite. Worried."

"That's rich, coming from you."

"Doesn't make it any less true."

"Five years is a long time, Potter," and the use of his surname stung. "You don't know anything about me anymore. Loony Lovegood died a long time ago."

Something fierce flashed in his eyes, his voice hard, intractable. "I never saw you as Loony."

"No," she admitted, turning that penetrating gaze onto him. "Though you don't see me at all now, do you?"

Harry looked at her, and she looked right back.

He wet his dry lips. "Well, maybe I'd like to."

In the distance lighting lit up the cloudy night, and all of sudden she averted her eyes. Her braid fell to veil her face, and when she spoke her words were a practical whisper. "You kept in contact with everyone else."

"By the time I had my head on straight, I didn't think you'd want to hear from me."

She closed her eyes, letting out a small little sigh. "I always wanted to hear from you, Harry."

And at that…there was nothing to say.

The raven shot him a smug look and – Harry swore to fucking Merlin – nuzzled Luna's leg, as if to say 'take that mortal, she's mine'. Luna let her fingers drift down, absently stroking the feathers atop its head, and Harry had half a mind to warn her she might get bitten. His pecked ear gave a sharp throb as reminder.

They sat there for a long while, listening to the encroaching storm grow closer.

A mounting, unexplainable urge was building within him. He needed to talk to her, without snapping, so he could actually explain.

He opened his mouth at the same time she did, both stopping, and then a soft, wispy smile touched Luna's lips. Harry felt the ball of ice deep inside him melt, something swelling, and he went to move-

CAW!

Luna jumped slightly, the feathered asshole having made an angry, upset sound, stabbing its beak directly into one of the prickly pear fruits. It shoved it into her hand pointedly, stabbing her hand with the spikes, before flicking the seeds at the low burning embers that had once been a fire.

The flaxen haired witch let out a musical laugh, and deep inside something surged to life. Gods he'd missed that laugh.

Harry sat back down, watching in silence as she tossed the prickly pear into the flames, and stoked the fire. He wasn't much help and merely offered an apologetic look. "Sorry I'm not much help," he offered, lifting his bandaged hand. "Though reckon if it falls off, that'll probably burn. Could toss that in." He idly wondered if such a thing would count as a hand of glory.

Luna's thoughts were far different. She'd stopped what she was doing, staring at him for a full count of five.

Then she dropped a piece of fruit on the raven's head, hands flying to her mouth. She didn't seem to notice the indignant squawking. "Oh Harry, your hand! I forgot. I'm so, so, so sorry."

He scoffed. "Don't think you're the one who needs to apologize."

Her eyes flashed up, and she looked at him as if he'd gone insane.

A second later she'd stalked over, those knee high boots right in his face, before she grabbed him by the shoulder and practically manhandled him up. He flat out hissed a breath between his teeth at the contact, the feel of her fingers willingly touching him more than he'd been prepared to handle tonight, and he was grateful as fuck that the contact was through his coat and not skin on skin.

He honestly wasn't certain he could physically take that.

She dragged him towards the tent and practically shoved him in, Harry landing on a rather primitive rolled out mat, finding the entire thing utterly absurd.

This was surreal, this. Being around her, occupying the same space.

He should have done it sooner.

Luna ducked her head and crawled in after him, flicking on random torches strung haphazardly from a clothes line along the angled ceiling, and all of a sudden he realized just how tight the tent's confines actually were. "Luna-" he started, only for her to shoot him a look. Wisely he closed his mouth, letting her dig for whatever it was she was looking for.

Dittany, as it turned out.

The tent door, left wide opened, flapped wildly in another gust. Inside it sent papers scattering, grids and sketches of what looked like terrain blown to the back wall of the tent and sticking.

Harry didn't get a chance to properly inspect, because Luna had wasted no time in kicking off her knee high boots, tossing them blindly out of the tent. Her socks were wooly and mismatched, one striped and the other bearing the likeness of a literal bear, and the sight sent an out-of-place grin plastering to his face. "I see your fashion taste hasn't completely changed."

Pale eyes cast him an aghast look, though he didn't miss the infinitesimal twitch of her lips.

