At last, the day of the wedding dawned. It felt like weeks since Harry had arrived at the Burrow, already deep into preparations for the ceremony and festivities, but he supposed it had only been a matter of days. With all the excitement, even Mad-Eye’s death seemed distant, and Harry hated how the pain of his loss, like Dumbledore’s, had dwindled down into a manageable dull throb in his gut. He didn’t want to have gotten used to this, didn’t want to ever get used to it.

But it was difficult to concentrate on anger and sorrow when Mrs. Weasley was shoving baskets of flower arrangements under Harry’s nose and reminding him to come back for more once he’d finished placing them at the base of the poles supporting the grand marquee inside of which Bill and Fleur would exchange their vows. Preparations would, it seemed, continue down to the wire.

At breakfast earlier, along with his plate, Mrs. Weasley had presented him with a dram of Polyjuice Potion mixed with hairs Summoned from a Muggle boy living in the local village of Ottery St. Catchpole. “Welcome to the family, Cousin Barney,” she’d smiled, ruffling Harry’s now vibrant auburn hair, the same colour as the rest of the Weasleys. It was far too dangerous for Harry to attend the wedding as himself, so it was decided he’d go in disguise—and who at an event like this was going to bat a lash at yet another Weasley entering the mix?

Harry finished arranging the flowers just as Hermione summoned the escorts—who were charged with showing guests to their seats—for a final huddle. The seats had been carefully assigned to avoid any clashes between guests (word was Aunt Muriel was persona non grata among several branches of the Weasley tree by now), and Hermione seemed to take her position as overseer with deadly seriousness. She had a clipboard in one hand, and her wand was tucked behind her ear, looking a rather odd adornment to her tightly plaited curls.

“Guests will arrive here—” She pointed to a line in the grass, composed entirely of marigolds, just under the marquee, “—where they’ll wait for an escort to see them to their seat, after which they may mingle. Once you’ve finished the hand-off, please return promptly so that you can attend to another guest.” She fixed Fred and George with a hard look. “And I do mean promptly, no matter how pretty you may deem your guest. Trust that you won’t like it if I have to come find you.”

“We’ll just make sure she doesn’t find us, then,” Fred said to Harry in a whispered aside that he was certain Hermione caught.

Beyond the marigold line in the grass ran a long, purple carpet with rows and rows of golden folding chairs on either side. At the head of each row, flanking the aisle, floated the same lanterns that just the day before had been used for Harry’s birthday party. Now, instead of being emblazoned with a large number ‘17’, they showed ‘B’ on the left and ‘F’ on the right, and a clump of golden balloons floated serenely over the pulpit where the actual ceremony would take place. The pitched roof of the marquee overhead was filled with floating fairy lights, bobbing freely like the candles in the Great Hall at Hogwarts. It stirred something in Harry’s chest, and he had to clear his throat once or twice whenever he caught himself staring at them for too long, suddenly conscious of the fact he might never see those candles again.

The sky was a cloudless blue expanse, and the sun shone high overhead—the bride and groom could not have asked for a more pleasant day for their nuptials, Harry thought, which they well deserved.

In short order, the guests began to arrive, popping into existence just beyond the garden hedge. As Mr. Weasley told it, organising the vetting and admission of so many guests into the Burrow’s protection had made several Ministry figures go prematurely grey, and Harry certainly did not envy them the task.

Under Hermione’s strict organisation, the new arrivals were promptly herded in an orderly fashion toward the marigold line just outside the marquee where Harry waited alongside Fred, George, and Ron. Where the guests at Dumbledore’s funeral had dressed in drab, muted greys and blacks, those marching up the hill now were decidedly more festively attired. Harry had only once before found himself mingling amidst a huge crowd of wizarding folk, and he could confidently say that between the ridiculous hats and hairdos robes in every shade of the rainbow, Bill and Fleur’s wedding could stand alongside the Quidditch World Cup for sheer fantastic pomp.

Harry lost himself in crowd-gazing until a familiar voice whispered, “Wotcher,” and set him startling to attention.

Tonks grinned at him from underneath a carefully manicured coif of blonde, slicked back with what looked to be a whole bottle of Sleekeazy’s. “Arthur told us you were the pudgy one with the curly hair.” She had her arm looped through Remus’s, who was for once wearing a suit that didn’t look like it’d been trampled underhoof by a herd of centaur.

Harry stepped out, making a motion to escort them so that they could speak a little longer. “I’m glad you’re all right.”

Remus gave him a wry grin, ducking his head in apology. “I hope we didn’t worry you too badly; it’s only, things being the way they are and the Ministry being the Ministry, I thought it might be best if the Minister didn’t think you were consorting with…well, my type.”

Harry honestly couldn’t give a fig how Scrimgeour felt about Harry being friends with werewolves, but he knew that keeping up appearances meant rather a lot to Remus for some reason. He shrugged. “The Ministry’s going to have a poor opinion of me whether you’re wishing me Happy Birthday or not, so you might as well wish me Happy Birthday and let them suck on it, I say.”

Tonks let her arm drop so that she was holding Remus’s hand, giving it a fond squeeze. “Scaredy wolf; I told you he wouldn’t care.”

Remus ducked his head, looking thoroughly embarrassed, and Harry wondered when they’d grown so close. God, he missed so much being confined to the Muggle world over summers; he would not miss another important event in his friends’ lives going forward, he vowed.

With Hermione’s threat hanging over his head, he didn’t dare dally too long making conversation with Remus and Tonks, and with their blessing, he hurried back to the entrance—where he found Ron desperately trying to escape a conversation with one of the more outlandish wizards Harry had ever seen, which was saying something at this gathering. He looked not unlike a Muggle vision of a mad scientist—frizzy white hair poking out from underneath a canary yellow top hat, a manic glint to his (slightly crossed) eyes, and robes covered in a violent floral pattern so loud Harry didn’t think a Silencio would help. He was speaking excitedly to Ron, his entire body moving as he gesticulated wildly, and a massive pendant bearing an odd symbol, like a triangle with an eye in the centre, hung from a chain around his neck, flopping against his chest with his movements.

Harry made the grave mistake of drawing close enough the wacky wizard caught sight of him out of the corner of his eye, and he broke off his conversation with Ron and beckoned Harry forward. “Another new face! Absolute pleasure to meet you, son—Xenophilius Lovegood!” Oh, well the name alone explained rather a lot. “My daughter and I live just over the hill, you see, and the Weasleys were kind enough to have invited us along. You wouldn’t be a schoolmate of my Luna’s too, would you?”

“Where is Luna anyway?” Ron asked quickly, clearly relieved at the change of topic. He craned his neck around, searching the crowd. “Has she arrived yet?”

“Oh indeed, indeed. I’m sure she’ll be along shortly. She tarried at the garden when she caught sight of your charming gnome infestation! It’s a blessing, you know, for so many of these clever creatures to have claimed your property for their colony. Set aside a portion of your crops for their enjoyment, and you’ll find the next season’s bounty doubled!”

“Yeah, good luck convincing Mum to give them anything other than a swift boot over the fence,” Ron muttered just low enough Mr. Lovegood missed it. “Oh, fantastic! Looks like my services are needed again—‘scuse me, Mr. Lovegood!” Ron waved down a group of what looked to be actual hags who were surveying the marquee hungrily. “Ladies! Fret not, help has arrived. Please, allow me to escort you!”

“Charming young man,” Mr. Lovegood said, distractedly, as he watched Ron leave. “A bit flighty, though. Seems like he might be a few Gobstones short of a set.”