A second later she sat down right in front of him, legs folded artfully beneath her, and extended her hand in silent request for him to relinquish his splinched one. "I'd just grab it," she told him, "but that would probably hurt." She bit down on her lip thoughtfully. "Though you probably do deserve it…"

Harry practically shoved his hand at her, and the instant her fingers brushed against his he regretted it.

Luna's skin was soft, traces of dirt on her fingertips and beneath her nails, but as she carefully began to unwrap the bandage shots of sensation he hadn't experienced since…hell he didn't know when, shot through him. The sensation shot through him, straight through his core, and his stomach rolled about on its own accord, as if he were on his broom in a deep dive going for the Snitch.

Bandages fell, Harry finding his hand held firmly between hers, her pale eyes flickering over his flesh with open concern. Not that he blamed her. The meat of his palm remained split wide open, all the way up to his thumb, which barely hung on. The reddish meat had grown unnaturally dry and sticky throughout the day, and quite frankly looked like shit. Hell, he was surprised it hadn't started to rot.

The witch he'd been plagued with stared at the gash in his hand, and didn't even have the courtesy to look surprised. "You're an idiot," she informed, as if he didn't already know. "Of unworldly proportions."

"You say that like you didn't know."

"Oh I knew, just blocked it out. You can only absorb so much stupidity before it affects your brain adversely you know."

Outside a giant gust of wind sent the walls of the tent bending in, and the raven blowing over and tumbling to the side.

He tried not to smile; he did.

Luna caught it anyway, sending him a scolding look. "Be nice to Hassun, Harry."

"I'll be nice to the pigeon, when he apologizes for taking multiple chunks out of my ear."

There, in the tent, bright eyes flickered up, the irises surrounded by a deep black ring, and for a second, just a second they sparkled with mischief.

"Don't be ridiculous, Harry. Birds can't apologize."

Though there was something in the way she said it, and in the bird's behavior, that made him think the thing very much could apologize.

The beams of light in the tent bounced with each gust of wind, and he had to duck his head to avoid getting bashed by a particularly low hanging headlamp. The tent really wasn't that big, definitely a non-wizarding one, which, given where they were, made sense. "What exactly would happen," he asked, "if you tried to set up a wizarding tent here?"

"Nothing good."

"Care to elaborate?"

"We're still looking for the last wizard who tried it."

Harry blinked. "Well shit."

"Yeah," she murmured absently, attention already diverted back to his wound. She seemed to be thinking over the best approach for fixing the train wreck that had landed in her literal lap. "Merlin Harry, you really don't do things in half-measures do you?"

"In my defense, I had been drinking."

She huffed a breath of amusement, but said nothing. Instead Luna's thumb gently swept over the side of his hand, and it took everything he had to not pull away. His breath hitched, and she noticed.

"Serves you right for not taking care of this," she chastised, mistaking his reaction for pain.

Harry gritted his teeth and nodded. "Yeah well, got this letter from a mysterious chick. Couldn't pass it up, you know, on the off chance she was hot."

Luna's lips parted, and she seemed to be trying desperately to scold him, but not before a small laugh escaped. "So that's how you've been picking up women."

For the life of him he couldn't tell if she'd sounded off.

"Hardly." Catching her curious look, aware this was dangerous territory, he plunged ahead anyway. No one ever had accused him of being suave. "There's only been two since you, and not exactly anything to write home about."

She pursed her lips. "Mmm, five years and only two women? That's pathetic even for you."

He snorted. "Well to be fair, one was a semi-regular 'friend'." He held his good hand up and made air quotes. "Though she moved and…well I got well acquainted with cold showers."

"Hmph." The sound was soft and barely there, but it was remarkably erotic coming from her.

He needed to get a grip.

A moment passed, maybe two, but she didn't let go of his hand. "We need to disinfect, before we try to close it," she murmured. "It's going to hurt."

"Yeah, kind of figured."

She reached over, rooting around in a small pack, eventually pulling out a concerningly large bottle of ninety percent rubbing alcohol. "This is not," she told him, "proper first aid, but given where we're at, it'll have to do."

And then, without warning, Luna upended the contents directly into the wound, and Harry absolutely did not yelp. He grunted, like a man. He also may have muttered several terse remarks about being fairly certain that that was expressly what you were not supposed to do to an open wound.