“Oh no,” a new voice said, airy and light. “That’s just how Ron is. You get used to him.” Harry whirled around at the new arrival to see Luna Lovegood, her blonde hair hanging in soft ringlets from a crown of braids threaded through with delicate lavender flowers and a large sunflower tucked behind one ear. She too was wearing an aggressively floral set of robes, though hers were fitted a bit more like a dress. “Isn’t that right, Harry?”

“Er—” Harry mumbled, thrown—surely the Polyjuice wasn’t wearing off already? He gave himself a once-over. “I’m—my name is Barney.”

“Oh. I see—summer is the season for change, after all. If that’s how you’d prefer to be addressed, I’m happy to do so.”

It was difficult to tell if he was being teased or not, and he dropped his voice to a loud whisper. “I mean—no, I’ve not really changed my name—just—how did you know it was me…?”

She shrugged. “You’re wearing a very Harry expression right now, that’s all. You may want to do something about that, if you’re trying to be inconspicuous.”

“What’s a ‘Harry’ expression?”

She pointed at his nose. “That one.” Harry rubbed at his nose, wrinkling it and feeling quite distressed—was it really that obvious who he was under the red hair and freckles? Perhaps he shouldn’t have come at all—if someone made a scene in the middle of the ceremony, then— “Oh. Now you’ve got a very Hermione expression on your face. That’s much better, Barney.”

Fred and George finally made their way back to escort the Lovegoods to their seats after Harry offered to play guinea pig for a few new Wheezes they were trying out later, and Ron reappeared just as they wandered off. The look on his face said he was wishing he’d stuck it out with Mr. Lovegood, for the witch on his arm, an elderly hunch-backed thing with a lemon-sour expression who looked like a stiff wind might bowl her over, was leaning into him, hauling him down to ear level so she could be sure to be heard.

“—and so I told your mother I wasn’t coming unless she could convince me the wedding was actually happening, but then I decided it would be just as entertaining if that French tit stood up poor William all the same, so here I am and—Merlin’s beard, Lovegood’s outdone himself this time. No, no I take it back, that was worth the trip. Good gad, are we certain that’s not a crime against wizarding society these days? Where’s an Auror when you need one?” She finally caught sight of Harry and flinched away, barking, “Who are you?”

Ron strained to pull away, but the witch held him fast with a grip of steel. “That’s—that’s just Cousin Barney, Auntie Muriel. He’s just visiting for the wedding—he’s dad’s third cousin twice removed’s kid.”

“Oh,” Muriel said flatly, raking Harry’s with a look of disdain that rivalled any he’d ever suffered from the likes of Malfoy and his gang. “Another Weasley. Just what the world needed. And speaking of what the world needs right now—I heard Harry Potter was meant to be here. Where is he, Ronald? He is here, isn’t he? Your mother’s been gushing about him being your ‘best mate’; if I find out—”

Ron glanced to Harry in apology. “H—he couldn’t make it, that’s all. I mean, he’s Harry Potter, he’s got loads of better places to be these days than a wedding, right?”

“Hmm.” Muriel didn’t sound convinced, sniffing in a manner that reminded Harry only too keenly of Aunt Marge. “Well I certainly can’t fault him for taking a pass on all this.” ‘All this’ evidently meant anyone too far removed from her branch of the family tree and definitely included the Delacours. She turned to Harry, raising her voice unaccountably—perhaps she thought him part of the branch that had moved to Madagascar some generations back and assumed that if she just shouted loud enough, he’d understand. “A pity, though. It’s not every day one gets to see a one-of-a-kind Goblin-made tiara on display.” She added in a loud aside. “She wears it well enough for a French girl, but mark my words, she’s going to try and make off with it before the day’s done. Keep a close eye on it for me, Barney!” She then turned back to Ron, clapping him on the arm. “Well? Going to make me stand for the whole ceremony? Find me my seat, boy!”

Ron winced, and giving Harry a last long look, began to escort the doddering Muriel away into the crowd. Harry decided that pretending to be a foreign-born Weasley who did not speak much English was an excellent way to avoid uncomfortable conversations at an event such as this.

Recognising now that the twins were on to something, keeping busy with escorting guests so they couldn’t be pinned down for too long, Harry returned to the marigold line at the marquee entrance once more, greeting new guests and showing them to their seat. After another few passes, though, the glut of guests had finally dried up, and he was released at last by Hermione as she rushed back into the house to change into her wedding outfit, rolling her eyes when Harry had expressed confusion that she wasn’t going to wear the smart suit for the ceremony.

It was another twenty minutes before he managed to meet up with Ron, who from the look on his face had only just now succeeded in extricating himself from another of Muriel’s long-winded rants.

“Thought she was gonna talk my ear off,” Ron huffed, mopping his forehead with his sleeve as he collapsed against one of the tentpoles.

“Then you and George would match.”

“Speaking of which, where’re he and Fred? They offered to take her off my hands if I played guinea pig for them with some new Wheezes.”

“Sorry, I already called in that favour with them and Mr. Lovegood.”

“Figures,” Ron said, put-out. “She’s not best pleased with them anyway—not after they used her to test some Wheezes prototypes a few years back. She made a stink about never wanting to be in the same room as them again afterwards, but I think they got the better end of that deal.”

“Got any Wheezes prototypes you can test on her, then?”

“Nah, only a couple of Dungbombs—and Mum would string me up seven ways to Sunday if I made a scene in the middle of her carefully curated—wow.” Ron straightened out of his slouch, expression going slack. “That’s not what you were wearing earlier.”

“Sharp, Ronald Weasley,” said Hermione with a wry smile, drawing up beside them. She’d traded the simple black suit she’d worn while assigning duties for a lovely lilac number that floated up a bit whenever she turned. In her hands, she gripped a matching bag edged in decorative beads. Her hair was still tamed into the plaits from earlier, but now there were tiny purple flowers threaded through the braids as well. “And nicer than anything your Aunt Muriel had to say to me. I suppose I should count my blessings she at least called me Muggleborn instead of anything less charitable.”

Ron cut a dark look over at Muriel, who was now deep in conversation with a harried-looking older gentleman with a long face and stovepipe hat. “Just ignore her and try and stay out of her way. She’s a mean old bat, rude to everyone. If she gets out of hand, we just slap a Silencing Charm on her without her knowing. Then we pretend we can’t hear her and tell her she’s gotta speak up. She’s shouted herself hoarse at many a family gathering, it’s great.”

Oh. Maybe that had been why Muriel was shouting at Harry.

“Muriel gossipping hours, is it?” George sidled up from seemingly out of nowhere. His hair had been slicked back with a generous application of pomade and artfully coiffed to hide then nasty scar where his ear had once been. “Makes you wonder what sort of higher power would take a soul like old Uncle Bilius before the likes of Aunt Muriel.”

“Now there was a man who knew how to party!” Fred said, joining George at his side, one elbow thrown up onto George’s shoulder. Their dress robes were fashioned from complementary fabrics of navy and maroon, and they looked as smartly dressed as Harry had ever seen either of them. “You wouldn’t believe some of the shenanigans he got up to. There was the incident with the disco chandelier—”

“—and the plague of locusts at Great Aunt Francine’s 122nd—”

“—and we can’t forget the one time he Transfigured his meat and two veg into—”

“And he’s dead now, you say? Tragic,” Hermione said, cheeks flushing and rolling her eyes. “Can’t believe I’ll never have the pleasure to make his acquaintance.”

“Oh, but Muriel’s got his portrait banging around somewhere in her place.” George quirked his brows. “I’m sure we can arrange a meeting if you’d like…?”

Hermione looked like she might be sick. “Merlin, spare me. I think I might faint.”

“Then I vould catch you,” said a new voice, and they all turned around at once to see who’d come up—a young man, tan of complexion with a prominent Roman nose and bushy black brows over dark eyes. His gaze caught and held on Hermione, and a smile edged at his lips.

“Ohmygosh, Viktor!” Hermione’s hands came up to cover her mouth, causing her to drop her clutch, and it hit the ground with a disconcertingly loud thud that caused several heads to swivel their way. She quickly dropped into an elegant squat to retrieve it, blushing and tucking behind her ear a curl that had wriggled its way free from her plaits. “It—it’s been ages, I had no idea you’d be—which isn’t to say it’s not lovely to see you, just—”

Ron glowered at Krum from where he stood beside Fred and George. “You got an invitation?” he barked, “Or you here to crash the wedding?” Krum, looking startled, fished in his coat pocket for a moment before withdrawing a thick piece of cardstock and passing it to Ron. Ron ran his eyes over it, far too quickly to have processed any of it, and then incinerated it.

Krum looked at the ashes of his invitation, brows raised, and said carefully, “…Fleur invited me. As ve vere Champions together, if you recall.”

Sensing Ron might make a git of himself if someone didn’t intervene and having no wish to see Mrs. Weasley make good on her threats to anyone disturbing the nuptials, Harry slipped between Ron and Krum, beaming up at someone who was now several heads taller than the unfortunate Muggle boy whose mien Harry had adopted. “Welcome, sir. Why don’t I show you to your seat?”

“I…I don’t recall where it was; it was written on the invitation, but—”

“Quite all right, we’ll get you sorted, come on now.” Harry laid a hand over Krum’s massive back and guided him into the marquee, a gesture that was met with only minor resistance while Krum threw a parting glance back at Hermione, who waved weakly at them as they stepped away.

“I was not expecting such a hostile reception,” Krum muttered, half to himself, frowning back at Ron as Harry helped navigate him to the section reserved for Fleur’s casual acquaintances.

“Er, Ron’s just a little tense. Important day, you see.”

“He is not the vone getting married, though.”

“Yeah, and much more of that and he never will,” Harry said under his breath.

Scandalised whispers followed him and Krum as they made their way through the rows of chairs, now mostly filled with other guests, and Harry could feel dozens of eyes falling heavy upon them. He panicked for a moment, thinking his Polyjuice dose was wearing off, when he recalled that he was escorting a very large, very handsome, very famous Quidditch player, and the eyes following them largely belonged to women—and not a few men—who were understandably a bit star-struck.

Wary some of them might soon make a leap for it and start asking for autographs, Harry stepped up his pace, quickly helping Krum find his seat, and was just about to return to the entrance when Ron, Hermione, Fred, and George met him on the aisle, shooing him back the way he’d come. “It’s showtime! Bottoms in seats, stat!”

Harry joined Ron and Hermione in the second row, behind Fred and George and Ginny, who had not, to Ron’s immense relief, decided to go topless to the wedding.

The floating lights overhead went softer, setting the mood and encouraging any stragglers to quickly find their seats. The din of chatter quieted to a hum before shortly settling altogether when the soft strains of what Ron said was a traditional wizarding wedding march began to pipe through the marquee. Heads turned toward the marquee entrance, where Mr. and Mrs. Weasley headed the wedding party, marching arm-in-arm with beaming smiles on their faces. Mr. Weasley had on a handsome set of robes in a rich indigo, while Mrs. Weasley had gone for a muted rose. Both their outfits, Harry could tell, were brand new and had probably been dearly purchased just for the occasion.

Bill followed next, ducking a nervous nod to the rest of his siblings (or at least the ones present; Percy was still a sore subject) before taking his place at the dais alongside Charlie, who was standing as his best man. Somewhere between the previous evening and today, Charlie had managed to regrow his hair so that it hung over his ears. He looked quite a bit happier with the state of his mane than he had at Harry’s birthday party, and Mrs. Weasley must have been so distracted with final preparations for the wedding, she hadn’t noticed.

The brothers shared a quiet string of whispers, probably to settle Bill’s obvious nerves, when the music piping in from nowhere began to swell. The crowd turned as one toward the rear of the marquee, everyone in rapt attention with gazes fixed at the entrance. An unmanned camera Levitated overhead, snapping pictures feverishly.

When Fleur rounded the corner on Monsieur Delacour’s arm, Harry thought he finally understood what people meant when they called someone a vision. She looked like she’d just stepped out of a dream and seemed sort of ethereal in her presence. Fleur had always had an air about her that made people sit up and listen—but Harry had chalked it up to the Veela heritage. Today, though, her radiance seemed to fill the entire marquee, blessing all in attendance with a fraction of her otherworldly beauty. Gabrielle seemed to sparkle at Fleur’s side in her golden dress and hand-me-down jewellery, what remained of Mr. Weasley’s usually frazzled hair shone with a lustre any Gringotts goblin would surely envy, and even Krum looked like he moonlighted as a Greek statue.

Ron was frowning next to Harry, looking at once disturbed and awestruck. “Is it just me…or does Bill look…you know…”

Harry followed his eye; Bill had always been a good-looking bloke with a rakish charm, but today, standing next to Fleur as he accepted her hand from Monsieur Delacour, he could’ve filled out all twelve pages of the Witch Weekly’s Wonderfullest Wizards calendar. Harry nodded approvingly. “I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”

Ron stifled a snort, ducking his head in apology when Hermione threw them a warning look. “Careful; somewhere in a dank cell, Malfoy’s just felt a cold chill of jealousy run down his spine.” Harry added to Hermione’s warning look.

“Dearly beloved,” a wheezy little voice came from up ahead, and Harry craned his neck to see just peeking over the pulpit the tufted hair atop the head of a tiny wizard Harry might have otherwise mistaken for a Goblin. “We are gathered here on this August the first, nineteen hundred and ninety-seven, to celebrate the union of these two souls…”

Now, Harry knew this was a very special event—and he felt keenly that it would be the height of impropriety to nod off during the ceremony. But the little wizard officiating had a lilting sort of voice that sounded kind of melodic, like a wheezy lullaby, and quite against his wishes, Harry found himself zoning out of the droning speech. He didn’t seem to be the only one, at least; Hermione was rifling through her little beaded bag and—startlingly—had her arm shoved inside it, nearly up to the elbow.

“Do you, William Arthur, take Fleur Isabelle…?”

Harry straightened sharply; hold up, this was the important part. Every eye was tuned to the couple, who were now holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes, clearly lost in a world of their own, as was the sort of thing one expected at events like this.

Was this how weddings in the wizarding world always went? Was he meant to be in one of these some day, standing in front of his friends and family and acquaintances distant and close and pledging himself to another? He’d never even been to a Muggle wedding, so he didn’t rightly know how much the protocol differed between the two societies, but the officiator was saying all the sorts of things Harry imagined you were supposed to say on such an occasion. Having and holding, sickness and health, richer and poorer (“Definitely poorer,” George had whispered.) and it sounded lovely.

Lovely, and foreign. Like something he’d expect to happen to others, but not really himself. When he imagined himself up there on the dais in slick black dress robes, he couldn’t see the face of the person before him. He tried to imagine someone, any girl, just to see: Cho, Ginny, Luna, even Hermione. And in his mind’s eye, they looked as beautiful as Fleur and they blushed and squeezed his hands and bit their lip just so, trying not to make eye contact for too long because well, it was all a bit embarrassing wasn’t it? Such a to-do over them.