Luna's pale eyes glinted just a bit evilly, but her warm, welcome fingers pressed around his hand, holding on until he'd stopped hissing like a recently dismembered lizard.

Apparently 'it'll have to do' had been Luna's equivalent of saying 'this might sting a little'.

Leaning forward just a bit, breathing hard, he shot her a dour look. His chest heaved, and somehow he was sweating. "Shit," he grimaced, "way to warn a guy."

"I did," she replied, unrepentant. She then bit the rubbery cap off the top of the dittany bottle, preparing to use the dropper directly in his wound.

"Oh good," he grunted, "more pain."

Luna didn't even try to hide her impish smile, and quite suddenly all Harry could think about was the way her lips had wrapped around that bottle top.

He clenched his gaze shut, his good hand clenching into a tight fist, taking several deep breaths to prepare himself. "Okay," he made a come and get him gesture with his good hand. "Just get it over with."

And she did.

There was a blur of honest to fuck blinding pain after that, but when it was done he'd collapsed the hell over, sprawled flat on his back in the tent, staring at the swinging headlamps as the wind continued to batter the tent. Luna seemed to be enjoying herself, humming quietly as she carefully wrapped his hand back up.

"Glad one of us is having fun," he groaned, voice hoarser then he remembered it.

The humming stopped. "You know, usually you would say you're welcome."

"Fuck," he groused, "that."

Luna huffed an irritated-sounding breath, and gave the bandage, what – in his opinion – was a harder than necessary yank.

It stung.

A lot.

"Fuck…you're welcome," he gasped, the pressure relenting just a tad as Luna resumed humming.

Laying there, rethinking his life decisions that had led him up to that point, in the clutches of an angry female and a hostile, ear-pecking raven, he thumped the back of his head against the ground a few times in a misbegotten attempt to render himself unconscious. It failed, and his suffering continued.

Everything hurt. His hand, his skull, the entire left side of his bruised and battered face. Really, bar room brawls weren't his forte. Not to mention his hand wasn't sealing shut. Not yet. But hey, at least it wasn't turning into gangrene.

"So," Luna said, and her tone was only a little mocking, "you still have that high pain tolerance then?"

He cracked an eye and glared.

Her lips gave a little twitch.

Harry heaved a breath, closed his eyes, and as the waves of acute pain died down he was pleasantly surprised to feel that Luna was still holding his injured hand in hers. Her fingertips were trailing up and down along the uninjured and un-bandaged parts of his hand, and he'd be lying if he said it didn't feel good.

Damn good.

So damn good his heart began to do that fun little thing, where it attempted to beat itself against his ribcage. The gentle scrape of her nails was enough to put him in near cardiac arrest.

"You'll have to go back in the morning," she was telling him, oblivious to what she was doing to him. "You need magic to properly heal this."

"Absolutely not," he croaked, coughing. "Not until we're done here." Inspecting a crime scene in the dark, even with torches, was a recipe for disaster. It was inconvenient that he'd have to wait till morning, but he was waiting. Given the number of bodies it'd take the better part of the day to finish. "I'll hike back tomorrow night if I have to."

The movement of her fingers stilled. "I don't think that's a good idea, Harry. Traveling at night in the Dead Zone…it's frowned upon."

Right. Now that got his attention.

Green eyes cracked open, looking for any sign that she was less than deadly serious. "You say that like its alive."

"It is."

A cold sliver slid down his spine. The foam, egg-carton like pad dug uncomfortably against his back, the flap of the tent still wide open, revealing a gaping black beyond Luna's silhouette. The fire had long since gone out, the scent of burnt prickly pears and desert sage infiltrating in, but that was not what got his attention.

No.

It was the slight movement, deep in the shadows.

Like the night was alive.

Harry jerked, only to find Luna's palm flat against his chest. "Don't," she entreated. "Just…don't."

Auror instinct reared up, and venom pumped through his arteries. His instinct was to fight, to draw his wand, but the calmness Luna exuded gave him pause. Wetting his chapped lips, his gaze moved from her, to the night, then back. "I didn't imagine it." It wasn't a question.

She responded anyway. "No Harry, you didn't."