But it was just an illusion; Harry didn’t feel anything from it, didn’t get excited about it, didn’t feel a delightful roiling in his gut that he was hitching himself to one person, for the rest of his life. In his mind, it just felt like something expected of him. That was what you did: found someone you fancied enough, married them, settled down somewhere with a sensible job and popped out a kid or three.

Harry had always imagined he’d crave that kind of stability—the life he’d never had, the life he could have had if everything hadn’t gone so terribly wrong sixteen years back. But it mostly felt like yet another expectation, a role he was meant to play where his own feelings didn’t much matter. He’d stand up there with Cho or Ginny or Luna (but probably not Hermione, because he couldn’t bring himself to think about her like that, and besides, Ron would probably kill him) and walk the walk he was supposed to and say and do the kinds of things he ought to, but it wouldn’t feel real. Not like it was real for Bill and Fleur.

And hypothetical Cho or Ginny or Luna or whoever didn’t deserve that. To be someone’s well if I have to.

“You looked happier at Dumbledore’s funeral,” Ron hissed.

Harry wiped at his eyes for show. “Shut up, just trying to hold it together here.”

“Makes one of us…” Ron looked over at Hermione, who evidently had been looking for a handkerchief in her bag and was now dabbing at her eyes.

She caught them looking and smiled, warbling softly, “We can’t all be emotionless clods like you, Ronald.”

“…then I declare you bonded for life!”

The wheezy little wizard gave a complicated wave of his wand over Bill and Fleur’s heads—though they had to duck a bit—and a beautiful golden ribbon shot from the end of it, wrapping itself into a bow around their joined hands before exploding in a shower of sparkling glitter that fluttered to the ground, revealing a pair of shining bands set on their ring fingers. The crowd erupted into applause at the display, rising to their feet in a standing ovation as the officiator called out, struggling to be heard over the din, “Let’s have a glorious round for our newlyweds, everyone! Congratulations to them both!”

Bill and Fleur turned to face everyone, still holding hands and grinning ear to ear as they waved. Harry was on his feet, clapping loudly and giving ear-splitting whoops that had Fred and George glancing back to nod with approval at his timbre.

Once bottoms had lifted from seats, the chairs withdrew themselves, dancing off to the sides of the marquee to settle back into circles around a dozen or more tables covered in pristine white tablecloths and extravagant place settings. The tentflaps curled up and tied themselves off, opening the space to allow the warm summer afternoon sunlight to stream in. This was all nice enough, until the grass beneath their very feet suddenly turned itself over, revealing underneath not fresh sod but gleaming bricks that slotted together to form a dance floor. Harry hoped very much that no one fancied a dance with Cousin Barney.

“Ooh, now we’re talking,” Ron said, reaching out to swipe a flute of something fizzy and probably alcoholic off a silver tray borne by a disembodied hand. All around them, more disembodied hands were popping into existence, some carrying trays laden with pumpkin juice and Butterbeer and Firewhisky, while others had savoury treats on tap. Ron took a swig of his drink, then made a sour face. “…Damn, sparkling pumpkin juice.”

“Thought it was Butterbeer?” Harry asked.

“Thought it was real beer,” Ron grumbled, placing the half-empty flute on the next silver tray to come flying by.

The crowd began to press off to the sides as everyone rushed to find a spot at the tables, the seats of which were not assigned this time. Harry’s toes were trod on by three different people before he fished out his wand and gave a snooty-looking older witch in aubergine robes a warning glare.

“Do you think we should go congratulate them?” Hermione asked, craning her neck toward the impenetrable scrum of well-wishers now surrounding Bill and Fleur. “Everyone else is.”

“You wanna try and horn in on that scene, be my guest,” Ron said. “Me, I’m fine waiting ‘til they’re not stood in the middle of a ravening horde.” He glanced around. “And speaking of ravening hordes, we should probably try to grab a table before we’re forced to babysit Muriel.” He inclined his head for Hermione and Harry to follow.

Even with what seemed like half the guests gathered around Bill and Fleur, it was still a task trying to find an unoccupied table, even one with just room enough for three. Most had already been claimed, but they did find one in a distant corner of the marquee with just one other occupant at the moment: Luna.

She seemed delighted that that they wanted to join her, informing them that her father would be back shortly, as he’d only stepped away to deliver their present to Bill and Fleur. A look of worry flashed over her features. “I do hope they open it promptly—I don’t think Daddy added any air holes.”

Ron looked like he very much wanted to ask what sort of creature the Lovegoods were gifting the new couple and was it a real one or a fantastic one that existed only in their imaginations, but Hermione gave him a meaningful look, and he sort of deflated.

A chorus of clapping erupted from somewhere on the other side of the marquee, and over a Sonorus, someone announced that the newlyweds would be enjoying their first turn about the dance floor. Through the crowd, now thinning with everyone having secured spots at tables, Harry could make out Bill and Fleur gliding onto the dance floor as the gentle, melodic strains of a ballad Harry thought he might have heard Mrs. Weasley humming floated through the air. They were joined shortly by Mr. Weasley leading Madame Delacour and Fleur’s father with Mrs. Weasley on his arm, followed by more adventurous couples lured by the lilting music and twinkling lights.

“How terribly romantic. I’d quite like to dance, myself,” Luna said, staring dreamily out at the swaying couples, and Harry wondered, a knot in his stomach, if it would be rude of him not to ask her to dance now that she’d made such overtures. But she stood in place, smoothing down her robes and adjusting the sunflower at her ear, and said, “I think I will.” She then glided out onto the dance floor, twirling and weaving all by herself, eyes closed and a beatific expression on her face.

Sometimes Harry really envied Luna.

But no sooner had Luna’s seat been vacated than someone else plopped down into it: Viktor Krum. Hermione gave a pleased little, “Oh,” but Krum didn’t seem to notice her, staring into the middle distance with a dark scowl on his face. “Who is that man vith all the flowers covering his robes?” He nodded across the dance floor to the refreshments area, where Luna’s father was pouring himself a cup of fizzy burbleberry punch.

“Xenophilius Lovegood,” Hermione said, with Ron adding menacingly, “And he’s a stand-up bloke, too, so I trust you’ve not got a problem with him.” Harry doubted Ron was all that interested in defending Luna’s father’s honour, though, especially when he grabbed Hermione’s wrist and gave a tug. “Come on, let’s dance.”

He gave Hermione no chance to object—but she didn’t seem inclined to, letting herself be pulled into the growing throng on the dance floor with only a wave of her fingers for Harry and Krum.

As if he’d only just noticed who he’d been sharing a table with, Krum watched them disappear into the crowd, still frowning but more in confused disappointment than dark fury. “…So they are a couple, then?”

“I…think so?” Harry didn’t honestly know what was going on with them. He was pretty sure Ron had it bad for Hermione—had been pretty sure of that since around about fourth year—but it was hard to tell with girls sometimes. Hermione seemed equal parts frustrated and flushed with Ron, and how could you be all that happy with someone who drove you mad as much as drove you wild?

“You…” Krum seemed to realise now he hadn’t actually been introduced to Harry, despite their earlier interactions.

“Barney. Barney Weasley,” Harry said helpfully, and Krum gave a grunt of acknowledgement, then nodded toward Mr. Lovegood again.

“This ‘Lovegood’ fellow. You know him?”

“Er, only in passing. I go to school with his daughter.” Krum’s expression had gone angry again, and Harry panicked, worrying Mr. Lovegood had inadvertently offended in what must surely have been an innocent comment or gesture. “Their family’s really nice, though. I’ve known Luna for years.”

“I don’t know his daughter—but I have seen enough of that man today to know he is absolute filth.”

“What?” Harry asked, boggling. “What on earth would make you say that?”

“No decent man vould have the gall to vear that symbol on his chest, in broad daylight, in the company of others.”

“Symbol?” Harry squinted at Xenophilius, trying to see what had drawn Krum’s ire—was it the necklace, with the weird triangle eye? “Why? What’s wrong with it?”

Krum turned and regarded Harry curiously—suspicious at first, then relaxing. “…You are young, I suppose. Too young to recognise it. He never dared set foot on your shores, after all.” Harry was just about to ask who ‘he’ was, when Krum spat, “Grindelvald. Your ‘Mr. Lovegood’ proudly sports the sign of Grindelvald.”

Harry tried to place the name. “Wait, the Dark wizard that Dumbledore defeated ages ago?”

Krum nodded, dark eyes intense, and he brought a thumb to his mouth, chewing on the nail in what looked to be a nervous habit. “That sign…haunts the nightmares of a generation in my homeland. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—were slaughtered under that sign. By Grindelvald. Good men, standing up to tyranny.” Harry saw in Krum’s eyes a glint he’d caught in his own on more than one occasion—the bone-deep aching desire for revenge. Krum wasn’t speaking in the abstract—he had a personal connection to all this.

Krum grabbed his drink and knocked it back in one draw—it had been something rich and golden, but Harry doubted it was Butterbeer. A drunk man out for revenge was much more dangerous and unreasonable and prone to impetuous acts than a sober one, so Harry groped for something—anything—to try and calm Krum down before he did something that would ruin the joyous occasion. “I—I’m sure there’s just been a mix-up.” The idea that Xenophilius Lovegood was in league with Dark wizards was outright preposterous—besides, Krum was the only one so far to have taken note of the symbol, and it wasn’t as if it was easy to miss Mr. Lovegood in his colourful dress robes. Surely Remus or Mr. Weasley would have noticed if someone was waltzing around sporting jewellery brought into fashion by a Dark Lord. Harry swallowed. “Plus, speaking from experience with the Lovegoods, they really like collecting eccentricities and knick-knacks. It’s possible—even probable, I’d say—Mr. Lovegood doesn’t know what he’s wearing. He probably saw it advertised in a pawn shop as a map to the lost city of Atlantis, or—”

Krum slammed a fist on the table, and in a flash of arcane light, his wand was in his hand, appearing like magic. “He either knows vat that sign means and vears it vith impunity, as so many ignorant fools have done before, hoping to shock and impress others—or he does not know and is shortly about to be taught its dark, bloody history by someone vell familiar vith it.” Krum’s nostrils flared, and he cracked his knuckles menacingly. He began to slap the wand on his knee, which was bouncing in nervous habit. “Besides,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “Everyone knows Atlantis was teleported to the Antarctic after the massive earthqvake off the isle of Gibralter ten thousand years ago threatened to drag the city under the vaves. Do they not teach the Great Atlantean Retreat in your History of Magic classes?”

They probably had taught it and Harry had simply slept through that lesson. “Er, well, I really don’t think he’s wearing it because he’s a follower of Grindelwald.” Krum didn’t look convinced, so Harry cast about for Luna, hoping she might be able to clear things up—when his eyes caught on the hypnotic sparks shooting from the tip of Krum’s wand as he tapped it against his knee. There was something…something about those sparks…

“Gregorovitch!” Harry exclaimed, and Krum gave him a funny look, like he’d just said a swear. Everything slotted smartly into place now—the sparks, the wand, and not Ollivander but Gregorovitch. “He made your wand! That’s where I remembered him from!”

And now Krum’s look went less funny and more suspicious, dark bushy brows beetling over his narrowed gaze, and oh, Harry had said too much now. “…How did you know my vand vas a Gregorovitch piece?”

“Er…” Harry tried to think quickly. “I mean, isn’t he…more popular in your neck of the woods?” He honestly hadn’t the faintest clue about the popularity of wandmakers outside of Ollivander—but maybe Barney Weasley looked just dopey enough for his ignorance to be believed.

“…Not just my ‘neck of the voods’ but most anyvhere outside of Britain. Some schools in east Asia vill not allow students to sit exams vithout a vand of Gregorovitch make.” Krum sighed, giving his wand a once over with a frown. “Though I expect that vill change soon.”

“…Why’s that?”

“Gregorovitch retired several years back.” He whipped his wand around, and a miniature figure on a broomstick dazzled into view over their heads, chasing after a tiny sparkling Snitch. “I vas vone of the last to purchase a vand of his make and not vone crafted by his apprentices. He has a gift vith the vood—” He cut a look at Harry, and Harry thought he seemed a bit ashamed. “…Though I do not mean to disparage your own Ollivander.”

The alcohol clearly no longer fired Krum’s blood, only making him just a bit phlegmatic. Not wanting to get into an argument and rile Krum up again, Harry let the slight against the man who’d made his own wand stand unprotested and turned his eyes back to the dance floor, not really watching any of the couples twirling and tapping to an upbeat tune.

So Voldemort was searching for a wandmaker—and not just any wandmaker, but a celebrated, world-renowned one. It didn’t take much effort for Harry to piece together why Voldemort might be searching for a man feted for his skills with wandcraft: he was surely just as concerned as Harry was about whatever had happened the night he’d escaped from Privet Drive. But why go through the trouble of tracking down Gregorovitch when he already had Ollivander? Did he believe Gregorovitch truly more educated on wandlore than Ollivander? Or was this perhaps a last-ditch effort, hoping the retired wandmaker might be able to craft Voldemort a wand that could stand against Harry’s in a fight?

If Harry’s wand was, for whatever reason, unbeatable when it came to a duel with Voldemort, perhaps things weren’t so dire-looking after all.

Or maybe he’d just kill Harry without using his wand.

“I need to—um, use the loo,” Harry said, abruptly leaping from his chair. He set off toward the edge of the dance floor, scanning the crowd for Ron to share his newfound information—and after nearly ten minutes of searching, he finally found him stood with Hermione in the middle of a pack of swaying couples. He tamped down a flash of irritation—didn’t they remember what they were meant to do? What a waste of time!—with a stern silent reminder that they probably did remember and were simply enjoying their last bit of freedom before they all set off.

He left them be, threading through the crowd to people-watch. As the afternoon wore on, bleeding into evening, the celebration began to grow more raucous. Around twilight, an attendant wheeled out a wedding cake of lilac icing gilded in gold that towered ten tiers tall, topped with a miniature Bill and Fleur recreating the new couple’s earlier first dance together, and fresh bottles of champagne and sparkling pumpkin juice floated through the throng of guests, topping off empty glasses as they went. The crabapple trees outside sprouted glowing fruit when dusk fell, throwing light out into the back garden, and the guests spilled from the marquee to stretch their legs. Harry caught sight of Fred and George ducking their mother’s watchful eye as they slipped off to find some privacy with a pair of Veela-cousins, twins themselves, and Charlie was sat in a circle with a group of warlocks and the hags from earlier, belting out Romanian folk hymns while Hagrid joined in with a concertina so small for his massive bulk that only his index and middle fingers fit through the straps.

At length, Harry wandered back to the table where Krum had been—only to find him gone now. Instead, a hunchbacked elderly wizard had claimed Krum’s (well, Luna’s) seat and sat alone. What little remained of his hair crowned his head in diaphanous strings, giving him the semblance of a dandelion in a suit. He clutched a flute of champagne in both hands, eyes closed as he bobbed his head to the merry tune piping through the marquee, and Harry couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen the man somewhere before.