Beyond her, not far from the tents opening, the shadows unnaturally stirred, like a dark sheet being flapped, and every primitive, atavistic, primeval instinct he had reared up against its unnaturalness.

They'd waited until the fire had gone out.

The grip on his hand tightened fractionally, and the fingers pressing to his chest flexed ever-so-slightly. They dug through his coat, into his pecs, and fuck…

"It's okay, Harry," she whispered, an unnatural calm in her eyes, and despite every instinct against it…

He believed her.

After all this time he trusted her more than his own instinct.

That ought to have bothered him more than it did.

Maybe later it would. For now…

Lifting his good hand with preternatural slowness, he gave her a chance to move, only she didn't. Harry dropped his hand atop hers, clenching his fingers around her far smaller ones, the desert dust and prickly pear residue smeared along her fingertips sticking wetly to his own, and by Merlin...

That tingling, those shots of sensation sliding up his flesh got a hundred-fold worse, crawling just beneath his skin in an undeniably unsettling way.

Harry wanted her.

He always had.

Luna's thin form gave a little shiver, her eyes fluttering closed even as an icy breeze gusted into the tent, sending them both shivering, the ends of Luna's braid fluttering with a life of their own. Whatever had transpired between them before, however much time had passed, Harry's eyes remained glued to her serene features, and not to the stirring shadows beyond her form, outside the tent, because as long as they were in here, he knew they'd be fine.

The shadows could eat that fucking raven and Huritt for all he cared.

Later he'd reflect on why Luna was so okay with having those to her back. But for now…

Giving another small shudder, Luna glanced over her shoulder, that inelegant braid of hers shifting with the motion. In the light of the half dozen headlamps he noted the different shades of blonde within it, and gods did it suit her. Luna flipped her hand around in his, tightly interlacing her fingers between his.

Then she reached over to zip the tent flap closed.

His eyes remained glued to her, even as exhaustion swept through him, the preceding night and day finally taking their toll. For a moment her face remained averted, studying the tent flap quietly, before she turned back, catching his questioning gaze, understanding swirling within her own.

"We'll talk in the morning."

Something warm swelled within him. "What about Huritt?"

She didn't bat an eye. "They know him. He'll be fine."

They

Luna lived out here. She lived out here alone, with whatever that thing was.

Harry was missing something. He was fully cognizant of that indisputable fact, though as he lay there, freezing his ass off, being slowly driven mad by her proximity, her scent, her voice, he didn't have it in him to question it. Not right now.

"I think he did this on purpose," Luna continued thoughtfully. "To force us to talk."

"Oh?" he asked, a slow, smug smile tugging at his features. "So you talked about me then?"

Blue irises glinted with reproach. "Don't go getting a big head, Harry. I've spoken about all of those who've left."

His stomach plummeted, and it physically hurt. All those who'd left.

He had left her. Just like Neville. Just like George. Just like her father. The only difference was he'd had the choice.

Death and Azkaban did not exactly negotiate.

His breath shuddered. "So…you and Huritt."

Reaching up, she clicked off one of the strung headlamps, eyeing him assessingly. "You want to know if we're together," she said plainly.

"Yes."

"That depends on your definition of together."

The tent walls flapped with malevolent violence, and Harry held onto her hand just a little tighter as she clicked the second torch off. "Married," he uttered, and if his voice was a bit hoarse he ignored it. "He said you were part of the tribe, adopted. Aren't many ways to become that, other than that." And the hell of it was…

Even if she said yes, she was, Harry wasn't entirely sure he fucking cared.

Something dangerously akin to amusement glinted within her eyes. "No Harry, we're not married. Huritt's not exactly the marrying type."

Relief, warm and swift, swept through him.

"But if you're asking if we're sleeping together," she said with unquestionable calm, "I can't tell you no to that."

A cold coil churned in his gut, but Harry wasn't honestly sure he cared. Without saying another word he let her click off the remaining headlamps, one-by-one.

Then he reached up, wrapping his hand firmly around her wrist, and pulled her down to him.

"Harry?" she whispered, settling in alongside him.

"Yeah?"

"Tonight, whatever you do…don't go out alone."

Harry Potter did not ask why; he just pulled her a little closer, feeling her warm breath ghosting against his skin.

Outside the tent, the shadows whispered.