And then he realised where. He approached the table, slowly so as not to startle. “May I sit down?”

The man straightened, blinking owlishly, then broke into a warm smile, extending a hand to the chair at his side. “Of course, of course, feel free.”

Harry plopped down in the chair, and then leaned in closely, half to keep his cover and half because he worried he wouldn’t be heard over the din of the festivities. “Please don’t make a scene of it, but I’m Harry Potter, Mr. Doge.”

Doge, predictably, did make something of a scene, giving a tittering gasp as his hand flew to his chest and caused him to nearly spill his champagne. “Oh, gracious!” He plucked a pair of pince-nez from his vest pocket, bringing them up to get a better look. “I heard Arthur mention—but I never expected—goodness me, I’m just tickled!” He wriggled in his seat, all traces of his earlier brooding vanished, and snagged a floating champagne bottle that drifted too near their table, pouring Harry a generous measure. “Enjoying yourself? This wouldn’t be your first wizarding wedding, would it?”

Harry accepted the drink graciously, ducking his head. “Is it that obvious?”

“Well most young men nearly break their necks angling to catch the bride’s wand holster when the groom tosses it.”

Wand holster?” Harry frowned. “Why is she wearing a wand holster?”

“To protect herself, of course! In case she should find someone’s Polyjuiced themselves into her new husband!” From the way Doge was grinning, it was difficult to tell if he was being entirely serious about this tradition. He quickly sobered, though, his jaw working. “I’m not entirely sure it would have been my place, but I did think of writing to you, after…well, after Dumbledore’s…accident.” He took a sip from his glass, and Harry could see his fingers trembling. “I know that you and he were close, and to lose him so suddenly, it must have…” He cleared his throat, and from this close, Harry could see his eyes were glazed with tears.

Harry spared him any further stumbling remarks. “The piece you wrote about him in the Prophet was lovely, though. I’m sorry to admit I didn’t realise you were such good friends with him.”

“Oh.” Doge gave a half-hearted shrug, using the lapel of his coat to dab at his eyes. “We weren’t so much, not in our later years—only boyhood chums. But I count myself one of his oldest and fastest friends. For a time, we were close as brothers! Which I suppose is something of a disservice to poor Aberforth.”

Harry nodded, and though he felt like something of a pillock for it, he pressed, “And er, speaking of the Prophet…I noticed that Rita Skeeter of all people had given an interview about Dumbledore…and I wondered if you’d seen it?”

He hadn’t meant to ambush Doge about the truth or lack thereof in Rita’s interview, but the things she’d alluded to were still banging about in Harry’s head and wouldn’t leave until he’d sussed out the facts. Rita could stretch the truth near to snapping, that much was true, but she generally started with a kernel of real, solid something. Harry couldn’t imagine that Dumbledore had been a Dark Wizard bent on Muggle subjugation, but he had to know what it was in Dumbledore’s past that would have made Rita think she could get away with saying things like that.

Doge’s entire demeanour changed, and he rapped on the table sharply. “If you could call that drivel an ‘interview’! She dogged me for weeks trying to drag a few juicy morsels from my lips that she could twist to fill out that dungheap she’s peddling as a biography, and well, so soon after Albus’s passing, I’m afraid I let my temper get the better of me, telling her off and calling her quite a few colourful names. I know I shouldn’t have given her the pleasure, but I’m only human—and I challenge anyone in my place to have done differently!” He sighed, slumping back in his chair. “It was enough ammunition, though, for her to feel comfortable suggesting I’d gone ‘round the bend with grief.”

Harry nodded sympathetically but pushed on. “I…I know I shouldn’t put much stock in anything she writes, but she mentioned a few things in her piece—”

“Rubbish!” Doge said, before Harry had even gotten started, and he felt his irritation rising. It was one thing to defend a friend’s honour—especially when that friend was no longer around to do so himself—but another to defend it blindly against all assaults, whether real or imagined. “Absolute nonsense! Trust your gut, dear boy: don’t believe a word that snake-charming crone prints about Albus Dumbledore!”

“But she hinted he was involved with the Dark Arts when he was young, and that he actually shared the beliefs of wizards like Grindelwald and V—and You-Know-Who.”

“And you and I both know that’s a ridiculous accusation!”

“So—so it isn’t true?”

“Of course not! It can’t be! Why, I’d wager Dumbledore was as close with you toward the end of things as he ever was with me, so look back on those memories you shared with him, hold them close to your heart, and be convinced. Trust in what you know Albus Dumbledore to have been: a great man who lived a great life.”

Harry felt himself deflate, a heavy knot growing in his stomach with each sputtered protest on Doge’s lips. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to believe Doge—he did, of course he did. It was only, these days…he really, really needed something more to go on than blind faith, at least when it came to Dumbledore. Remus had accused him of being too much like his father, of refusing to believe his closest companions could be anything but loyal to him—but this was different. Harry and Dumbledore hadn’t been bosom companions, whatever Doge thought—so he needed to hear a little more than strident refrains of don’t believe a word of it! right about now, even concerning something straight from the quill of Rita Skeeter.

He could feel Doge scanning his face, and perhaps sensing that Harry was wavering in the steadfast trust Doge himself had in Dumbledore, he redoubled his efforts, “Listen, that bat would claim the Minister’s a werewolf and his wife an oversized mandrake in a dress if she thought it might get a few more eyes on her work—she’s got no morals, no qualms! Don’t waste another moment dwelling on whatever appalling accusations the likes of Rita Skeeter is—”

“Ooh, are we dishing about Rita? Sounds like my kind of conversation!” Harry’s head snapped around to see Ron’s Aunt Muriel waddling her way over. Her cheeks were much rosier than they’d been when Ron had escorted her to her seat earlier, and even from a distance, Harry could smell the alcohol fumes wafting off her in waves. “I can’t wait to get my hands on that new biography of Dumbledore’s she’s penned! I hear it’s absolutely salacious! I sent away for it, but one of the mail-order owls came down with the flu and infected the whole owlery, my vendor says, so their entire flock’s out of service for the rest of the week.”

“We weren’t dishing about her, Muriel,” Doge said with visibly forced restraint, decidedly less effusive in his greeting than he’d been with Harry. “We were discussing how nothing in the book is to be believed—”

Muriel’s back was turned to them now, though, as she pulled a wand out from her cleavage and slashed it viciously through the air, Summoning a chair directly out from under the bottom of an unfortunate guest at the next table over—another Weasley, judging by the hair. When the young man opened his mouth to tell her off, she only barked, “I’m a hundred and seven!” as if this excused everything. Perhaps in this family it did.

She sank into her newly procured chair with a huff and snapped sharply to flag down one of the disembodied hands passing by with a tray of drinks. When it drew near enough, she snatched up one of the bottles of Firewhisky sat atop it, then shooed the hand away again. “This is fine stuff, I must admit. They didn’t seem to want to dip into their vault for the venue, but they’ve at least done all right with the drinks.” She tipped the bottle to refill her glass. “And you can’t claim nothing in the book’s to be believed when you haven’t even read it yet, dear Dogey.” She took a loud sip. “I know you were fond of the old buzzard, but I’m sad to say that Albus Dumbledore has quite a few skeletons rattling about in that closet of his, and it’s not just idle gossip from Rita!”

“Then it’ll be idle gossip from someone of just as ill repute,” Doge sniffed. “Jealous sorts who can’t stand to see the truly talented succeed, who have to tear someone else down in a wasted effort to lift themselves up!”

Muriel waved him off with a barked Bah! “It’s like arguing with a Flobberworm with you! Just because you don’t like the truth doesn’t make it a lie, you know—or maybe you don’t know, seeing as you so skilfully skirted the murkier aspects of Albus Dumbledore’s youth in that obituary of yours. Yes, I read it!” Doge opened his mouth to respond, his offence written clear on his features, but Muriel was merciless, powering on. “I don’t want to hear anything about how Rita Skeeter’s got it out for Dumbledore from the man who would’ve helped him hide the body if it turned out he did off his Squib sister!”

Muriel!” Doge hissed, scandalised, and Harry’s heart juddered to a grinding halt in his chest. Squib sister? Offed her? He was certain Rita hadn’t mentioned any of that in her interview, and yet Muriel professed she hadn’t read the book yet. Where were these rumours coming from? Why did it feel like everyone else knew Dumbledore better than Harry had?

“But—his sister wasn’t a Squib, was she?” he asked Muriel, unable to contain himself. “I’ve only read she was sickly and couldn’t attend Hogwarts regularly.” Doge’s obituary had briefly touched on Ariana Dumbledore, but Harry was certain there’d been no mention of her having no magic of her own. Even Rita’s interview hadn’t gone so far as to suggest such a thing.

“Well who would’ve dared publish the truth of the matter when it might invite the wrath of one of the most powerful wizards out there—er, Barry, wasn’t it?” Muriel feigned politeness, sensing an eager ear for her gossip. “But it’s fair game now! No more hiding the past—” She fixed Doge with a knowing look. “Or trying to paper over it.” A visible tremble of delight rippled through her, from the tip of her feathered hat down to the curled toe-tips of her shoes. “Oh Skeeter’s going to be swimming in Galleons if she’s uncovered anything half as juicy as she’s claiming in all these promotional pieces she’s been doing for the past month!” She leaned in close and brought a hand to her mouth to deliver a whispered aside to Harry. “The truth about Ariana Dumbledore’s been something of a journalistic white whale for ages. We live in truly interesting times, Barty! You’re a lucky young man.”

“There is no truth to go after,” Doge protested, slapping the table with force enough their glasses gave a worrisome hop. “Which is to say, the matter’s always been an open and shut case! Ariana’s ill health was a sensitive subject for the family, that’s all.” He turned a pleading gaze on Harry. “He did his best to hold himself together for the sake of his family, never letting on there was anything amiss—he hated pity, Albus did.” His voice grew thick with emotion again, and Harry worried he was going to do himself ill if he kept getting overworked like this. “And—and then he was so distraught by Ariana’s passing—”

“Well it’s one thing to never speak of her—quite another to never even see her!” Muriel arched one of her drawn-on brows. “I don’t see how you can say they weren’t hiding the poor girl when the first time most of us saw her was when she was being laid into the ground at the damn funeral! And how pale she was! Like she hadn’t seen the sun once in her life! If nothing else, it’s clear there was some truth to the rumours they kept her locked in the cellar.”

Harry felt a wave of nausea sweep over him. “Why—why would they keep her locked in the cellar?” His world was tilting on its axis, and the festive atmosphere of the wedding seemed dulled somehow, like Harry sat apart from it.

“Of course they didn’t keep her locked in the cellar—” Doge started, but Muriel snorted with a cackling derision.

“Because she was an embarrassment! The family’s shame! Kendra Dumbledore couldn’t stand the thought of it getting out she’d birthed a Squib—not when opinions of her were already at the ground floor between her husband’s ‘North Sea holiday’ as some might put it and her own blood status.” Muriel pitched her voice lower, whispering sotto voce, “Muggleborn, as I hear it, though of course she pretended otherwise.”

“That’s prepost—Kendra was not Mugglebo—and Ariana was not a Squi—and—” Poor Doge gave a miserable sort of whine as he deflated, defeated. He seemed to be rapidly running out of the energy to combat Muriel’s ruthless deconstruction of the Dumbledore family, and while Harry sympathised, knowing he might have been in a similar position if someone were running off at the mouth about Ron and his family, he was still too shaken himself to do more than listen, rapt, while Muriel steamrolled right over Doge’s toothless protests.

“Well if she wasn’t a Squib, why did she never attend Hogwarts? And if she was—as you and Albus might have claimed—too ill to enrol, why was it she never visited St. Mungo’s? Why did no Healers ever come to call? For that matter, did she ever receive a proper diagnosis?” Muriel immediately raised a hand. “That was a rhetorical question, Dogey dear, because I know quite well—from first-hand accounts—that she did not. Now—” She turned back to Harry, shaking a finger. “I should be clear, back in my day it was perfectly commonplace to hush up any association with Squibs—usually they got shipped off to Muggle schools, where they could associate with students and society more…well, more their speed. Where they wouldn’t need to feel like a drag on those around them, and they might actually be able to contribute. So I could have understood if the proud and humbled Kendra had sent her daughter away, in the hopes she might find a better life elsewhere, away from constant reminders of all she could never have.” She took another swig from her goblet, shaking her head in what Harry was certain was feigned sympathy. “But to just imprison her, in her own home? Locked away from the world, such that most presumed they’d imagined any mention of her? What sort of a family—what sort of a person—condones pretending a whole human being doesn’t even exist?”

Doge’s eyes were shining with unshed tears, and Harry felt another sharp stab of guilt spear through him at having played a part in his misery. It wasn’t Doge’s fault Harry had questions that needed answering, and even if there were skeletons in Dumbledore’s closet, the poor man didn’t have to stand there while Harry and Muriel rifled through them.

But the more Muriel spoke, the more of Dumbledore’s here-to-fore murky youth and family life she laid open to Harry, the more Harry couldn’t help a bubbling, boiling rage begin to build in his midsection, caustic and bitter as it clawed at his throat, because this was all starting to sound disturbingly familiar. He imagined poor Ariana, alone and forgotten, shoved into a cupboard when company came over and told she must be quiet or there’d be no supper that evening—an embarrassment to her family, a ‘freak’ they didn’t want anyone knowing they shared blood with.

There was, of course, every chance Muriel’s sources were dodgy as anything and all of this was exaggerated beyond compare, but what if it wasn’t? What if there was even a kernel of truth to it all? What if Dumbledore had known about all this, and had silently (or not silently) sanctioned it? Was it so very difficult to credit? He had, after all, let the Dursleys do as they would with Harry for the first eleven years of his life, and even after that he hadn’t made much fuss. There was a difference between a total stranger’s child and your own sibling—but not so very much.

“And then,” Muriel continued, tracing the lip of her goblet with a bony finger, “There’s the matter of who was responsible for Ariana’s death. Because I don’t believe for a minute she just up and keeled over out of the blue from whatever mysterious illness ailed her.” Doge scoffed, but Muriel pretended not to hear. “We can discount Kendra, I think, seeing as she perished—also under mysterious circumstances—not too long before poor Ariana joined her.”

Doge’s moustache bristled. “This is hardly the sort of wild conjecture we ought to be indulging in the middle of a wedding! Filicide?! Honestly!”

“Oh pish, it’s only the reception, and I’ve just admitted that filicide was likely not the cause—do keep up, Dogey. No, I think it’s far more likely one of the brothers finally got fed up with having to take over Ariana’s full-time care and control and decided to relieve himself of the problem the old-fashioned way.”

The old-fash—” Doge sputtered, nearly snapping the neck of his champagne flute.

“And I don’t want you thinking I’m biased against Albus Dumbledore, Boris,” Muriel said, pasting on a sober expression as she gently swirled the dregs of the Firewhisky in her goblet. “But I will say that only one of the boys threw a punch at the other in the middle of the burial ceremony—furious at what had been wrought upon their sister and spitting accusations of blame. You get two guesses who, and the first one doesn’t count!”

Doge stiffened at this, brows furrowing in angry confusion. “…Where did you hear about that?” Harry straightened—if Doge was asking that sort of question, this meant there was indeed some truth to the tales Muriel was spinning. If he hadn’t been paying close attention to Muriel’s lurid recollections before, he certainly was now.

“Hear about what, Dogey? Aberforth pulling a reverse Episkey on his brother while their sister lay between them, cold in a casket?” She cackled, taking another swig of her Firewhisky and reaching for the bottle again. She’d nearly made it through half already. “Well, let’s just say I’ve heard it on very good first-hand authority from a thoroughly reliable source—” She paused for dramatic effect, then seemed unable to resist boasting about her connections. “Bathilda Bagshot herself! My mother used to play cards in a ladies’ group with her, you see—”

“Wait—Bathilda Bagshot? The author of A History of Magic—that Bathilda Bagshot?” Hermione would be pleased he’d remembered that, even if Harry had hardly ever touched his copy in all his years at Hogwarts.

“The very same, but it’s not polite to interrupt, Barnaby.” She cut a look at Doge, sharp and appraising. “And I can see now you’ve suddenly realised I’ve got something of an idea what I’m talking about. Not so quick with the protests or excuses now you know I’ve got my information all but straight from the hippogriff’s mouth, eh?” She took another swig of her Firewhisky, going straight for the bottle this time and dispensing with any pretence. She seemed to derive entirely too much glee from pissing on Doge’s fond memories of a dear friend by dredging up the ghosts of scandals passed, and Harry didn’t honestly know what to think—he doubted Muriel’s recollection was the bald truth, but Doge seemed a bit defensive himself, and Harry had to wonder if his memory wasn’t as rose-coloured as Rita seemed to suggest.

His interest was finally beginning to flag. He’d hoped indulging Muriel in her bone-deep desire to gossip might help shed light on some of the insinuations Rita had made in her interview, but Muriel seemed only interested in lurid retellings. And unkind as it felt, Harry also didn’t feel he could entirely trust Doge’s take on the past either, so he was at a loss.

He couldn’t believe that Dumbledore would’ve sat back and let all this business with his sister happen had he known about it—had it been true, rather—so how much of their respective takes on the matter was fact, and how much fiction? Would he ever get the straight story?

“And just between you and me and this bottle of Firewhisky, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion Bathilda told more than just Mother’s bridge group about what went on at that funeral.” She tapped her nose and gave a wink. “Rita’s hinting at far too many juicy details in that new book of hers not to have had access to a source closer to the Dumbledores than the average nosey neighbour.”

“That’s absolutely absurd!” Doge sputtered, finding his tongue and his backbone once more; he seemed reinvigorated with a new reputation to protect against what he saw as Muriel’s slings and arrows. “You know as well as I that Bathilda wouldn’t allow the likes of Rita Skeeter to so much as weed her garden, let alone sit down for a tell-all.” He turned to Harry, reaching to cover Harry’s hand with his own. “Bathilda’s no gossip—she’s a gifted magical historian and close personal friend to the Dumbledore family and—”

“And absolutely gaga these days, as I hear it,” Muriel added with a rude little grin.

“Well then all the more reason not to believe a word in Skeeter’s book based on any conversations they may or may not have had!” Doge huffed, brightening with vindication.

“Oh pish, there’s more than one way to skin a Kneazle, Dogey. I’m sure Rita’s a dedicated enough journalist she wouldn’t let Bathilda going a bit loopy deter her from chasing down a promising lead.” She shrugged. “Besides, even with no bats in her belfry, Bathilda’s still got oodles of letters and journals and boxes of old photographs, I’m sure—quite the magpie she was, as I recall. Given how close she was with Albus himself, I’d wager she kept copies of correspondence between the two of them as well. If I were half as shrewd as Rita Skeeter when it came to doing my digging, I’d have procured a Portkey for Godric’s Hollow the moment the publishing contract was settled.”

Harry gave a rough jolt, nearly tipping backward in his chair. “Wait, Bathilda Bagshot—she lives in Godric’s Hollow?” Oh, he wouldn’t let Hermione and Ron dismiss his plans to head for Godric’s Hollow first now! Bathilda might have known his parents—might have lived next door to them, or across the street. She might even have watched Harry while his mother ran an errand. She’d have so much to tell him. “She’s still there?”

“Has been for years. The Dumbledores moved there after Percival got hauled off to Azkaban—you’ll be knowing all about that business, I’m sure—” Harry didn’t, and he was seized with a desperate curiosity, but Muriel rolled on. “And Bathilda was their neighbour.”

“So—the Dumbledores, they lived in Godric’s Hollow too?”

“Did I stutter, boy?” Muriel’s lips twisted into a sour frown as she peered into the mouth of the Firewhisky bottle.

Dumbledore…Dumbledore had lived in Godric’s Hollow. The very same Godric’s Hollow Harry had lived in—the very same Godric’s Hollow his parents had died in. Why had he never told Harry? Surely it would have come up in conversation, even once—they’d certainly conversed enough over six years Dumbledore could have found a way to work it into a chat at some point. Which meant he’d deliberately avoided telling Harry—so the only question was…why? Why keep this from him? What could it have hurt, sharing this little nugget of his past with Harry?

A thought came to him: were Lily and James buried there even now? He’d never thought to ask. Was the Potter family plot next to the Dumbledores’? God, had Dumbledore visited while Harry had been stuck at Hogwarts over the holidays? Would it have been so very inappropriate to have taken Harry aside and asked him if he might, just the once, like to visit his parents’ graves to pay his respects while Dumbledore laid flowers out for his own family? Each grieving in their own private way, but comforted by doing it together?

His stomach roiled, and a wave of aggrieved nausea washed over him—he was physically sick at the thought.

Muriel Vanished the empty Firewhisky bottle and grew bored when her listeners seemed to have tired of her tales, so she toddled back into the crowd, presumably to find some other poor sod to harass, and Doge, perhaps feeling guilty for not being able to properly explain away all of the mysteries of Dumbledore’s past, quietly excused himself. Harry didn’t pay them much heed, barely noticing the party still going at full-tilt around him. It wasn’t until Hermione plopped down into the chair beside him that he even realised she’d been calling his name.

“I think I must have danced my feet down to nubs!” she huffed, her wide grin belying her exhaustion. “I swear someone must have Jinxed my shoes with a Tarantallegra—I just couldn’t bring myself to call it a night! Ron eventually had to beg for a break—he’s gone to fetch us drinks. Have you not asked anyone to dance? Ginny seemed to have her hands full, but Luna was off on her own, though last I saw her she was going to speak with her father. It looked like he’d been arguing with Viktor. I hope they haven’t had too much to drink; it’d be a shame for a row to break out at…” She trailed off, bringing her hand up to Harry’s shoulder as he sat there, staring off into the middle distance, with Muriel’s cackling still ringing in his ears. “Harry, are you okay…?”

He swallowed, quite sure he’d never been less okay and unsure where to begin—

He was saved the trouble, though, when something large and silver came bounding through the crowd, scattering the dancers and skittering to a halt in the middle of the marquee. The graceful lynx struck an imposing figure as it surveyed the crowd. Every head turned, and a deadly hush fell over the guests.

Then the Patronus opened its mouth and spoke in the deep, booming baritone of Kingsley Shacklebolt: “Ministry fallen. Scrimgeour dead. Run.”


Men Who Love Dragons Too Much Copyright © 2018 by fencer_x. All Rights Reserved.

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